PeerageThe peerage is a system of titles of honour unique to Britain, and is one part of the British honours system. Peers were, historically, title holders entitled to be summoned to the House of Lords. The families of title-holders are not peers (though the wives of peers are traditionally known as peeresses). This is a fundamental distinction from the Continental system of titles, where families rather than individuals are ennobled (see nobleman), and where more than one person can hold the same title simultaneously.
The titles within the peerage are, in ascending order of rank, baron (baroness for women), viscount (viscountess), earl (countess), marquess (marchioness), and duke (duchess). The particular titles take the form of "Rank Name" or "Rank (of) Name". All dukes, most marquesses, most earls, and a few viscounts use "of" while the others do not. While at one time it was true that a peer with an associated place name actually administered that place, this has largely not been true since the Middle Ages, and the associated place is not necessarily even ruled by the United Kingdom. For example, the only duke in the British Isles who has an associated duchy is the Duke of Cornwall. The mode of inheritance of a peerage, except in the case of life peerages, title is determined by the method of its creation. The most common means is through succession by heirs male of the first title holder, but some peerages, including many Scottish ones, allow passage through the female line. A peer can hold several different titles simultaneously. If a peer holds two titles of different ranks, then the higher title is used when addressing him.
There are several distinct groupings of peerages within Britain: the peerage of England pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of England prior to the Act of Union in 1707. The peerage of Scotland, similarly, pertains to all titles created by the Kings and Queens of Scotland before 1707. The Peerage of Ireland includes titles created for the Kingdom of Ireland before 1801, while the peerage of Great Britain pertains to titles created for the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801. Finally, the peerage of the United Kingdom pertains to all titles created since 1801.
In terms of precedence, all Dukes rank before all Marquesses, and so forth. Within each rank, the order of precedence is: Peerage of England (by seniority of title), Peerage of Scotland (by seniority of title), Peerage of Great Britain (by seniority of title), Peerage of Ireland (by seniority of title), Peerage of the United Kingdom (by seniority of title). Of these, all were entitled to sit in the House of Lords except for the peers of Ireland, who before 1922 elected some of their number to go to the Lords.
The children of peers are given courtesy titles. The eldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl is called by the highest of his father's subsidiary titles. For instance, the eldest son of the Duke of Wellington is styled Marquess of Douro, although this title is actually held by his father. If more than one subsidiary title is held, the eldest son's son can also use a courtesy title. For instance, Lord Douro's eldest son is called Earl of Mornington. Other children of peers also receive courtesy titles. The younger sons of dukes and marquesses (or courtesy marquesses) are called "Lord Forename Surname", while the daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls (or courtesy marquesses and early) are styled "Lady Forename Surname". Younger sons of earls, and all children of viscounts and barons bear "the Honourable" before their name.
In conversation, Dukes and Duchesses are referred to as "the Duke/Duchess of N", while those bearing other titles are usually called "Lord/Lady N".
In 1963 the law was changed by the Peerage Act to permit hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for life. This was notably used by a number of peers who wished to become members of the British House of Commons, including Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn), the Earl of Home (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) and Viscount Hailsham (Quintin Hogg). The latter two later returned to the Lords as life peers. The heir to a disclaimed peerage is entitled to inherit it on the death of the person who disclaimed it. Because Ireland had ceased to be a part of the United Kingdom in 1922, Irish peerages were not included in the law, and thus cannot be disclaimed.
In recent years, almost all peerage creations have been life peerages. Life peers (always barons or baronesses) are treated in every way like an ordinary peer, save that they cannot pass on their title to their heirs. In 1999 the House of Lords was reformed, so as to remove most of the hereditary peers. Since then, it has been composed of the life peers, the holders of particular hereditary offices of state (the Earl Marshal and the Lord Chamberlain), and about 90 hereditary peers elected by their colleagues to temporarily continue in office.
Not all British titles are peerage titles: knights and baronets are not by virtue of those titles peers, nor are princes or princesses (unless they have also been granted a peerage title, as royal princes usually are).
A British title becomes extinct when all possible heirs (the descendants of the original holder) have died out. A title becomes dormant if it is unknown who the current holder, if any, should be. A title comes into abeyance if there is more than one person equally qualified to be the holder, as in certain older English peerages where older and younger daughters are equally qualified to succeed in the absence of a male heir. The Dukedoms of Cumberland and Albany have been suspended since 1919 due to their holders' service in the German army during the First World War. In the past, peerages were sometimes forfeit due to the treason of their holder. A title held by someone who becomes monarch is said to merge in the crown: the title ceases to exist until regranted, for the king or queen cannot be a peer, which connotes equality, rather than superiority, to the other peers. The Dukedom of Cornwall is a special case, which when not in use is said to lapse to the crown: it is construed as existing, but held by no one, in such periods. It is also special in that it is not directly inherited; it always belongs to the eldest son of the monarch as heir apparent. The heir apparent uses the title of Duke of Cornwall until he is created Prince of Wales, which occurs after the Prince has become an adult.