The Duke of Edinburgh. The Duchess of Cornwall. Count Chocula. How did they get their titles? That’s the subject of my latest fascination, peerage.
Peerage is the incredibly sexist, terribly outdated, woefully unfair, really cool system of aristocracy that passes down titles like “baron” and “earl” from generation to generation. I first got interested in peerage after getting obsessed with the show Downton Abbey. On Downton (set in 1910s England), the Earl of Grantham has no job other than to rock really great formalwear, act like a badass (but a benevolent badass) in front of his servants, and keep up his sprawling estate. As someone who aspires to have no job, peerage is right up my alley.
Here are some of the top things to know about peerage:
-In the UK (the only system of peerage I’m interested in), there are five main titles for lords and their wives. In descending order, they are: Duke/Duchess, Marquess/Marchioness, Earl/Countess, Viscount/Viscountess, Baron/Baroness. (On an interesting sidenote, viscount is pronounced “vy-count.” Also, historians speculate that England uses the title “Earl” instead of “Count” because the latter sounds too much like an obscenity. No joke.)
-Peers used to have all sorts of special privileges. If charged with a crime, they were judged by literally a “jury of their peers”—other dukes, earls and viscounts. Although they were also immune from actual arrest because they needed to be able to “advise the sovereign” at any time, as if the king cared what the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury thought about anything.
-Parliament killed all the fun with a bunch of new laws in the 60s and the House of Lords Act of 1999, which took away some Parliamentary seats from the heirs of aristocrats and gave the power back to “the people.” How dreadful.
-In modern day England, life as a peer is both a blessing and a curse—you get addressed by a really cool name but you also are often expected to keep up an elaborate palace that you’ve inherited. The current Earl and Countess who live in the castle where Downton Abbey is filmed sound like they’re really not that rich, yet they have a house that costs at least $200,000 a year to maintain.
So there you have it, lords and ladies—a quick overview of peerage. Now if you’ll excuse me, my butler needs to use the computer.