The “Skinny” on Abdicating a Title During the Regency Era

Many times in Regency-based novels we have the situation where for one reason or another, the hero refused the title he has inherited and “abdicates” his new peerage. The question is whether this is a viable plot line. 

The answer is a bit more complicated that we might expect. Let us say we have an earl who wishes to abdicate his title. He would have the option of refusing the title, the properties, and the money, but he would still technically be the earl until he dies and another secedes him. To have the full title and the honors accompanying it, the man would need to be confirmed before Parliament. [In my recent release, “Courting Lord Whitmire,” part of the Regency Summer Escape anthology, there is a lengthy scene where Lord Andrew Whitmire appears before Parliament to claim the viscountcy after his father’s death.] Parliament demands that the person making the claim to the title present evidence of his right to it. If the man wishes to be styled as an earl, he must claim the title. He 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 can have the title while he is alive.

If he wished to claim the privileges of the peerage, which included: Peers had some special privileges. The main one was the right to sit in the House of Lords, unless they were Roman Catholic, a minor, a female or a lunatic. They could not be arrested for debts. They had to advance the peerage as an affirmative defense. They did not have to sit on juries.  (This made sense as the House of Lords was in effect the supreme court and the last court of appeal). If arrested for a crime, they were allowed to be tried by the House of Peers. Their wives also claimed these privileges, except for sitting in the House of Lords. It was against the law to libel or slander a peer or to strike him. It was not until 1963 that anyone could walk away from a title.

When the Frederick Berkeley, 5th Earl of Berkley died, his oldest son applied for a Writ of Summons to the House of Lords. Berkeley and Mary Cole (who also passed under the name of Tudor), the daughter of a local publican and butcher, had seven sons and five daughters, but the disputed date of their marriage prevented their elder sons from succeeding as Earl of Berkeley and Baron Berkeley. The pair asserted their marriage had taken place on 30 March 1785, but the earliest ceremony of which there is incontrovertible proof was a wedding in Lambeth Church, Surrey, on 16 May 1796, at which date Mary was pregnant with their seventh child. Berkeley settled Berkeley Castle upon their eldest son, William FitzHardinge Berkeley, but William’s attempt to assume his father’s honours were disallowed by the House of Lords, who considered him illegitimate.

Therefore, the Committee on Privilege turned down the eldest’s request, saying he and the other brothers born before 1795 were illegitimate, and the earldom had fallen to the 16-year-old born in 1796. Berkeley’s titles devolved as a matter of law upon his fifth but first legitimate son, Thomas Morton Fitzhardinge Berkeley (1796–1882), but were never used by him and he did not take his seat in the House of Lords. Per his father’s will, he would have lost his small inheritance had he disputed his eldest brother’s claim to the titles. The boy was too young, for he had not reached his majority, to do anything about the matter, and his oldest brother and mother ran things. When he came of age, he still 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. 

Somewhere around 1945, men succeeding to a peerage were allowed to disclaim it. The title went dormant during the man’s life time. No one else could assume it. This was done mainly by men who had political power in the House of Commons and did not want to relinquish it. The current Duke of  Marlborough cannot pass over his heir for a more somber, younger son. The heir can not be disinherited. If there is a living person who is next in line, the succession cannot be changed. Earlier the  descent of the dukedom was changed because the Duke had no living son, and there was a slight chance of his having one. The succession was changed to allow his daughters to assume the title and then their sons. This was during the duke’s life time and was an exception to a general rule.  A man who is living and the lawful successor cannot have it taken from him except by being 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. Once a man was seated in the House of Lords  under a title, the HOL would not take it back. Neither was he able to disclaim it.

For additional information, visit Nancy Mayer Regency Researcher’s site for Succession When a Peer Dies and Introduction of a New Peer: Fees for Promotion and Introduction of a New Peer to the House of Lords

For a good summary of what constitutes a “hereditary peer,” visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereditary_peer

A man could be stripped of his title by the Crown if he committed treason, but not only would be tried and executed for his action, but his family would also be held “guilty.” The University of Michigan‘s website refers to Blackstone’s summary of the laws: 

“Since High Treason was, and arguably remains, the most serious capital crime, testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act was required to convict, and the punishment in the Eighteenth century was severe. Blackstone states that ‘the punishment of high treason in general is very solemn and terrible’:

  1. That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not carried or walk: though usually (by connivance length ripened by humanity into law) a sledge or hurdle is allowed, to preserve the offender from the extreme torment of being dragged on the ground or pavement 
  2. That he be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive
  3. That his entrails be taken out and burned, while he is yet alive
  4. That his head be cut off 
  5. That his body be divided in four parts 
  6. That his head and quarters be at the King’s disposal. [Blackstone, Wm., Knight. Chase, George, ed. Chase’s Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. New York: Baker, Voorhis & Co., 1936. p889.]

“The punishment did not end with the personal suffering of the offender: the punishment extended to his or her family. The law states that a person who is found guilty of treason must also undergo “forfeiture” and “corruption of blood.” In forfeiture, the person is force to give all their lands and property to the Crown. Corruption of blood prevents the person’s immediate family and hereditary heirs from owning property or conducting business—in effect ruining the offender’s family forever.”

On the other hand, if the peer committed suicide, nothing happened to the title. The son inherited as usual. It would be a rare man of that time who did not want a title just because his father had disgraced it. He was not required to claim it, but he could not sit in the House of Lords if he did not. He could change his name either by sign manual, deed poll, or just by doing it. However, those are extreme measures, and he would be compounding the failure of his father by not attending to the estate, the workers, the servants and all the others who depend on the family in one way or another. [I use all this legal rigamarole in my upcoming book, The Heartless Earl, being released by Black Opal Books on October 16. The earl is accused of a crime that puts not only his life, but the earldom, in jeopardy.]

Obviously, we have had royalty abdicate in recent times. Edward VIII became king on his father’s (George V) death in early 1936. However, he showed impatience with court protocol, and caused concern among politicians by his apparent disregard for established constitutional conventions. Only months into his reign, he caused a constitutional crisis by proposing to Wallis Simpson, an American who had divorced her first husband and was seeking a divorce from her second. The prime ministers of the United Kingdom and the Dominions opposed the marriage, arguing a divorced woman with two living ex-husbands was politically and socially unacceptable as a prospective queen consort. Additionally, such a marriage would have conflicted with Edward’s status as the titular head of the Church of England, which, at the time, disapproved of remarriage after divorce if a former spouse was still alive. Edward knew the British government, led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, would resign if the marriage went ahead, which could have forced a general election and would ruin his status as a politically neutral constitutional monarch. When it became apparent he could not marry Wallis and remain on the throne, Edward abdicated. He was succeeded by his younger brother, George VI.

After his abdication, he was created Duke of Windsor. Edward married Wallis in France on 3 June 1937, after her second divorce became final. Later that year, the couple toured Germany. During the Second World War, he was at first stationed with the British Military Mission to France, but after private accusations that he held Nazi sympathies, he was appointed Governor of the Bahamas. After the war, Edward spent the rest of his life in retirement in France. Edward and Wallis remained married until his death in 1972. [Edward VIII]

One final question that has likely occurred to some of you reading this: Is it possible for all lands to be lost save to pay debts? Or did lands always have to remain with the title?

It really depends on how the lands were acquired and what deeds, settlements, or entails control their disposition. While all of a man’s property could be sold to cover debts, entailed properties and hereditaments [In law, a hereditament (from Latin hereditare, to inherit, from heres, heir) is any kind of property that can be inherited.] and such came under a special provision. Now, there were special rules pertaining to peers and debts. Land did not always go with the title though the family seat was usually tied to it. Titles and property could go in different directions and often did.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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2 Responses to The “Skinny” on Abdicating a Title During the Regency Era

  1. Elaine Mitrovich says:

    Regina- what an excellent explanation of a complicated subject. Very enlightening.

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