It is a constitutional maxim that the King is the fountain of honor, and it is from this fountain that the dignity of peerage is derived. This origin has been constantly recognized from very early times, not only in patents and charters of nobility, but in Parliament, in the Courts of law, and by all writers of authority. It has been constantly and invariably asserted as a rule of law that the King is the fountain of all dignity and honour in the kingdom; and that he may not only give the ancient distinctions of Earl or Baron to any one, but may also erect any name of dignity which was not used before, a right which appears to have been exercised by the Crown in the erection of a mere name of dignity, to which rights of precedence only have been annexed, as the title of Baronet, and also in tho erection of names of dignity (those of Duke, Marquis, and Viscount) which have been annexed to the dignity of peer of the realm with different rights of precedence.
The actual exercise of this power in various instances during the course of ages, and tho constant assertion of the right in various patents of the Crown under which many dignities have been and many still are enjoyed, seem to demonstrate that the Crown has long been and probably has always been considered as the fountain of all dignity and honour in the United Kingdom. And this fountain of honour, be it noted, is one that is inexhaustible. In granting a peerage, the Crown is not dealing with an estate which actually existed and of which it had tho reversion. The bounty of the Crown in the very act of giving calls into existence the thing granted; it is a creation rather than a transference. The Crown is indeed the fountain of honour, but it is a fountain wholly inexhaustible ; it is a fountain from which honours may be drawn again and again, and yet as much will still be left and as much more still be made to flow as if nothing had issued.
And as with the creation of the dignity so with the extent of it. It rests with the Crown to determine what shall bo the degree of honour attaching to any peerage it bestows, and what - within the limits that tho law permits - shall be the course of its devolution. But once having brought a peerage into existence, tho Crown's control of it is in a measure exhausted. The created peerage becomes an inheritance descending according to the settled rules of law, and no act of the Crown can either alter the course of its descent (save where it falls into abeyance), or merge or extinguish it by the grant of a peerage of higher degree to the same person, or change its precedence, or give effect to a surrender of it, or restore it if forfeited. For a peerage once created endures until it is destroyed or extinguished, either by attainder or by special Act of Parliament, or by failure of inheritable heirs-of heirs, that is to say, within the original limitations.
There are at the present day five degrees of peerage, Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron, but from the time of tho Conqueror to the reign of Edward III - there were only two, Earls and Barons.
The difference in the case of peerage grants between charters and letters patent is one rather of form than of substance. Both are solemn acts of the royal prerogative, both are under the Great Seal, but the two instruments vary somewhat in formal parts. In general, those who in their own right belong to the titled nobility are members of the House of Lords and constitute the Peerage. Sons of Peers above the degree of a baron commonly enjoy the use of a title by courtesy.
Eldest sons of dukes, marquesses and earls take by courtesy the father's second title, assuming there is one. The Duke of Bedford's son is the Marquess of Tavistock. Lord Tavistock's elder son, if he has one, can use the third title of the Duke, and he therefore is Lord Howland. These people are not peers - a designation that suggests they hold a peerage itself. Younger sons of dukes and marquesses use their forenames after the courtesy title "Lord" and before the family surname, which is not usually the same as the peerage title itself (a younger son of the Duke of Bedford, for example, might be Lord John Russell). At subsequent references he is "Lord John", never "Lord Russell".
Peerages may also be classified in respect of their kingdom of origin thus:-
- Peerages of England created before the union -with Scotland, 1st May, 1707. Such peerages, where now subsisting, are become peerages of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
- Peerages of Great Britain created after that union aforesaid. Such peerages, where now subsisting, are become peerages of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
- Peerages of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland created since the union with Ireland, 2nd July, 1800.
- Peerages of the kingdom of Scotland created before the union with England. Such peerages give the right to sit by representation only in the House of Lords and for life.
- Peerages of the kingdom of Ireland, whether created before the union with Great Britain or since. Such peerages give the right to sit by representation only in the House of Lords.
The grant of a peerage to a commoner renders him or her noble, since it makes him or her a peer or peeress, and gives to his or her issue - or such of them as by the grant shall be made inheritable - a potential nobility. A peerage is, in law, an incorporeal hereditament, an inheritance. Nobility is inherent in the blood in that a peerage cannot be aliened, or surrendered, or merged, but it is not inherent in the sense that it passes with the blood to all descendants of the grantee. The children of a peer, then, are not born noble. If the parent's peerage is descendible to heirs general each descendant may by possibility inherit the same and so acquire nobility. So where a peerage is granted to a man and the heirs male of his body, he is ennobled, but they have only the prospect of nobility, which may or may not be realised. Even the only or oldest son aiid heir apparent of a peer is not during his father's lifetime a noble, unless indeed ho acquires a peerage by creation, or by descent from or through hia mother. On the other hand, where a peer marries a commoner she thereupon becomes a peeress and therefore noble. She is entitled to the privileges of peerage other than the right to be summoned to and sit in Parliament, and she remains noble notwithstanding the death of her husband; but if during her widowhood she marries a commoner, then she ceases to bo a peeress and noble.
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