Feudal Titles

The Chapeau: Feudal Symbol of Baronial Rank

THE STATUS OF FEUDAL TITLES is widely misunderstood, for the greater part because throughout the last thousand years the meanings of the terms associated with them have been almost as inconsistent as mediaeval spelling. Many commonly believed to be exact were in fact used for all purposes which at that time seemed convenient and, as with the similarly undisciplined orthography, with no thought to the problems created for scholars and lawyers in later centuries. In consequence, terms which need particular care in their interpretation are: barony, lordship, manor, honour and nobility. That care should be exercised in the knowledge that although the feudal system was to be found throughout Western Europe from the beginning of the second millenium, its operation did differ from region to region, those differences led to nuances of meaning in the application of various terms, and the use of Latin as the sole international language tended to remove in translation some of the meaning (the broad use of dominus being a prime example). With the passage of time there was some tendency towards greater precision, but this could be reversed, as happened with the application of the term "baron" within Scotland.

The title of Baron is the most widely recognised and yet least understood of all titles. Men who justify the use of the word "baron" as a description exist today in all structured societies - in the old German nobility, as Tuans in Malaysia, as leaders of trade unions in Great Britain or as newspaper owners in Australia - for the word carries the general meaning of a powerful man. This has been true since its introduction into the British Isles in the eleventh century, but there are also more specific meanings for the word "baron" - and these can confuse.

In classical Latin baro means dunce or fool. In Low Latin baro means slave or servant - but servants in the houses of the greater nobles of the eleventh century tended to be young men from noble families. As the feudal system became entrenched in Europe, integrating its three essential components (the concepts of land ownership, of hereditary rights and of service), a "baron" became a "man" (as in the popular play of the 'thirties "My Man Godfrey"; "My man Jeeves" as Bertie Wooster of the P.G. Wodehouse books might say), one on whom a superior relied - he was the superior's man and had taken the oath of fealty.

The feudal system allowed the baron to hold land as a tenant-in-chief of his "prince". This is another word with a wide range of meanings, but here it is used to denote a ruler who holds his lands of no one. He need not be a king; he could be a bishop; the essence is that he is sovereign in his principality. In the early feudal times this was extended to allow the king's barons, his tenants-in-chief, to have their own barons through a process of subinfeudation, but the continuation of this practice was restricted in England when King Edward I recognised the danger it represented to his centralised power and fiscal efficiency. In Scotland, where the geophysical factors and harsh winters created different political problems, it continued for longer.

In England the kings ruled in council, first summoning some of the greater barons (i.e. the more powerful barons) to attend and advise them, and then, while retaining the Privy Council, extending the principle to bring to their Parliament larger numbers of barons, together with the representatives of the church and the boroughs and the Knights of the Shires. The concept of peerage did not develop immediately, and its subsequent evolution was haphazard and irrational. (As Vicary Gibbs observed when Editor of The Complete Peerage, "it is impossible to reconcile the facts of history with the Law of Peerage" and even Parliament itself has never been defined by the Committee for Privileges, the body responsible for the organisation of the British Peerage in Parliament.) Those barons who first attended the Norman kings in council came as territorial magnates holding their lands of the king in accordance with a loosely hereditary system, but if the barony, which was the lands, passed to another, the rank of baron and the privileges dependent on it passed also. Such barons were Barons by Tenure.

After the concept of the Peerage had taken root in England, it was argued that those feudal barons, Barons by Tenure, who had been summoned to the early Parliaments were ipso facto peers, Barons by Writ. (It is most unlikely that the king who summoned them believed he was thus creating peers, or that those summoned suspected that posterity, through the future Committee for Privileges, would retrospectively award them such promotion.) Later, kings created new peers of landless men they considered would make valuable contributions to their government, and these became Barons by Patent. Subsequently, Letters Patent became the usual way to create new peers or to promote existing ones.

In Scotland, in the early days, it was quite impossible to distinguish clearly between Barons who were the equivalent of peers and those who were simply Barons by Tenure. Until the statute of 1428, which recognised the burden carried by those poorer Barons with the smaller estates, all were expected to attend Parliament, but thereafter they were classified either as Greater Barons, the "Lords of Parliament," or as Lesser Barons, who could, but need not, attend Parliament. (The Scots Parliament assembled in a single chamber, and consisted of the Prelates, the Barons and the Burgesses - the Earls sitting as Barons, i.e. as those holding their lands in baroniam.) But despite the importance of land and the significance of the barony, a Baron in Scotland did not necessarily hold a territorial barony. Feudal Law gives the title of Baron to all those who hold the absolute jurisdiction which is carried by the grant of furca et fossa - the power to hang men, and to drown women, found guilty of capital offences by a baronial court.

(To understand the relationship between Barons, Lords and Earls in the feudal system it should be remembered that the rank came from the lands held: Barons held baronies, Lords the lordships, and Earls the earldoms. As has been implied already, lordships and earldoms are lands held in baroniam, and thus lordships are baronies of a higher rank, and earldoms are baronies of an even higher rank. Lordships were created by uniting and integrating an existing barony with another barony or with some other feudal title, and earldoms could be created similarly, perhaps by uniting lordships. Many of the Scottish earldoms of the middle ages actually predated the introduction of feudal law into Scotland, but were absorbed into the system in a manner similar to the absorption of the clan structure into the feudal society.)

Thus the term "baron" started with a broad meaning, and in Scotland the Act of 1428 helped to make it a little more precise, but the subsequent slow decline of the law-enforcing powers of the Barons, which powers were almost wholly terminated by the Abolition of Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1747, so reduced the importance of the baronies that the term "baron" became a synonym for freeholder. This can be seen in various Acts on Parliamentary representation, where the term is used to designate both county freeholders who had the franchise, and those who represented the shires in Parliament. The present century has seen another change in Scotland. The influence of the modern Peerage and its use of Baron as a rank equivalent to a Scottish Lord of Parliament, together with the survival of the Scottish feudal Baronage as a recognised body and the diminished use of the unqualified term "baron" as a description of anything other than a feudal baron, has enhanced its prestige. This development has been assisted by the activities of the Convention of the Scottish Baronage and by the Lord Lyon's continued use of the chapeau as armorial recognition of a feudal Baron's rank.

In brief: a feudal title is a territorial dignity which passes with the ownership of the lands to which it is attached; a peerage title is a personal dignity which will pass, if it is not a life peerage, according to the "remainder" or "destination" specified at the time of its creation. But despite this clear distinction there are titles whose classification may be obscure or contentious - for example, the Barony of Renfrew, before it was settled in 1469 by Act of Parliament on the firstborn Princes of the Kings of Scotland forever (it is now held by the Prince of Wales), was a feudal territorial dignity, not personal, not a peerage title, but some scholars hold that the Act of 1469 elevated it to peerage rank, others hold that it became a peerage title with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, while others hold that owing to the uncertainty about the meaning of the 1469 text, the title is still territorial. Renfrew serves to justify, to some extent, the warning that in the study of feudal titles, great care is always needed.


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