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Summary Article: peerage
From The Macmillan Encyclopedia

The nobility of the UK and Ireland, which originated in the tenants in chief of the Norman kings of England. The five ranks of the hereditary peerage are dukes (from Latin duces, the Roman and Saxon army leaders), marquesses (originally nobles who held fiefs on the marches, or borders), earls (from the Danish jarl, which replaced the ealdorman, the chief Anglo-Saxon magistrate of a shire), viscounts (from vicecomes, the sheriff of a county court), and barons (who originally held land from the king per baroniam, i.e. directly). The wives of peers (or female peers in their own right) have the titles duchess, marchioness, countess, viscountess, or baroness, respectively. Dukes of the blood royal must be direct male descendants of the sovereign (e.g. the Duke of York), whereas members of the royal family not so descended (e.g. the Duke of Edinburgh) are sometimes called royal dukes.

Peerages, with two classes of exceptions, are hereditary titles usually descending to the eldest male son of the holder, but in certain cases they may descend through the female line. The first class of nonhereditary peers are the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. These are lawyers raised to the peerage for life (since the 19th century) to enable them to act as judges in the House of Lords. The other class are the life peers created since the Life Peerages Act (1958) to reward those who have given outstanding service to their country. These peerages are given as baronies to both men and women.

Until recently peers had an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords (See parliament) but were not allowed to be MPs in the House of Commons (although from 1963 peers were able to disclaim their titles for life to enable them to sit in the Commons, without interfering with the rights of succession). In 1999 parliament approved legislation to deprive hereditary peers of the right to sit in the House of Lords. Under a White Paper published in 2001, newly created life peers would no longer have a seat in the Lords and the existing life peers would gradually be replaced with new appointees (who would have no title).

The Macmillan Encyclopedia, © Market House Books Ltd 2003

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