Nobility: Keeping Them Straight?

By Tina Cooper
Special Thanks To Peter Hammond

If you log on to the Internet at, you are greeted with the heading of “Dukes and Barons and Earls, Oh My!”. I can think of no better way to describe the headaches one can acquire trying to keep the peerages of England straight. This site concerns itself primarily with the 15th Century, but as you will see, even those of us who love the time and the history of it have trouble understanding how the peerage works. The intention of this article is to give just a general example of how the peerage works. I am by no means a scholar in the field, but would like to share with you what I have found. Not everything in this article will necessarily apply to the 15th Century. I will try to make the appropriate comments for things that do not.

Recently, on our national discussion group, a question was raised that started my initial fascination with the peerages. The question, in general, was-“If there was a 1st Earl of Rutland during the Tudor period, how could Richard’s brother Edmund have been Earl of Rutland?” There was one answer to this question given by a member that I felt very comfortable with, being that, I believed it to have come from a reliable source. The reply given was “…isn’t the numerical indication given a title determined by how the title descends through the male line? And isn’t it considered extinct when the last possible male heir of the family dies without issue, when it then returns to the Crown, from whom all titles are held. If the title is subsequently awarded to a new holder, that person then becomes ‘the first….’ in that line? Hence the Mowbray/Howard designation, or the confusion over Rutland? Since I felt I knew very little on the subject of the peerage, I waited anxiously for someone to verify that this reply was correct. To my dismay, the conversation continued without any reference to the answer. So, I then set out to explain to myself not only the question but also the reply given. I found that my reliable source was close but not exactly correct. After you read the rest of the article hopefully you can answer the above question also.

Levels Of Grant or Types of Peerages
There are two levels of grant concerning the peerages. A title can be either Hereditary or a Life Peerage as determined by their original Patent of Creation. Baronies by writ, the only other kind of hereditary English peerage, had no terms of creation, the passing to females is a development of the law. Let’s start with Hereditary Peerages. This level of grant passes from the holder of the title to an heir of the original titleholder. Usually this is from father to son (heirs male of the body), but it can go to others. The deciding factor on how the peerage is transferred is determined in the terms of the original creation or in the Patent of Creation. Remainders are sometimes granted to others of the family (e.g. to daughters, brothers, or sisters etc. and the male heirs of their body). Between the Middle Ages and 1876 all peerages were hereditary. The Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 provided for the creation of a limited number of nonhereditary or life peerages. Most life peerages are created however, under the Life Peerage Act of 1958. This Act allowed the government to grant life peerages to men and women, allowing all the rights of a hereditary peerage, and including, a writ of summons to attend, sit, and vote in the House of Lords. This level of grant is not passed on to one’s heirs. As is stated, it is only good for the life of the peer holding that title. After which time it reverts back to the crown.

Abeyance, Dormant, and Extinct
Titles, even hereditary ones, can end. A title can become extinct, that is, there are no heirs left entitled to it, and it then reverts to the crown. It can also become dormant or abeyant. If it is said to be dormant, this means that there is quite possibly and heir somewhere but they just have not come forward yet. Abeyance is just a little different. It is in abeyance when the holder of a barony by writ dies and there is no male heir to the title or any single female heir. Primogeniture, or the 1st born with the right of succession, does not apply in the case of females, all of whom, if there is more than one, are known as co-heirs. The title remains in abeyance until there is only one female entitled to it or a single heir of that female. For example, the titleholder dies with only two daughters, until one of them has a son, grandson, or great grandson, this title is in abeyance. This therefore, could go on for many generations. The Crown could also call the title out of abeyance in favor of one of the co-heirs. If the Crown becomes upset with a peer, after due process of law, they can take the title away from that peer. It is then said to be under attainder and reverts back to the Crown. The attainder could be reversed by the sovereign that originally took it away or by a later sovereign for exceptional service to the Crown. So, as you can see, once a family received the title, this did not mean that it was permanent. High mortality rates and your ability to please a sovereign played a major part in how long your family was able to keep the title.

The best way I could think of to help explain how this all works, was to compile charts of actual titles from their date of first creation to the present. I chose to do the Duke of Norfolk and The Earl of Derby because of their obvious correlation with the 15th century and the battle of Bosworth.

Following the chart at the end of this article, let’s start with the Earl of Derby. Until we get to Robert De Ferrieres, Earl of Derby 6th, we have a direct father to son transmission. Since I’m already using more than my fair share of space, we’ll just say that the man couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. Robert went to the tower for ‘divers trespasses’ and his lands were taken into the king’s hands. He then received a full pardon, but he again used poor judgement in a rebellion and was sent to prison at Windsor for three years, as before, his lands went to the King. Robert was not under attainder but was unable to come up with the sum of £ 50,000 to regain his title.

In July 1266 the title Earl of Derby, forfeited by Robert, went to Henry III’s son Edmund. Edmund does not seem to have used the title. His son Thomas used it in a letter to the Pope on 12 Feb 1300/1, it was last in the list accompanying his name: THOME; COMMITIS; LANCASTRIE; LEYCESTRIE; ET; FERRARIIS.

The next person actually listed, as holding this title is, Henry, 1st Duke of Lancaster. He was Edmund’s second son but his eventual heir after Thomas. When he was created, by charter, Earl of Derby, it was granted “to hold to him and his heirs”. Which meant female as well as male heirs.

Blanche then inherits the title by being sole heir of Henry’s. When she married John of Gaunt, he styled himself in her right, Earl of Derby. Their son Henry IV is then the next to inherit. When he became King in 1399, the title Earl of Derby then merged with the Crown. It then became able to be redistributed as the King saw fit.

The title remained with the Crown until 1485 when Henry VII gave it to Thomas Stanley. One could guess as to whether it was just because he was Henry’s stepfather or also because of his loyalty at Bosworth.

We go now to Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby 2nd. He was the grandson of Thomas Stanley 1st Earl. Here we have a case where the father outlived the son, George, so it passed to George’s son, Thomas.

Our next deviation from direct father to son succession is from Ferdinando to William, his brother. Ferdinando had no male heirs so it went back to Henry Stanley 4th Earl and forward again through one of Henry’s other sons, in this case William.

We have the same case with William George Richard Stanley 9th Earl and his brother James 10th Earl. Both were sons of Charles the 8th Earl.

Now it gets a little complicated! We really run out of direct male heirs. We have to go all the way back to Thomas Stanley 2nd Earl. He received his title from his grandfather, Thomas 1st Earl because his father George died. Since the male line on Thomas 2nd Earl’s side ended, it then went to George’s other son James Stanley and forward again to Edward Stanley. Confused yet? Maybe this will help.

The rest of the Earls of Derby to present have been either father to son or grandfather to grandson, with one exception of a brother to brother with Edward Henry Stanley 15th Earl and Fredrick Arthur Stanley 16th Earl.

I hope I haven’t confused all of you at this point because I’d like to go on now with the Dukes of Norfolk. Thomas De Mowbray was created Duke of Norfolk by Richard II in 1397, it had been and earldom so this was an upgrade for him. We have Thomas 1st duke and his son Thomas, who should have inherited, getting into trouble. Dad, Thomas 1st is banished and son Thomas is executed. Now where do we go? Where else, Thomas 1st’s other son, John, who became Duke of Norfolk 2nd.

We continue along through two more John’s and direct father to son transfer until we get to Richard Plantagenet, the younger of the two princes in the tower. When he married Anne De Mowbray, he got the title. There were other claims to the Dukedom of Norfolk from one William, Lord Berkeley and one John, Lord Howard. According to Charles Ross, Berkeley had agreed to surrender his share of the reversion of Anne’s estates if she died without male issue, with Edward IV as reversionary heir. This, also according to Ross, was allegedly because he owed the Crown debts of £ 34,000, but he was also created Viscount Berkeley in exchange for his surrender of estates.

We then come to John Howard Duke of Norfolk 1st. Since Edward IV’s boys were no longer considered by some to be legitimate and John Howard had a long record of loyalty to Edward as well as Richard III, Richard then in June 1483, created John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Since this was a new creation and removed somewhat from the direct Mowbray line, John was then Duke of Norfolk 1st. Richard III, by creating it anew, was extinguishing all other claims to this title. John was killed at Bosworth and attainted by Henry VII.

John’s son Thomas, Duke of Norfolk 2nd, was next. Under Henry VIII, his father’s attainder was reversed because of Thomas’ service at Flodden Field, and he was then allowed to use the title.

Through the Tudors, this family was on again, off again. The next Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard 3rd Duke, was condemned for treason and his son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was executed. Thomas was still in prison when Henry VIII died. Queen Mary released him and restored him with full honors.

Since Henry Howard was executed, his son then became the next male heir, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk 4th. Here we have another grandfather to grandson. He didn’t keep the title long though. Queen Elizabeth I attainted him for trying to marry Mary Queen of Scots and trying to remove Elizabeth. When Elizabeth attainted Thomas it affected all male heirs from 1572 onward, 91 male heirs in all.

We don’t have another Duke of Norfolk until 1660, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk 5th. With petition from the Earls of Suffolk and Berkshire, Viscount Stafford, the Barons Howard of Charlton, and Howard of Escrick, the title previously under attainder in 1572, was restored to Thomas.

After all of this, the next Dukes of Norfolk are much easier to follow. There are father to son, brother to brother, uncle to nephew, and cousin to cousin. If we remember the basic male heir transfer, and realize that sometimes there were no male heirs born or they died before they could take on the title, it is even easier to get from Henry Howard Duke of Norfolk 6th to the current, Miles Francis Fitzalan-Howard, Duke of Norfolk 17th.

I hope this has helped some of you? There is a lot more to be covered when digging into titles. I didn’t cover Dowagers or Precedence mainly because I think our Editor would like room for other things in this issue too! Advanced methods of record keeping over time have made it much easier to follow recent history of titles. Good Luck to anyone wishing to research titles!



Burke’s. Genealogical & Heraldic History of the Peerage, Baronetage, & KnightageLondon: International House, 1980 4thed.

Cokayne, G. E. Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland………., Edited by V. Gibbs, et al. London: St. Catherine Press, 1910-59.

Debrett’s, Debrett’s Peerage & BaronetageLondon: St. Martins Press, 1995 ed.

Fraser, Antonia, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Los Angles: University of California Press, 1975.

McFarlane, K. B., The Nobility of Later Medieval England,Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, Special Edition for Sandpiper Books, 1997.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy, Edited by, Cannon, John & Griffiths, Ralph., Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 ed. (Circlets)

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, Edited by, Morgan, Kenneth O., Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 ed.

Pine, L. G., Heraldry, Ancestry and Titles, New York: Gramercy Publishing Co.. 1955.

Rosenthal, J. T., Nobles and the Noble Life1295 – 1500London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1976.

Rosenthal, J. T., Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth – Century EnglandPhiladelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Ross, Charles, Richard III, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

From the World Wide Web:

British Titles of Nobility

House of Lords



# Earls Of Derby Succ. How Acquired
1st Robert De Ferrieres 1138 cr, by King Stephen
2nd Robert (De Ferrieres) 1139 Son and Heir of Robert 1st Earl
3rd William (Robert)(De Ferrieres) 115? Son and Heir of Robert 2nd Earl
4th William (De Ferrieres) 1190 Son and Heir of William 3rd Earl
5th William (De Ferrieres or De Ferrers) 1247 Son and Heir of William 4th Earl
6th Robert (De Ferrers) 1254 Son and Heir of William 5th Earl. Lands and Titles Eventually Given to Henry III’s Son Edmund ,Earl of Lancaster.(he couldn’t stay out of trouble)
7th Henry ,1st Duke of Lancaster 1337 Son and Heir of Henry, Earl of Lancaster who was 2nd Son but Eventual Heir of Edmund, Earl of Lancaster.(“to hold to him and his heirs”)
8th Blanche 1362 Became Sole Heir of Henry 7th Earl. (Father) She Married John of Gaunt. He, in Her Right, Styled Himself Earl of Derby, &c.
9th Henry 1369-85 Son and Heir of Blanche and John of Gaunt. Succeeded to the throne on 30 Sep. 1399 as Henry IV. Honors Became Merged in the Crown.
1st Thomas (Stanley) 1485 cr. By Henry VII (Betrayed Richard III at Bosworth) Was also Henry VII’s Stepfather
2nd Thomas (Stanley) 1504 Father was George Stanley Son of Thomas 1st Earl but Thomas Outlived George, Title Then Passed to Next Male Heir. (Grandson)
3rd Edward (Stanley) 1521 2nd But 1st Surviving Son of Thomas 2ndEarl
4th Henry (Stanley) 1572 Son and Heir of Edward 3rd Earl
5th Ferdinando (Stanley) 1593 2nd but 1st Surviving Son of Henry 4th Earl
6th William (Stanley) 1594 Brother and Heir Male of Ferdinando 5thEarl
7th James (Stanley) 1642 Son and Heir of William 6th Earl (executed 1651)
8th Charles (Stanley) 1651 Son and Heir of James 7th Earl
9th William George Richard(Stanley) 1672 Son and Heir of Charles 8th Earl
10th James (Stanley) 1702 Brother and Heir Male of William 9th Earl
11th Edward (Stanley) 1736 6th Cousin and Heir Male (Went back to James Stanley Brother of Thomas 2nd Earl and Forward Again to Edward)
12th Edward (Smith-Stanley) 1776 Grandson and Heir of Edward 11th Earl. Edward 11th Earl Outlived His Son James, Father of Edward 12th Earl.
13th Edward (Smith-Stanley) 1834 Son and Heir of Edward 12th Earl
14th Edward Geoffrey (Stanley) 1851 Son and Heir of Edward 13th Earl
15th Edward Henry (Stanley) 1869 Son and Heir of Edward 14th Earl
16th Fredrick Arthur (Stanley) 1893 Brother and Heir of Edward 15th Earl
17th Edward George Villiers (Stanley) 1908 Son and Heir of Fredrick 16th Earl
18th Edward John (Stanley) 1948 Grandson and Heir of Edward 17th Earl


# Dukes of Norfolk Succ. How Acquired
1st Thomas (De Mowbray) 1397 cr. By Richard II for Service Acting as Earl Marshal in Appealling Arundel, Gloucester, and Warwick for Treason. (Later Banished)
2nd John (De Mowbray) 1425 Brother Thomas was executed in 1405. Father Thomas 1st Duke Banished. Became Heir and was Restored as Duke.
3rd John (De Mowbray) 1432 Son and Heir of John 2nd Duke
4th John (De Mowbray) 1461 Son and Heir of John 3rd Duke
5th Richard (Plantagenet) 1477 Married Anne De Mowbray da. Of John 4thDuke. Styled Duke of Norfolk (Son of Edward IV) Both Died Without Issue.
1st John (Howard) 1483 After Anne’s Death became coheir by right of Mother Margaret da. of Thomas 1st Duke (Killed at Bosworth and Attainted by H. VII)
2nd Thomas (Howard) 1514 Attainder Reversed by Henry VIII for Service at Flodden Field. Son and Heir of John 1st Dk.
3rd Thomas (Howard) 1524 and 1553 Son and Heir of Thomas 2nd Duke. Condemned for Treason, Son Henry, Earl of Surrey Executed. Queen Mary Released Him and Gave Back Full Honors.
4th Thomas (Howard) 1554 Grandson and Heir of Thomas 3rd Duke, Father Henry Executed. He was Later Attainted by Elizabeth I for Trying to Marry Mary Queen of Scots. (91 Male Heirs in all Affected)
5th Thomas (Howard) 1660 Restored to Dukedom. Went Back Through Male Heirs 4 Generations to Thomas 4thDuke.
6th Henry (Howard) 1677 Brother and Heir of Thomas 5th Duke
7th Henry (Howard) 1684 Son and Heir of Henry 6th Duke
8th Thomas (Howard) 1701 Nephew and Heir of Henry 7th Duke
9th Edward (Howard) 1732 Brother and Heir of Thomas 8th Duke
10th Charles (Howard) 1777 Cousin and Heir of Edward 9th Duke. Went Back 3 Generations. Thomas 5th and Henry 6th Were Brothers Charles Descended From Another of Their Brothers.
11th Charles (Howard) 1786 Son and Heir of Charles 10th Duke
12th Bernard Edward (Henry) 1815 Cousin and Heir of Charles 11th Duke. Father Was Brother of Charles 10th Duke.
13th Henry Charles (Howard) 1842 Son and Heir of Bernard 12th Duke
14th Henry Granville (Fitzalan-Howard) 1856 Son and Heir of Henry 13th Duke
15th Henry (Fitzalan-Howard) 1860 Son and Heir of Henry 14th Duke
16th Bernard Marmaduke (Fitzalan-Howard) 1917 Son and Heir of Henry 15th Duke
17th Miles Francis (Fitzalan-Howard) 1975 Bernard 16th Duke -No Male Heirs. Went All the Way Back to Henry 13th Duke and Forward Again Through Male Heirs.