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  Wikipedia: Peerage

Wikipedia: Peerage
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The peerage is a system of titles of honour unique to Britain, and is one part of the British honours system. Peers were, historically, title holders entitled to be summoned to the House of Lords. The families of title-holders are not peers (though the wives of peers are traditionally known as peeresses). This is a fundamental distinction from the Continental system of titles, where families rather than individuals are ennobled, and where more than one person can hold the same title simultaneously.

Not all British titles are peerage titles: knights and baronets are not by virtue of those titles peers, nor are princes or princesses (unless they have also been granted a peerage title, as most princes are).

The Peerage in General

The Ranks of the Peerage

The various ranks of the Peerage are, in descending order of rank, duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron, whose feminine equivalents are duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess and baroness respectively. In Scotland, however, "baron" is a feudal rank, and not one of the peerage. The Scottish equivalent to the English barony is the "Lordship of Parliament," the male holder thereof being known as a Lord of Parliament.

The various titles are in the form of Rank Name or Rank of Name. The name of the title can either be a place name or a surname. The precise usage depends on the rank of the peerage and on certain other general considerations. Dukes always use of. Marquesses and Earls whose titles are based on place names normally use of, while those whose titles are based on surnames normally do not. Viscounts, Barons and Lords of Parliament do not use of. However, there are several exceptions to the rule. For instance, Scottish viscomitial titles theoretically include of, though in practice, most of them drop the word. Also, of is normally not used when the place in question is outside British territory, as using of might imply that the nation has sovereignty over such a place. For instance, the title Marquess Douro is based on the River Douro in Portugal, over which the British monarch has no sovereignty or suzerainty.

It was once the case that a peer administered the place associated with his title. However, such has not been true since the Middle Ages. The only remaining peerage with associated lands controlled by the holder is the Duchy of Cornwall, which is associated with the Dukedom of Cornwall, a dukedom held by the eldest son and heir to the Sovereign.

Inheritance of Titles

The mode of inheritance of a peerage, except in the case of life peerages, is determined by the method of its creation. Titles may be created by writ of summons or by letters patent. The former is merely a summons of an individual to Parliament. If that individual is not already a peer, then the writ of summons makes him one, and the peerage may descend to his heirs-general (whether male or female). Writs of summons have not been used for such a purpose for centuries, the preferred method being letters patent, which explicitly confer the dignity and name the mode of inheritance, which can be anything the Sovereign pleases. In most cases, the peerage can be inherited by heirs-male, though many titles, especially some Scottish ones, allow females to inherit. Normally, only descendants of the original titleholder may inherit the title. In some rare cases, however, such as when the beneficiary of a creation has no children and is not expected to produce them in the future, the Sovereign may allow the title to pass to other relatives.

If there is a dispute regarding the inheritance of a peerage, then the Sovereign, as the fount of honour, has the sole power to resolve it. In practice, however, the Crown never acts alone. An individual may petition the Crown in claim of a peerage through the Government. Then, the Sovereign usually refers the claim to the Attorney-General, who either advises the Crown to grant the claim, if the case is a simple one, or, in the case of more complex issues, to refer the claim to the House of Lords. The Lords then normally refer the case to their Committee on Privileges, which resolves the dispute. The Crown then acts on the Lords' advice, and the dispute is at an end.

Generally, a Peerage passes to the next holder only after the holder for the time being dies. However, Edward IV introduced a procedure known as a writ of acceleration (See Writs of Summons below.)

A title becomes extinct when all possible heirs (as provided by the letters patent) have died out. A title becomes dormant if no person has claimed the title, or if no claim has been satisfactorily proven. A title goes into abeyance if there is more than one person equally qualified to be the holder. (See Writs of Summons below.)

The Dukedoms of Cumberland and Albany, and certain other titles, have been suspended since 1919 due to their holders' service in the German army during the First World War. In the past, peerages were sometimes forfeit or attained due to the treason of their holder. The blood of an attained peer was considered "corrupted," so his descendants could not inherit the title. However, if all descendants of the attained peer were to die out, then an heir from another branch of the family not affected by the attainder may take the title.

A title held by someone who becomes monarch is said to merge in the crown and ceases to exist, for the Sovereign cannot be a peer, which would connote equality with, rather than superiority to, the other peers. The Dukedoms of Cornwall and Rothesay are special cases, which when not in use is said to lapse to the crown: it is construed as existing, but held by no one, during such periods. They are also special in that they are not directly inherited; they always belongs to the eldest son of the monarch as heir apparent. The heir apparent uses the title of Duke of Cornwall in England, Wales and Northern Ireland until he is created Prince of Wales, which normally occurs after the Prince has become an adult. In Scotland, however, the title Duke of Rothesay is used throughout the Prince's life.

Divisions of the Peerage

There are several distinct groupings of peerages within Britain: the Peerage of England pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of England prior to the Act of Union in 1707. The Peerage of Scotland, similarly, pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of Scotland before 1707. The Peerage of Ireland includes titles created for the Kingdom of Ireland before 1801, and some titles created after that year, while the Peerage of Great Britain pertains to titles created for the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801. Finally, the Peerage of the United Kingdom pertains to most titles created since 1801. Of these, all were entitled to sit in the House of Lords except for the peers of Ireland and Scotland, who elected some of their number to go to the Lords as representative peers. Irish peers ceased to hold such a right when the Irish Free State was formed in 1922. The Peerage Act 1963 allowed all Scottish peers to sit in the House of Lords. However, due to the reforms of the House of Lords Act 1999, only life peers and a number of hereditary peers elected by their counterparts can sit in the House of Lords.

The Peers


The members of a peer's family receive certain titles. The wife of a peer is known by the feminine equivalent of that peer's title; the reverse is not true for husbands of suo jure peeresses. According to a decision made by the House of Lords in Cowley (Earl) v. Cowley (Countess), divorcées may keep their title if they marry a commoner. If they marry peers, however, they cease to use the title of their ex-husband and use that of their new one.

Widows of peers are also entitled to keep their styles. If the widow is both the ancestor of the present peer, then she may use the style of Dowager before to the rank and title, as in Dowager Countess of London. Only the most senior widow who is an ancestor of the present peer may use the style of Dowager. All other widows of peers, as well as divorcées thereof, whether ancestors of the present peer or not, may use their forename in conjunction with the title, as in Mary, Countess of London. Many Dowager peeresses prefer not to use the old-fashioned term "Dowager," and instead prefer this latter option.

The children of peers also receive titles. Theoretically, the child of any peer is The Honourable, but some children receive higher titles through social practice and custom. Such titles are known as courtesy titles. The eldest son of a Duke, Marquess or Earl may use his father's highest subsidiary title as a courtesy title. For instance, the Duke of Norfolk is also Earl of Arundel. Thus, the Duke's eldest son is by courtesy known as Earl of Arundel. The actual title used, however, may not always be the highest subsidiary title. (For circumstances when this might occur, see courtesy title.)

Titles are also given to the younger sons and daughters of some peers. Younger sons of Dukes and Marquesses prefix the style Lord to their first and last names, while all daughters of Dukes, Marquesses and Earls similarly use the style Lady. Younger sons of Earls, as well all children of Viscounts and Barons, are entitled to place The Honourable before their names.

Another title applied to children of peers exists only in Scotland. There, the eldest son of a peer is known as The Master of the father's title, as in The Master of Arbuthnott. If the title can be inherited by women, then a female heir-apparent substitutes Mistress for Master. Such designations are not by courtesy; rather, they are substantive dignities. Though the eldest sons of all Scottish peers are entitled to such a rank, the eldest sons of Dukes, Marquesses and Earls generally do not use them, instead preferring a courtesy title. Eldest daughters of peers entitled to succeed, however, use the form Mistress of X as they are not entitled to any courtesy titles.

Coronets and Robes

{| align=right |- align=center |
Thomas Thynne, 1st Marquess of
Bath in Parliamentary Robes

Peers have special coronets and robes that are worn at coronations and during certain special Parliamentary occasions, such as the State Opening of Parliament. Both have special designs based on the rank of the peer.

Coronation robes include crimson velvet cloaks extending to the feet, open in the front and trailing behind. The robes also include a hood and a cape of miniver. The rank of the peer is demonstrated by bars of sealskin spots on the cape: Royal Dukes have six, other Dukes four, Marquesses three and a half, Earls three, Viscounts two and a half, and Barons two. The rank of peeresses (female peers and wives of male peers) is denoted differently, by the length of the train. Duchesses have four-yard trains, Marchionesses three and a half, Countesses three, Viscountesses two and a half, and Baronesses two.

The Parliamentary robe is full-length, made of scarlet wool and includes a collar of white miniver fur. Miniver bars indicate the rank of the wearer as with coronation robes, save that all Dukes use four miniver bars; no distinction is made between Royal and non-royal dukes. Such robes are worn by both male and female members of the Peerage at occasions such as introductions and State Openings of Parliament.

All of the peers' coronets include a silver gilt chaplet and a base of ermine fur. Ducal coronets include eight strawberry leaves atop the chaplet. Marquesses have coronets with four strawberry leaves alternating with four silver balls. Coronets for Earls have eight strawberry leaves alternating with eight raised silver balls, while those for Viscounts have sixteen silver balls, and those for Barons have six silver balls. Peeresses use equivalent designs, but wear a circlet, which encircles the head, rather than a coronet, which rests atop the head. Coronets are only worn at the Sovereign's coronation.

The coronets, furthermore, are depicted on the peers' heraldic achievements atop the shield. Peers, furthermore, are entitled to the use of supporters on either side of the shield. The helm at the top is shown as if made of metal, in profile and with a grated visor.


The precedence of peers is based upon their rank: Dukes precede Marquesses, who precede Earls, and so forth. Within the members of each rank, peers of England precede peers of Scotland. English and Scottish peers together precede peers of Great Britain. All of the aforementioned precede peers of Ireland created before 1801. Last come peers of Ireland created after 1801 and peers of the United Kingdom. Among peers of the same rank and Peerage, precedence is based on the creation of the title: those whose titles were created earlier precede those whose titles were created later. But in no case would a peer of a lower rank precede one of a higher rank. For example, the Duke of Fife, the last non-royal to be created a Duke, would come before the Marquess of Winchester, though the latter's title was created earlier and is in a more senior peerage (the Peerage of England). (For further information, see Precedence.)

Peerage Law

Writs of Summons

At the beginning of each new Parliament, each peer who has established his right to attend Parliament is issued a writ of summons. Without the writ, no peer may sit or vote in Parliament. It is established precedent that the Sovereign may not deny writs of summons to qualified peers. In 1626, King Charles I ordered that the writ of summons of John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol not issue. The Earl of Bristol had been charged with treason, but was never tried. The Earl complained to the House of Lords, which resolved that the denial of a writ to an eligible peer was without precedent and that the Sovereign should immediately issue a writ of summons, which did occur.

Another case to be considered is when writs of summons are issued to those who are not peers. In such cases, the individual who received the writ ipso facto becomes a peer. In fact, most ancient baronies were created merely by summoning an individual to Parliament, thereby making him a peer. Even if the writ is issued in error, the recipient becomes a peer. Peerages created by writ of summons is presumed to be inheritable only by the recipient's heirs of the body. The House of Lords has settled such a presumption in several cases, including Grey's (Lord) Case of 1640, the Clifton Barony Cse of 1673, the Vaux Peerage Case of 1837, the Braye Peerage Case of 1839 and the Hastings Peerage Case of 1841.

The meaning of heir of the body is determined by common law. Essentially, descent is by the rules of male primogeniture, with the proviso that when sisters (and their heirs) are considered co-heirs. In other words, no woman inherits because she is elder than her sisters. If all of the co-heirs but one die, then the remaining co-heir succeeds to the title. Otherwise, the title remains abeyant until the Sovereign "terminates" the abeyance in favour of one of the co-heirs. The termination of an abeyance is entirely at the discretion of the Crown.

A writ of acceleration is a type of writ of summons that enables the eldest son of a peer to attend the House of Lords using one of his father's subsidiary titles. The title is strictly not inherited by the eldest son, however; it remains vested in the father. A writ may only be granted if the title being accelerated is a subsidiary one, and not the main title, and if the beneficiary of the writ is the heir-apparent of the actual holder of the title. There have been a total of ninety-four writs of acceleration issued since Edward IV issued the first one, including four writs issued in the previous century. The only individual who recently held a title by writ of acceleration at present is Viscount Cranborne, the Barony of Cecil of Essendon actually being held by the Marquess of Salisbury. (Viscount Cranborne has, upon the death of his father, succeeded to the Marquessate.)

There are no Scottish peerages created by writ; neither can Scottish baronies go into abeyance, for Scots law does not hold sisters as equal heirs regardless of age. Furthermore, there is only one extant barony by writ in the Peerage of Ireland, that of La Poer, now held by the Marquess of Waterford. (Certain other baronies were originally created by writ but later confirmed by letters patent.)

Letters Patent

More often, Letters Patent are used to create Peerages. Letters Patent must explicitly name the recipient of the title and specify the course of descent. Normally, the patent specifies the Earl's heirs-male as descendants. Some Scottish titles allow for passage to heirs-general, in which case the rules of primogeniture apply. A few English patents allow the passage of a title to daughters, often when the recipient had daughters and was unlikely to produce sons. Some very old titles, like the Earldom of Arlington, may pass to heirs (not just heirs-male), these follow the same rules fo descent as do baronies by writ, and seem able to fall into abeyance as well.

English and British letters patent that do not specify a course of descent are invalid, though the same is not true for the letters patent creating peers in the Peerage of Scotland. The House of Lords has ruled in certain cases that when the course of descent is not specified, or when the letters patent are lost, the title descends to heirs-male. In 1875, the House of Lords ruled on a famous case relating to the Earldom of Mar, in which they determined that the course of descent in such cases would be to heirs-male. The complicated case began in 1457 when the then King of Scots, James II, obtained a court order that gave him the lands and titles of Robert Erskine, the lawful heir to the earldom. In 1565, the Queen of Scots, Mary, either restored the title to John Erskine (the dispossessed earl's heir) or created a new earldom of Mar for him. Then, in the nineteenth century, a dispute arose between two men, the Earl of Kellie and John Goodeve-Erskine, as to whom the title belonged to. Lord Kellie was the heir-male of the ninth Earl of Mar, who had recently died, while Mr Goodeve-Erskine was his heir-general.

The House of Lords heard the case and in 1875 ruled that the 1565 award of the earldom was a new creation but that the patent was lost. They furthermore determined that, since the patent was missing, the presumption must be made that the earldom could descend to heirs-male only. Therefore, Lord Kellie became Earl of Mar. Several challenged the opinion of the House of Lords, claiming that it had been based on erroneous premises. Firstly, it was charged that the grant of 1565 was a reversal of James II's unlawful act, and not a fresh creation. Secondly, it was alleged that under Scots peerage law, titles should be presumed to descend to heirs-general, not just heirs-male, when there is no evidence of a specified course of descent. In any case, the Lords' decision stood. Later, however, Parliament passed the Earldom of Mar Restitution Act, which determined that there were two earldoms of Mar: one created in 1565 and belonging to Lord Kellie, and another created earlier belonging to Mr Goodeve-Erskine. (For more details, see Earl of Mar.)

Letters Patent are not absolute; they may be amended or revoked by Act of Parliament.

Surrender of Peerages

Under peerage law, a peerage lasts until it is either extinct or forfeit due to the holder's attainder. (Disclaimed and abeyant peerages do not cease to exist.) Prior to the seventeenth century, peers often surrendered titles to the monarch. For instance, Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, surrendered the earldom in the twelfth century; in 1906, when the title was claimed by one of his heirs, the House of Lords upheld the surrender. Another surrender occurred as late as 1640, when Lord Stafford surrendered his barony in return for eight hundred pounds. Later that year, however, the House of Lords adopted a resolution in relation to the attempted surrender of the barony of Grey de Ruthyn declaring "That no person that hath any Honour of him and a Peer of this Realm, may alien or transfer the Honour to any other Person" and "That no Peer of this Realm can drown or extinguish his Honour (but that it descends to his descendants), neither by Surrender, Grant, Fine, nor any other conveyance to the King." In 1676, the House reinforced the Grey de Ruthyn decision when declaring that a surrender of the Viscountcy of Purbeck was invalid.

There is an exception is for peerages in the Peerage of Scotland, which used to be surrendered often under Scots law, normally in return for another title and its accompanying lands. At other times, the peerage was surrendered but then immediately regranted (the procedure being called the grant of a novadamus) with a different remainder. For instance, James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, obtained a novadaums from the Crown in order to prevent his dukedom from passing to his eldest son James, who was insane.


Peers used to enjoy many privileges, but most of them have been lost. Formerly, English and British peers could sit in the House of Lords, but now hereditary peerages do not carry with them an automatic seat. For now, the hereditary peers (except for those of Ireland) do retain the right to elect representative peers to the House of Lords. Until the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1948, peers could be tried for felonies only in the House of Lords. If Parliament was in session, then the House of Lords would try the case; otherwise, the trial would be before the Lord High Steward's Court. In Parliament, the Lord High Steward presided when the charge was treason, but the Lord Chancellor presided in all other cases; the entire House, however, had control over the hearing. In the case of the Lord High Steward's Court, the Lord High Steward would serve as judge and control the trial, while a number of peers would form a jury. Whenever it was necessary to have a Lord High Steward, one was appointed pro hac vice. Peers also have the right of personal access to the Sovereign, but this right has not been exercised for a long time.

The Privilege of the Peerage, except for parliamentary privilege, extends to all peers regardless of their position in relation to the House of Lords. The privilege also extends to wives and widows of peers. Individuals who hold titles of peerage by courtesy, however, do not have such privileges.


Development of the Peerage

The Peerage as it is now known came into being long after the Norman Conquest. King William I sought to concentrate power in royal hands and did not desire to grant large amounts of land to his subjects, thereby making them more powerful. Generally, lands were dispensed in the form of small manors, the holders of which were known as barons, though they are not the same as the modern ones. These barons were entitled to attend the Curia Regis, or King's Court, where they could advise the Sovereign on the rule of the nation.

Normally, those who were to attend the Court were summoned through the local sheriff. Some more important magnates, however, received personal writs of summons. Slowly, the Curia Regis evolved into an independent legislative assembly known as Parliament, which was divided into two houses. The House of Commons consisted of knights and representatives of the counties and boroughs, while the House of Lords included barons, earls, archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors.

The peerage, however, did not turn into a hereditary body suddenly. The Sovereign granted writs of summons to several persons without doing so to their heirs. Gradually, however, the custom of summoning a peer's heirs became engrained in the common law.

{| align=left |- align=center |
Edward, The Black Prince
Duke of Cornwall |}

Most peers ranked as barons, though some of the more important were earls. In 1337, Edward III made his son (Edward, the Black Prince) Duke of Cornwall and granted him precedence over all other peers. The title was to be held by the eldest sons and heirs of all future monarchs. Further dukedoms were awarded, but only within the Royal Family. The next change in the nature of the peerage occurred in 1385 when Robert de Vere, already Earl of Oxford, was created Marquess of Dublin. Two years later, de Vere became the first non-royal to receive a dukedom, though the grant was not hereditary. Later, however, hereditary marquessates and dukedoms came to be awarded to subjects. The last rank of the Peerage, Viscount, was introduced in 1440, when John Beaumont was made Viscount Beaumont.

The Sovereign continued to create several life peerages, but none of these individuals sought to sit in Parliament by right of such peerage until the nineteenth century. In 1856, Queen Victoria wished to have a qualified judge sit in the House of Lords to aid them in hearing cases (see judicial functions of the House of Lords), but did not wish the peer's heirs to clutter up the House. Therefore, she created Sir James Parke Baron Wensleydale, but only for life. The House of Lords, however, objected that the creation did not confer upon him the right to sit in the House of Lords, and the Queen was forced to grant him a hereditary title.

Some time after the Wensleydale case, a bill was brought into the House of Lords to allow the Sovereign to create two life peers to sit as "Lords of Appeal in Ordinary", provided that they had the qualification of having been judges for at least five years. The Lords passed the bill, but the Commons failed to do so. Another life peerage bill was introduced in 1869, this time in the House of Commons. The bill sought to allow the existence of twenty-eight life peers at any one time, provided that not more than four be created in any one year. These life peerages could be awarded to peers of Scotland or Ireland without seats in the Lords, to those who served in the House of Commons for ten years, to members of the armed forces, to civil servants, to judges and to eminent artists, authors and scientists. The bill was rejected by the House of Lords at its third reading.

In 1876, the Appellate Jurisdiction Act permitted the Sovereign to create two life peers, who would sit in the House of Lords as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly called Law Lords). These peers would be entitled to sit and vote in the House only as long as they held other judicial offices. Eleven years later, an act allowed retired Law Lords to be members of the House for the remainder of their life. Further acts increased the number of Law Lords that may be appointed at any one time.

In 1958, the Life Peerages Act allowed the regular creation of Life Peerages. Life Peers are barons or baronesses who are equal in every way to ordinary peer, save that their title is not inherited. In 1999 the House of Lords was reformed, so as to remove most of the hereditary peers. Since then, only ninety-two hereditaries remain in the House on an interim basis.

In 1963 the law was changed by the Peerage Act to permit hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for life. This was notably used by a number of peers who wished to become members of the British House of Commons, including the Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn), the Earl of Home (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) and the Viscount Hailsham (Quintin Hogg). The latter two later returned to the Lords as life peers. The heir to a disclaimed peerage is entitled to inherit it on the death of the person who disclaimed it. Irish peerages were not included in the law, and thus cannot be disclaimed.

The Increase in the Number of Peers

The Peerage used to be an extremely small and exclusive institution. When Henry VII called his first Parliament in the fifteenth century, there were only twenty-nine peers. The Tudor rulers made very few creations of peerages; at the death of Queen Elizabeth, there were just fifty-nine peers in the realm.

Thereafter, however, the Peerage experienced a dramatic swelling due to the generosity of the Stuart monarchs. By the time of Queen Anne's death, there were no less than one hundred and sixty-eight peers. At one point, in order to obtain a majority in the House of Lords in her favour, Queen Anne created twelve peers in one day - more than Elizabeth I had created during an entire reign that had lasted for more than half of a century.

Several peers were alarmed at the rapid increase in the size of the Peerage, fearing that their individual importance and power would decrease as the number of Peers increased. Therefore, in 1719, a bill was introduced in the House of Lords to place a limitation on the Crown's power. It sought to permit no more than six new creations, and thereafter one new creation for each other title that became extinct. It did allow, however, the Crown to bestow titles on members of the Royal Family without any such limitation. The Bill was rejected in its final stage in the Lords, but it was passed when it was re-introduced in the next year. Nonetheless, the House of Commons rejected the bill 269 to 177.

George III was especially profuse with the creation of titles, especially due to the desire of some of his Prime Ministers to obtain a majority in the House of Lords. During his twelve years in power, Lord North had about thirty new peerages created. During William Pitt the Younger's seventeen-year tenure, over one hundred and forty new peerages had been awarded.

New Creations During the Eighteenth Century
{| border=1 style="border-collapse: collapse;" align=center |- bgcolor="#dddddd" align=center |Years||Duke||Marq.||Earl||Visc.||Baron||Total |- align=center |1700-1720||22||14||33||30||58||157 |- align=center |1721-1740||2||3||14||8||19||46 |- align=center |1741-1760||2||1||24||15||34||76 |- align=center |1761-1780||4||1||14||9||46||74 |- align=center |1781-1800||4||10||24||23||91||152 |- align=center |Total||34||29||109||85||248||505 |}

Creations of Life Peerages
{| border=1 style="border-collapse: collapse;" align=center |- bgcolor="#dddddd" align=center |Prime Minister||Party||Tenure||Peers |- |Harold Macmillan||Conservative||1957-1963||align=center|47 |- |Alec Douglas-Home||Conservative||1963-1964||align=center|16 |- |Harold Wilson||Labour||1964-1970||align=center|123 |- |Edward Heath||Conservative||1970-1974||align=center|55 |- |Harold Wilson||Labour||1974-1976||align=center|82 |- |James Callaghan||Labour||1976-1979||align=center|58 |- |Margaret Thatcher||Conservative||1979-1990||align=center|200 |- |John Major||Conservative||1990-1997||align=center|140 |- |Tony Blair||Labour||1997-||align=center|268 |- align=center |colspan=3|Total||989 |}

† Excludes Peerages created under
the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876

In 1801, Parliament did impose a restriction on the creation of peerages, but only in the Peerage of Ireland. Under the 1801 Act of Union combining Ireland and Great Britain into the United Kingdom, until the number of Irish peers (excluding those who also hold British or English peerages) reached one-hundred, the Sovereign could not create a new Irish peerage until three previous titles became extinct. After the number of Irish peers reached one hundred, the Sovereign could create new titles as often as may have been necessary to maintain that number.

Still, there remained no restrictions on creations in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. Thus, the peerage continued to swell through the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, there were even more creations since Prime Ministers were eager to secure majorities in the House of Lords. Peerages were handed out not to honour the recipient but to give him a seat in the House of Lords.

After the passage of the Life Peerages Act 1958, hereditary peerages continued to be granted by the Conservative governments of Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. However, with the accession of the Labour government of Harold Wilson in 1964, the practice of granting hereditary peerages abruptly stopped. Since 1964, only five hereditary peerages have been granted - two for members of the royal family, and three additional creations under Margaret Thatcher's government in the mid-1980s.

The rate of creation of life peerages has not shown a consistent pattern of increase. Often, Prime Ministers create several life peerages early in their tenure to secure more seats in the House of Lords, but later reduce the number after additional seats become unnecessary. For instance, Tony Blair caused the creation of eighty-six peerages during the second half of 1997, his first year in office, but only two peers were created during 2003.

The Current State of the Peerage

In 1999 hereditary peers lost their automatic right to sit in the House of Lords. Since that time the approximately 1100 hereditary peers have had the right to elect 90 of their number to sit in the Lords. This arrangement was agreed on by the Blair government as a compromise between those wishing to remove the hereditary element from the Parliament altogether and those wishing to retain the House of Lords as it was (not least the House of Lords itself, whose approval was necessary for any legislation). It is widely believed that if the Labour Party wins another term a further attempt will be made to remove all hereditary peers from the House.

This would remove the last of the hereditary peerage's constitutional functions, but would not amount to its abolition (as happened, for example, in Germany in 1918). The peerage would remain a legally recognised institution, its affairs regulated by royal officers such as Garter Principal King of Arms and his equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

In the past 40 years, only three new hereditary peerages have been created, but two of these were conferred on men who had no heirs (George Thomas and William Whitelaw), and are now extinct. The only hereditary peerage created in recent times for someone who is not a member of the royal family that is still extant is the Earldom of Stockton, conferred on the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In addition, the Dukedom of York and the Earldom of Wessex have been conferred on two members of the Royal Family (The Prince Andrew and The Prince Edward respectively).


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