Do you know who the Duke of Earl is?
July 6, 2010 9:43 PM   Subscribe

How much awareness do modern UK citizens have of the peerage?

I've been reading a bit lately on the Peerage system in the UK, and am interested in knowing how aware you are of it. For example, I'm constantly having to refer to Wikipedia to remind myself what order of precedence everything fits in for basic questions like 'are marquesses more important than earls?' Is that the sort of thing that's taught in school there? In what grade? If it's not taught, is it the sort of thing most people know anyway by cultural osmosis, or are UKians just as likely as anyone else to have to look up what the hell a Viscount is?

Are you generally aware of who holds what titles now? Down to what level of the peerage? I can't imagine anyone is generally aware of every last baron, but are people generally aware (not necessarily in a 'can list them all off the top of your head' way, but more in a '"oh yeah, that guy" if they are referred to' way) of, say, who all the Earls or Marquesses are? Or who the Earls for the immediate area around their hometown are?

Do the significant happenings of these people get general sort of news coverage? Down to what level in the peerage might that happen? Or is it really only the immediate Royals, unless you happen to be really into the whole thing and follow specific Peerage gossip media. Is there specific peerage gossip media?

Does it make a difference if they are active in the House of Lords? Does it get similar political coverage to the House of Commons? Or is it more like the Canadian Senate where they do whatever it is they do and no one cares, because it has no actual effect on anything?

(I don't need you to actually explain the peerage to me; I want to know if you understand it, but I'll take your word for it. I can get all the actual explanations from wikipedia and other sources.)
posted by jacquilynne to Law & Government (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The short answer is, it's very much below the radar. I neither know nor care what order they come in nor who they are. I am aware of some peers, especially if they are active in government but the house of lords is moving away from hereditary peers now to life peers, so they are more likely to have been previously known for something. My level of knowledge may be coloured by the fact that I am fervently anti-monarchist so I don't seek out the information.

We were never taught about it in school specifically, but there are still references to the likes of he Duke of Westminster in the Times rich list. Some newspapers continue to report on the doings of the minor aristocracy in their society pages but it's like D list celebrities with posh accents. The rest of them will only make the papers if they get busted for cocaine or attend one of [Prince] Harry's fancy dress parties in Nazi uniform.
posted by itsjustanalias at 10:07 PM on July 6, 2010

Some newspapers continue to report on the doings of the minor aristocracy in their society pages but it's like D list celebrities with posh accents.

Or it's Jennifer's Diary material. There are the big landowners with their big houses (Westminster, Marlborough, Devonshire, Northumberland), the eccentrics with big houses (Marquess of Bath, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu), the ones with notable professional careers, the notorious ones, the ones descended from significant historical figures, and so on. They get coverage for what they do, with a bit of a peerage hook -- "posh coke addict" isn't much of a story, "posh coke addict who'll become the Marquess of Trumptonshire and inherit an Elizabethan manor house" will do the trick. You'll probably know of the aristocrats in your area who have the big houses with big parks that you can visit on bank holidays, but they're just part of the landscape.

Another thing about hereditary titles is that, by their nature, they often stick around much longer than any estate; Burke's Peerage is a very big book. So you have lots of people with titles that are carried around like slightly embarrassing family heirlooms.
posted by holgate at 11:22 PM on July 6, 2010

I think the only people who really care are the peers, and even then often not that much. My cousin is married to a royal and neither she nor her husband give a damn. Unless you knew them you would never know.
posted by daveyt at 12:09 AM on July 7, 2010

Not much awareness at all. I could tell you the first three in line to the throne, but all else is mystery.
posted by seanyboy at 12:47 AM on July 7, 2010

I have no clue about any of it.

People sitting in the Lords are often in the press discussing political issues, so I recognise a few of those names. They get much less coverage than the House of Commons, but can be seen regularly on the more literate programs: Baroness Warsi, a Conservative life peer, faces the head of the British National Party on Question Time last year.

I had no idea we even had marquises and viscounts or that any of them might live near me.
posted by emilyw at 1:03 AM on July 7, 2010

Anecdotal evidence. I'm an American who has been a lifelong reader of Regency romances, so yes, I can tell you about ranks in the peerage, how to address a peer who is only a peer by marriage and not by birth, etc. When I WWOOFed (volunteered on organic farms) around Southwest England, I found out that I definitely knew much more about the peerage, stately homes, than any of my hosts or other Brits that I met. When we all went to a local literary festival, part of the appeal of it for me was that it was on an earl's estate, everyone else was much more interested in simply having a good time there.

My hosts knew the earl's family by name, but mostly because of the festival and because the founder of the festival had died in a somewhat memorable fashion.
posted by so much modern time at 1:25 AM on July 7, 2010

I'm english and my first thought when seeing the title was "What?" so I would say generally we don't know much beyond they are in the House of Lords
posted by rus at 1:53 AM on July 7, 2010

I would say that most people have only a hazy knowledge about the whole business. To a lot of people the aristocracy would be grouped in with a generic group of "posh people" including the core royals, the peerage, and people with upper-middle-class jobs like barristers and city bankers. The subtleties of the different ranks will, on the whole, be something that would only be known to people who have taken an interest in history.

The main peers who would be known as individuals will tend to be those who are involved in politics, and who received a life peerage because of political service - they are often people who have been involved in politics anyway, and so have a public image before being awarded their peerage.

Newspapers such as the Daily Mail will sometimes report the activities of members of the aristocracy as part of a broad celebrity coverage, but this will usually be in association with some story about a core member of the royal family. Tatler is probably the nearest that we get to "peerage gossip media" though its target audience is at least intended to be the aristocracy itself.

In terms of local peers I would say that very little is known - a local country estate might be known as belonging to some aristocratic family, but the name/title wouldn't often be known. The only way in which I know the names of a couple of local peers is because they have given legacies to the university where I work and therefore have lecture rooms named after them.

...are UKians just as likely as anyone else to have to look up what the hell a Viscount is?

That one's easy; a viscount is a chocolate-covered biscuit.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:58 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an old elite, the aristocracy does not need or want the media in the UK to reproduce or support itself. The Queen's family soaks up the cameras and column inches and leaves the titled gentry to get on with what it's best at: looking after their assets. All the aristocrats I've met, who have typically been young, have been obsessed by making it in business. Most of them have. They see no benefit from being public figures, and the public, since at least the end of WWII, have been bombarded with no-end of joyous crap to take their mind off things.
posted by einekleine at 2:06 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here in London I get the impression that the only peers who tend to get much attention are the life (as opposed to hereditary) peers. Because they wield actual political power, are not elected and are occasionally suspected to have bought their positions with backscratchy contributions to political parties.

Other than that, your average US reader of Georgette Heyer or Anthony Trollope seems more likely to be keenly alive to the nuances of life among the peerage than your average Brit. It's like understanding pre-decimalized currency -- 99% irrelevant to life in modern Britain.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:12 AM on July 7, 2010

This is not taught at school in the UK, and I, along with most people don't know much about it. There's far more interest in MPs and Parliament than the House of Lords. I could probably name 3 or 4 peers who have estates nearby or are celebrities who make the news for reasons other than their peerage, such as Lord Sugar.
posted by nvsbl at 2:22 AM on July 7, 2010

I was a history fan when younger and I know little. Occasionally I will read the Evening Standard, which is the London local paper but only seems to cover the lives of about 2% of capital dwellers' interests, and they may be mentioned in the diary columns, but the names don't stick, because I don't need to know about them. I can name you a few people who have had peerage conferred upon them (life peers) as they are usually known within their field, but not outside this. It's of minimal interest to most people - as are the doings of the Royal Family on the whole - on a daily basis, though reading some more establisment newspapers or magazines may give a different impression.

Does it make a difference if they are active in the House of Lords?
This si the only time the peerage really gets mass coverage - Labour brought in legislature that said that hereditary peers were not automatically granted a seat in the Lords. The Lords don't make the laws but tend to sign them off, as it were.
posted by mippy at 4:07 AM on July 7, 2010

As a Brit, my experience is the same; I know about the immediate Royal Family and I've heard of some of the richest people like the Duke of Westminster. But I couldn't tell you who's 5th in line to the throne, let alone how to address a marquess!
At school, we may learn about particular historical individuals - eg Lord Shaftesbury, or the Earl of Sandwich. And we are taught about feudalism as part of medieval history, but that's about it.
I think that most British people never give them a thought - they aren't really relevant to modern British life.
posted by sleepy boy at 4:39 AM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: All the answers are interesting, thank you! It's pretty clear that they're not much in the public consciousness at all.

stuck on an island, you might be amused to know that it was prepping a set of discussion questions for a Georgette Heyer book for my book club that lead me to start reading about the peerage in the first place.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:51 AM on July 7, 2010

I suspect that MetaFilter skews anti-monarchist (not necessarily the bomb-throwing type, but the "Why do we bother with this crap?" type), as well as young. Most of my Brit friends don't know or care about the peerage, but their parents do. It's one of those things.
posted by Etrigan at 6:20 AM on July 7, 2010

I am British, and have only a very vague understanding of the order of peerages... I can imagine it's the kind of thing that might come up in a pub quiz and only half of people would get it right!
The only peers I have heard of are those who are active in politics, and those who have made themselves famous by other means (a few have done TV and so on). I recently met the Lord of the city I live in at a public event, but prior to that I had no idea he even existed.
It really isn't something Brits care/think about at all, tbh...Although I can imagine if you are rich or went to Eton or wherever it might be a much bigger deal.
posted by cmarie at 6:57 AM on July 7, 2010

It really isn't something Brits care/think about at all, tbh...

Don't you think that's kind of convenient for the aristocracy? It's not as if being rich or going to Eton has disappeared, from British society - far from it.

I think that most British people never give them a thought - they aren't really relevant to modern British life.

Please don't misunderstand me here - I know the traditional aristocracy (or the upper class or whatever you want to call them) do not run the country. However, they have a bigger say in it then you or I, or likely anyone reading this. They are relevant to modern British life, they are just not represented as such.
posted by einekleine at 7:12 AM on July 7, 2010

I'm a Brit, they tend to be below the parapet of public consciousness. Generally they don't tend to be known unless they are famous for something, be it politics, property ownership or celebrity. Most people couldn't tell you the ranking of Barons, Earls and Rt Honourables without looking it up.

It's not only limited to the UK though, there's a lot of titled people lurking around Europe too. We used to live next door to Denmark's Princess Mary before she married the Danish Crown Prince when we lived in Copenhagen.
I also found out the other week than an Austrian friend of ours is a Baron, but he doesn't want anything to do with it so it's very much under the radar where he's concerned.
posted by arcticseal at 8:41 AM on July 7, 2010

Also, not all barons, knights, etc. are to the manor born. I know the son of a baroness who was once a Labour Party mayor in a Northern city, and she started out as working-class as they come.

We do read about the minor royals/aristocracy/toffs in the gossip pages, usually when they've made twits of themselves by getting drunk. Nigel Dempster used to write about them in the Daily Mail; I suspect the Telegraph still features them in its society pages.
posted by vickyverky at 9:10 AM on July 7, 2010

On rule which is almost a stereotype in itself: the more prestigious a British aristocrat's pedigree the lower their public profile will be (royals excepted) . You will find them dressed in worn out clothes, you will not find them featuring in the media if they can help it, more often than not they will spend a lot of their time in some rural backwater which is a passion to them but not to the nation at large. There are several reasons for this: right people like to hide from fame and its association with figures such as thieves and tax inspectors, people who are born in powerful positions often do not feel they have much to prove to the world by showing off, there is even the traditional idea that it is impolite for a lady or gentleman to show off. Those members of the aristocracy that have a higher profile are often wannabees by comparison.

The general ignorance of the British population about members of the peerage has quite a lot to do with this behaviour I think.
posted by rongorongo at 9:26 AM on July 7, 2010

"However, they have a bigger say in it then you or I, or likely anyone reading this. They are relevant to modern British life, they are just not represented as such."

They represent about 0.5% of the population, though. See the controversy surrounding banning hunting with foxes. Most people will never even meet a Lord - I have only met a life peer rather than a hereditary member of the aristocracy - and they live very different lives to most of us.
posted by mippy at 9:27 AM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: If it's a generational thing, where's the divide? einekleine's post mentions WWII -- is that pretty much the breakpoint? If you grew up before then you probably care, if you grew up after then, you probably don't?
posted by jacquilynne at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2010

A family friend who is 75ish and very well-off (and lives in a posh suburb of London) cares passionately about questions of aristocracy, the peerage, etc., and knows it to a level of detail otherwise reserved for historians. She's also very Conservative and in general a gossip, so her love of aristocratic gossip often seems like an extension of her gossip about friends and family -- and in fact, "six degrees" often means she can connect her family to any given member of the aristocracy fairly easily, which I imagine is true of lots of British people, if they cared at all. My 60-year-old mother, raised in the same town and circle of friends as this family friend, is Lib Dem and an emigrant (I was mostly raised in the USA) and doesn't care about this stuff at all, but probably knows a little bit. When another friend got knighted, we had to look up what it meant and whether we would have the opportunity to call him something different, title-wise. My dad's family is all in Yorkshire and is solidly working-class and they know the names of the people who own the parks, some minor connections between either local aristocracy or celebrities, and they seem universally, from the age of 30 to 80+, to think negatively of the aristocracy as a class and not pay much attention on a daily basis.

So I suspect the answer to this question is less about a chronological cut-off and still about class -- some of my cousins went to fancy public schools and they're far more aware of the aristocracy and its denizens and details than me and my other cousins who weren't raised in such exalted circles ;)
posted by obliquicity at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2010

einekleine's post mentions WWII -- is that pretty much the breakpoint?

On reflection I would say that this is related to the postwar intensification of media and the globalisation/Americanisation of culture running concurrently with the gradual dismantlement of the power invested in inherited peerage.

Since approximately the 50s/60s, and maybe even before, aristocrats had a choice on whether they wanted to possess a public profile. The Marquess of Bath, for example, with his zany lions, has opted to have one. The majority of aristocrats do not want to have one - and would gain nothing from having anything more than a 'low profile'.

The Queen and the Royal Family are interesting because they have no choice - an unusual role in our society.

mippy - that is my point, peers have far more influence and power than we allot them respect. Our awareness of their inherited wealth is low because a) we believe we do not live in a society that should accord them interest and b) they don't want our attention - the situation suits them fine.

This question is all about class and how it has disappeared from the dialogue on what Britain is about. Yet it is still there - not only in the peerage, but most notably in the public schools, still churning out Oxbridge educated students, all going on to bigger and better things. Jolly good! What about the lower class? Why don't you hear that anymore. It's all underclass and the unacceptable term 'ch*v'...
posted by einekleine at 5:31 AM on July 8, 2010

I went to a school with a number of them, and yet didn't learn / wasn't taught / no one cared about the order of things. They didn't care much either.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:12 AM on July 8, 2010

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