The British Peerage includes five separate ranks known as the Five Degrees of the Peerage which are, in order of seniority, that of;
Duke (from the Latin dux, a leader) is the most senior rank in the peerage. The first example was in 1337 when Edward of Woodstock (better known as the Edward, the Black Prince) was created Duke of Cornwall in March 1337 by his father Edward III.
Although originally the intention appears to have been to limit the designation of Duke to those that were of royal blood, this 'rule' was eventually ignored. In 1386 Richard II made Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, the Duke of Ireland but only for life; the first hereditary non-royal duke was William de la Pole, created Duke of Suffolk in 1448. There have since been a number of non-royal dukes created, although generally speaking, the dignity of duke is only granted to non-royals when they have been of particular service to the British state.
The dignity is however, remains most closely associated with the royal family; the eldest son and heir of the sovereign automatically becomes Duke of Cornwall and the second son is traditionally granted the title of Duke of York.
Dukes hold dukedoms (duchy is reserved for the specific legal creations of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster) and the wife of a duke is a duchess. All dukedoms are territorial titles; they have never taken from a family name.
The title of Marquess, derived from the same root as the word 'march' for border, and indicated the holder of a border command. However the title was never used in that sense in Britain, and was simply an anglicisation of the French 'Marquis' and imported as a means of creating a dignity that was above that of an Earl, but not quite a Duke.
First created by Richard II when Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was made Marquess of Dublin for life in 1385. The first hereditary creation was that of John de Beaufort, who became Marquess of Dorset in 1397, although he lost the title in 1399 and later pleaded for it not to be restored on the grounds that "the name of Marquess is a strange name in this realm."
Despite Beaufort's lack of enthusiasm the dignity of a Marquess continued to be granted in subsequent years, although most Marquesses appear to have later received the title of Duke, and most modern Marquesses are the elder sons and heirs of Dukes who use the dignity as a courtesy title. One of the few, and most senior, surviving Marquess is the Marquess of Winchester whose title was originally created in 1551.
A Marquess holds a marquessate and the wife of a marquess is a marchioness. Although properly a marquess, some titleholders prefer the French style of 'marquis', particularly in Scotland.
There were of course earls in England before the Conquest, as the Anglo-Saxon rulers of England had eaoldermen who administered the shires on behalf of the king, later replaced (or renamed) by the Danish conquerors of England as Jarls whom the English called Eorls.
The Norman rulers of England appointed their own men to take charge, but as they spoke French, and wrote their documents in Latin they referred to such people as Comes or Count. These English counts inherited some of the traditional privileges of the older Eorls, principally the 'third penny' out of the sheriff's court of the county, and therefore the natives continued to refer to them as 'Earls'. Once the Normans gave up speaking French they too adopted the designation of 'earl' but continued to refer to the female equivalent as a countess.
Earls hold earldoms and the title is sometimes taken from a territorial name, and sometimes from a family name. Where it is territorial, the preposition 'of' is generally used, (and hence the Earl of Suffolk) but where it is a family name, it is not (and hence the Earl Talbot).
The title of Viscount is another direct importation from the continent, in this case from the French viscomes for vice-count, the deputy of a Count. As noted above an English count is an Earl and in England the deputy of an Earl was a sheriff, and these English sheriffs were never peers.
The title was first created by Henry VI when he made John Beaumont the Viscount Beaumont in 1440; the most senior surviving title being that of the Viscount Hereford which has remained in the Devereux family since 1550.
Viscounts hold a viscountcy and the female equivalent is a Viscountess. The title of Viscount can be territorial or taken from a family name, but whichever is the case the preposition 'of' is never used ; hence it is the Viscount Hereford, not the 'Viscount of Hereford'. Except in Scotland, where Viscounts were invariably the Viscount of somewhere, as in the Viscount of Arbuthnott.
Baron is the lowest rank of the peerage and was introduced into England by the Normans when all those who held land as direct feudatories of the king where known generally as barons. Such barons became obligated to attend the curia regis from which later parliament and in particular the House of Lords developed.
Although technically speaking all peers are lords, Barons are often referred to simply as 'Lords', so that historical references may equally be made to the Lord Percy or the Baron Percy. Most modern holders of the title seem to prefer to be known as Lord, particularly if they are a Life Peer.
Barons hold a barony, and the female equivalent is a Baroness. Women who hold the title of Baron in their own right such as Margaret Thatcher often prefer to be styled as 'Baroness Thatcher' in preference to 'Lady Thatcher' as this distinguishes them from the wives of Barons and suchlike who are also entitled to style themselves as Lady.
The title of Baron and Baroness is sometimes territorial and sometimes taken from the family name, and sometimes from other sources entirely. It is also worth noting that the rank of baron does not exist in the Peerage of Scotland, the Scottish equivalent is in fact a Lord of Parliament. There are Scottish barons, but they hold a barony in land and are not, and never have been, peers.
- British Titles of Nobility
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for PEERAGE See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)