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The ups and downs of reforming peerage succession

Last week the Courtier reported that the bid to allow daughters to inherit peerages is to be given another chance in this final session of the present Parliament thanks to Lord Trefgarne’s new bill which is set to be introduced early next session.

The Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal.

The Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal.

The bill’s propositions are markedly more straightforward than the Lord Lucas bill which failed to gain steam last session and this combined with other factors should give the new bill a great chance of success and could finally result in the allowance of females to inherit titles.

It’s not without its flaws however and whilst the principle of simply allowing females to succeed may seem straightforward, the arrangement thereof is anything but.

There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ which must be considered as well as the timing of the bill. Firstly, at what point and to what extent should the rules change. In other words, who should decide who a peer’s successor is? Should the peer themselves get to choose, or should it be prescribed by Parliament?

If it was prescribed, it could alter the present heir’s expectations of inheriting the title. If the peer could choose, why should it be just restricted to their descendants – what would stop them selling their title to the highest bidder?

Arguably, the best solution is prescription by Parliament – so long as it’s done properly. Next we come onto the issue of how to implement the change with minimal disruption to the families of peers.

The Status Quo

Most peerages in the United Kingdom have their device for succession (or remainder) set out in what’s known as the letters patent which is the original instrument from the reigning Monarch granting the title in the first place. Through the centuries, this remainder has invariably specified succession through the eldest male child only and only a few peerages exist where the remainder has allowed succession to, or more often only through, females.

The present arrangement also means that even if females are allowed to succeed, if there is more than one daughter, then it’s not a case of the eldest succeeding, as all daughters have equal claim to the title because “there’s no primogeniture amongst women”.

Many titles risk dying out or passing onto distant cousins even when perfectly legitimate daughters are passed over just by virtue of being female.

Popular Support?

Obviously, the effect of any bill to do with the peerage is very finite and is not really a major issue for the ordinary member of the public. However, it is a question of paving the way for a less male-dominated establishment especially considering that there are still hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

Popular opinion among hereditary peers themselves is split. Many, of course especially those without male heirs, fear their titles may die out without a change in the law – many titles indeed have already done so. Others regard it as change for change’s sake and some fear that the succession to their titles could be altered without their consent and could cause rifts to be created between rival claimants in the family.

The Government has not indicated its support for the bill at this stage, though in the fullness of time, we will find out whether or not they do.

My Solution

My proposal is simple and can be universally applied. Allow a peerage to be succeeded to by its present heir and thereinafter apply the rules of absolute primogeniture to it in the future. In other words, any title succeeded to after a certain date (say the day the bill is passed) shall immediately change to allow the eldest child (rather than only eldest male child) to succeed in future.

To put this in context, let’s say the ‘certain date’ is 20th May. Supposing the Duke of Marlborough dies on 22nd May – under my proposal, his eldest son and heir would succeed as expected, though the new Duke would have his eldest child (regardless of gender) to succeed him. But any peer who succeeded before 20th May would not have the new succession rules applied until after the next peer succeeded.

This would ameliorate the issue of drastically changing the course of inheritance whilst employing the ‘equal succession’ principle. It would also eliminate any chance of nefarious interference by any party in changing the succession for personal gain.

Additionally, any peer who had only daughters would have the succession rule automatically applied on the death of the peer regardless of date (thus allowing the eldest daughter to be ‘heiress presumptive’ until death of a peer).

On the issue of courtesy (or legal) titles for the husband of a peer, I would propose they adopt the style of a younger son of that peer. E.g. husband of a Duchess or Marchioness in her own right would be ‘The Lord First Name‘ and of other ranks would be ‘The Honourable’.

What Are Its Chances?

The simplicity of Lord Trefgarne’s bill coupled with the previous attempt in the last session giving a clearer idea of what reforms are needed as well as the lack of business in the final session of Parliament give the bill the best possible chances of finally making it into law.

As long as all the consequences are considered and a consensus is clearly reached early on in the bill’s progress on how the law should be moulded, we could well finally see females attain the right to inherit titles.

Give your opinion on the proposal to allow women to inherit titles, or on my proposal, in the comments section below.

photo credit: ukhouseoflords via photopin cc

  • Bob Carr

    I like your way of resolving the heredity issue with regard to daughters. I take issue, however, with the designation of the husband of a peeress. It can’t really be, say The Lord (first name) as currently, that implies someone who is born into a titled family. The wife of (say) a duke is, correctly, known as A duchess, so why should not the reverse apply. The heredity principal follows the duchess and if the marriage broke down or the duke would be John, Duke of xxxxx in the same way as a widowed/divorced duchess would be known. Equally, the title would pass on on the death of the duchess not the duke. I am also enamoured of the idea of a King consort in the event of a queen regnant. Surely in these days of equality, we don’t see a King as superior to a Queen.

    • Royal Central

      In principle, I believe you’re right though the way common law works means that a woman derives her style from her husband but not vice versa. In the same way as traditionally on marriage, a woman takes her husband’s surname, peerages and other titles are adopted in the same way. To allow husbands of peeresses to take the equivalent style would be a wider issue to do with common law rather than peerage law per se.

      To afford a husband the style of a son or daughter of a peer I think would be the best compromise, at least for now though so long as the practicalities of law are dealt with, I would also be a proponent of husband holding the same rank as peeresses in their own right.

    • Jeffery

      As long as it is a Kingdom a King will always be seen as a superior title. So, when a Queen reigns the United Kingdom should become the United Queendom, then you could have your Kind consort. lol, i’m actually half serious.

  • Nick

    Overturning immemorial traditions just to keep a few socialist politicians with modernist ideas happy. Even more ridiculous when you consider that Lord Tregfarne’s Barony isn’t even a century old.
    The concept of peerage is monarchical function and as such any alteration of such should be at the discretion of the monarch alone rather than a few crazed modernists blowing of hot air in Westminster.

    • Royal Central

      The peerage won’t survive without elements of modernisation and especially if there are no male heirs to a title. Failing to acknowledge the need to allow female heirs is borderline indefensible and just because that’s the way it’s been for centuries, that’s no argument for resisting changes which would result in a more logical system. Under parliamentary supremacy, Parliament can regulate for anything – also, once peerages are issued, they’re generally out of the Monarch’s control.

      • Nick

        It’s funny that a website called “Royal Central” has effectively resigned itself to parliamentary sovereignty. Perhaps “Parliament Central” would be a more apt name.

        If we are really to save the sacredness of the monarchical function and the peerage, the thing that really needs to be done is to throw this poisonous notion of Benthamite parliamentary positivism in the bin. Just because a parliament says something is the case, doesn’t mean that it is so. There are some things that no legislator should ever purport to have the authority to change and the fact that our monarchs have been reduced to the status of glorified rubber stamps is as much a problem as that of the arrogance of Parliament.

  • Miss Tahira Nawaz

    Titles are inherited instead of being elected or selected? I’m bit surprised. At least, at Duke level of nobility, they should be extensively and intensively merit-oriented, the inheritance of Kingdom is, in my opinion, is very different, isn’t it? Should the titles be inherited at every cost, then I’d go by the said Bill.Vice titles should be considered as witness of two women is accepted in Islam, in this case, “vice title” can be given to second daughter.

  • Gregory Lauder-Frost

    You’re just another Liberal trying to wreck one of our most ancient institutions. The Church, the Monarchy, the House of Lords NEVER existed to reflect or be a mirror of society. That is what liberals cannot seem to grasp.

    • Royal Central

      Yet it’s these very institutions that won’t survive without taking into account changing public attitudes and values.

      • Gregory Lauder-Frost

        Rubbish. A classic Liberal response. Stand for tradition and our institutions or walk away. Don’t destroy them as a cancer destroys humans, by drip-feed.

  • Gill Scrivenor

    Surely there is already a precident for this? When Earl Mountbatten died his title went straight to his eldest daughter who is now Countess Mount batten of Burma. No one has been able to explanation this to me. I have never heard of a daughter, before or sInce, succeeding to a peerage or an earldom. Can someone ex plain this?

    • The letters patent were especially drafted so as to allow Mountbatten’s daughter to inherit the title. Most peerages do not have this and can only be inherited by a male child.

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