The short answer is yes… But it’s not as easy as you think. Since 1925, it has been a criminal offence to buy or sell a title of honour, punishable by up to two years in prison. The titles concerned are peerages and also other ‘dignities’ though there are several notable exceptions which can be bought and sold.
Three types of title exist which are perfectly legal to buy and sell, though they don’t all work in the same way and it’s always recommended that when making a purchase of any such title (which will usually go for thousands of pounds) prospective buyers seek legal advice.
People might choose to buy titles for all different reasons. From having a personal connection with a territory to simply wanting to own a piece of history.
Lord of the Manor
The first one and often the most easily available is the title of Lord of the Manor. The titles, which exist under English property law, sometimes come with special rights over land – such as mineral rights and are considered legal property (what’s known as an incorporeal hereditament, which means the property has no physical presence, though can be passed on).
However, there is a very specific form to the use of the title and it would not permit one to use the title of Lord or Lady in front of one’s name, instead it would form a suffix to one’s name – for example ‘John Smith, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon’. Many people like to acquire Lordships of the Manor for historical reasons or due to a family connection (some have been held by well-known historical figures including kings and queens). The title is treated like any other property and can be left to anyone in a will and transferred to any other person – it can also be held by women in just the same way.
Many supposed vendors of these titles prey on people’s lack of knowledge of the system to sell fake titles, however or to have multiple Lords of a Manor (which is not possible), so correct legal advice is imperative to avoid being conned.
For those who are interested in making full use of their title, an observation can be put on your passport if you can prove ownership of the Lordship of the Manor. The observation goes ‘The holder is the Lord of the Manor of X’.
Typically, Lordships of the Manor will go for a few thousand pounds, though some of the most famous titles and those with particular rights attached can go for six figure sums. Though it’s worth remembering, Lordships of the Manor are neither titles of honour nor nobility and entail no special legal immunities.
Scottish Feudal Baron
The Scottish feudal barony (or lordship) is one of the most regarded and sought after titles. Prior to 2004, the feudal barony would be attached to land and ownership of the land would give the owner the title, though as part of reforms in Scottish law (which is separate to English law), feudal tenure was ended and now the dignity of Scottish feudal baron is an independent title (also now an incorporeal hereditament like Lordships of the Manor).
Feudal Lordships come in many forms and not just at the rank of baron. Though extremely rare, there are also Earls, Marquises and allegedly also Duke. Whilst following a similar pattern to the peerage in terms of rank, the titles are not peerages, though they are titles of nobility.
The holder may style themselves as John Smith, Baron of Wells for example – but never as ‘Lord Wells’ as would be with a peerage. Many families who’ve held baronies for generations often just use the designation, making the holder simply ‘John Smith of Wells’.
These baronies do come with some rather attractive traditional rights and customs. The wife of a male holder of a barony can be styled as ‘Lady X’ (e.g. Lady Wells) and the dignity can be put on one’s passport (the dignity is added to the surname field as ‘Smith of Wells’ with an observation in the passport that ‘the holder is John Smith, Baron of Wells’). As an incorporeal hereditament, it can be left in a will or transferred to someone else at any time (and can also be held by women). It also allows the holder to petition the Lord Lyon for a coat of arms and can have their arms augmented with a special symbol to denote the barony.
As one can expect, this dignity comes at a price and they’re not always widely available. Typically, you could expect to pay anything from £20,000-£75,000 for the title or in some cases even more. There are many scams in existence purporting to sell these titles and they greatly outnumber the real vendors online. Independent legal advice is the best way to ensure a dignity is actually in existence and available for sale.
Some companies purport to sell ‘English feudal baronies’ – only Scottish ones still exist, the system of feudal titles was abolished in England in the 17th century.
Scottish Lairdships are by far the most widely missold titles, with many website offering the supposed title with one square foot of land for around £30. These particular sales are meaningless as typically whilst the land may have the Lairdship title with it, the companies selling it will subdivide the land so there are many lairds of a single estate, which the Lord Lyon has said isn’t possible. Additionally, these titles are often sold with a prefix of ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ to one’s name, which again is wrong.
The title forms part of the Scottish gentry and technically, it isn’t really a title at all – it is simply a form of description for the owner of an estate. It is for this reason that Lairdships aren’t widely valued and why the title is not included on passports or recognised by most authorities.
The best advice on Lairdships is to avoid them altogether.