The royal wedding has come and gone, leaving many of us a bit sleep-deprived but esthetically and emotionally charged by all the style, elegance and joy on display.
Now, at the behest of Queen Elizabeth II, the happy newlyweds, Harry and Meghan, will be known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. For us North Americans, these titles might as well be words in Gaelic, since they’re part of a British hierarchical peerage system that is as foreign to us as calling our subways the tube.
The title, duke, derives from the Latin, dux, or leader, and many admirers worldwide are hoping that the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex will continue to be leaders in modernizing the monarchy and in carrying out charitable works that have an impact.
But how do they fit into the larger aristocratic scheme?
According to Historic UK, the peerage was created subsequent to the 1066 Norman Conquest of Britain by William the Conqueror. William divided up the conquered lands among his Norman barons, a reward for men whose original role was to raise troops for him. They also formed an advisory council for the king, a precursor to the House of Lords.
Of course, the times and laws have changed, so these hereditary peers no longer control all of the land across Britain; nor do they have the age-old responsibility for looking after the people inhabiting their holdings. In addition, the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords was abolished in 1999. A title isn’t the sinecure it once was.
From Top to Bottom
Originally, all barons were created equal, but beginning in the 1300s, various ranks arose. As it has evolved, the king or queen stands at the top of the pyramid, followed by his/her offspring: princes and princesses – the latter quite familiar to many of us, thanks to animated Disney films.
Dukes and duchesses are next in the hierarchy, followed by marquesses and marchionesses; earls and countesses; viscounts and viscountesses; and barons and baronesses. Until fairly recently, peerages were all hereditary, allowing the title, the holdings and membership in the House of Lords to be passed down, usually to the eldest son. The other children received courtesy titles: lord, lady or honourable; no power or fortune were guaranteed.
Today’s monarchy is largely ceremonial and symbolic. Aside from the Queen, royals and peers have no real power. However, the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very popular, so here’s hoping they will use their influence to make a difference in the world.
Credit: Featured Image: dksesh; Credit: Disney: Jennifer Lynn