A Pocket Guide to the Peerage

This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Victorian Studies Association of Ontario (VSAO), Issue 41 (Spring 1988), pp 13-16. The author retains the copyright. Permission has been granted to redistribute freely with this acknowledgement. As will be apparent, it was written before Google made many research skills redundant.

When Lord Peter Wimsey at last marries Harriet, why is it that she becomes Lady Peter Wimsey rather than Lady Harriet? And why, on the other hand, does his sister Lady Mary Wimsey eventually face the world as part of the team "Mr Charles and Lady Mary Parker"? Most Victorian scholars have from time to time been confronted with such intricacies of the English peerage, and many will have mastered them to their own satisfaction. In the belief, however, that in our classless society there must be some young researchers as green as I once was, I offer the following brief guide. This knowledge may prove useful even if there is no occasion to address a Duke ("Your Grace") or send a letter to a Marquis ("The Most Hon. The Marquis of"). It is often of material help in research, and, perhaps more important, it allows us to enjoy to the full various refinements in the Victorian novel and in real life that would otherwise be lost on us.

There are five classes, or degrees, in the peerage: in descending order, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons. These are the peers who take their place in the House of Lords, providing they have reached the age of 21 and are not felons or (until recently) women1. Beneath them is the class of hereditary baronets — of the style of "Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram" — who do not sit in the House of Lords, but as gentlemen are either the backbone of the country, or an idle fox-hunting rabble, depending on one's point of view. Beneath these again are the knights — Sir John Falstaff was one — whose title is not inherited by their sons.

Nomenclature among the peers is very precise. Ducal couples are always "the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham," or whatever their territorial designation may be, as are "the Marquis (or Marquess) and Marchioness of So-and-So"; this reflects the feudal origin of the peerage. Earls (whose wives are Countesses) may be Earl of a place or, if this was specified when the title was conferred, Earl plus their family name (Earl Grey for Charles Grey). Viscounts and Barons are not entitled to the "of" (except in the Scottish Peerage), but may take the style "Viscount Palmerston" (his family name was Temple) or "Baron Rothschild" (where Rothschild is the family name). All except dukes may be called "Lord So-and-So" in place of their full title; in fact, barons are almost always known as Lord, Lord Byron being a good example.

High-ranking families dear to their monarch generally have two or more titles; in fact, the Duke of Atholl accumulated nineteen as his family rose through the peerage. All these titles belong by right to the head of the family, but it is customary to bestow one of them on the heir as a "courtesy title". Thus Lord Althorp (John Charles Spencer, eldest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer) was not a peer, but had the courtesy title of Viscount Althorp, and sat in the Commons by virtue of having been elected, like any commoner. He entered the peerage as Earl Spencer in 1834 when his father died, was elevated to the House of Lords, and left the reform ministry rudderless. In fact the House of Commons was so liberally sprinkled with the sons of peers — Lord Stanley, Lord Durham, Lord Grey, Lord John Russell (obviously, by his style, a younger son) — that it was no wonder the early Victorian radicals claimed that the House of Commons was dominated by about 200 great families. Certainly it would be false to see the two Houses as respectively representing nobles and commoners.2

Should the family be possessed of a third title, it is used to dignify the eldest son of the eldest son, not the eldest son’s brothers. Other sons and daughters of peers have specified titles. All daughters of dukes, marquises, and earls are of the style "Lady Barbara Smith," that is, their first name plus their family surname, and younger sons of dukes and marquises are similarly "Lord Henry Wentworth." Younger sons of earls, however, and all sons and daughters of viscounts and barons, have the style "The Honourable Thomas Collins." Children of these cadet branches have no title at all. Obviously, it is a grave mistake to use the first name of any peer or courtesy peer after the title, as in "Lord Noel Annan"; this is to mix him up with a younger son. If his first name needs to be mentioned, it is in the form "Alfred, Lord Tennyson."

It will come as no surprise to hear that women may take the rank of their husbands, but not men of their wives. The rules governing marriages of peers’ daughters are too perplexing for an amateur to master entirely, but it seems safe to say that a Lady Anne Murray (daughter of an earl), having successfully secured the affections of a Lord Edward Sandwich (younger son of a duke), will ascend to her husband's rank and take his title as Lady Edward Sandwich. If she condescends to a mere Hon. George Cracker, however (younger son of a baron), she will retain her own title and become Lady Anne Cracker. If she marries a peer of any rank rather than the holder of a courtesy title, she of course takes the feminine form of his title; had she preferred Edward's older brother, she might in time have become the Duchess of Salton.

The general law for the inheritance of a peerage is of course that of primogeniture, whereby the title passes from father to eldest son. The son who is in the direct line of succession is the "heir apparent". If there are no sons3, the title will go to a brother of the holder, who is known as the "heir presumptive", a slightly less secure position; hence the apprehension, in Victorian novels such as Beauchamp's Career, with which relatives view a childless peer's late marriage with a young wife. If the deceased peer has no brothers either, the title passes to a descendant of his father's brother. It may be necessary to climb up the family tree for generations before finding an ancestor common to the peer who has died and some living sprig; if the common ancestor lived before the family gained one of its titles, the collateral heir will not inherit that title, but simply those possessed by his own ancestor. Some ancient baronies may be inherited by females in default of heirs male, and in this case a lady would be a baroness "in her own right". In yet other peerages, the Letters Patent that grant the peerage specify an unusual succession by "special remainder" — for instance to the holder's brother, sons of his second wife, or his daughter, who become heirs "at law". In a complete default of heirs, the title may be declared extinct; but if the College of Arms has any reason to believe that an undiscovered heir may yet turn up, it cautiously declares the title "dormant". The vicar in Tess of the D'Urbervilles was not being fanciful in suggesting that Tess might be the descendant of a noble family, as the possibility of a name's being corrupted over time is a real one.

Be sure, however, to distinguish a dormant peerage from one in abeyance. The latter occurs only in a peerage that females are allowed to inherit. Primogeniture, it seems, is a strictly male phenomenon. If only sisters are in the line of succession, they are deemed exactly equal (except in the special case of succession to the throne), and so none can inherit the title, and it falls into abeyance along them until all rival claimants but one are dead. The Barony of Strabolgi probably holds the record, having been almost constantly in abeyance from 1369 to 1916, when Cuthbert Matthias Kenworthy became the 7th Baron.

I will mention two occasions in my own research when a knowledge of the peerage was useful. Actually the first might be said to illustrate the notion that a little learning is a dangerous thing, but it has a happy ending. The problem arose with a passage in which John Stuart Mill, on a tour of the Lake District in 1831, mentions having visited "the woods of Lord, or rather Lady William Gordon," now a widow. Common biographical dictionaries did not mention the couple, and neither did local histories; Burke’s Peerage was the last resort. The style "Lord William Gordon" tells us that we are looking for a younger son of a duke or marquis whose family name was Gordon. It was not too difficult to find a William, second son of Cosmo-George Gordon, third duke of Gordon, who had married Frances, daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine. She, however, proved elusive at first, as her dates were not given. Eventually I looked in the indexes for every volume of The Gentleman's Magazine for an obituary of a Gordon, Lady F., in the likely years. I had wasted a good deal of time before I realized that I was looking for the wrong thing; as a viscount's daughter married to the son of a duke, her title really was Lady William Gordon as Mill had said. It was not too long before a full obituary of a Gordon, Lady W., turned up; she was a benevolent soul, who deserved to be remembered, as she left £1,000. to be distributed amongst the poor at her funeral.

The other piece of research that proved to hinge on the peerage occurred when John Stuart Mill (usually my starting-point) in 1866 mentioned English tourists in Spain, "one of whom, Mr. Erskine Murray, devoted to it no small portion of his well-known book." This book may have been well known then, but both it and its author were hard to track down now. Eventually I located A Summer in the Pyrenees by James Erskine Murray (1837), but I could not find any trace of the author in the biographical dictionaries, in the Wellesley Index, in Allibone’s Dictionary of Authors, the peerage, the alumni of Oxford and Cambridge, the boys of Eton, and so on. A cost-efficient researcher would perhaps have stopped there, but this was becoming a challenge. The breakthrough came when I realized that there was in fact a clue in the NUC listing, "by the Hon. James Erskine Murray." Since he had not shown up in parliamentary or judicial sources, he must be in the peerage somewhere. In fact he must be the younger son of an earl, viscount, or baron. I went back to the peerages, checking once again the Murray families, which included the Dukes and Marquises of Atholl, the Earls of Tullibardine, the Earls of Dunmore and Annandale, and, in the Scottish peerage, the Viscounts of Stormont and Barons of Elibank. None had a likely son. But Burke's Peerage treats only families with living descendants; Cockayne’s Peerage, while dealing with extinct families, concentrates on the peers themselves, not always mentioning brothers. Only when the stacks of the Robarts Library yielded a Burke’s Peerage of 1893 was it possible to find, under the Barony of Elibank in the Scottish peerage, an Alexander Murray whose second marriage had produced a son, James, who had married Isabella, only child of James Erskine Esq., and died in February 1844. With this death-date, I hurried to The Times' index to find an obituary. And here was unexpected wealth (every researcher deserves some).The Times not only mentioned that Murray had adopted his wife's name on his marriage, but also gave a detailed account of his gallant expedition against the pirates of Borneo, his death from a grapeshot wound, and his burial amid great lamentations.

Now for those who know the period very well, and to whom Erskine Murray may be a household name, it will perhaps seem that I took a slow boat to Borneo to get this information. Nevertheless, had I not known something of the peerage, I should still be in port. Research too often follows this pattern: for a long time one finds nothing, but suddenly a single fact becomes a key to a whole wealth of information. The style of a peer's name may often hold such a clue. If the rules do not seem to apply to a particular case, it may be an exception based on family usage, or the Crown may have granted a special exemption, or I may have misinformed you. As Dorothy Sayers found out when she dipped into campanology, it's easy for an amateur to blunder. But at least she knew that in important matters like the peerage, it is not enough to go where your Wimsey takes you.


1 The House of Lords in Victorian times included 26 prelates, 16 representative Scottish peers elected from the Scottish peerage of before the union, and 28 similarly representative Irish peers. High judicial officers were generally made hereditary peers, if necessary, so that they could be one of the "law lords."

2 Palmerston was actually a peer, but was allowed to sit in the Commons because he was an Irish peer representing an English constituency. The rules governing the Irish and Scottish peerage have several peculiarities.

3 As the peerage puts it, the peer d. s.p.m.s., or died sine prole mascula supersite (without surviving masculine offspring).