The Peerage is a system of titles of nobility in the United Kingdom, part of the British honours system. The term is used both collectively to refer to the entire body of titles, and individually to refer to a specific title.
All British honours, including peerage dignities, spring from the Sovereign, who is considered the fount of honour. The Sovereign, as "the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself" (opinion of the House of Lords in the Buckhurst Peerage Case), cannot belong to the Peerage. If an individual is neither the Sovereign nor a peer, he or she is a commoner. Members of a peer's family who are not themselves peers (including such members of the Royal Family) are also commoners; the British system thus differs fundamentally from continental European ones, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled.
The various titles are in the form of (Rank) (Name of Title) or (Rank) of (Name of Title). The name of the title can either be a place name or a surname. The precise usage depends on the rank of the peerage and on certain other general considerations. Dukes always use of. Marquesses and Earls whose titles are based on place names normally use of, while those whose titles are based on surnames normally do not. Viscounts, Barons and Lords of Parliament do not use of. However, there are several exceptions to the rule. For instance, Scottish vicecomital titles theoretically include of, though in practice it is usually dropped. (Thus, the "Viscount of Falkland" is commonly known as the "Viscount Falkland".) Of is normally not used when the place in question is outside British territory, as using of might imply that the nation has sovereignty over such a place. For instance, the title Marquess Douro is based on the River Douro in Portugal, over which the British monarch has neither sovereignty nor suzerainty.
A territorial designation is often added to the main peerage title, especially in the case of Barons and Viscounts: for instance, Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire or Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, of Hindhead in the County of Surrey. Any designation after the comma does not form a part of the main title. Territorial designations in titles are not updated with local government reforms, but new creations do take them into account. Thus there is a Baron Knollys, of Caversham in the County of Oxford (created in 1902), and a Baroness Pitkeathley, of Caversham in the Royal County of Berkshire (created in 1997).
It was once the case that a peer administered the place associated with his title, but this has not been true since the Middle Ages. The only remaining peerages with associated lands controlled by the holder are the Duchy of Cornwall, which is associated with the Dukedom of Cornwall, held by the eldest son and heir to the Sovereign, and the Duchy of Lancaster, which is associated with the Dukedom of Lancaster, held by the Sovereign.
Once created, a peerage dignity continues to exist as long as there are surviving descendants of the first holder, unless a contrary method of descent is specified in the letters patent. Once the heirs of the original peer die out, the peerage dignity becomes extinct. In former times, peerage dignities were often forfeit by Acts of Parliament, usually when peers were found guilty of treason. Often, however, the felonious peer's descendants successfully petitioned the Sovereign to restore the dignity to the family. Some dignities, such as the Dukedom of Norfolk, have been forfeit and restored several times. Under the Peerage Act 1963 an individual can disclaim his peerage dignity within one year of inheriting it.
When the holder of a peerage succeeds to the throne, the dignity merges in the Crown and ceases to exist.
All hereditary peers in the Peerages of England, Scotland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom were entitled to sit in the House of Lords, subject only to qualifications such as age and citizenship, but under the House of Lords Act 1999 they lost this right. The Act provided that 92 hereditary peers — the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal, 75 hereditary peers elected by other peers, and fifteen chosen by the government — would remain in the House of Lords in the interim, pending any reform of the membership to the House.
From 1707 until 1963 Scottish peers elected 16 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords. Since 1963 they have had the same rights as Peers of the United Kingdom.
From 1801 until 1922 Irish peers elected 28 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords. In 1922 the Irish Free State became a separate country.
Some hereditary titles can pass through and vest in female heirs in a system called coparceny.
Life peers created under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act are known as "Lords of Appeal in Ordinary". They perform the judicial functions of the House of Lords and serve on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. They remain peers for life, but cease to receive judicial salaries at the age of 75. There may be no more than 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary under the age of 75 at one time.
There is no limit on the number of peerages the Sovereign may create under the Life Peerages Act. Normally life peerages are granted to individuals nominated by political parties or by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and to honour important public figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister on their retirement.
Dukes use His Grace, Marquesses use The Most Honourable and other peers use The Right Honourable. Peeresses (whether they hold peerages in their own right or are wives of peers) use equivalent styles.
In speech, any peer or peeress except a Duke or Duchess is referred to as Lord X or Lady X. The exception is a suo jure Baroness (that is, one holding the dignity in her own right, usually a life peeress), who may also be called Baroness X in normal speech, though Lady X is also common usage. Hence, the Baroness Thatcher, a suo jure life peeress, may be referred to as either "Baroness Thatcher" or "Lady Thatcher". "Baroness" is incorrect for female holders of Scottish Lordships of Parliament, who are not Baronesses; for example, the 21st Lady Saltoun is known as "Lady Saltoun", not "Baroness Saltoun".
A peer is referred to by his peerage even if it is the same as his surname, thus the Baron Owen is "Lord Owen" not "Lord David Owen", though such incorrect forms are commonly used.
Some peers, particularly life peers who were well-known before their ennoblement, do not use their peerage titles. Others use a combination: for example, the author John Julius Norwich is John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich.
Individuals who use the style Lord or Lady are not necessarily peers. Children of peers use special titles called courtesy titles. The eldest son of a duke, a marquess, or an earl generally uses his father's highest lesser peerage dignity as his own. Hence, the Duke of Devonshire's son is called Marquess of Hartington. Such an eldest son is called a courtesy peer, but is a commoner until such time as he inherits.
Younger sons of dukes and marquesses prefix Lord to their first names as courtesy titles while daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls use Lady. Younger sons of earls and children of viscounts, barons and lords of Parliament use The Honourable.
Peers enjoy several rights that do not formally form a part of the Privilege of the Peerage. For instance:
The ranks of baron and earl date to feudal, and perhaps Anglo-Saxon, times. The ranks of duke and marquess were introduced in the 14th century, and that of viscount in the 15th century. While life peerages were often created in the early days of the Peerage, their regular creation was not provided for by Act of Parliament until the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876.
In France, the system of pairies (peerage) existed in two different versions: the exclusive 'old' in the French kingdom, in many respects an inspiration for the English/British practice, and the very prolific chambre des pairs of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1848)
In the Holy Roman Empire, instead of an exclusive aristocratic assembly, the imperial Diet, the Reichstag, was the highest organ, membership of which, expressed by the title Reichsfürst, was granted to all major princes, and various minor ones, princes of the church (parallel to the Lords spiritual) and in some cases restricted to a collective 'curiate' vote in a 'bench', such as the Grafenbank.