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The indifference that could end of one of Britain’s oldest titles

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.

BaronetUK“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  • robert

    I believe the last baronetcy created was Sir Denis Thatcher (Lady Margaret’s husband). Sir Mark holds the title now. There are still valid baronetcies of Nova Scotia, which is interesting, considering Canada has eschewed knighthoods and titles otherwise.

  • Ricky

    If Her Majesty found herself graciously pleased to bestow a baronetcy on me, I wouldn’t refuse! But I suppose it’s out of the question for an American like me.

  • Flavius Aetius

    The fact that no baronetcies have been created over so long a period, apart from Sir Denis’s, gives the lie to the chimera sometimes invoked as a reason for the never-ending hiatus in the creation of hereditary peers, namely, the remaining, however much curtailed, political privileges attaching to them. Rather, there is simply no willingness in the public discourse, or at least among those who control it, to condone honours of a hereditary character, even of which the privileges are largely ephemeral and objectively inoffensive. Misera tempora stultasque nostras discordias.

  • Bruce Alan Wilson

    I remember reading that there are two baronetcies that can descend in the female line because the original holders had only daughters and asked that the patent be drawn up that way, but I don’t remember which ones.

  • Dorrie M Galea

    It would be great if women CAN be created Dames – French pronunciation, please – too besides inheriting the title, or would it be the male equivalent I.e. Baroness?

  • Hmmm titles are now regarded as prehistoric antiquities of no real value in the modern world.


    Tradition is what makes England great.

  • Giannis L

    Baronetcies could be granted along life peerages , as a hereditary nobiliary component that will be vested to the family of the life peer . This would render baronetcy a very special honor side by side to ancient peerage

  • DPJ

    Could someone explain why it would be difficult to prove succession? I would think that if a baronetcy became “available” say in 1895, that someone who is a direct line descendant wouldn’t have that much trouble documenting. I could see an “availability” in 1600 might be an issue….

  • Tom Hilton

    I have several ancestors who carried the honour of baronet, and feel it would be a sad thing if it were to be discontinued in the future.

  • Sir Michael

    I happen to be a Canadian and the holder of TWO baronetcies, 1628 and 1670, and am rather proud of them. Our family was an old Kentish family (prior to Elizabeth I) and served in the courts of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Charles II and Queen Anne. Besides this, we have had numerous members of parliament (one serving in 6 parliaments and one in 9), many military men, and nine clergy to date (another’s on the way.) I am rather proud of this long record of public service, and given the occupations of our three sons, I can see that it is about to continue.

    As for proving the succession, it CAN be difficult, as it was in the case of my father, and myself. In the case of my father he had to prove that all the other lines had died out. In my case, it was a matter of the paperwork (my father and mother’s names were not spelt the same on all the documents and we had to obtain a signed affidavit attesting to the fact that they were still the same people, in spite of the spelling differences). The Home Office is rather picky on this count, and for good reason, as the use of a title in some parts of the UK can still impart something by way of privilege and accessibility. To me, that’s too bad that it is sometimes misused like that, but here is a democratic Canadian speaking. What is important to me is the heritage and the history, not the perks. Anyway, there’s my two cents’ worth.

  • Holly Bell

    I have several members of my family who were baronets. Their last name is Touch(e) e later added I know my great great grandfather married his wife in Bombay. His name was Edward Touch.

  • Pat Gilliland

    In studying early British novels in university, we learned that any baronet appearing in the story was very likely up to no good. If he showed any interest in the protagonist, she was likely to end up pregnant, disgraced and by the end of the story dead.

    Not a point in favour of keeping the title alive.

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