If one reads Regency romance, he encounters his fair share of England’s titled gentlemen, often referred to as the “peerage.” In order of rank, one finds dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. Baronets and knights were NOT peers. The House of Lords were made up of those of the first rank, along with the bishops and the archbishops of the Church of England.
The title and the landed estates associated with the peerage were always inherited. “Life peerages” were created in the late 1800s, but, generally, without exception, the title passed to the eldest son. If the heir left a male child, the child would inherit if his father had passed before inheriting. If the child had died or there were no issue from the marriage, a brother could inherit. The male line of direct descent from the first holder of the title was always maintained. Even if the only male available was from a junior or “cadet” branch of the original family, he would inherit the title and the manor. Originally, titles were presented with “letters of patent” as a symbol of the presentation. The person with the oldest “patent” held rank over others of the same title.
As the estates became more and more problematic to maintain, many of the peers were forced to look beyond those with strong ancestral lines for mates. A woman from trade or of inferior lines could often marry into the peerage if she possessed a large enough fortune. Besides the expensive way of life that a titled gentleman was forced to uphold, the cost of maintaining the entailed property was often exorbitant. Marrying for love was not an option. A marriage of convenience often meant the titled gentleman must marry for the lady’s money. The man’s wife received the female equivalent of his title: duke/duchess; viscount/viscountess; earl/countess; etc. However, if an untitled gentleman married a titled lady, she relinquished her formal address to become a “Mrs.” In addressing a titled gentleman, he might have an accumulation of titles, such as Baron Joe, Viscount Smoe, and the Earl of Doe.
A British or Irish Duke is entitled to a coronet (a silver-gilt circlet, chased as jewelled but not actually gemmed) bearing eight conventional strawberry leaves on the rim of the circlet. The physical coronet is worn only at coronations. Any peer can bear his coronet of rank on his coat of arms above the shield.
So, how did one become a member of the peerage? Generally speaking, the title and land was bestowed upon a man for his loyalty and service to the monarchy. The prime minister in power, at the time, granted the power. Occasionally, military heroes (i.e., the Duke of Wellington) and lord chancellors were given titles. Rarely were commoners presented a title. If a commoner had no children (therefore, the title would die out with him), a title might be possible for extraordinary service. With each generation, only one child (the male heir) was given the title. The other children were “commoners.” Recently minted peers were not well received by the other members of the aristocracy.
Below the peerage were the baronets and knights, who were addressed as “Sir.” A baronetage was hereditary, but baronets were not peers, and they did not sit in the House of “Lords.” Baronets were the upper levels of the gentry. They might sit in the House of Commons, but this was not part of the title. Knighthoods were not hereditary. Distinguished lawyers and doctors and brewers became baronets, while those in trade were bestowed with the “Sir” of a knighthood.
A Royal Duke is a duke who is a member of the British Royal Family, entitled to the style of “His Royal Highness.” The current Royal Dukedoms are, in order of precedence:
▪ Edinburgh, held by The Prince Philip
▪ Cambridge, held by Prince William
▪ York, held by The Prince Andrew
▪ Gloucester, held by Prince Richard
▪ Kent, held by Prince Edward
With the exceptions of the dukedoms of Cornwall and Rothesay, which can only be held by the eldest son of the Sovereign, royal dukedoms are hereditary, according to the terms of the Letters Patent that created them, which usually contain the standard remainder to the “heirs male of his body.” The British monarch also holds and is entitled to the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster, and within the borders of the County Palatine of Lancashire is by tradition saluted as “The Duke of Lancaster.” Even when the monarch is a Queen regnant, she does not use the title of Duchess.