The peerage is and does not claim to be a modern institution. As the aristocracy which once dominated Parliament, gradually moves towards disestablishment from British politics, we will be waving goodbye to one of Britain’s most illustrious and unique traditions.
The Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholomndeley (left) and the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk (right).
Whilst the eventual move to expel the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords as well as moves to completely reform the house and remove all traces of the peerage from this historic chamber is drawing ever closer, many say the peerage is gradually losing its significance.
The titles themselves are not going anywhere though, it seems. Modernisation attempts to help carry the hereditary titles forward are being made. The House of Lords is currently in the process of creating new legislation (the Equality (titles) bill) which seeks to pave the way to female inheritance of Britain’s peerages as well as giving civil partners and husbands their own courtesy titles.
There are plans to maintain the issuing of peerages when the Lords is finally reformed and to use it as part of the honours system in the same way as knighthoods and other honours are given out. Despite this, there are many that say it’s almost the end of the line for the aristocracy.
In 2010, the Duke of Devonshire – one of only 24 non-royal dukes left in the United Kingdom – remarked “the aristocracy is not dying: it’s dead… Coffin’s nailed down, it’s in the ground. It doesn’t exist - except that people have titles,” and that he would be happy to give up his title if the Labour reforms of the House of Lords to remove peers went ahead. As things stand, the Duke has not renounced his title and the Lords reforms are now a long way away since the latest bill on the issue failed.
It’s almost certain that hereditary peerages outside of the Royal Family will not be issued again – the last time such a title was issued was to Harold Macmillan who was created Earl of Stockton in 1984- despite The Queen retaining the power to do so should she wish.
Final plans to transform the House of Lords are still yet to be brought forward.
There has been talk that Michael Middleton (father of the Duchess of Cambridge) could be given an Earldom at some point, though this will not be the case – the argument on this says that all parents of future Queens consort have held peerages, though none was given their peerage as a result of their daughter marrying – their titles were already in existence.
Peerages are what are known as incorporeal hereditaments. That is to say, they are inheritable property which has no physical presence like say a necklace or piece of land does. They cannot be bought or sold, nor transferred to another person, yet are personal property of the incumbent. This is what makes the peerage so strange.
The question of significance will probably be most prominently answered at the coronation of Prince Charles. Just what role will peers play in this service? Will hereditary peers, or indeed any peers, be invited at all?
Heroic tales of Dukes leading their men into the battlefield may be over, but it’s almost certain that the peerage will live on in the families that hold them – at least for as long as they wish to keep them. Now though, the privilege has been removed and these formerly more a family ‘heirloom’; being passed down from generation to generation like a piece of jewellery.
Quite what lies in store for this Great British institution is not entirely clear or indeed certain. The peerage has stood the test of time thus far – but how much more change is it yet to go through?
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.