The honour of baronetcy is one of the most peculiar and, on the whole, little-understood hereditary honours in the Britain, yet this illustrious organisation of hereditary knights, whose predecessors actions were enough to merit honour (though not quite enough for a peerage) faces continuing threat of demise. One of the strangest ironies though is it’s not a threat from Parliament, or even necessarily from opponents of the honour, but rather very much from itself.
The baronetage seems to have its origins in the 14th century, though it wasn’t until the reign of James I that issuing of the honour became more prevalent. It was used as a means of creating an dignity that was just below the peerage, but ranking above commoner and was James’s way of raising money for his military campaign.
Baronets use the same title and style as an ordinary knight, prefixing ‘Sir’ to their names and wives of baronets prefixing “Lady” to their surname though the difference is once the holder dies, the honour is inherited.
Although not very well know, this honour is associated with some perhaps better-known people. For example, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer – George Osborne – is the heir to a baronetcy, meaning he’ll one day be Sir George Osborne.
Like most hereditary honours, almost all baronetcies can only pass in the male line. In the normal way of things, this would pose no threat to the existence of the institution of the baronetcy itself – this lifespan for the honour meant as old honours died out, new ones would be issued to others, thus keeping the numbers form inflating without end.
However, since the complete halt on the granting of all hereditary honours outside of the Royal Family in the late twentieth century (and it being highly unlikely they will be granted again), the baronetage now suffers a unique problem. The last baronet to be created was for the husband of the late Baroness Thatcher in 1990, made Sir Denis Thatcher. Prior to that, no baronet was created since 1965.
According to the roll of baronetage (which lists all the baronets in existence and their holders), there are now only 1023 baronets left and over 240 baronetcies which have either not been claimed or are now extinct from the last few decades alone.
Officially, anyone who does not register their title on the roll of baronetage is not acknowledged as a baronet, even if they have a rightful claim.
Exclusive research done by Royal Central shows, however, that by far the biggest danger to the baronetage is the increasing numbers of baronets who are turning their backs on the honour they inherit too as they choose not to claim them and the rate at which the baronetage is declining in membership has increased rapidly in recent decades. From 1990-2005 alone, 90 baronetcies have not been claimed and as proving succession becomes more difficult the longer the time since the death of the last claimant, most of these will now be lost in the mists of time, and with many of the 69 baronetcies unclaimed from the last ten years looking to go the same way.
The baronetcy confers no special rights like peerages traditionally did. There was no right to sit in the House of Lords and holders are only afforded precedence after sons of life barons and only just ahead of knights of the Thistle and there is no automatic right to supporters on a baronet’s coat of arms so the honour exists as just a title, less the privileges and rights enjoyed by some peers.
It is, however, not all doom-and-gloom as the future of the baronetcy could itself see a turn for the better in the form of efforts to create a law to allow females to succeed to hereditary titles.
Lord Trefgarne’s bill in the House of Lords seeks currently to allow females to succeed to peerages, though currently doesn’t encompass a provision for the baronetage – though it seems unthinkable that an amendment wouldn’t be included to do this since many peers involved in debating the bill will themselves be holders of baronetcies too.
Ultimately, the survival of the baronetage will be determined by how long people are willing to act to preserve this ancient link with our past as a nation and also how long the baronets are willing to accept the honour.