Rights and Privileges of Peers

Peers enjoy many privileges, although not as many as they once did. Until 1948, they had the right to be tried for treason and felony only in the House of Lords;(56) they do not have to serve on ordinary juries (neither do convicted felons, lunatics, or undischarged bankrupts); they cannot be arrested for forty days before and after Parliament is in session.(57) A peer is barred from voting in parliamentary elections and from sitting in the House of Commons (again in the company of lunatics and felons).(58) But the principal right of a peer is to a seat in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords.(59)

An English peer (before 1963, unless she is a woman) sits in the upper house of Parliament -- the House of Lords.(60) (You may notice in Heyer and others that when a peer dies and his son inherits, one of the rites of passage he must go through is to "take his seat" in the House of Lords -- he shakes the hand of the Lord Chancellor and then literally takes a seat on one of the benches.(61)) There are a few more qualifiers: a peer may not take his seat if he is bankrupt, if he is a lunatic, if he is under the age of twenty-one, or if his peerage is not granted in England, Scotland, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom.(62) Finally, he may not take his seat until the monarch has issued a Writ of Summons to him.(63)

Until very recently, Scottish peers (i.e., those created before the Act of Union in 1707) were not automatically entitled to a seat in the British House of Lords.(64) Instead they elected from among themselves a body of sixteen representatives who then sat in the House.(65) Scottish peers created since the Act of Union in 1707 are peers of the United Kingdom, and are equivalent in all respects to peers of England created subsequent to 1707 (who are also, technically, peers of the United Kingdom), including a right to a seat in the House of Lords.(66) Therefore, the number of Scottish peerages to which this restriction applies was rather small; most of them were created between James I's accession in 1603 and the Act of Union in 1707.(67) Furthermore, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, many holders of older Scottish peerages were granted lesser English peerages,(68) which entitled them to a seat in the House of Lords as a Peer of England or (after 1801) of the United Kingdom.(69) I am not sure how the recent elections in Scotland which established a separate parliament will affect the eligibility of Scottish peers to sit in the British House of Lords.

Irish peers, unlike all other British peers, are not barred from voting in general elections or from being elected to the House of Commons.(70) Like Scottish peers, Irish peers used to elect a group of twenty-eight representatives to the House of Lords, but with the 1921 Irish Free State declaration of independence from Britain, this election ceased.(71) The House of Lords allowed those Irish peers who were sitting in the House of Lords at that time to continue to do so for life, but no further elections took place, and the last of those peers died in 1961.(72) Most Irish peers also hold an English or British peerage, often of considerably lower rank, which allow them to have a seat in the House of Lords;(73) for example, the Duke of Leinster (Irish) is also Viscount Leinster in the English peerage.(74) By 1982, only 71 Irish peers were left out in the cold. Of them, only eighteen actually live in Ireland.(75)

Heirs and younger sons of peers can sit in the House of Commons.(76) A "commoner" is defined as anyone who is not a peer (recall the big stink when Prince Charles wanted to marry a "commoner"). I don't recall all the gory details (and can't find a good source) but not just anyone could join the House of Commons before this century -- you had to "be somebody." Being the son of a peer was "somebody."

To carry this a bit further, peers usually considered themselves to "own" certain House of Commons seats -- those from the district around their estates, for example -- and often the "election" of their sons or nephews to those seats was mere formality. It is easy to see that with this sort of system, the peers could control House of Commons votes and thereby pretty much control government. This was a major reason for the reforms of the 1830s, and for the "radical" Whigs under Charles James Fox in the 1780s and 90s.

On to Precedence

If you dispute a fact from these pages, please contact me, and if you can, provide a contradicting source. These pages are a work in progress and I expect them to change in the future, although what I present today is as accurate as I can make it.

Laura A. Wallace
15 December 1997

Table of Contents

Peerage Basics
Hereditary Peerages, including Royal Titles
Life Peerages
Courtesy Titles
Rights and Privileges of Peers
A Peeress "in her own right"
Dowager Peeresses
Entails, Marriage Settlements, and Dower
Almack's (coming soon!)
Biographical Details of Real Regency People (coming soon!)

Correct Forms of Address
The 1st Duke of Marlborough
Links to other Sites