Overdressed and underworked as today’s nobles may seem, their ancestors gained their titles the hard way: doing battle for the king. Some of the nation’s most celebrated noble families can trace back to 1066, when their forebears—a hard-faced force of Normans stiff with chain-mail—waded ashore with William the Conqueror and defeated a cowering England. As reward, William presented his troops with titles and tracts of land in his new kingdom. The bloodier their deeds, the broader their acreage and the loftier their rank. The lords continued fractious, however, and under their duress, in 1215, King John signed Magna Carta, surrendering forever the monarch’s absolute power.
The nobles were less zealous in defense of women’s rights. Ambitious men among them were amenable to sharing their wives with the sovereign. Daughters, almost without exception, could not inherit dukedoms or marquessates. Though they could succeed to lesser titles, hereditary peeresses were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until 1963. Five years earlier, to bypass that outdated sexism and revitalize the Lords, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan created a category of lifetime peerages; four of the first honorees were women.
Given their historic impact, it is surprising that fewer than 1,000 hereditary peers remain in a nation of 55 million. It is heartening that about three times as many Britons now hold lifetime peerages and knighthoods for their own accomplishments. The table at right will help you sort through the resulting confusion of titles and entitlements. Give it a go, because that’s how the British separate the chic from the gauche.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]