eli5 English Peerage

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I just started reading The Pillars of the Earth and I’ve tried looking up the peerage system understand that its a hierarchical system but nothing really clearly explains what benefits, duties, and roles these different classes have overall. Is someone able to explain to me for example what would be different between and Earl and a Duke, or a Marquess for example?
Are these titles sometimes symbolic? As it seems sometimes someone of lower rank can be considerably more powerful than someone of a higher one. Unless I’m mistaken on that front.
Thanks!

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In formal settings today, the rank order from highest to lowest is duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron. Each of them may be addressed as “lord” and historically their titles were all hereditary. You may also read about baronets, who have a hereditary title, and knights, who usually don’t, but these are both commoners addressed as “sir.”

The formal ranking doesn’t necessarily correspond to political or economic power–it generally takes some kind of power and reputation to acquire a rank for yourself and your descendants, but the title can last a lot longer than the family’s power does. On the other hand, your title gives you access to opportunities for power that other people don’t have. Think of it as an acknowledgment of power (large land holdings especially), a way to reward loyal servants (like those the king appointed to high offices), and in turn, a claim for privileged access for the descendants. Usually the higher titles were awarded to someone who is already of the peerage, so that a family couldn’t acquire status too quickly.

The distinction between titles is often a medieval one that might be hindering than helpful. For example a marquess holds a march, which historically was a border area that needed special protection, and compared to other nobles the marquess received special privileges in exchange for seeing to its defense. Yet depending on when you are reading about, that may not be relevant anymore and the distinction may only be a formal one.

Especially in the 19th and early 20 century, many commoners became barons through cultural or scientific achievements or as a reward for government service. Today the policy is to no longer to award hereditary peerages, though people still get “life peerage” which is a non-hereditary barony, so that they can sit in the House of Lords (and are ineligible to sit in the Commons).

I’ll talk about this in medieval times.

The Peer have the rank of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron in order of prestige. Lower rank of noble are not Peer and as such can’t be elected to the House of Lords where they are part of the legislative branch of government. Not all rank came about at the same time, so I’ll go through them as they appeared.

Earl were the first, they were powerful nobles put in charge of the administration of an Earldom for the king. Earldom were like states or provinces, they were administrative unit to take care of justice, taxes, etc. Usually Earl were powerful noble with land of their own, but they didn’t own the territory of the Earl. They were simply administrator of the Earldom in the name of the King and in payment for their work as administrator they would get a portion of the revenue from that land. Most of them also personally owned land and usually someone who own a lot of land in a specific Earldom was giving the title of Earl in that same territory. Title of Earl were hereditary, but they moved around a lot over the years. Sometime with no heir the Earldom came back to the king, sometime a noble could inherited more than one title of Earl. It was a constant struggle of power between powerful nobles and the King. The king needed the Earl to do the administration of all the land, but if one Earl could accumulate enough power it could lessen the power of the King to do as he please. The Earl would be part of the House of Lords where law could be voted on.

Baron came with the Norman invasion of England. At first Baron wasn’t a rank of nobility but just meant someone in charge of land in the feudal system. So all noble in charge of land for the King were baron. Later there was a distinction between Baron by Knight’s service who had the responsibility to provide military service in exchange for land, and Baron who were Lords of Manors, which were landholder. Those ”greater baron” were the one that received writs of summon to be part of the Parliament. Eventually, the Barons would receive writs of summon as a group and some of them elected to represent them at the Parliament. Eventually the title of Baron became link only to the letter of the king to summon them to the Parliament and no longer to the land. The title of Baron was given to people by the King for different reason, but they would still mean that they had the right to be part of the Parliament.

Viscount and Marquess were just title of higher prestige given to a family. There was not a lot of those in England, just a couple of families received this honour and this was given to families that were already Peer. The Marquess of Winchester was already the Earl of Wiltshire, and the Viscount of Hereford was already the Baron Ferrers of Chartley.

The Duke of England are usually given to member of the royal family, or powerful Earl but their history is rather complicated. The Duke of Cornwall is a title given to the oldest living son of the monarch and the heir apparent. When the Earl of Norfolk died without an heir the Earldom reverted to the Crown. The Earldom of Norfolk was given to the brother of the King and several generation later it was made into a Duchy by the King. The first Duke of Lancaster was the great-grandson of king Henry III. The first Duke of York was the forth surviving son of King Edward III and by the 15th century it was given to the second son of the King.