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The Story of the Peerage: Feudal Beginnings


The origins of the peerage are not as obscure as one may think at first thought. In fact, documents dating back over a thousand years have helped historian piece together exactly how we have managed to get to where we are today with the nobility.

Earls were one of the earliest example of nobility in England. First recorded in during the time of the Anglo-Saxons, it was the earls who acted as governors for the king across the realm and were responsible for collecting taxes, local justice and in times of war, raising an army.

After the Norman Conquest, however, things began to change and the degree of baron was established under the feudal system by William the Conqueror to act as lawmakers. Gradually, the earls lost their powers to the barons, though the earldom continued to exist.

The feudal baronage was the building blocks for the peerage. Acting as law makers of the day as well as advisers to the king and being kind of local lords under the feudal system, it was an efficient way for the king to micromanage all corners of his realm. Such as the significance of the baronage at the time, it was not only the right of the barons to attend the king and Parliament but indeed an obligation.

William the Conqueror’s introduction of the baronage to England in 1066 was a way of rewarding his followers for their loyalty and to establish control over the entire realm through feudalism, though at several points in history, this reliance on the barons has come back to bite when they were unhappy with how things were being run.

Perhaps the most well known role played by the feudal barons was in 1215, when they forced King John to sign Magna Carta to preserve the rights of the people of England and is one of the founding pieces of legislation (still partially in force today).

Evolution of the feudal baronage into the peerage was a slow process, but by 13th-14th century the system was firmly established. Baron and Earl remain degrees in the British Peerage to this day, though no longer under a feudal system and other ranks now exist.

Earldom was, as mentioned, the first form of title. It was derived from the continental title of Count – indeed the female form of Earl in England is, Countess. With the introduction of baronage in 1066, two degrees were established.

Eventually, in the 14th century new degrees were being introduced and this was the true foundation of the peerage. As well as barons and earls, the rank of Duke was created for the first time in England in 1337 when Edward III created made his son, known in history as The Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall and from thereon in, Duke became a title of close association to the monarch (hence why members of the Royal Family are most often made dukes) – it is also the highest rank in the peerage.

Next came the title of Marquess. Derived from a French title, a marquess’s territory would traditionally be on the border of the country (known as a March) and the first marquessate was created in 1385 by King Richard II to elevate Robert, Earl of Oxford to a higher degree for his service (made Marquess of Dublin), though only a short while later, he was elevated to a Dukedom.

The last rank to be introduced was that of Viscount. First granted in 1440 it is junior to Earl but senior to Baron and translates as Deputy Companion – making it logically junior to earl (the English equivalent of Count). John Beaumont was the first Viscount in England when he was created Viscount Beaumont by King Henry VI.

For quite some time, the peerage remained unchanged and only many centuries later did the peerage gradually lose its significance as a network of close advisers to the king. It has become, instead, a colourful yet purely symbolic reminder of days gone by.

Photo Credits: Public Domain

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 2 was published on 2nd February.

  • Trip

    You might cover this in upcoming posts, by how is the territory designated for an Earldom or Dukedom? For example, how does it become Earl of Cornwallis and Duke of Cornwall? Is a Dukedom a county and a Earldom a town?

    • Royal Central

      It’s essentially because the Monarch had chose to elevate the holder to a higher title – the area over which they are a duke, earl or other title is not determined by size generally. Hope this answers your question.

  • Tahira Nawaz

    I look forward to reading of Part 2. Very informative indeed.
    Best of luck

  • FDR-JFKforAll

    I was the first to publish an exact duplicate of the U.S. drafted by Tony Benn (former Viscount) for Britain. It was under debate before your Parliament by 2010. Had you the “Common Sense) to pass it, you would have had a Presidential system by now. Instead of hearing some intermarried Royal shouting “off with their heads,” you could have rejoined the world of humanity with a future, And, as the Queen with she literally means “off with your head,” no matter how much lackeys snicker to the tattle-tale press. Just examine four little facts:
    1) At Copenhagen 2009, accompanied by Optimum Choice, your Queen said the world’s population must be reduced by 7 billion to 1 or less. And, OC called for only 20 million on the “British Isles.” Now, as in a Dickens story or Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican, even “The Guardian” admits, you have 62 million subjects, either without food; or, struggling from charities, that often have none. What makes you Lords feel so exempt? Have you not read “Seven Against Thebes;” or, Aeschylus on Promethesus-Zeus?
    2) The Queen’s Consort, whose family background and books in which he pontificates: “‘You must call the human herd:” shades of Earl Bertrand Russells’ “Science and Society” (itself a Hobbesian plagerism of Thomas Malthus.” Are you immune to Pmeumonic Plague? But, then the Duke teamed up with David Attenborogh; and, they waxed lyric about how the earth had exceeded it’s “carrying capacity.”
    3) Faced with the total collapse of the Trans-Atlantic banking system (C.f. Bank bail-ins vs, FDR’s Glass-Steagall, that pulled you to begin to get out of a similar jam), it’s well established economic collapse leads to war, which since Bikini Atoll and the “Tsar Bomb,” even turned Earl Russell and former PM Winston Churchill themselves to cease promoting “preventive war.” In a sense it natters not whether Obama–whose family the Queen and her Governors strikes the first punch. Or, whether in a genocidal Roman-style fit of intended genocide, the Queen forces the worlds’ hands. Already, despite the propaganda machine “Czar Putin” has you both outfoxed, outflanked. But, faced with collapse akin to when your King repudiated his debt-slavery to the Bardi and Ferouzi, wars follow. Her and her Consorts insane bent for global hari kiri, no sane military or political leader believes “civilization” can survive if the combined U.S., Russia, China, India, etc. etc.unleash 5,000-10,000 thermonuclear weapons all at nearly the same moment. Would you not before then consider cooperation for a future, sans Monarchy? Or, even to get rid of “TBTF” in the City and it’d Wall Street appendage? What is the “intrinsic value” of such as computerized derivatives, when the Queen exercised her Royal prerogative for Bank bail-in.(A mockery of even that magical “ring-fencing”.) Are you Dr. Faustus’s knowing, Satan will collect not your life; but, your entire family “root-and-branch”?
    4) Even if you plead ignorant to the suggestive 99 “facts” about the Duke on this site, dare to sneak a viewing of “Unlawful Killing:” not because of the the case of assassination and cover-up, of Princess Diana–but for all the truth behind the Duke’s murderous House of Hesse relatives,

  • Schiffeler

    The question one has to ask oneself is: Which do I prefer, to be a subject or to be a citizen?

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