THE population of England is divided into peers and commoners. There are five hundred and eighty-nine of one class and thirty-five millions of the other. The nobility, however, was at one time even more restricted in numbers. At the close of the Wars of the Roses there were twenty-nine peers left in England, and at the death of Elizabeth, in 1603, there were still only fifty-nine. In the present year of our Lord about six hundred men, with their immediate families, constitute the aristocracy of England.
The orders of nobility are five: Dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons. In every instance the
eldest son succeeds by right of birth to the rank and titles of his father; but all the children of a peer are titled, and their precedence is strictly defined. Nevertheless they are commoners in the eye of the law; their titles are by courtesy only, and in official documents the eldest son of the Duke of Argyll is described as "John Campbell, commonly called the Marquis of Lome." I once heard a very eminent man, himself a member of the aristocracy, deride the notion that the son of an English earl was noble. "That's what they call a nobleman!" said this son and brother and uncle of earls.
The wives of peers are all peeresses, and are styled duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses. There are also several peeresses in their own right, for in certain families, in default of sons, the dignity descends to daughters. Should there be more than one daughter, they are co-heirs and the title remains in abeyance until only one survives. She then becomes a peeress in her own right, and transmits the succession to her eldest son. I knew such a lady, married to a commoner, and he took her family name, so that their son, who would succeed, might inherit the greater name; for no peeress can by marriage confer any rank on an ignoble husband. He remains a commoner, and upon the death of his wife will be a commoner still, though his son becomes a peer. He is not even a dowager. The dignity of Lord Great Chamberlain is hereditary in one of these families, and sometimes descends to females. It was recently in abeyance between two old ladies who together constituted the Lord Great Chamberlain of England. They were, however, allowed to depute one individual to act for both, on certain state occasions when this important functionary attends the Queen.
Scotch and Irish peers, as such, have no admission to the House of Lords, but there are twenty-eight representative Irish peers, elected by their fellows for life, who sit in that assembly, and six-teen Scotch lords, elected for a single Parliament. Very many of the nobility of Scotland and Ireland, however, are also peers of the United Kingdom, and therefore members, in their own right, of the House of Lords. Altogether there are about one hundred and forty peers without seats in the Upper Chamber. In all other respects their rights and privileges are the same as those of other peers of the same degree. Yet their dignity is less regarded. A prominent commoner once sought permission of one of the Georges to ride in a precinct of St. James's Park reserved for the royal family and the court. "No, indeed", said the King; "I will make him an Irish peer, but I won't let him ride in St. James's Park".
Two archbishops and twenty-three bishops have seats in the House of Lords, but their titles are not hereditary, and their wives have neither rank nor precedence. The Archbishop of Canterbury goes before dukes, and next after the royal family, but his wife is plain Mrs. Smith or Jones, and follows every woman who has rank of her own in the kingdom. The spiritual lords can hardly be said to belong to the aristocracy, though you would never suspect it from their bearing. They sit in its chambers and are reckoned in its degrees, but their blood is not ennobled.
Of the present peerage only about two hundred families have been noble for more than a century. At the accession of George III, in 1760, the House of Lords numbered 175 members; all the others have been created since, most of them for services to their party or the Prime Minister of the day. Pitt created fifty peers in five years, and during the seventeen years of his administration he thus rewarded 150 of his followers. That it is the minister who really confers the dignity is shown by the habit of the English writers, who no longer speak of the Queen as creating a peer, but always attribute the act to the Premier. Formerly, of course, this was the sovereign's faculty, but the power of the Crown, in this as in other matters, has passed to its nominal servants. During the twelve years that I spent in England Lord Beaconsfield and Mr. Gladstone together made sixty-one English noblemen. Of these, twenty-seven were promoted from a lower grade; the others had been commoners, and were thus absolute additions to the peerage. A Liberal marquis was made a duke solely because of his immense wealth, and the appointment was universally applauded, while a Conservative commoner found himself suddenly noble in all his veins because he had been Beaconsfield's private secretary.
In some few instances great military or naval achievements have been rewarded with a peerage. Marlborough, Wellington, and Nelson are the famous names that will occur to all, and Strathnairn, Napier, and others in our own day have also fairly earned their rank by success in arms; but these can be counted on the fingers. The real passport to the upper House is the favor of the Prime Minister. Of course this may be won by public services; a great diplomatist or a successful Governor-General is sometimes ennobled, or raised a step in the peerage, but rarely unless he is of the party in power. There are besides what are called "law lords", lawyers who have risen from the middle, or even the lower, class by their ability or learning, and finally reached a seat in the House of Lords; but these must espouse a party, and have little chance of promotion while their antagonists are in possession of the Government. The bishops, too, and even the archbishops, are appointed by the Prime Minister from his own party in politics. The Father in God must be a Tory to be consecrated in Tory times, and a Liberal can succeed the Apostles only when the Liberals hold the reins. Nine-tenths of all the creations of peers in the last hundred years have been as purely for partisan reasons as the nominations of any President of the United States to which the advocates of "civil service reform" have been most violently opposed. And these English appointments are not for a term, nor for good behavior, but for life, and very often during very bad behavior ; not only to executive, but to legislative office; not to one man, but to his descendants as long as the institutions of England endure. "When Pitt had been eight years in power, "Bays an English writer ", he had created between sixty and seventy peers, of whom the greatest part owed their elevation to the Parliamentary support which they had themselves given to the Minister, or to their interest in returning members to the House of Commons. Can we wonder, "he adds, if some of them were unworthy of nobility?" This, however, was better than the action of the sovereigns themselves, when they were in reality, as well as in name, "the fountain of honor". Charles and James II and George I and II all ennobled their mistresses. Most of the Kings have done the same for their illegitimate offspring, while many of the peerages conferred by James I and Charles II were sold.
On the other hand, no artist, no man of science, and, except Tennyson, no man of purely literary eminence, has ever received a coronet in England. Macaulay has sometimes been cited as an instance to the contrary; but had not his great genius been applied to politics, he never would have penetrated the House of Lords. It was the Whig partisan, not the brilliant essayist, not even the partial historian, who was rewarded with a peerage; and he would not have received the dignity had he not been childless and unmarried. For it is not unusual to bestow this prize on an old and unmarried plebeian, when it is probable that the title will become extinct upon his death. Thus the aristocracy is kept exclusive, and if a man of the people finds his way within the sacred purlieus [an outlying or adjacent district], it is so contrived that he shall not transmit his honors to another generation. The distinctions among the aristocracy are numerous and intricate. The eldest son of a nobleman of the rank of earl is "commonly called" by his father's second title, for many peers are of several degrees; the families have generally been ennobled in a lower grade, and afterward risen to the rank they now enjoy. Some of the dukes have thus half a score of inferior titles, the Duke of Athole no fewer than seventeen. The younger sons of dukes and marquises use the prefix of Lord before their Christian name, while the younger sons of earls and all the sons of viscounts and barons have that of Honorable. In nearly the same way the daughters of dukes, marquises, and earls are called Ladies, and the daughters of viscounts and barons Honorable. In all there must be eight or ten thousand of these people, including the widows and children of deceased peers, who retain a diluted nobility. The grandchildren of peers are untitled, but the eldest son of an eldest son, being in the direct line of succession, has a place in the oligarchy.
Sometimes a man whose father is dead comes into a title transmitted from a more distant relative, an uncle or a cousin, and then, though he becomes a peer, his mother has not the rank which she would have enjoyed had he inherited from his father. Plain Mrs. Jones may have a son an earl, or even a duke. In such cases the brothers and sisters are raised to the rank of a peer's children; and the world calls them "paper" lords and ladies; but the mother does not receive the promotion, for she would then become a peeress without having married a peer.
Rank, however, descends below the nobility. The grade next to that of baron is baronet. This dignity is hereditary, but confers no right to a seat in the House of Lords. Its possessor bears the title of Sir before his Christian name, and his wife is called Lady. The first baronets were created by James I, and the title in his reign was often sold. At a time when the sovereign or the minister was lavish of the honor, a certain Duchess of Queensberry exclaimed that she could not spit out of her carriage window without spitting on a baronet. The famous Lady Holland of Holland House was almost as arrogant in our own day. She was a baroness, and Sir Henry Holland, the well-known physician and baronet, had been one of her favorite guests; but when she heard that he was about to marry, she declared that if he introduced another Lady Holland into London society he should never enter her doors again. The dignity, however, is not a little prized by its possessors, of whom there were when I last counted no fewer than 873.
The lowest title of all is that of knight, which is not hereditary, and carries little distinction, but the knight is called Sir, and his wife Lady.
In society, titles are dropped as much as possible. Nobody nowadays says "your grace" to a duke or an archbishop, and to use "my lord" or "my lady" or "your lordship" or "ladyship" savors of the shop or the servants' hall. Neither do people of condition often talk of the Marquis of Bute or the Countess of Cork. Among themselves they say Lord Bute and Lady Cork. Indeed lord and lady are the appellations given in conversation to everybody in the peerage below the ducal rank. To a duke you say Duke, and to a duchess Duchess, though people not used to this high company often slip in a "grace" or two, to the amusement of their neighbors, but never that I could observe to the disturbance or surprise of the ducal personages themselves. These probably think the present familiarity with which people of their importance are addressed decidedly inappropriate. A certain duchess went not long ago to call upon a countess named Lady Cowper, but found she was mistaken in the person; and, expressing her regret, she said: "I suppose it was some inferior Lady Cowper I should have asked for". The peeresses, indeed, are not at all pleased that the wives of knights and baronets should take the title of Lady. The ancient form prescribed for these gentlewomen of lower degree was Dame, and the superior ladies think that their inferior sisters should retain the older appellation, so that the distinction in rank might be apparent. As it is, a marchioness may be confounded with the wife of an alderman, for either may be Lady Bath.
But the baronets' wives and the knights' wives like the custom very well. Most women prize rank more than men, and I once heard a close observer say that no woman in England would refuse a duke. I don't think he was right. Nevertheless, a woman who had earls for grandfathers on both sides of the house, but enjoyed no title herself, confessed to me that she was dying to be "My lady". I said to this scion of illustrious houses: "You surely wouldn't be the wife of a knight?" "Oh, yes, I would", she replied; anything to be "My lady ".
Besides all these, there are various official people with temporary titles or precedence, but as a rule the members of the Government gain little in rank by being in office. The Prime Minister himself has no precedence by virtue of his place, and I have seen Mr. Gladstone, when at the head of the. Government, go in to dinner after barons of his own creation. Even when ministers enjoy a temporary rank this never confers precedence on their wives, who, like the wives of bishops and archbishops, can sit at the bottom of the table and look up to the top, where their husbands are dining by the side of duchesses. When I first observed the little regard paid to official rank in England, I expressed my surprise, but was quickly told: "Oh! we respect the substance, not the shadow". An American would have said that rank was the shadow and power the substance, but hereditary, permanent rank is what most Englishmen prize above all earthly honors. It is the permanency, especially, that they value. The supercilious chamberlains of the English court would scoff at the punctilio [careful observance of forms (as in social conduct)] of the officials in Washington, arranging themselves according to the grades of their short-lived grandeur.
Rank, indeed, in England is so much regarded that if the widow of a peer is remarried to a man of lower degree, she retains her former title in the later marriage. The famous Lady Waldegrave was married four times. By the second marriage she became a countess, and though afterward twice married to commoners, she remained a countess to the end. Her invitations at one time read: "Mr. Fortescue and Lady Waldegrave request the honor". Finally Mr. Fortescue was created Baron Carlingford, but still she retained her earlier title, for otherwise she must have descended to the rank of baroness. And this was in strict accordance with rule. The books lay down that as the nobility are all pares, peers, a peeress need not lose her higher rank because she is married to a nobleman of lower degree.
But this is law for the peers; it is not law for the commoners. Any woman, except a peeress who marries a peer, merges the highest rank she may have enjoyed in the dignity of her husband. The daughter of a marquis or a duke takes rank of a baroness, but if she marries a baron she forfeits her superior degree. There was an instance of this a few years ago, when the daughter of the Marquis of Ely married a Mr. Egerton. As her husband was a commoner, she preserved her precedence. They were Mr. and Lady Charlotte Egerton. But by and by Mr. Egerton was made a baron, and then Lady Charlotte applied to the Queen for permission to retain her former rank, but was refused. She was compelled to become a baroness.
A still more striking example of this extreme regard for precedence was that of Lady Stratheden, not now living. She was made a baroness in her own right, and subsequently her husband was created Baron Campbell. But Stratheden, being the older peerage by two or three years, had precedence of Campbell. So they went about as Lord Campbell and Lady Stratheden. But once, it is said, at an hotel, where the names were thus inscribed, the manager went to the husband and asked him quietly: "Couldn't you call her Lady Campbell".
Lord Chief Justice of England, who, when he was offered a peerage, requested that it should be given to his father; not from filial regard or reverence, but that he might himself inherit the title, and thus be the second lord. They dislike to be considered "creations." As the famous Lady Ashburton declared: "We don't like the honors that are earned". A still more important personage is said not long ago to have exclaimed: "The Garter is almost the only distinction left that those fellows of talent cannot gain". It is usually conferred on persons of at least the rank of duke, and rarely with any reference to ability or character. It is one of the honors that are not "earned." [As Written]
RANK AND TITLE
THE PRINCE OF WALES
AMERICANS AT COURT
THE CROWN IN POLITICS
QUEENS' PERSONAL CHARACTER
SERVANTS' HALL PRECEDENCE
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
THE PRINCESS OF WALES
A NOBLEMAN INDEED
POMPS & VANITIES OF CHURCH
CHURCH & STATE
HOUSE OF COMMONS
LITERATURE & THE LORDS
THE LONDON SEASON