The INSIDER Summary:
- Some members of the royal family get titles like “duke,” “earl,” or “baron.”
- These titles are part of the Peerage, an old ranking system for British nobles.
- The system stills exists.
- Both royal and non-royal UK citizens can be Peers.
Ever since Prince Harry announced that he’s dating American actress Meghan Markle, the media’s been aflutter with talk of a potential marriage. Royals experts are also wondering whether Markle would be granted a royal title if such a marriage came to be.
But all this speculation about Markle’s possible title begs one giant, oft-unaddressed question: What are royal titles — and what do they actually signify?
Titles like “earl,” “baron,” “duke,” and “duchess” don’t exist just to make their bearers sound extra fancy.
They’re part of an old ranking system for British nobility known as the Peerage.
Way back in the day, the monarch bestowed these titles on “peers of the realm”— people who swore loyalty to the crown in exchange for land or money, according to the Peerage experts at Debrett’s London. The five possible titles, ranked from highest to lowest, are: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron for men; duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess, and baroness for women.
In addition to being bestowed, the titles could also be inherited, but only by male heirs. All the people who had these titles formed the Peerage and were known as Peers. Dukes and duchesses are generally addressed as “Your Grace,” while all others Peers are addressed as “My Lord” or “My Lady.”
You don’t have to be in line for the crown to get one of these titles: There are both royal and non-royal Peers.
Being a Peer used to come with political power.
Peers used to have a birthright to sit in the The House of Lords, which is the upper house of British Parliament. Because of the male-only inheritance rule, the House of Lords was once made up of exclusively male hereditary Peers. That’s no longer the case.
Since the Life Peerage Act of 1958, the Prime Minister and Queen have been jointly appointing “Life Peers” to the House of Lords. These are people who get a Peerage title for the duration of their own lives but can’t pass it down to their kids. Because you don’t have to be a man to be named a Life Peer, this law has allowed women to finally get some seats in the House of Lords.
The Lords got another shakeup in 1999, when a new law ousted all but 92 of the roughly 750 hereditary Peers still left in the governing body. Today, Life Peers make up the vast majority of the House of Lords.
The best-known Peers are still the royal ones.
The Peers lack much of the political muscle they once had, but Debrett’s guide asserts that “their social influence remains undimmed, and their lives remain a source of interest and speculation.” This is especially true when it comes to the royal family.
You might have noticed that the queen’s husband and all of her sons have Peerage titles. (As in the olden days, most hereditary titles can still only be inherited by males.) Prince Philip, to whom the queen has been married for 69 years, is the Duke of Edinburgh. Their younger sons Andrew and Edward are the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex, respectively.
Their oldest son Charles has arguably the sweetest deal of all the Peerage. As eldest son of the monarch, he gets the title Duke of Cornwall plus all the income generated by Duchy of Cornwall, one of the royal family’s real estate portfolios. From 2015 to 2016 the Duchy generated about $40.8 million in profit. Not too shabby.
It’s tradition for men of the royal family to get a new title when they marry.
Take William, for example: For most of his life, he was just “His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales.” But upon his marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011, the queen gave him the Dukedom of Cambridge, and Kate became the Duchess of Cambridge.
It’s expected that Prince Harry will become the Duke of Sussex when he marries, making his bride a Duchess. The Sussex title is one of many options considered “available” — meaning the people who last held them have died without legitimate heirs and the titles are free to be bestowed by the Queen.
Want to learn more about the peerage and its long, long history? Check out this incredibly thorough guide from Debrett’s.
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