The origins of the peerage are not as obscure as one may think at first thought. In fact, documents dating back over a thousand years have helped historian piece together exactly how we have managed to get to where we are today with the nobility.
Earls were one of the earliest example of nobility in England. First recorded in during the time of the Anglo-Saxons, it was the earls who acted as governors for the king across the realm and were responsible for collecting taxes, local justice and in times of war, raising an army.
After the Norman Conquest, however, things began to change and the degree of baron was established under the feudal system by William the Conqueror to act as lawmakers. Gradually, the earls lost their powers to the barons, though the earldom continued to exist.
The feudal baronage was the building blocks for the peerage. Acting as law makers of the day as well as advisers to the king and being kind of local lords under the feudal system, it was an efficient way for the king to micromanage all corners of his realm. Such as the significance of the baronage at the time, it was not only the right of the barons to attend the king and Parliament but indeed an obligation.
William the Conqueror’s introduction of the baronage to England in 1066 was a way of rewarding his followers for their loyalty and to establish control over the entire realm through feudalism, though at several points in history, this reliance on the barons has come back to bite when they were unhappy with how things were being run.
Perhaps the most well known role played by the feudal barons was in 1215, when they forced King John to sign Magna Carta to preserve the rights of the people of England and is one of the founding pieces of legislation (still partially in force today).
Evolution of the feudal baronage into the peerage was a slow process, but by 13th-14th century the system was firmly established. Baron and Earl remain degrees in the British Peerage to this day, though no longer under a feudal system and other ranks now exist.
Earldom was, as mentioned, the first form of title. It was derived from the continental title of Count – indeed the female form of Earl in England is, Countess. With the introduction of baronage in 1066, two degrees were established.
Eventually, in the 14th century new degrees were being introduced and this was the true foundation of the peerage. As well as barons and earls, the rank of Duke was created for the first time in England in 1337 when Edward III created made his son, known in history as The Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall and from thereon in, Duke became a title of close association to the monarch (hence why members of the Royal Family are most often made dukes) – it is also the highest rank in the peerage.
Next came the title of Marquess. Derived from a French title, a marquess’s territory would traditionally be on the border of the country (known as a March) and the first marquessate was created in 1385 by King Richard II to elevate Robert, Earl of Oxford to a higher degree for his service (made Marquess of Dublin), though only a short while later, he was elevated to a Dukedom.
The last rank to be introduced was that of Viscount. First granted in 1440 it is junior to Earl but senior to Baron and translates as Deputy Companion – making it logically junior to earl (the English equivalent of Count). John Beaumont was the first Viscount in England when he was created Viscount Beaumont by King Henry VI.
For quite some time, the peerage remained unchanged and only many centuries later did the peerage gradually lose its significance as a network of close advisers to the king. It has become, instead, a colourful yet purely symbolic reminder of days gone by.
Photo Credits: Public Domain
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.