British aristocracy

(No, this is not about any rumors concerning the Royals; it’s of more historical and legal nature.)

When you look at historical maps showing continental European countries during the feudal times, you see many countries are carved up into territories ruled by an aristocrat - there are duchies, counties, and the like, which together form a kingdom or empire. AFAIK those developed when the king or emperor gave parts of his country to loyal followers to administrate it, and then this administrative post became hereditary, and sometimes (Germany) the territories became quasi-independent states while other kingdoms (France) managed to secure the central monarch’s supreme authority.

So far, so good. But this scheme doesn’t seem to apply to England (I think it would be wrong to say Britain here, for AFAIK English and Scottish aristocracy developed separately). There are dukes and earls and barons and marquis, but never one sees a map marking their territories. I know the historical counties were abolished by some reform, and the modern administrative districts called “counties” have nothing at all to do with those; I also understand that nowadays the aristocracy has absolutely no political influence; yet one would suppose that at least formally, an aristocrat would have his territory mandated to him by the monarch. But the construction of some noble titles without any corresponding geographical name seems to indicate that English aristocrats simply have a funky title, but no land entailed to it which formally is theirs (I’ve never heard of a town or region named Marlborough, for instance). The fact that the monarch can knight people and give them a title that did not exist before (liek the Earl of Wessex thing) would support that - if every aristocrat had his territory, you’d have to redraw the boundaries whenever a new one comes up.

So all in all, I guess there’s not even a formal link between an aristocrat’s title and a territorial unit, and has not been for many centuries, but I am not sure about it. Any dopers who know more about this?
Oh, and btw, if you can recommend good books that give an overview over the legal and constitutional position of nobility in Britain, I’d appreciate any hint. Thanks!

I feel qualified to answer this one, as I’m listed in Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage as something like 15th in line (a rapidly increasing as more people get born)to become a Baronet(lowest rank of the British aristocracy). Commenting on what would of been my Great-Great-Grandfathers ‘area’ he was Sir so-and-so of Hyderbad (now in Pakistan) and his actual seat (i.e. his house) however was in Devon South England, basically since about the 17th/18th century it has been entirely up to the person who was made a Lord or a Baronet to what location they choose to be ‘of’.

Of course in medieval times that was not the case and each member of the aristocracy was named after the lands they occupied but these lands were shifting and often non-contigious though usually centred around a ‘seat’, which would of been the ancestral home and usually where the name was derived from.

btw. Marlborough is a town in Wiltshire, UK.

and the Earl of Wessex (Wessex is an area covering several English counties), is a very ancient title that pre-dates the Norman invasion, infact it was the orginal title of King Harold who died in 1066. It is quite common for defunct titles to be resurrected and given to royals.

That’s interesting. I didn’t know that baronets had "of " in their titles.

But I did know that more recently created peers will often use a geographic appellation based on their own life and accomplishments, that otherwise may have nothing do with them. The outstanding example is Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

Actually, I’m not sure if all Baronets have ‘of’ in their title but I think most of them do. IIRC Baronet only became an offical title in the 17th century.

The first baronets were created by James I as part of a scheme to enrich the treasury, IIRC, and somehow involved Ulster.

In the days of William the Conqueror the nobility did administer portions of England in his behalf as his vassals, but that rapidly declined over the next century, until you get the royal judiciary replacing the squire’s court in the 12th century. Effectively, English monarchs were, by and large, smart enough to learn that a strong vassal becomes effectively a separate ruler, and to curb those who got too high and mighty. Exception: the areas immediately adjacent to Wales and Scotland (“the Marches”) and in the dominated part of Wales had “marcher lords” who retained substantial power, by and large, until Tudor times.

Most English counties, with the exception of some new creations (Tyne & Wear, the four that replaced York, West Midlands etc.), are the historical ones. (This is not true for Scotland, where almost everything was redrawn, or for Wales, where new counties were based on the old principalities, plus the division of Glamorgan, the most populous county, into three.) But most titles connected to counties are merely titular.

Yes, I understand that there came into existence a class of men that the monarch wanted to honor, but there were no more baronies to hand out. Or something like that.

For a long time now, the territorial elements of British titles have had little or no connection with any actual property. The title “Duke of Devonshire” was created in 1694; the recipient of that title already held the title “Earl of Devonshire”, created in 1618. The family concerned owned - and still own - extensive properties in Derbyshire, but little or none in, or anywhere near, Devonshire, and it is something of a mystery why they chose that title.

Moreover when there was a connection between the title and the land, the connection was ownership rather than any power of government or administration. A man who owned extensive property in, say, Cumberland might choose, on being made an Earl, to become the Earl of Cumberland, but his only connection with the county would still be that he owned extensive property there.

I don’t know much about aristocratic titles, but I do know a little about early English law, which suggests to me a possible origin for the relationship between land ownership and aristocratic titles. It was probably true by the 16th century that “the connection was ownership rather than any power of government or administration” but, if you go back far enough, feudal jurisdiction was an inseparable incident of land ownership. If you owned the land, you governed the land’s tenants. Somewhere along the way the concept of private ownership arose but, in the earliest feudal times, all land was held from the crown. The crown granted a feudal estate in land (less than full ownership) to a vassal, and with the land came the sovereign’s power over the subjects who lived there.

The evolution from feudal tenure to modern private ownership of land is visible in, of all places, the judicial system. About the 11th and 12th centuries, the sovereign powers of judging and legislating were still undifferentiated, so obtaining judicial relief from the crown was an extraordinary process, almost as cumbersome as enacting general legislation. Ancient justice was usually a private, local matter, where the feudal lord held court (and physical or economic power was often more important than law or right). To commence a lawsuit in order to resolve a private dispute may seem perfectly routine today, but it was a fairly new concept in ancient England–at least at the level of the national government–and it did not grow up overnight. The idea gradually developed that certain matters fell within the “king’s peace,” where the central government would consistently administer a generally applied policy without respect to wealth or power. These cases were at first exceptions to the rule of local justice, and so the “forms of action” grew up as the precise technical procedures by which the petitioner invoked the royal writ against local feudal lord’s court. The local nobility was naturally jealous of any royal encroachment, so the forms of action were narrow and technical, and any deviation from the precise formula was fatal to the petitioner’s case. Gradually, more and more cases fell within the king’s peace, the writs grew more flexible, and–over the next half a millennium–the right of petitioning the central government for the redress of grievances became so common that the fledgling United States recognized it in the first amendment. But that process was a long slow painful one.

I wonder whether the custom of connecting an aristocratic title to particular real estate is a vestige of the feudal system of land tenure.

Yes, brianmelendez, there is a connection but it is rather more indirect than you probably suppose. As a general rule, feudal lordships did not evolve into aristocratic titles. The vast majority of the Crown’s tenants in chief remained mere gentlemen. (This distinction is, of course, what confuses the more gullible purchasers of manorial ‘lordships’.) What however did happen was that kings began summoning the most important of those tenants to sit in Parliament and, over time, it came to be accepted that these individuals and their heirs had an hereditary right to be summoned. The titles by which they came to be known usually did have some connection with the land they held, but those estates did not come in neat blocks with a single geographical name so, ever then, the correlation was never precise. Moreover, only a handful of current peerages are of such antiquity that they originated in this way.

Once the concept of an hereditary right to sit in Parliament had come to be accepted, the idea developed that this right could exist independently of any land that individual might hold from the Crown. Even in the Middle Ages, a peerage came to be recognised simply as the right to receive a summons to the House of Lords. True, the type of person who got such peerages still tended to be large landowners but everyone agreed that it was their peerage patent, not their land, that entitled them to their seat.

Given this, it did not much matter what geographical title they picked. Most did choose a place or area with which they had some connections, not least because that would impress the locals. Others might want to stress a connection which had once been important to the family in order to show their own antiquity. The 1st Earl/Duke of Marlborough had no links with Marlborough (which is indeed a town in Wiltshire) but he was distantly related to the family which had previously held the title. As in that case, some titles got used again and again because they sounded impressive because of past associations.

As for baronets, the ‘of’ bit is not part of the title, but the patent usually specified that the recipient was ‘of’ somewhere because that was the way legal documents of that period often described men whatever their rank. This was intended to avoid confusion between people of the same name. In the case of a gentleman (and most new baronets would have been at least that), the placename would be the parish, manor or house which counted as their seat. That could change if the person decided to move house.

One other reason why maps of sort proposed by the OP don’t get compiled is that plotting the precise extent of even the major English landholdings is incredibly difficult. There is obviously Domesday Book for the late eleventh century and there was a royal commission which surveyed the major estates in the late nineteenth century, but otherwise it all depends on the haphazard survival of documents, many of which are very difficult to use. If one is lucky, there might be rentals or estate maps for individual estates. Otherwise the best evidence tends to be legal deeds. These will often describe the extent of a handful of fields in loving detail but a large estate will have consisted of hundreds of such fields, all of which might be scattered in a random patchwork across several counties. Even with such resources as the Victoria County History, the vast ongoing project to trace the history of every English parish, attempts to reconstruct who owned which manors remain incomplete. Often the evidence just doesn’t exist. And landownship could be very fluid, so any findings would only apply for particular periods.

Thanks, APB.