Q about Nobility, or Why aren't the British hip-deep in Dukes?

So I had one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep much, and found myself muzzily pondering all sorts of strange things. In this case, why isn’t Britain positively infested with nobles?

I mean, apparently those titles go on forever, right? Based on extensive research (aka I’ve watched most of the past seasons of Downton Abbey) once there’s a title it doesn’t go away. If there’s an Earl Whosie, then his son becomes the second Earl Whosie and so on generation after generation. And if he doesn’t have a son, why then you trace your way back up the family tree and back down other branches until you find one, be he some way, way distant guy who is currently a taxi driver in Australia.

On top of that, it seems that monarchs can simply declare titles into existance, either for someone who did some great service or for their ‘extra’ sons. I don’t actually know how long you all have had kings in England, but lets say it’s been at least a thousand years. If we estimate that you go through at least four kings per century, and each king averages at least one ‘extra’ son, that would amount to 100 X4X1 = 400 dukes. Plus the ones who actually won wars or whatever.

But according to Wikipedia there’s actually only about 30 dukes. So what happened?

  1. Lotsa kings in fact only had one son?
  2. Maybe there’s an expiration date on those titles? X generations or Y years?
  3. Maybe some of them merged? I mean, Duke John of K died without a son, and his next in line was already Dube David of F, so now he’s Duke of both F and K, and one title is sort of vestigial?
  4. Can you get un-Duked? Maybe some of them did something so awful the King took away his title?

Where are all the missing Dukes?
(I know, they all live in Historical Romance novels…)

My understanding is that the title is inherited. Duke Whosie keeps his title until he dies, and only then, passes it on to his heir. Only one Duke Whosie at a time, so there’s no increase.

Oh, geez. I should NOT try to do math in the middle of the night! :smack:

A thousand years is only ten centuries, not 100. So 10X4X1 is only 40 not 400, so the 30 current dukes is about what is expected.

Never mind.

There is only one Duke of X at a time, and only the eldest son inherits. Other sons and daughters are out of luck (traditionally; that may have changed for daughters). Some dukedoms go vacant if there is no heir, though the king/queen can revive them.

A dukedom can be revoked, but it would have to be for a something like treason.

Most of the time, the line simply dies out for lack of a male heir and the title can sit “dormant” until the monarch wishes to confer it on someone else in their own family or elsewhere. The title Duke of Buckingham has gone to several completely different families over the centuries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Buckingham

There are exceptions if the title or family is considered important enough. For example, when John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, lost his only son, Parliament passed a special Act so that the title next went to his elder daughter–this does not normally happen in the British aristocracy. When the Duchess also died without a living son, the title went to her younger sister’s son–again, not the usual thing. (Seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Marlborough for more details).

Also see the twists of revived titles and keeping the Percy family name going involved with the Dukes of Northumberland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Northumberland

My understanding is that most of the people who receive a noble title are lifetime peers not hereditary peers - they have the title until they die but they do not pass it on to an heir. Laurence Olivier, for example, became Baron Olivier of Brighton in 1970. But when he died in 1989, the title died with him. His oldest son, Tarquin Olivier, did not inherit the title.

Titles die out for lack of a male heir relatively frequently.

And the current monarch has been very stingy about granting hereditary titles. Almost all the recently created peerages will die with the person who was so honored.

Alfred the Great (849 – 26 October 899) is usually considered to be the first English king from 871. So that’s 1145 years of Kings and Queens. Before that it was pretty split up with tribes.

Far from uninterrupted, though, with at least one Anarchy, an Interregnum, Revolutions Glorious and otherwise, Good Kings, Bad Things, and the distinction between being a monarch of England and monarch of the United Kingdom.

Point being, the current royal house (Saxe-Coburg and Gotha… er… Windsor) is nowhere near that old, and true legitimacy now rests on Parliament and democratic processes, not a specific bloodline.

So they don’t just keep hunting? I mean, surely if you look back and then down enough generations, there’s going to be SOMEONE there. Especially since they’ve apparently been tracking noble lineages for centuries. I mean, it’s not like the human population is actually declining or anything.

Though I guess in the days when you had major plagues, or really big wars, you could create untrackable gulfs in a family.

Ah, hadn’t thought about that. So what kind of titles are those given to the extra sons? I mean, I think all of Prince Charles’ brothers are Dukes of somewhere or other. Won’t their sons in turn be the Duke of that place?

That was where I thought the increase in numbers would come from: King 1 creates his 3 extra sons as Duke, and their sons become Dukes after them. Meanwhile King 2 rules, and has 2 spare sons, so he makes them Dukes as well, so now there are 5 of these ‘spare royal sons’ dukes in the land. And with the next generation you pick up another one or two or whatever – each of the previously created Duke’s heir plus the next generations additions.

But if those titles aren’t passed along, that won’t happen.

A peerage generally belongs to the person who was awarded the honor and his male-line descendants. Special exceptions are sometimes granted to allow inheritance through a daughter, but that’s not routine. In the majority of cases, there will be a point at which there is no more line of descendants only through sons.

Yes, the royal dukes (and one earl) are among the few recent hereditary titles granted.

If what you mean is that royal sons are the main source of dukedoms in the British system, I don’t think that’s true, but I haven’t counted.

And recall that dukes are only one of the five types of hereditary peerages. There are also marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons, the last of which is the most common. Baronetcies are also hereditary, but they’re not peers of the realm; they’re more like inherited knighthoods.

That feature is being implemented next year on Facebook.

A Bill of Attainder could be passed to extinguish the title, though it hasn’t happened for many centuries. Some British titles held by German nationals were suspended (but not extinguished) in WW1.

Most peerages today are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and die with the original holder.

The last hereditary peerages (aside from Royal ones) to be created were Lord Tonypandy and Lord Whitelaw in the 1980s. Both of whom had no heirs male, so the heredity was moot anyway. Lord Stockton, created at the same time, was the ex-P.M. Harold Macmillan, who had represented the Stockton constituency for many years. His grandson inherited the title.

It is the convention that ex-Prime Ministers are offered a peerage, though not all of them accept, and up to Macmillan these were all hereditary. He was the first to depart office after the Life Peerages Act, though why he did not accept one then is unknown. All subsequent P.M.s who have taken a peerage have been Life Peers in the degree of Baron (as all life peerages are).

These peerages are attached in some way to a locale, right? Does that have any formal meaning at all, or is it just words on paper?

Does the Baron of X participate ceremonially some way in the governmental goings on in X?

While you can go up one line and down another to find an heir, I don’t think you can go any earlier than the original title-holder. So you could have someone created as Bob, Duke Hoboken, and Bob’s grandson Frank could in time become Duke of Hoboken, but if Frank, Duke Hoboken died without sons, the title could transfer to his uncle or cousin who’s also descended from Bob, but it couldn’t transfer to one of Bob’s cousins.

For the most part, the geographical designation in a peerage seems to be entirely meaningless. Some of the very old ones might have some ceremonial duties attached, but not the newer ones.

Queen Elizabeth is the Duke of Lancaster (not duchess) and that actually is a source of income from land holdings for her.

The monarch’s heir—in this case Charles—is also the Duke of Cornwall, and that title is also tied to income-producing land.

Cornwall and Lancaster are the only remaining duchies in England, but their territories are a lot smaller than any historical boundaries were when they were created.

The other British dukedoms are not associated with duchies.

One of the remarkable features of the English and British royal line in recent centuries is how few cadet male lines descended from younger royal sons there have been. That’s why so few British dukedoms are ones that were originally created for legitimate royal sons. Most were instead created for non-royal families or, in a few cases, illegitimate royal sons.

Most of this is just genealogical accident. Between Victoria and the present Queen, only one monarch (George V) had sons who did not themselves become King and left sons of their own. So all the current royal dukedoms were either created for sons of George V (Gloucester and Kent), for sons of Elizabeth II (York), for a consort (Edinburgh) or is held automatically by the Prince of Wales (Cornwall etc.).

But there is no reason why earlier royal dukedoms could not have survived. It’s just that they didn’t. Even when monarchs had lots of sons, such as Victoria or George III, those sons tended not to have sons themselves or, if they did, those sons tended not to have their own sons. A further quirk was that the two cadet lines that did establish themselves had their dukedoms (Albany and Cumberland) removed from them in 1917 because they were Germans. Moreover, once you get back beyond the early eighteenth century, the failure to produce cadet branches becomes even starker. No monarch between Henry VII and George II produced more than one son who themselves produced legitimate children. Also, in Scotland before 1603 the Stuarts had had a tendency to produce only single surviving children.

Nor was this unique. The French Bourbons similarly tended not to generate cadet male lines, the obvious exceptions being the Orléans and the Spanish Bourbons.

Lack of cadet branches could actually be an advantage, because a distant relative in the male line was a potential usurper. As Charles X of France discovered. Younger sons and their descendants were always a problem. But the obvious flipside was that it could lead to a lack of possible successors. As the Tudors discovered.


When a peerage dies out it becomes ‘extinct’. It is therefore different from a ‘dormant’ peerage, as that means that no one is sure who the next heir is, so in theory it still exists. Generally speaking, dormant peerages are not granted again, as there is always the remote possibility that the rightful heir to the original peerage could be identified.


I’m not sure that this is so much “accident” as it is “likely.” If something descends only from fathers to sons and cannot descend through daughters, then it’s pretty likely that it’s going to die out in a few generations.

Generally, no. The Duke of Devonshire’s seat is in Derbyshire. The Earls of Derby had property and commercial interests in the Liverpool area. The Marquis of Salisbury’s seat is at Hatfield (Hertfordshire) and he spends much of his time at his property at Cranborne (Dorset).

Life Peers do tend to take a title containing an area which they have some connection with but there is no power (or obligation) to go on having anything to do with the area.

Hell, you don’t even need a peerage to be in UK territory. Viscount Montgomery of El-Alamein (Egypt), Viscount Nelson of the Nile (also Egypt), Viscount Slim of Yarralumla (Australia), Lord Fraser of North Cape (underwater, off Norway in the Arctic Circle), are examples.