Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Peerages and Primogeniture

A friend drew my attention to an article in The Times today about possible legislation to abolish male primogeniture in the case of peerages and baronetcies and thereby to allow female inheritance of titles. This would be similar to the Succession to the Crown Act. The reasoning behind it appears to not the Constitution but the continuing perception that the Conservatives are not perceived as women-friendly.... Leaving that aside, this is hardly a vote grabbing issue, least of all behind the “Red wall” dare I suggest. However for those of us for whom these matters are important let us look more carefully at what is quite an interesting idea.

At the moment certain ancient English baronies by writ and rather more Scottish peerages can descend to daughters, such as the Countess of Mar, and the late Countesses of Errol and of Seafield, let alone the remarkable descent of the Earldom of Newburgh through the female line. Otherwise it is a case of Special Remainders granted to distinguished public figures such as the Duke of Fife in the case of the descendants of the monarch, Lord Mountbatten and before that Lord Curzon in respect of their daughters. As a result titles descended respectively to the late Duchess of Fife, the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma and the late Baroness Ravensdale ( as an unseated hereditary peeress she received one of the first Life Peerages in 1958 before being entitled to sit as a hereditary peeress by the 1963 Act ). There are also the historic cases of the third Duke of Hamilton and the second Duke of Marlborough who were both women.

The writer Julian Fellowes - Lord Fellowes through a Life Peerage - has been on about this for ages - his wife would potentially be Countess Kitchener under such a change. The background to this particular case can be read at Julian Fellowes and by following the link at Countess Kitchener in the section on his marriage.

Now I am instinctively wary - very wary - of changes in these matters, but I can see a case for such a change - not least because if the introduction for the Crown of absolute rather than agnatic primogeniture. Following the removal of an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords by the 1999 legislation it would make little or no difference there unless a hereditary peeress ran for one of the 92 reserved seats. Whilst we are on that aspect the removal of the automatic right to sit in the Lords strengthens the case for reviving the creation of hereditary peerages - after the initial grantee ( who would sit as in effect as a Life Peer ) the right to sit would lapse automatically. 

If such a change prevents peerages dying out 
( as already does happen in the instances I outlined above ) I would not be necessarily against it. As I said I am always wary of such changes of course, but if properly thought out it might well work. 

In the eighteenth century a son-in-law married to the sole heiress of a title might be granted the same title afresh to keep the line going. The most remarkable instances of this was probably the re-creations of the Dukedom of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its supplementation with that of Newcastle-under-Lyne which became extinct in 1988. This process is set out in Duke of Newcastle

We normally do not make legislation retrospective. In this instance there could be a case for it - I am sure Lord Fellowes would argue that. Several titles could then reappear. Depending how it was enacted one might - might - see a return of not only the Kitchener title but Dukedoms such as Leeds and Newcastle and Earldoms such as Ancaster, Athlone and Munster.

On the other hand that could cause all kinds of complications as to how far back retrospective claims could be admitted. It would be very similar to the claim of the Elector of Bavaria against that given by the Pragmatic Sanction to his cousin the future Empress Maria Theresa to inherit her father’s dominions in 1740 - a case of ‘why her and not me?’

An additional complication could be for families where the current male heir has an elder sister or sisters who would suddenly displace him. Maybe the right to succeed would not be automatic for a female, but that they would have the automatic right to petition so to do in the absence of a male heir. In such a situation the assumption would be that consent was virtually automatic. That however might be seen as weakening the intention of such legislation. 

In Spain descent of historic titles through and to females is recognised, as with Duchesses such as those of Alba, Medinaceli and Medina Sidonia in recent decades.

If such a bill does come before Parliament I hope that it will be properly thought out and not another piece of bad drafting. That criticism can be made of the Succession to the Crown Act in certain respects.

This may of course come to nothing, but this may be a space - on the red leather benches of the House of Lords even - to watch.

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