English Titles & Peerages
Many of the minor plot lines in my latest Regency romantic suspense concern who could inherit a title. There is the matter of the Marquess of Malvern’s losing his memory. Should the Duke of Devilfoard declare his eldest son incompetent and petition for his second son to assume control of the dukedom? Was such even legal? And what of the missing Earl of Sandahl? The original earl falls overboard on his “honeymoon” and cannot be found. Should he be declared dead? If so, who inherits? The logical answer is the second son, but that solution is not what it seems.
So, what do we know of peerages? When reading historical fiction/historical romance there are many misconceptions about titles. First thing a reader must know is not all titles are created equal. For example, a baronet may pass on his title to his heir, but he is not considered part of the Peerage in the United Kingdom. There are some 800+ peers in modern day England whose titles may be inherited. Peers include Dukes/Duchesses, Marquesses/Marchionesses, Earls/Countesses, Viscounts/Viscountesses, and Barons/Baronesses. The law that applies to a particular British title depends upon when it was bestowed upon the family and the method of its creation.
Peerages of England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom follow English law; the difference between them is that Peerages of England were created before the Act of Union 1707, Peerages of Great Britain between 1707 and the Union with Ireland in 1800, and Peerages of the United Kingdom since 1800. Irish Peerages follow the law of the Kingdom of Ireland, which is very like English law, except no Irish peers have been created since 1898, and they have no part in the present governance of the United Kingdom. Scottish Peerage law is generally similar to English law, but differs in innumerable points of detail, often being more similar to medieval practice.” (Burke’s Guide to British Titles: Courtesy Titles. Burke’s Peerage and Gentry. 2005)
A title may be created by a writ of summons, which means that a person is summoned to Parliament. A writ of summons is a document calling Members of the House of Lords to Parliament. Members of the Lords may not take their seats until they have obtained their writ of summons. Writs of summons are issued by direction of the Lord Chancellor from the office of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. New writs are issued before the meeting of each Parliament to all Lords Spiritual and Temporal who have a right to seats in the House. (Francis Palgrave (1788-1861), Parliamentary Writs and Writs of Military Summons (2 volumes, 1827 and 1834) Writs of summons set out the titles of the Sovereign and the recipient of the writ. They state the reason for Parliament’s calling upon the individual.
When the Earl of Berkley died, his oldest son applied for a writ of summons to the House of Lords. The Committee on Privilege turned him down and said he and the other brothers born before 1795 were illegitimate and that the earldom had fallen to the sixteen-year-old born in 1796. The boy was too young to do anything about the matter and his oldest brother and mother ran things. When he came of age, he never put forth a claim to the earldom However, he was, by right and law, the earl so anything requiring the signature of the earl had to be signed by him. He signed responsibility over to his oldest brother, but the title itself went dormant until he died.
Titles may also be created by letters of patent. This method sets out a created peerage and names the person in question. It may limit the course of descent to the male line, with only legitimate children having a right to the title. (Scottish titles permit the “legitimacy” to be determined by a marriage, not simply a marriage at time of the birth.) Traditionally, only the peer sits in the House of Lords, but from the time of Edward IV, an heir to the title (who also held additional titles) could sit in the HOL as one of his father’s subsidiary dignities. This is possible through a writ of acceleration.
Letters Patent can be amended by Act of Parliament. Likely, the two most famous examples of amending Letters were the Dukedom of Marlborough in 1706 and the Duke of Windsor in 1936.
A person who is a possible heir to a peerage is said to be “in remainder.” A title becomes extinct (opposite to extant, which means alive) when all possible heirs (as provided by the letters patent) have died out, i.e., there is nobody in remainder at the death of the holder. A title becomes dormant if nobody has claimed the title or if no claim has been satisfactorily proven. A title goes into abeyance if there is more than one person equally entitled to be the holder.
In the past, peerages were sometimes forfeit or attainted under Acts of Parliament, most often as the result of treason on the part of the holder. The blood of an attainted peer was considered “corrupted,” consequently his or her descendants could not inherit the title. If all descendants of the attainted peer were to die out, however, then an heir from another branch of the family not affected by the attainder could take the title. The Forfeiture Act 1870 abolished corruption of blood; instead of losing the peerage, a peer convicted of treason would be disqualified from sitting in Parliament for the period of imprisonment.
Nothing prevents a British peerage from being held by a foreign citizen (although such peers cannot sit in the House of Lords). Several descendants of George III were British peers and German subjects; the Lords Fairfax of Cameron were American citizens for several generations.
“Hereditary peers do not have the automatic right to a writ of summons to the House. Irish peerages may not be disclaimed. A peer who disclaims the peerage loses all titles, rights and privileges associated with the peerage; his wife or her husband is similarly affected. No further hereditary peerages may be conferred upon the person, but life peerages may be. The peerage remains without a holder until the death of the peer making the disclaimer, when it descends normally.” (Hereditary Peers) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereditary_peer
So what can a person do if he does not wish to accept the title? He could simply refuse to take up the title or touch the money. Technically he’d still be the title’s holder, but to have the full title and honors he must be confirmed before Parliament, and all the legal stuff has to be done to ensure he is the correct heir. He can simply not claim the title and not style himself by the title, but it remains it place at his disposal. The person does not need to send in the writ of summons to the House of Lords, and he can refuse to use the title, but someone must care for the property, and no one else may claim the title while he is alive. He can also do something drastic, such as commit treason, in which case he and his family would be stripped of the title, but no one would recommend such a step. It would be easier simply not to claim the title.
Like it or not, the heir cannot be disinherited to prevent his assuming the title. If there is a living person and the lawful successor to a title, he cannot be displaced unless convicted of a crime. During the Regency there was no way to disclaim a peerage except by not using it and not sending in a request for a seat in the House of Lords.
About Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep
Huntington McLaughlin, the Marquess of Malvern, wakes in a farmhouse, after a head injury, being tended by an ethereal “angel,” who claims to be his wife. However, reality is often deceptive, and Angelica Lovelace is far from innocent in Hunt’s difficulties. Yet, there is something about the woman that calls to him as no other ever has. When she attends his mother’s annual summer house party, their lives are intertwined in a series of mistaken identities, assaults, kidnappings, overlapping relations, and murders, which will either bring them together forever or tear them irretrievably apart. As Hunt attempts to right his world from problems caused by the head injury that has robbed him of parts of his memory, his best friend, the Earl of Remmington, makes it clear that he intends to claim Angelica as his wife. Hunt must decide whether to permit her to align herself with the earldom or claim the only woman who stirs his heart–and if he does the latter, can he still serve the dukedom with a hoydenish American heiress at his side?
An early review
Angel Comes to Devil’s Keep is a well-written tale of courage and sacrifice and what women went through in order to marry well in Regency England. The author did her homework and it shows in an authenticity that we don’t often see in Regency romances.
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About the Author
Regina Jeffers, a public classroom teacher for thirty-nine years, considers herself a Jane Austen enthusiast. She is the author of several Austen-inspired novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, Vampire Darcy’s Desire, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Honor and Hope, and The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. She also writes Regency romances: The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, A Touch of Cashémere, A Touch of Grace, A Touch of Mercy, A Touch of Love, and The First Wives’ Club. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, Jeffers often serves as a consultant in language arts and media literacy. Currently living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, she spends her time with her writing, gardening, and her adorable grandchildren.