The Origins of the Peerage

A Preliminary Explanation

While this essay is being completed, readers might find the following useful. It is an edited version of an answer to a researcher's query given in CompuServe's Genealogical Forum.

A PEERAGE IS A BODY OF PEERS. Five peerages are generally recognised as having originated in the British Isles, and in the descending order of seniority accorded them by various Acts of Parliament they are the Peerages of England, of Scotland, of Great Britain, of Ireland and of the United Kingdom. Most historians recognise another peerage to which the ancient Scottish mormaers (or earls) belonged (usually seven of the following nine: Angus, Atholl, Buchan, Caithness, Dunbar, Fife, Mar, Moray, Stratherne), and on the continent there were the prototype Carolingian peerage of the early ninth century, and the powerful peerages of Flanders and of France.

In the British Isles, after the ancient Scottish peerage had been absorbed into the Peerage of Scotland, all those who held hereditary titles of the dignity of Baron or above were peers (but note that in the Peerage of Scotland the dignity of Baron remained a feudal dignity, and the equivalent of the English "Baron" was "Lord of Parliament"). It's worth noting also that being a peer in England did not necessarily give the right to a seat in the House of Lords. Another anomaly perhaps worth remembering, to avoid some possible future confusion of identity, is that in Scotland before the Union with England the eldest son of a peer was himself a peer in right of his father. And yet another anomaly that should be noted by those researching ancient documents is that many who were certainly never considered as peers in mediaeval England were retrospectively accorded the status of peers by a series of bizarre decisions of the House of Lords in the 19th century, and thus rank as peers today (and are described as such in the peerage directories published by Debrett's and Burke's).

In Flanders and France the peers were rather more exclusive. In Flanders the membership of the Peerage (founded in 1067) was restricted to twelve chosen from the nobility (some ranking as counts, the remainder as lords), and the first were from the families of Alost, which provided two, Aubigny, Bethune, Boelare, Dendemonde, Eine, Mortagne, Oudenarde, Pamele, Petegem and Phalempin. In France, where the Peerage (again with only twelve members, but this time divided equally between the laity and the church) was founded in 1179 (at the coronation of Philip Augustus), the first peers were the Dukes of Burgundy, of Normandy (then the King of England), and of Guyenne (then the English King's brother), the Counts of Champagne, of Flanders, and of Alsace, the Archbishop Duke of Reims, the Bishop Dukes of Laon and of Langres, and the Bishop Counts of Beauvais, of Chalons and of Noyon.

Some historians will argue, with some justification, that the French had a peerage earlier than 1179, as the Scots did, and that it consisted of those nobles who were the peers (equals) of the King in their territorial holdings. In fact, the royal lands were then restricted to the area between the Seine, Marne and Oise, their principal cities being only Reims and Laon, while the peers (the equivalent to the ancient Scottish mormaers but ranking in the French manner as dukes and counts) held France (a large central region based on Paris), Burgundy, Normandy, Aquitaine, Toulouse, Flanders and Vermandois (which later included Champagne)

The second meaning accorded to "peerage" is what is more accurately described as a "peerage directory". By far the best of these (in the sense that a Boeing 747 might be preferred to a Model T Ford) is "The Complete Peerage" known usually by its founder's initials GEC. A hundred years ago there were many (Dod, Collins, Burke's, Debrett's are perhaps the most commonly remembered), and of these only Debrett's survives in print. Debrett's is of very limited use to the genealogist, for it was designed to be used by those seeking the relationships among living people, and ancestral details are very sparse compared with those in Burke's. Unfortunately, the details in Burke's in the 19th century editions were full of errors and many of the family histories included and gave spurious authority to ridiculous legends. Not all had been removed when the last edition was published in 1970.

The third meaning accorded to "peerage" today is that of a peerage title (more properly a peerage dignity). Earlier writers would comment on "promotion to the peerage" or "elevation to the peerage", but sloppy journalese has changed this to "been given a peerage" (as if one could be handed a dozen dukes and counts as a birthday honour).

So, here is a plea for precision, the cardinal virtue of genealogical researchers. A peerage is a body of peers. At other times we should refer to "peerage directories" and "peerage dignities" (or peerage honours or peerage titles).

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