The British Peerage and Honors System

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Podcast Transcript

As an outsider, the British peerage system is really confusing. There are princes, dukes, earls, and barons. 

Some of the titles are hereditary, and some of them are not. 

The titles have a hierarchy, but is a viscount higher or lower in status than a marquess, and is a baron higher or lower than an earl?

Learn more about the British peerage system, how it works, and the structure of it all, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

As an American, the whole peerage system seems…..odd. Or perhaps antiquated is a better word. 

For those who are not British, or at least perhaps not from a Commonwealth country, the peerage is simply the system of titles and nobility. Technically speaking, peers of the realm were entitled to sit in the House of Lords, prior to 1999 when reforms were made that limited the number of hereditary seats in the House of Lords to just 92. 

Most, but not all peers, are hereditary positions that are passed down from generation to generation. 

Closely related, but not the same thing, is the system of honors. This would include the various orders and knighthoods which are given out on a regular basis. 

To understand the entire system, you have to start at the top, because without that, nothing else makes sense. That of course would be the monarch. 

The British monarch is either a king or a queen. 

In the British system, there is only one type of king. If you are the king, then you are the monarch. 

However, there are three different types of queens, of which it is possible to have two at any given time. 

There can be queen monarchs, queen consorts, and queen dowagers. 

The queen monarch is what Queen Elizabeth II is. She is the monarch and a female, and hence, she is the queen.

When her father, King George VI was king, her mother was the Queen Consort. The queen consort is just the wife of a king and is not the monarch. If a queen consort should outlive her husband, then she would become the queen dowager. 

The previous queen dowager hated the term, so she, and everyone else, just called her the Queen Mother. In addition to being the mother of the queen, she was a queen herself.

You have to start with the monarch when looking at the peerage system because the monarch is known as the “font of honor”.  That is just a formal way of saying that any other ranks, positions, or titles exist because the monarch allows them to exist. 

It really is as simple as that. The monarch can in theory make or remove titles of nobility at a whim and with some paperwork. There is literally no limit on what the monarch can do with respect to titles of nobility. 

That being said, titles are not just given out willy nilly and it is treated quite seriously.

Below the top rank of Monarch is the title of Prince or Princess. This title is almost always reserved for those people who are the immediate family of the monarch. 

Currently, at the time of recording this, there are 17 people in the United Kingdom who have the title of prince or princess by birth, and another 7 who have the title by marriage. 

This includes the four children of the Monarch, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and four cousins. 

The children of Prince William have been given the title of prince or princess, but the children of Prince Harry have not. 

Only the descendents of Prince William will probably be able to continue to use the title of Prince or Princess.  

Women who obtain the title by marriage are not known as princesses in their own right. For example, Diana was not formally known as Princess Diana. She was Diana, Princess of Wales. Whereas the Queen’s daughter is simply Princess Anne. 

The title of Prince of Wales is reserved for the heir apparent, which, up until 2003, could only be male. The Queen was never the heir apparent but was only the heir presumptive. 

With the 2003 changes to the law, a firstborn female can now be the heir apparent. If the young Prince George should have a daughter as his first child, she could become the first Princess of Wales in her own right.

The rank of prince or princess is not strictly hereditary. As generations get further and further away from a monarch, the title will eventually not be given out, but rather a person will just have some other lesser noble title. 

Here I should note that while the law was changed to allow for a female firstborn monarch in 2003, the same does not hold for all other noble titles. For the rest of the titles, I’ll be going through, the female version of the title can only be had through marriage. 

Below the rank of Prince and Princess is that of Duke and Dutchess. 

The word Duke is derived from the Latin “dux” which means leader. The first British duke was established in 1337.

There can be, and often are, overlaps with various titles of nobility. In particular, most male members of the royal family with the title of prince are also given the title of duke. 

Prince Charles is the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Rothsay. Prince Andrew is the Duke of York, and Prince William is the Duke of Cambridge. 

There are also 26 non-royal dukedoms in the UK, all of which are hereditary. The oldest of which is the Duke of Norfolk which was established in 1483. 

Within the ranking of the titles, there is also what is known as the order of precedence. In the case of dukedoms, and most other titles, the oldest lineage is given precedence. 

The order of precedence is really only relevant for formal affairs where there is seating at a table or entrance into a room. 

Below the title of Duke is that of Marquess. The female form is a Marchioness, and the position is known as a Marquessate. 

The term Marquess comes from the French word “to march”. 

There are currently 34 Marquesses in the United Kingdom, the oldest of which is The Marquessate of Winchester which was established in 1551.

Below the title of Marquess is of Earl. The female version of Earl is Countess… but there is no title of Count in the British system. 

The word “earl” comes from the Old English “erol” which means a man of noble birth. That may be derived from the Old Norse word “jarl”, which means chieftain.

There are currently 191 Earls in the United Kingdom. The highest ranking in the order of precedence  is The Earldom of Shrewsbury which was established in 1442

Below Earl is the rank of Viscount. The term Viscount literally came from vise-count, a count being a position of nobility equivalent to an Earl. 

There are currently 270 viscountcies in the UK, of which the majority are subsidiary titles for people with a superior rank. There are 111 people who hold Viscount as their primary title. 

The female term is Viscountess. 

The oldest Viscountcy is that of The Viscountcy of Hereford which was established in 1550. 

The lowest rank of peerage is that of Baron. 

Baron comes from the Latin term “baro” which means freeman. The female form of the word is baroness. 

There are more baronies than there are all other higher ranks of peerage combined. The number is into the many hundreds. 

One of the reasons why there are so many has to do with Life Peers.

All of the ranks I’ve mentioned so far above Baron are hereditary peerages. However, there can be appointments for what is called a Life Peerage. If you have been appointed a Life Peer, you can sit in the House of Lords, but you cannot pass it on to your children. 

The only rank of Life Peer is Baron. There is anywhere from a dozen to forty Life Peers which are created every year. They are usually recommended by the sitting prime minister, and approved by the monarch. 

They are usually given to former senior cabinet ministers and retired bishops from the Church of England. As of my recording of this episode, there are currently 657 Life Peers with the rank of Baron. 

There are also hereditary Barons as well. 

You might be wondering where does the title of “Lord” fit into all of this?

Lord is simply a title that can be used to reference any Peer of the Realm. So anyone from a Duke to a Baron can be called their Lordship or just Lord Somethingsomething.

There is another hereditary title below that of Baron, but they are not peers. Technically, they would be commoners. 

That would be a baronet. Baronets were created by James I of England in 1611. It was basically a way to raise money. 

Holders of a baronetcy may pass it down to their family, however, it isn’t a title. You wouldn’t call someone the Baronet Grantham. They are simply addressed as Sir, or Dame if a woman holds the baronet in their own right. If they are the wife of a baronet, they would be called Lady.

To that extent, it is more like a hereditary knighthood, and holders of a baronet are not entitled to sit in the House of Lords.

While this exhausts all the ranks of the British peerage, we aren’t close to being done yet. 

That is because we still haven’t explained how Sir Elton John and Dame Judy Dench came to be. 

We are now talking about knighthoods and honors. 

There are several different orders of chivalry in Britain, and you can tell what order a person is in based on the initials after their name. 

The orders of chivalry, like everything else, has a ranking. 

The highest order is the Order of the Garter. It consists of members of the Royal Family, senior military officers, and former Prime Ministers. It is limited to 24 members. 

From there it goes 

  • The Order of the Thistle
  • The Order of Bath
  • The Order of Saint Michael and Saint George 
  • The Distinguished Service Order
  • The Royal Victorian Order
  • The Order of Merit
  • The Imperial Service Order
  • The Order of the British Empire
  • The Order of the Companions of Honour

Of these orders, by far the most commonly awarded is the Order of the British Empire.

Each of these orders has different ranks within them. The initials after their name is a reflection of their rank and order. So if someone is a member of the Order of the British Empire, they will have MBE after their name.

If they are an officer, they will have OBE. A commander will have CBE. A knight will have KBE, and a grand knight will have GBE. 

Anyone who is a member of any order is entitled to use the honorific “Sir” or “Dame” if they hold no higher title. There are no financial or other benefits beyond the dignity and respect of holding the title. 

Knighthoods may be given to subjects in other Commonwealth realms outside of the UK, and knighthoods may be declined. Several famous people such as David Bowie and John Cleese have declined their knighthood.

Honors are usually announced on New Year’s Day, the Queen’s Birthday, or the National Day of the Commonwealth country.

Honorary knighthoods can be given to people outside of the Commonwealth. For example, many former US Presidents and other prominent American citizens have been made honorary knights. They get the medal and the ceremony, but they can’t call themselves “Sir” or “Dame”.

The British peerage system is in many ways quite confusing, and as an American, I have to confess that I really don’t get it. Getting a title because you were born just seems a bit silly in the 21st century. 

The knighthood system seems a bit more meaningful insofar as you had to have done…..something in order to be honored. 

So, the next time you hear about Duke Suchandsuch or Dame Suzie Whatsherfact, you’ll know where they sit in the British pecking order.