barons and dukes and earls -- 1/17/23

Today's selection -- from The Day the King Defaulted by Moshe Arye Milevsky. A guide to the titles of nobility. “In 1676 there were 11 English dukes, 3 marquesses, 66 earls, 11 viscounts and 65 barons”:

"I begin with a brief overview of English titles and peerage classification in the seventeenth century. Obviously, at the very top of the social hierarchy sat the immediate royal family and the monarch himself, King Charles II, to whom I will return in a moment. Just under the royals in social importance, and the highest rank within the peerage universe, was a Duke. There were very few Dukes and most had a very close historical connection to the royal family. In fact, some Dukes were actually members of the royal family. For example, King Charles II's younger and only surviving brother James was known as the Duke of York, and upon the death of King Charles II (much later, in 1685), James inherited the crown (at least for a short while).

"One step below the level of Duke in the social hierarchy was the title Marquess, which is in fact properly spelled as listed here but does occa­sionally appear as Marquis. This title was rank number two in the peer­age. And, although you might not have heard of any Marquesses -- and it isn't easy to pronounce -- they were very close to the title of Duke in importance. According to Queen Victoria, writing in her own journal two centuries after our period, the title Marquess was to be granted 'when it was not our wishes that they be made Dukes.' 

The House of Lords is the upper legislature of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is filled with members that are selected from the nobility (both hereditary titleholders and those ennobled only for their individual lives).

"The next one down was the Earl; the third rank in the peerage system. Famous Earls would include the 4th Earl of Sandwich, patron saint of the paired bread bearing his name. He actually died in the third Anglo-Dutch war, which is part of our story. Another was the racy and flamboyant Earl of Rochester; quite possibly the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century, who died of syphilis at the age of 33 and whose writing was (quite naturally) censored during the prudish Victorian era.

"Both these well-known Earls were alive during the Restoration but played little, if any, role in the financial crisis of 1672.

"Moving on down, beneath the Earl was a Viscount, aka the fourth of five ranks in the peerage. The Viscount title was also quite rare and, to confuse matters, was occasionally used in reference to the heir of an Earl or Marquess, but only before the father (Earl) himself had died and the son inherited the title.

"Finally, rounding out the five titles of English nobility was the Baron. So, the Barons, Earls and Dukes were the main ones, in between 5th and 3rd were Viscounts and in between 3rd and 1st were Marquesses.

"More importantly, these five classes of nobility would all be referred to as Lords and they had the right, although certainly not the obligation, to attend and sit in the English House of Lords. The King at his own discre­tion could decide at any time to elevate someone to any one of the stairs on the ladder of nobility. Once you were promoted, you and your first­oorn son and his first-born son, and so on, were there for life. Think of it as a type of academic tenure in perpetuity (for males only).

"Of course being a member of the nobility and a Lord didn't necessarily protect you from the king's wrath -- especially if you inherited your title­ and many Lords found themselves on the wrong side of the political fence and imprisoned in the Tower of London at one point or another.

"For casual fans of the totally fictitious and yet very popular (from 2010 to 2015) TV show Downton Abbey, one of the main characters is Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, which you will note is rank number three in the nobility.

"His (fictitious) father would have been the 6th Earl of Grantham, his grandfather 5th, and so on. Robert Crawley would have been a member of (and sitting in) the House of Lords even though he lived in Yorkshire, a few hours away from London by train.

"Now, for the record, but not to confuse matters any more than neces­sary for our financial tale, England and Scotland had slightly different rules for nobility. What this means is that a Lord might have a few distinct titles within the nobility, some English and some Scottish. For example, the more fanatical fans of Downton Abbey will know that Robert Crawley was also called Viscount of Downton, which, recall, is one level under an Earl. (Personally, I would take Earl over Viscount if given the choice.) In addition to the English versus Scottish matter, the two distinct titles were possible because of various inheritances and properties associated with each. In general though, members of nobility were usually referred to by their higher title (a practice I will follow), although there are exceptions.

"As a rough assessment for the size and scope of the nobility, it has been estimated that there were approximately 160 families, or 6400 persons, within the ranks of the peerage in England and Wales in the late seven­teenth century. Note that Bishops were also allowed to sit in the House of Lords, but they aren't included in the above numbers. Also, those fig­ures were estimated in the late 1690s, but the size couldn't have been much smaller in the 1660s. According to Ian Mortimer -- writing in his renowned time traveler's guide -- in 1676 there were 11 English dukes, 3 marquesses, 66 earls, 11 viscounts and 65 barons.

"Finally, and for the sake of social completeness, just under the pyramid of nobility were the gentry, then yeomen (perhaps with land) and then the poor. The gentry consisted of baronets (not to be confused with the noble barons) as well as knights, both of whom were entitled to various social privi­leges, including the use of the appellation 'Sir' before their name. Again, all these titles were bestowed directly by the King. To round out the gen­try, if you weren't a baronet or a knight, you could take solace in being an esquire or, at the very least, a country gentleman. In addition, there were also urban artisans and merchants who were important actors (depositors) in our financial drama. In sum, in the late seventeenth century, the gentry of England and Wales -- in other words, the baronets, knights, esquires and gentlemen -- consisted of over 16,000 families or almost 150,000 persons."



Moshe Arye Milevsky


The Day the King Defaulted: Financial Lessons from the Stop of the Exchequer in 1672


Schulich School of Business




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