Nobility in Britain has traditionally represented the highest attainable stratum of society below the level of royalty, and is a social pre-eminence usually based on heredity and, most common nowadays, on distinguished public service. A hereditary title can be passed to a member of the family, whereas non-hereditary titles cannot.
Originally, nobility grew out of the feudal warrior classes. In those days, knights or nobles were mounted warriors who swore allegiance to their sovereign and promised to fight for him in exchange for land (usually together with serfs living there) and the income which derived from it.
In Britain, the Sovereign has always traditionally granted titles (now, in a twice-yearly Honours List), though in the last couple of centuries, this has very much been at the instigation of the Government of the day. A title (except in the case of Baronets or Knights) conferred the right on the recipient to sit in the House of Lords, and to pass on the title to his nearest male heir.
A title traditionally carried with it the right of the holder to sit in the House of Lords, but that privilege was revoked (for all but 92 members) in 1999 by the British Labour government.
Below, a ranking of the British nobility:
Created in 1337, the title, Duke, derives from the Latin word dux, meaning leader, and is the highest form of non-Royal nobility (although members of the Royal Family sometimes carry the title). In French, the term is duc and in Italian, doge. Dukes in the United Kingdom are addressed as 'Your Grace'. There are twenty-seven dukedoms in the peerages of England, Scotland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, held by twenty-four persons.
The term, Marquess, derives from the Germanic word, mark, which refers to a border. In Britain, the title was created in 1385; the borders in question are the marches between England and Wales or Scotland. The normal form of address is Lord/Lady.
The term, Earl, derives from the Old Norse word, jarl, meaning warrior, nobleman. The continental equivalent is Count, which derives from the Latin word, comes. In Britain, the title began to be used c.800, replacing the old Anglo Saxon title of Ealdorman. The Earl was the king's official representative in the shires (counties). The normal form of address is Lord/Lady.
Created in 1440, the title, Viscount, comes from the Latin vicecomes, or vice-count. The viscount was a sheriff of a shire (county) and was the Earl's deputy. The normal form of address is Lord/Lady.
The title, Baron, derives from the Old Germanic word, baro, meaning freeman. Created c.1066, a Baron is the lowest rank of the peerage, and is usually applied to tenants-in-chief, the holders of land granted to them directly by the monarch. The normal form of address is Lord/Lady.
Created 1611. A special hereditary rank, above Knight and below Baron, introduced by James I for the purpose of raising money for the supression of the rebellion in Ulster. Baronets were required to pay £1,080 for the privilege of their rank. The normal form of address is Lord/Lady.
The most common title, allowing the holder to call himself Sir or herself Lady. A knighthood is not transferrable, lasting only for the lifetime of the holder. The term, knight, has come to be identified with a mounted warrior in service of his sovereign, but the earliest known usage of the term in Britain was Alfred the Great's knighting of his infant grandson, Athelstan (c.890). So, in its original form, a knighthood may have carried religious or political significance as a sign of investiture.Source: britishhistoryclub.com An Introduction
The Latin dux was a military title that might roughly translate to "field marshal". The historical kernel of in the stories of King Arthur probably refers to a dux bellorum in charge of the forces holding off the barbarian onslaught in early post-Roman Britain.
The English kings introduced the French ducal structure into the British system, and it was initially a mostly royal title (as all new creations during the 20th century). In France especially after 1600, however, as well as in Britain, it has evolved into a mostly non-royal title.
A duchy (or grand duchy) is the territory ruled by a duke (or grand duke) or the lands (and/or incomes) specifically attached to the ducal title. A dukedom is the title itself. In the UK, there are properly only two duchies, those of Lancaster and Cornwall; these are essentially corporations holding properties that provide income for the Queen (who is "Duke" of Lancaster), and the Prince of Wales (who is also the Duke of Cornwall); as only these two dukedoms carry such special "attachments" with the title, duchies are thus a royal preserve.
"Duke" is normally a very exalted title; however, when equating the dignity of some dukes, some insight is needed. For example, Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies created dukes in Naples almost by the gross, and these titles cannot be considered equal to dukes in the British or other continental systems.
This title glosses to "march lord", i.e. a noble in charge of the marches (the border regions) of a realm in distinction to other lords in more-settled lands. These were essentially warlords with broad powers and in this context, may be thought of as a "palatine" title. In earlier times, it was a rare title; it was later revived as a grade between count and duke.
As a senior title (about two-thirds of British dukes are also marquesses), it is not that common the United Kingdom, at least when compared to other countries (especially France where "petit marquis" was a term of derision).
"Earl" is related to Old Norse "jarl", and is equivalent to "count", which itself comes from the Latin comes. This in turn is related to the English word "county", which pretty much explains what a count was: the principal figure of the county.
William I of England regarded the Anglo-Saxon "earl" as a synonym for "count", and while this was not correct, it was a practical equivalency. Old English lacked a feminine and thus the French term was adopted for an earl's wife as well as for women who hold earldoms in their own right.
Some will maintain that a British earl outranks any continental count. Compared to some other systems, especially those that incorporated the results of the often slapdash practices of older systems (e.g., Italy), there are proportionally fewer British earls than counts.
This title is mostly confined to the United Kingdom and France, though it appears rarely in Italy and elsewhere. This is the leftover title, what the king bestowed on someone who was not important enough to merit being made a count. It's a rather late innovation. It originated in France, as the count's deputy, i.e, the "vice-count".
Barons were originally (in Britain) those who held their lands directly from the king. Not all British nobles have baronies and many viscounts, for example, do not. (--Louis Epstein) The majority of the nobility in Britain are just plain barons. In the UK, life peers are always barons or baronesses.
Once, a baron was an important noble, especially before the Renaissance. It was the barons who brought King John to heel at Runnymede, and "robber-baron" has entered English as the term for one of the lords who collected "tolls" from Rhine river-traffic. In olden times, when there was little differentiation in degree or rank between neighboring nobles, "baron" could signify any noble, large or small, a meaning with some currency today on the continent, roughly equivalent in meaning to "peer" or "lord" in the UK. The status of barons varies. It can be a very high title or something of little consequence. It is definitely a noble title, however, and needs to be clearly distinguished from "baronet".
This may be thought of as a hereditary knighthood. For convenience, it may also be thought of as a noble title, though there are those who would disagree, at least as used in the British system. A baronet is certainly not a peer; in the United Kingdom, baronets are not entitled to a seat in the House of Lords (unless, of course, they additionally hold a peerage). Since we have been using the British system to classify titles, these are placed here at the end, somewhere between-and-after the British sense of Baronet-as-a-knight and Baronet-as-petty-noble.
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
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