Noble Titles

Feudalism was the political and social system that developed as a result of the breakdown of strong, central government at the end of the Roman Empire. Its basis was the holding of land from a powerful, local patron, who provided protection in return. (Feudal times were very male oriented.) The person who held land of a superior lord, and had sworn homage (fealty, or respectful deference) to him, was known as a vassal. Under the Carolingian kings of France, the vassal/lord relationship became extended to include the large landed proprietors and the king. In this form the institution was introduced into England by William the Conqueror. From the 1066 Conquest, and after the collection of data collectively called Domesday Book, a true and in-depth picture of the wealth of the island kingdom was apparent. By decree, all the land of England was owned by the king alone, and he enfeoffed all of it, except his own royal demesnes, to earls, barons and others in exchange for their liability for military service.

Motivation was high to gain social status within a peer group and considerable effort was often invested in pursuit of honours and titles. Honour was perhaps taken to an extreme and the majority of the French nobility wasted themselves at the 1346 Battle of Crécy. Despite the evident futility of the failed early French attacks against the English line, 16 successive, futile, French attacks were made evidently motivated by a chivalric code of honour.

Particularly after the 1066 Conquest, fealty, or homage and loyalty, beacme confused with men gaining baronies in both France and England. Such dual loyalties led to confusions as the two monarchies drifted towards war and forced their nobles to choose between competing loyalties. The conflict became clear during the reign of Étienne de Blois (known in English as Stephen) as he jgnored the intended succession to the Empress Mathilde. She is more often known as Maude and to dispute Stephen's claim to French Normandy her husband Geoffroi Plantagenet Comte d'Anjou battled with Norman barons to defeat support for Stephen. Many of those Normans had been given rich titles in England for helping in the 1066 Conquest and they found themselves owing feudal loyalty to both Stephen and Mathilde (as duchess of Normandy). Moreover, when Henry II gained the duchy in 1151 the French king, Louis VII, swung French military support behind Stephen to try to distract the English from French territories.

Henry II was a better general than Louis VII and Henry not only defeated the French, but also gained England from Stephen. By the time Henry died in 1189 the English controlled more of France than the French. Feudal loyalties were soon tested after Henry's death and by the end of John's reign most concerned nobles had chosen which kingdom to support, dispersed their other lands to younger sons, and decreased the number of dual loyalties. It was no coincidence that it was during John's reign that in 1215 the barons successfully limited the king's power by the Magna Carta.


The Peerage is a collective noun for peers, being men and women whose rank is equal to nobility and aristocracy. Both male and female peers receive the same rights. In the United Kingdom, hereditary peers, or nobility, are known by a number of titles, which rank them in terms of importance. The British peerage evolved from the court of William I. Henry III apparently granted the oldest title in the English Peerage to Robert de Ros in 1264. Richard III granted the first title of baron in 1387 to Baron Beauchamp of Kidderminster, however the style was unsettled.[1] Particularly in England, the peerage system developed around the lack of complete power held by successive earlier monarchs. Many continental peerages evolved with the peers centered around an all-powerful monarch, like King Louis XIV of France. The English peerage was created with the following ranks as indicated below. The aristocracy was extended to include baronets, but baronets are not members of the British peerage.[2] Modern English and Scottish British peerages date from the 1707 Act of Union.

Peerage Origin

Most titles relate to national peerages and there are three uses for the term peerage.

  • The oldest use of the term peerage is for the order of men whose joint counsel the king valued and who were equal to the highest ranking feudal lords. The sovereign cannot belong to the Peerage as "the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself".[3] People who are neither a peer nor the sovereign are commoners. Charlemagne's peerage was the first and most famous and the most notable successors were the peerages of Flanders (established c1067) and of France (established in 1180). The Flemish has twelve powerful lords as members, while the French has six powerful lords and six equally powerful churchmen. Scotland's peerage, known as the 'Seven Earls', was also powerful and was only pre-dated by Charlemagne's. The oldest title of the ancient Peerage of Scotland appears to be the Earldom of Mar, created as a Momaer after the Irish Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The oldest title in the English Peerage was created for Baron de Ros in 1264. The oldest title in what is now known as the Scots' Peerage was created for the Earl of Crawford in 1398.

  • "The Peerage" is also used as a term for the directories of peers published by Debrett, Burke, Collins and Dod, with titles such as Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage. There have been many such books, about a dozen different ones during the 19th century. The most recent is Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage.
  • The third use of peerage is to indicate the rank or dignity of a peer, for example, "he has been given a peerage" meaning that the recipient has been given a peerage title.

Duke, Duchess

Created in England in 1333 for Edward, the 'Black Prince', Duke of Cornwall. A dukedom is the highest rank of the peerage.

Marquis (also Marquess), Marchioness

Created in England in 1385. A marquis was ranked above an earl and below a duke. James VII created Lord Seaforth, Kenneth Mackenzie the IV Earl Seaforth a Marquess. It didn't stick because James had been deposed in 1688 after only a three-year reign and was defeated at the 1690 Battle of the River Boyne in a failed 1690 attempt to return.

Earl, Countess

Created in England in c800, earls were the king's representative in the shires. Earl replaced the Anglo Saxon ealdorman and equates to the Norwegian jarl and the French count. Colin Mackenzie of KintaiI, was created the I Earl of Seaforth in 1623. George Mackenzie of Castlehaven was created the I Earl of Cromartie in 1702.

Viscount, Viscountess

Created in England in 1440, originally, a viscount was a sheriff of a shire (county) and the Earl's deputy. The rank and concept were French creations as a vicomte usually assisted the comte by taking on the sheriff's duties. George Mackenzie, created Earl Cromartie in 1702, had previously been created the Viscount Tarbat in 1685.

Baron, Baroness

Created in England with the 1066 Norman invasion. The baronage is the lowest rank of the peerage, and usually applied to tenants-in-chief, the holders of land granted to them directly by the monarch. Although in 1266, Gerald FitzGerald was created Baron of Kintail, his descendant Kenneth Mackenzie was created Baron Kintail in 1609. These are two separate titles. Baron Kintail was in the Scots' peerage: the Baronage of Kintail was considered to be a feudal title outside the Peerage. Unlike the English feudal titles, the Scots' feudal titles still exist.

Additional Titles

Other heraldry terms which cause confusion include.

Feudal Barons

Pre-dating the 1066 Norman invasion was the Feudal baronage, which still continues in Scotland. In England , only the nobility had been allowed to own manors and land was held from a superior noble, thus the English barony was quickly absorbed into the 'new' Norman feudalism. Feudal barons were not included in the peerage and no longer exist in England. Baronies were erected by Crown Charter and the term barony was specified in the charter. The implication was that the baron (the named person, or person holding legal title) had access to a third of the revenue from that land and in turn owed fealty to his superior.

In Scotland difficult geography and the clans' tribal nature did not support centralised feudal control. Centralisation was furthered by King Edward I in England in 1290. Edward reduced baronial power in England, but not in Scotland. In 1597 Sir John Skene defined a Scots baron as "In this Realme he is called ane Barrone quha haldis his landes immediatelie in chiefe of the King and has power of pit and gallows.' (The pit was a pool for drowning women, as the gallows was reserved for men.).[4]

In Scotland recognition of a barony is easy: if it was erected by a Crown Charter and if every transfer of ownership included all that parcel plus the 'barony' - then it is a barony. Feudal barons are titled Sir, and the baron's name plus 'of place' - being the place-name of the barony. Although feudal barons still exist, they are not members of the peerage and are not called to parliament.

Lord (Laird), Lady

Not a title, per se, but a form of address for a marquis, an earl, a viscount, a baron, a younger son of a duke or marquis, or a bishop. (Wives of viscounts, barons, baronets, and knights are Lady plus last name. Wives of earls, marquisses and dukes are shown above and are the same as if the female held the title directly. (In Scotland a laird is the owner of a 'landed estate'. The term is a varient of lord.)

Baronet, Baronetess

The term was originated in 1320 by King Edward II and then used by Richard II to define members of the nobility who had the right to sit in parliament. Created in 1611 by James I/VI as a special hereditary rank, above Knight and below Baron. The baronetage was introduced by James to raise money independently of parliament and to create a resident army for the suppression of the rebellion in Ulster. The successive Stewarts also continued the system to raise money. In the early 1600s, candidate baronets were required to pay £1,080 for their rank. Baronets are members of the nobility but are not peers. My father's grandfather claimed the Coul baronetcy. My mother's ancestor, William Johnson, was created a baronet.


Knights are not members of the peerage. Knighthood was established as a common entry-level to chivalry and was predicated on personal skill and achievement. Members of the peerage were expected to have earned their knighthood prior to acceeding to their titles. Female knighthoods are awarded and their title is 'Dame', vice 'Sir' plus the first name (wives of knights are Lady plus last name). Only rarely were knighthoods inherited. My mother's grandfather, Sir John Willison, was knighted for his work in creating the Globe newspaper in Toronto and for his reporting of Canadian politics.


By the XIV century, some classes of titles, like the Barony of Kintail had become archaic (relating to the Roman or Carolingian eras) and signified only local power and prestige. The Popes'' appeal to the junior sons of the nobility, to 'Take up the cross, because God wills it' was successful because they might be able to win a new Christian kingdom and with it new power and prestige (signified by titles). From the original Roman comes (companion in Latin) we have comtes, grafs, hrabia, contes, condes, earls, jarls, thegns were each the head of a county. For dukes it was a duchy. (There are still Continental princes, who head independent principalities.)

Like the kings, counts and dukes sought to bind others of lower rank (like bishops, abbots, sheriffs) with a fief in exchange for fealty. These men acquired such large amounts of land, much of it independent of the kings that from the ninth century inheritance became increasingly common. Feudal power certainly extended to granting permission to marry and to dispose of inheritances as both concerned wealth, which was accepted as the concern of the elites. To break effectively the power of his barons, in 1237 the German Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II extended the right of inheritance.

By the time King John signed the Magna Carta, inheritance had been limited to primogeniture for the great English barons and earls. Soon knighthoods became a saleable commodity in England and this led to the Stuarts selling baronetcies. A baronetcy is a type of hereditary knighthood. King James I initiated baronetcies in 1611 to create an Irish army of occupation in Ulster.[5] James decided that a baronet had to have a significant income, come from a good family, and pay for the support of thirty soldiers in Ulster for three years. James thus had these people pay for the privilege of providing him with a free army. They were termed Baronets of England since the English treasury collected the funds. The Baronetcy of Ireland was founded in 1619 and King Charles I instituted the Baronets of Nova Scotia for Scotland to speed the intended colonisation. Charles II created Kenneth Mackenzie of Coul, a Baronet of Scotland in 1673. In 1756, George II created William George Johnson a baronet for his defence of the Province of New York.[6]


The Royal Arms of Canada


In Britain, heraldic rank dictates that after the ruling monarch come the consort, the Prince of Wales, and then the immediate Royal family. Next are the peers (people designated as social equals), finally baronets and knights are lower social ranks, below the peerage. There are several classes of British knighthoods and some in turn are divided into grades.[7]

In 1348 King Edward III created the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which is the most senior order of British knighthood. Froissart explains that Edward revived the concept of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. The insignia is a blue garter inscribed in Old French with 'Honi Soit qui mal y pense' (Shame be to him who thinks ill of it) and they celebrate St George. A Garter Knight is entitled to have a heraldic garter encircling his shield and 'supporters'.

King Robert II, of Scotland (1370-1390), instituted the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle honouring St Andrew (a thistle badge). Lord Seaforth, Kenneth Mackenzie was created Marquess of Seaforth and made a Knight of the Thistle c1690 by King James II/VI.  Unfortunately, few people recognised James' authority since he was not then formally recognised as king by either parliament. James was then known as the 'Old Pretender', and Lord Mackenzie's marquissate went unrecognised by the peerage. George III created the Irish Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick in 1783.

The following British Orders of Knighthood have several grades, not all of which confer knighthood. Founded in 1399 the most Honourable Order of the Bath is the most senior. (The knightly ritual instituted by King Henry IV included a purifying bath, prior to the knight's formal installation.) The badge is a rose, thistle, and shamrock from a sceptre. The Order of the British Empire was divided into three grades after the Napoleonic wars and knights are commonly invested in the grade of Knight Commander (KCB). Field Marshall Lord Clyde Colin Campbell, the grandfather of Margaret Nielina Fortye, and the two Dicksons - who were present with Wellington at Waterloo in 1815 - held the KCB. (The latter Dicksons, Lt Colonel Sir Jeremiah and Lt Colonel Sir Alexander, probably were not direct family members.) Similarly, there are many illustrious Moors; Lieutenant General Sir John Moor and the earlier Sir Thomas More come to mind. The Honourable Chief Justice Draper was also invested as a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).

The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India is the next senior order and Queen Victoria founded it in 1861. There are three grades and the badge is a profile cameo of the Queen. The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George was instituted in 1818 by the future George IV. My great uncle Jim Elmsley was invested in the Companion grade (CMG) for his WWI service as well as being made a CB, and earning an additional military Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The most junior British order of knighthood is that of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which was created in 1917 by King George V and it has five classes. George V created my great-grandfather, John Willison, a Bachelor Knight for his skill in journalism.

"Prior to 1918, Canada subscribed to the full British Honours System,...".[8] Today, Canada no longer recognises British Orders and has her own Canadian Order of Military Merit (OMM), established in 1972.[9]


1          See

2          Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, p. 90.

3          Opinion of the British House of Lords in the Buckhurst Peerage Case.

4          Feudal Baronies and Manorial Lordships, See also Prescriptive barony at,; and The Feudal Baronies of Scotland at,

5          Zacour, op cit., p. 95.

6          HCB Rogers, The Pageant of Heraldry, p. 132.

7          See James Flexner, Mohawk Baronet; A Biography of Sir William Johnson,.

8           Ibid, pp. 124-132, provides a good description of knighthood, on which my text is based.

9          In 1984, Her Majesty, as Queen of Canada, created the Meritorious Service Cross (MSC) decoration, with which I was invested. Chancellery of Canadian Orders and Decoration, The Meritorious Service Cross.

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