2 February 2014 - 10:00
The Story of the Peerage: How does it all work?


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Anyone who knows will tell you that the British Peerage is a complicated and diverse institution – and in this article (Part 2 of the Story of the Peerage series), I will explain everything you need to know about the Lords and Ladies of the United Kingdom.

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As discussed in Part 1, there are 5 ranks in the peerage. They are, in descending order, Duke (Duchess); Marquess (Marchioness); Earl (Countess); Viscount (Viscountess) and Baron (Baroness).

Most titles are derived from a place name, such as Earl of Caernarfon or Viscount Weymouth but a large number also come from surnames, such as Earl Spencer or Marquess Townshend. All titles however – with the exception of Duke & Duchess – can be put in the form of Lord or Lady X. For example, The Marquess of Londonderry would be addressed in conversation as Lord Londonderry and the Countess of Pembroke as Lady Pembroke. In conversation, any Duke or Duchess would simply be addressed as Duke or Duchess, or possibly as Your Grace by staff.

The children of peers also have varying titles and styles of their own. The below table shows the different titles and styled they hold, with the exception of the eldest male child – which we’ll come onto in just a moment.

Younger Male Children Female Children
DukeThe Lord (full name)The Lady (full name)
MarquessThe Lord (full name)The Lady (full name)
EarlThe Honourable (full name)The Lady (full name)
ViscountThe Honourable (full name)The Honourable (full name)
BaronThe Honourable (full name)The Honourable (full name)

This means, for example, the daughter of the Earl of Bradford is titled The Lady Alicia Bridgeman (addressed simply as Lady Alicia) and the son of The Duke of Wellington titled The Lord Frederick Wellesley (addressed as Lord Fredrick).

Things are slightly different for the eldest son of a peer. He will typically take his father’s second highest title and use it himself by tradition until he succeeds to his father’s title. For example, the eldest son of the Marquess of Milford Haven is known as Henry, Earl of Medina. This can also go through to the next generation with the eldest son of the eldest son of a peer using his grandfather’s 3rd highest title. A notable example of this is the Duke of Richmond, whose son is styled as  George, Earl of March and then Lord March’s eldest son who is styled as Charles, Baron Settrington. The title used by each eldest son must be lower than their father’s. If a Duke happens to hold 2 Dukedoms, then the eldest son will be styled with the next lowest title, not as a Duke.

His Grace The Duke of Wellington

His Grace The Duke of Wellington

Divorced wives also have their own styles. Like in the Royal Family, the styling for a divorced wife of a peer is the same. For example, the former wife of the Marquess of Northampton instead of being styled as THE Marchioness of Northampton, is now Pamela, Marchioness of Northampton.

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Widows of peers have their own titles – they simply insert the word ‘Dowager’ before the title. Therefore, the widow of the late 11th Duke of Devonshire is styled as Her Grace The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.

Succession to peerages is a story in itself. Most peerages currently only allow for male children to succeed to them (though there is a bill in parliament which seeks to effectively change this). This means, if a peer has only female children, in most cases none of them may succeed to the title and it could end up going to a distant cousin or even becoming extinct. It is also worth noting that under English common law, there is no primogeniture amongst women. This means that even if there are female children, a title may go into abeyance because age is not used to decide succession, creating co-heirs out of all of a peer’s female children – this is a big problem with the peerage, which is one of the reasons for the bill in the House of Lords to change things.

The Equality (titles) Bill in the Lords will change several things. It will allow a hereditary peer to petition the Lord Chancellor to change the succession to their title to mean the eldest child, regardless of gender, would succeed. It will also give husbands of female peers and civil partners the courtesy title of ‘The Honourable’.

The peerage may be an antiquated institution, but the rich history of Britain’s lords and ladies is far from over yet.

See Royal Central’s new information site on the Peerage, setup as part of this series at thepeerage.info

photo credits: UK Parliament via photopin and Allan Warren [GFDL], via WC

Earls_Procession_to_ParliamentThe history of the British Peerage is as rich and colourful as the country itself –  for centuries, the peerage remained at the forefront of English politics and at the front of the battlefield. In this 5-part series on the story of the peerage, we explain its origins, how it all works and its significance (if any) in the 21st century.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 3 was published on 9th February.



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Edited by Martin




  • royalhats

    Excellent and informative post! Thank you.

    • Cameron L

      Good stuff: just a pity that the photograph is of Law Lords (in the House of Lords presumably) rather than peers. Would love a picture of the aristocracy in its ermine


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