Precedence is not regulated by mere conventional arrangement; it is no fluctuating practice of fashionable life, no result of voluntary compacts in society, no usurpation of one class over others; but, on the contrary, it is "part and parcel of the law of England ;" subsisting under the authority of acts of parliament, solemn decisions in courts of justice, or public instruments proceeding from the Crown. The earliest statute on the subject of precedence is the 31st of Henry VII I. cap. 10, chiefly for the purpose of fixing the official precedence of certain state functionaries and of the Lords in parliament, has been accepted as an authority for placing these persons on all occasions, whether specially named is the act or not. The next public documents relating to this subject are the decrees of James I. issued in 1612 and 1616: then that of William and Mary, cap. 21; the 10th of Anne, cap. 8; the 5th of Anne, cap. 8; the 59th of George III. cap. 67; with many other acts determining individual precedence, besides royal ordinances, decrees, warrants, letters patent, and statutes of knightly Orders.
At all periods of British history, but especially during the last 250 years, the aristocratic spirit of British society presented a well-defined and Ascertained character. From this source have sprung a variety of arrangements connected with court ceremonial as well as with the intercourse of private society, which were mingled witb, but in some respects quite distinct from, the duties, privileges, and powers of those who were engaged in the public service. For example, though each rank in the peerage commands, according to a certain graduated scale, the respect of society, while it gratifies the ambition of its possessor and his family, yet no one member of the House of Lords had in his political or judicial capacity any greater amount of power than his brethren; the vote of a duke reckoned for no more than the vote of a viscount or baron.
It is to be observed, that primogeniture and seniority were among the leading principles of the system of precedence. Priority of birth, and dates of patents and commissions, determine the precedence which individuals of the same rank take among each other, and thus the station and degree of each are ascertained by means which rarely admit of coniroverwy or doubt.
In England all rank and honours are either hereditary, official, or personal. The order of baronets, the five ranks of the peerage, and the sovereignty of the realm, constitute the hereditary distinctions in British society. The discharge of public duties, civil, military, and ecclesiastical, impart official dignity; while a seat in the Privy Council or In the House of Commons, the honour of knighthood, patents of precedence at the bar, &c. confer distinctions which, being neither hereditary nor official, may fairly be comprehended under the third of the above-named classes.
Seeking to arrive at clear and satisfactory views of a subject like this ventures some attempts to trace these honorary distinctions to their respective origins, and to examine their remote as well as their recent history; but yet even these aids do not secure all the information that is necessary to satisfy the demands of a liberal curiosity. There are no authentic sources from which any very material information can be derived with respect to the manners and customs of remote ancestors, as regards rank, place, and precedence. In a primitlve condition of society, the supreme ruler, the priesthood, and the people, are the natural divisions into which a nation would, as it were, classify itself. Any inquiry into the usages of the Saxons, still less into those of the ancient British, would supply hut little assistance towards rendering more interesting or useful the account to be given of the various orders of society in the United Kingdom.
It is well known that the Norman invaders and their descendants assumed in England all those exclusive privileges by which they made themselves every thing, and the serfs, who cultivated the soil, no better than slaves. Although the legal institutions, the language, and the lineage of the Saxons, in process of time, recovered their influence, and ultimately prevailed, yet it is the Norman conquerors, and to their usages, which constitutes our ceremonial and titular code - the principle upon which rank and dignities have been formed and arranged, as well as the power by which they are conferred. Still it is only the germ of that system that modern English society may be said to have derived from the rude soldiers of fortune who followed in the train of William, Duke of Normandy. With tbe consent of their leader, they constituted themselves the nobles of the land; and though the titles of duke and earl might be traced to an age antecedent to the extinction of the Saxon dynasties.
A long period elapsed after the Conquest before any other degrees of nobility than those of baron and of knight were established in England. The latter was, as it still continues to be, a personal distinction: the former, a result of territorial possessions. It was the tenure of certain lands which in those days imparted to a man the dignity of a baron. Many knights possessed what were termed "knights' fees," and if they held such lands they were bound to perform "knights' service;" but the existence or continuance of knighthood did not in any respect depend upon territorial possessions.
Inasmuch as the Crown has not extensively exercised the power of giving precedence to new knights or newly made barons, over men already in the enjoyment of those dignities, yet the monarch gradually called into existence new orders of nobility; and though he did not much alter the positions of individual nobles among each other in their respective ranks, yet he assumed the power of placing one entire order above another. Thus the whole peerage at one time consisted chiefly of barons: and now barons form its lowest rank; for each successively created order was placed not after, but before those wbo may be considered to have constituted the original nobility of the land./In like manner the ancient and general fraternity of knighht bachelor have been moved downwards in the scale of precedence, to make way fur the knights of the several Orders and for the baronets.
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