Chapter Four: Privilege and Precedence

Introduction

Ancient Privilege

Privilege Enforced



Introduction

Often the mists veil occasions which, to protect the sensitivities of modern youth, might best be left hidden. The publication of John Debrett's Peerage in 1823 ( "~ The Fifteenth Edition, Considerably Improved ~" ) is perhaps one such. Its dedication to The King's Most Excellent Majesty may be worth reading twice, for the full nauseous horror is difficult to appreciate first time round. Of the illustrious recipient of this dedication another commentator, an accomplished and widely respected writer on royal history, more recently and in less sycophantic mood, said:

George IV was undoubtedly the most unpopular British Monarch of recent centuries. His extravagance, his private life, his selfishness and petulance, his cruel treatment of his daughter, the scandal of his attempt to bring a case against his Queen in Parliament on the grounds of her alleged infidelities, all caused him to be attacked and lampooned by every section of British society.

It is true, of course, that he was intellectually brilliant, a discriminating aesthete, an accomplished wit and, in the modern sense of stylish charisma attributed to the bulkier, gaudier thespians, a great actor: but this all seemed to accord more with the traditions of ancient Rome than with the aspirations of his people.

John Debrett died on the 15th November 1822, six weeks before his distinguished Patron could be presented with his personal copy.


Sire,
To your Majesty, the sacred fountain of honour, and the protector of the purity and splendor of hereditary legislature, that great hope and security of the realm, belongs the patronage of a work designed to record the families of those eminent persons whom your Majesty, and your illustrious predecessors, have deigned to ennoble; but when the editor of these sheets reflects on the degree of merit which might properly presume to claim any share of such patronage, and on his own insufficiency, he trembles at the boldness which impelled him to entreat your Majesty's gracious permission to lay his labours at your feet; your Majesty's beneficence in granting his suit has produced in his mind that mixture of pleasing and painful sentiment which attend on all human actions. It has increased his doubts, and weakened his hopes; but it has amended his mind by the warmest gratitude.

As the celebration, however, of the wonders of nature invigorates religious feelings, so are the principles of loyalty strengthened and confirmed by the commemoration of benign and worthy acts of royal prerogative: of these stand the high faculty of creating Peers: and as, next to the fear of God, it is enjoined of the meanest, as well as to the mightiest, to honor the King, the editor humbly prays leave to offer in apology for his presumption, this, the only token of a profound duty, which he is able to furnish; to join to those of all the wise, and all the good, of these realms, his most fervent prayer, that your Majesty may long reign over a people worthy and sensible of their happiness under your mild and paternal sway; and to subscribe himself, with the most perfect veneration,

Sire,
Your Majesty's most humble,
most faithful,
and most devoted
Subject and Servant,
John Debrett
29th January 1822



Ancient Privilege

Lest any of his higher ranking readers forget their birthright, John Debrett thoughtfully included:

The Privileges of the Peers of the United Kingdom
of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The nobility of England enjoy many great privileges, the principal of which are as follows: That they are free from all arrest for debts, as being the king's hereditary counsellors. Therefore a peer cannot be outlawed in any civil action, and no attachment lies against his person. This privilege extended also to their domestic servants, as well as to those of members of the lower house, till the year 1770, when their lordships most honorably joined the house of commons in a bill for abolishing it; an occasion on which the truly wise and liberal arguments, and the enchanting eloquence of the celebrated William Murray, earl of Mansfield, stand recorded to his immortal honour. For the same reason they are free from attending courts leet, or sheriffs' turns; or, in cases of riot, from attending the posse comitatus.

In criminal causes, they are only tried by their peers, who give their verdict, not upon oath, as other juries, but only upon their honour; and then a court is erected on purpose in the middle of Westminster Hall, at the king's charge, which is pulled down when their trials are over.

To secure the honour of, and prevent the spreading of any scandal upon peers, or any great officer of the realm, by reports, there is an express law, called scandalum magnatum, by which any man convicted of making a scandalous report against a peer of the realm (though true) is condemned to an arbitrary ?ne, and to remain in custody till the same be paid.

Upon any great trial in a court of justice, a peer may come into the court, and sit there covered.

No peer can be covered in the royal presence without permission for that purpose, except the lord baron of Kingsale, of his Majesty's kingdom of Ireland. In case of the poll-tax, the peers bear the greater share of the burden, they being taxed every one according to his degree.


Today, 175 years later, some of these privileges have been abolished. The right in cases of treason and felony to be tried "by their peers only" ended with the Criminal Justice Act of 1948, and the immunity from arrest in civil cases is effective only during the period of forty days before and after a meeting of Parliament (although still under Common Law "the person of a peer is forever sacred and inviolable"). Peers continue to be exempt from jury service.

But for editors of society columns in popular newspapers, such privileges as wearing a hat in the presence of the king were always the most important ~ quite irresistible and, it would seem, wholly believable. Constant repetition gave these tales an apparently unimpeachable authority, and when they were fed back into the quasi-official myth-making machines, the Peerages of Debrett and Burke and Lodge, their origins faded and blended into the mists of antiquity.

The Kingsale hat, described in Chapter Three, is an instructive example.



Privilege Enforced

But, of course, in the light of the current concern for the individual's right to privacy, and concurrent concern with the continued freedom of the press, "the express law, called scandalum magnatum" and the manner of its enforcement may be today of greater interest than headgear.

All down our long march, man's political aim has been to balance order with liberty. The one so easily destroys the other. Edmund Burke recognised their inseparability:

The only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.

. . . . . . at a time when scandalum magnatum could ensure the following two despatches from London would be reproduced in The Scots Magazine without any comment whatsoever.

Our editors today may rejoice at their freedoms.

London, March 15, 1771

Yesterday the printer of a morning paper surrendered himself to Robert Quarme, Esq., Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod. A warrant of apprehension had been issued against him from the house of Peers ever since Tuesday last. When brought to the bar of the House, the printer informed the Lords present that the obnoxious paragraph got into his paper accidentally and without his having ever seen it previous to its appearance. After having explained the unavoidable hurry attending the conduct of a daily paper, he threw himself entirely on the mercy of the House. A short debate ensued; when they ordered him to pay a fine to the King of £100 and be imprisoned in Newgate one month.

London, March 21, 1771

The printer of the Morning Chronicle had a petition presented yesterday to the Lords, praying a discharge from his confinement in Newgate on account of the situation of that prison, the rooms in the press-yard being lately pulled down, and there now remaining no other choice for a state prisoner but to be put among the felons, or on the debtors' side, which is at present much crowded with prisoners. Lord Lyttelton did him the honour to present his petition; which their Lordships ordered to be read; and having heard it; with a humanity peculiar to the truly noble, their Lordships were pleased to give an order for his immediate enlargement.


Lord Lyttelton, whose advocacy activated that "humanity peculiar to the truly noble" and procured the unhappy printer's release, was not just an eccentric backwoods peer. He had been the friend of Pitt the Elder at Eton, had served the Prince of Wales as his Principal Secretary, and was for twenty years a Trustee of the British Museum.

Of rather more significance in the assessment of his political clout is that he had held the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it is in this respect that the opinions of him held by his contemporaries have a quite exceptional interest, particularly to those who have studied the virtues of more recent Chancellors.

He had "sense and uncommon learning for a peer. His ignorance of mankind, want of judgement, with strange absence and awkwardness, involved him in mistakes and drew him into many political errors." (according to Horace Walpole)

His face was "so ugly, his person so ill-made, and his carriage so awkward, that every feature was a blemish, every limb an incumbrance, and every motion a disgrace." (according to Lord Hervey)

He was "an enthusiast both in religion and politics, absent in business, not ready in debate, and totally ignorant of the world. On the other hand his studied orations are excellent; he was a man of parts, a scholar, no indifferent writer, and by far the honestest man of the whole society [i.e. of the supporters of Pitt the Elder]." (according to Lord Waldegrave)

And "though made Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was unqualified for that office, being so deficient in knowledge of figures that he often made a jumble in his reports to the House, mistaking half-pence for guineas." (according to Joseph Farington, in his Diary)

In conclusion: he was "a fine poet, a good scholar, a dull historian, an amiable man, but a miserable politician." (according to the Marquess of Lansdowne)



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In later years the attention of the "Peerage people" was sought increasingly by the booming antique markets for a dual purpose. First was the capture of the older families who were forced by death duties to sell their heirlooms. Second was the capture of those newer families that could be encouraged to develop a need to acquire heirlooms.

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Chapter V ~ Seers and Witchcraft

Mists of Antiquity: Introduction

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