In history, Lords and Ladies have occupied a place in the history of this country as great military leaders, famous politicians and even as infamous traitors. In this the penultimate part of our Story of the Peerage series, we explore the most famous lords and ladies in British history as well as some well known and lesser known famous Lords and Ladies in modern times.
The Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson are among the most famous historic lords who won their fame (and titles) through military success.
Some peers were not famous for heroic military action, however. James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth led the Monmouth rebellion against King James II in 1685 in order to try and take the throne for himself (as an illegitimate son of King Charles II). Needless to say, the rebellion failed and the Duke was beheaded on 15 July 1685.
Similarly, Simon Frase, Lord Lovat became the last British man to be publicly beheaded, on Tower Hill in 1747 after being convicted for treason when he began supporting the Stuart claim to the British throne. He was not the last peer to be convicted for treason however.
Changes to the way society functions means peers are increasingly less significant in Britain, in fact recently more than ever, life peerages have been given to well-known Britons.
Did you know, for example, that the writer and creator of Downton Abbey – the fictional drama that follows the life of the Earl of Grantham and his family – is in fact a Lord himself (Julian, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford) and that Alan Sugar, well-known businessman and star of The Apprentice on the BBC was elevated to the House of Lords in 2009 as Lord Sugar?
Some peers even took the step of renouncing their titles so they could become members of Parliament, or simply because they had no use for them.
Tony Benn, infamous Labour politician, disclaimed his peerage (Viscount Stansgate) in 1963 in order to remain a member of the House of Commons. It took three years from him inheriting his title (1960) until he could disclaim it – in fact, it was his campaign to disclaim his own title that led to the Peerages Act 1963 which allowed for such an event.
Also, in what seems to be a contradiction, there are also members of the House of Commons who hold peerages – thanks to the House of Lords Act in 1999 which meant that only members of the House of Lords were excluded from sitting in the Commons. The Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, John Thurso, also happens to hold the title of Viscount Thurso. Similarly, Alec Douglas-Home disclaimed his peerage, the Earldom of Home, also in 1963 in order to become Prime Minister and sit in the House of Commons.
In the media, there are also many well known peers. For example, science writer and journalist Matt Ridley is also the 5th Viscount Ridley and, since 2013, a member of the House of Lords.
The significance of peers in modern Britain is questionable, though certainly in the past they have been some of the most influential, famous and important people in history. In the final instalment of the Story of the Peerage series next week, we look at how the significance of the peerage has changed and what the future has in store for this ancient system.
The history of the British Peerage is as rich and colourful as the country itself – for centuries, the peerage remained at the forefront of English politics and at the front of the battlefield. In this 5-part series on the story of the peerage, we explain its origins, how it all works and its significance (if any) in the 21st century.