Peerages: Those Which Can Be Inherited and Those Which Cannot

A hereditary peerage, generally passages from father to son, or to another. Those peerages which cannot be inherited are called “for life.”

“By the 1950s, there was a feeling the membership of the House of Lords ought to be tackled. Proposals for creating life peers, appointed by the Government for life rather than on a hereditary basis, had been around since the 1920s. In November 1957, a Life Peerages Bill was introduced into the Lords by Lord Home. The clause relating to the creation of women peers caused the greatest agitation. An amendment to exclude women from the House was defeated at committee stage by 134 votes to 30.” [Life Peerage Act, UK Parliament]

A life peerage grants all the privileges as does the hereditary peerage, including a seat in the House of Lords, except it cannot be passed down to the person’s children, though those children are addressed by the customary courtesy titles and styling appropriate to the peerage, and they keep that courtesy titles until their own deaths. Generally, those which have been granted under the Act are baronies. The only other life peerage granted occurred in 1856, when James Parke was made 1st Baron Wensleydale. Parke’s road to the barony was quite unusual, as you will see below:

James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale (1782-1868) – Public Domain

“Parke’s early career as a barrister was not noted as particularly brilliant, but he was successful; in 1820, for example, he was junior counsel for the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820 against Caroline of Brunswick. On 28 November 1828 he succeeded Sir George Holroyd as a judge of the Court of King’s Bench, a great achievement for somebody who had not even qualified as a King’s Counsel, and he was knighted on 1 December 1828. In 1833 he was made a Privy Councillor, and on 29 April 1834 was transferred, along with Edward Hall Alderson, to the Court of Exchequer, succeeding and being succeeded as a judge of the Court of King’s Bench by John Williams.

“His work in the Court of Exchequer has led to him being called “one of the greatest of English judges; had he comprehended the principles of equity as fully as he did the principles of the common law, he might fairly be called the greatest. His mental power, his ability to grasp difficult points, to disentangle complicated facts, and to state the law clearly, have seldom been surpassed. No judgments delivered during this period are of greater service to the student of law than his”. He was criticised for being too respectful of authority and unwilling to overturn precedent; John Coleridge accused him of being dedicated to the form of the law rather than the substance.

“The Common Law Procedure Acts 1854 and 1855 led to his resignation from the Exchequer in disgust, but his reputation was such that the government recalled him by granting him a life peerage, that of Baron Wensleydale, of Wensleydale, in the North Riding of Yorkshire on 16 January 1856. There was a question at the time of whether the letters patent, which granted him a peerage “for the term of his natural life”, allowed him to sit in the House of Lords; it was eventually decided that they did not, and a second set was issued with the usual form for Baron Wensleydale, of Walton, in the County Palatine of Lancaster on 23 July 1856. This was irrelevant, since he had no sons able to take the peerage even if it was not a life appointment. He sat as part of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords until his death on 25 February 1868.” (James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale)

Coat of Arms, James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale

The former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was presented a life peerage as a baroness. She should be addressed as Lady Thatcher. Her children have the courtesy title of “Honourable.”

Life peerages for women were more common than one might think. Remember, women in this position WOULD NOT sit in the House of Lords.

“Prior to the regular creation of life peerages, the great majority of peerages were created for men. Suo jure peeresses are known from an early period; however, most of them were women to whom a peerage had passed as an inheritance. It was very rare for a woman to be created a peeress before the 17th century. Peeresses of the first creation were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until the passage of the Life Peerages Act 1958. Female holders of hereditary peerages could not sit in the Lords until the passage of the Peerage Act 1963. In some, but not all cases, peeresses of first creation were created for life only.

“Created peeresses fall into the following categories:

  • Created for merit or achievement
  • Having a father who was a peer, but who under the terms of the peerage could not pass the peerage to his daughter. Such an event could create the anomalous situation of commoners holding important lands and estates traditionally associated with lordship.
  • Closely connected to a reigning monarch (including many royal mistresses)
  • Created to honour a relative, including:
    • As a posthumous honour for a dead husband, often one who would have received a peerage if he had not died
    • To honour a husband who was living, but could not or would not accept a peerage in his own right (for instance if he wanted to retain his seat in the elected Commons)
    • To confer nobility upon the peeress’s children, again often in recognition of the achievement of a husband

There is a long list of the life peerages for women at this LINK. Notice King Charles II granted life peerages to ten of his ennobled mistress!!

Most peerages, however, are hereditary.

“A peerage passes from father to son, but sometimes a peer dies without a son to succeed him.  For example, the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) never married.  When that happens, go back one generation, to the peer’s father, in this case the 5th Duke (1748-1811), and trace the next eldest male direct lineal descendant. In this case, that would be 5th Duke’s other sons, if he had any.  He didn’t (at least, not a legitimate one), so we go back one more generation, to the 4th Duke (1720-1764).  The 4th Duke had at least two sons:  William, who succeeded him as 5th Duke, and Lord George Cavendish (1754-1834).  Lord George died during the 6th Duke’s lifetime, but if he had survived him, he would have become the next duke.  However, he left a son, Mr. William Cavendish (1783-1812), who also died before the 6th Duke, but left one son, Mr. William Cavendish (1808-1891).  This man became the 7th Duke of Devonshire. 

“But if Lord George’s line had died out, then the dukedom could be traced back up to three more generations, all the way to the 1st Duke, and descend through the eldest of his other sons who had surviving legitimate male issue.  If there was no legitimate surviving male descendant, then the title of Duke of Devonshire would become “extinct.” However, if there was a legitimate surviving male descendant of his father, the 3rd Earl of Devonshire, then that person would inherit the earldom.  In this way distant cousins can sometimes inherit lesser titles while the highest peerage dies out. “[Hereditary Peerages]

To inherit a peerage, a man must be the eldest male survivor, with a line traceable from father to son, all the way back to the earliest person to hold the peerage. Verifying this “chain of succession,” so to speak is part of being summoned before the House of Lords officially to accept the peerage. “Eldest” in this case has nothing to do with the age of the person claiming the peerage, but rather, whether he can trace a DIRECT LINE to an earlier holder of the peerage, i.e., eldest son of the eldest son.

A direct summons by the Monarch to attend the Parliament is knows as a writ of summons. By modern English law, if a writ of summons was issued to a person who was not a peer, that person took his seat in Parliament, and the parliament was a parliament in the modern sense (including representatives of the Commons), that single writ created a barony, a perpetual peerage inheritable by male-preference primogeniture. This was not medieval practice, and it is doubtful whether any writ was ever issued with the intent of creating such a peerage. The last instance of a man being summoned by writ without already holding a peerage was under the early Tudors; the first clear decision that a single writ (as opposed to a long succession of writs) created a peerage was in Lord Abergavenny’s case of 1610. Peerages created by writ of summons are presumed to be inheritable only by the recipient’s heirs of the body.

writ of acceleration is a type of writ of summons that enables the eldest son of a peer to attend the House of Lords using one of his father’s subsidiary titles. The title is strictly not inherited by the eldest son, however; it remains vested in the father. A writ may be granted only if the title being accelerated is a subsidiary one, and not the main title, and if the beneficiary of the writ is the heir-apparent of the actual holder of the title. A total of ninety-four writs of acceleration have been issued since Edward IV issued the first one.

More often, letters patent are used to create peerages. Letters patent must explicitly name the recipient of the title and specify the course of descent; the exact meaning of the term is determined by common law. For remainders in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, the most common wording is “to have and to hold unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten”. Where the letters patent specifies the peer’s heirs male of the body as successors, the rules of agnatic succession apply, meaning that succession is through the male line only. Some very old titles, like the Earldom of Arlington, may pass to heirs of the body (not just heirs-male), these follow the same rules of descent as do baronies by writ and seem able to fall into abeyance as well.


Creation and Inheritance of Peerages. DeBrett’s.

Harry Graham, The Mother of Parliaments (Little, Brown & company, 1911), p. 33

“Hereditary Peerages.”

Register of Hereditary Peers: running list”. Parliament of the United Kingdom.

UK peerage creations: Hereditary peerages with special limitations in remainder”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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