Peerages are created by the British monarch, like all Crown honours, being affirmed by Letters Patent affixed with the Great Seal of the Realm. Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom makes recommendations to the Sovereign concerning who should be elevated to the peerage, after external vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Under present custom, the only new hereditary peerages granted are to members of the royal family; the last non-royal awardees of hereditary titles were in the Thatcher era. Since then, ruling parties have refrained from recommending any others to be elevated although there is nothing preventing future governments from doing so.
Labour, elected to power in 1997, sought to remove all of the seats in the House of Lords reserved for hereditary peers, but Prime Minister Tony Blair relented by allowing 92 members to remain by legislation enacted in 1999. The House of Lords' purpose is now that of a revising legislative chamber, scrutinising and potentially changing proposed Parliamentary Bills before their enactment. Its membership for the most part comprises life peers, created under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which includes those who can add value in specific areas of expertise in parliamentary debates, as well as former MPs and other political appointees from respective political parties.
The Sovereign, traditionally the fount of honour, cannot hold a British peerage (although the British Sovereign, whether male or female, is informally accorded the style of 'Duke of Lancaster'). All British subjects who were neither Royal nor Peers of the Realm were previously termed Commoners, regardless of wealth or other social factors, thus all members of a peer's family are (technically) commoners too; the British system thus differs fundamentally from continental European versions, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled. Nobility in Britain is based on title rather than bloodline, and correspondingly The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) who enjoys Royal status as daughter of The Queen, opted for her children to be Commoners by refusing offers of titles, despite their being grandchildren of the Sovereign (qv. Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall).
Certain personal privileges are afforded to all peers and peeresses, but the main distinction of a peerage nowadays, apart from access to the House of Lords for life peers and some hereditary peers, is the title and style thereby accorded. Succession claims to existing hereditary peerages are regulated by the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct and administered by The Crown Office.
The term peerage can be used both collectively to refer to the entire body of nobles (or a subdivision thereof), and individually to refer to a specific title (modern English language-style using an initial capital in the former case but not the latter). British peerage title holders are termed peers of the Realm. The peerage's fundamental roles are ones of government, peers being eligible (although formerly entitled) to a seat in the House of Lords, and of meritocracy, the receiving of any peerage being the highest of British honours (with the receiving of a more traditional hereditary peerage naturally holding more weight than that of a more modern, and less highly regarded, life peerage).
The Life Peerages Act 1958 introduced more people from different professions, and more women. Before the Act, the House of Lords had been made up exclusively of hereditary Peers. A life Peer cannot pass their title on to his or her children. Although life Peers are appointed by the Crown, it is the Prime Minister who nominates them. By convention the Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders can propose a certain number.
The hereditary peerage, as it now exists, combines several different English institutions with analogous ones from Scotland and Ireland.
English Earls are an Anglo-Saxon institution. Around 1014, England was divided into shires or counties, largely to defend against the Danes; each shire was led by a local great man, called an earl; the same man could be earl of several shires. When the Normans conquered England, they continued to appoint earls, but not for all counties; the administrative head of the county became the sheriff. Earldoms began as offices, with a perquisite of a share of the legal fees in the county; they gradually became honours, with a stipend of £20 a year. Like most feudal offices, earldoms were inherited, but the kings frequently asked earls to resign or exchange earldoms. Usually there were few Earls in England, and they were men of great wealth in the shire from which they held title, or an adjacent one, but it depended on circumstances: during the civil war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, nine Earls were created in three years.
William the Conqueror and Henry II did not make Dukes; they were themselves only Dukes of Normandy or Aquitaine. But when Edward III of England declared himself King of France, he made his sons Dukes, to distinguish them from other noblemen, much as Royal Dukes are now distinguished from other Dukes. Later Kings created Marquesses and Viscounts to make finer gradations of honour: a rank something more than an Earl and something less than an Earl, respectively.
When Henry III or Edward I wanted money or advice from his subjects, he would order great churchmen, earls, and other great men to come to his Great Council (some of these are now considered the first parliaments); he would generally order lesser men from towns and counties to gather and pick some men to represent them. The English Order of Barons evolved from those men who were individually ordered to attend Parliament, but held no other title; the chosen representatives, on the other hand, became the House of Commons. This order, called a writ, was not originally hereditary, or even a privilege; the recipient had to come to the Great Council at his own expense, vote on taxes on himself and his neighbours, acknowledge that he was the king's tenant-in-chief (which might cost him special taxes), and risk involvement in royal politics – or a request from the king for a personal loan (benevolence). Which men were ordered to Council varied from Council to Council; a man might be so ordered once and never again, or all his life, but his son and heir might never go.
Under Henry VI of England, in the 15th century, just before the Wars of the Roses, attendance at Parliament became more valuable. The first claim of hereditary right to a writ comes from this reign; so does the first patent, or charter declaring a man to be a baron. The five orders began to be called peers. Holders of older peerages also began to receive greater honour than peers of the same rank just created.
If a man held a peerage, his son would succeed to it; if he had no children, his brother would succeed. If he had a single daughter, his son-in-law would inherit the family lands, and usually the same peerage; more complex cases were decided depending on circumstances. Customs changed with time; earldoms were the first to be hereditary, and three different rules can be traced for the case of an Earl who left no sons and several married daughters. In the 13th century, the husband of the eldest daughter inherited the earldom automatically; in the 15th century, the earldom reverted to the Crown, who might re-grant it (often to the eldest son-in-law); in the 17th century, it would not be inherited by anybody unless all but one of the daughters died and left no descendants, in which case the remaining daughter (or her heir) would inherit.
After Henry II became the Lord of Ireland, he and his successors began to imitate the English system as it was in their time. Irish earls were first created in the 13th century, and Irish parliaments began later in the same century; until Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, these parliaments were small bodies, representing only the Irish Pale. A writ does not create a peerage in Ireland; all Irish peerages are by patent or charter, although some early patents have been lost. After James II left England, he was King of Ireland alone for a time; three creations he ordered then are in the Irish Patent Roll, although the patents were never issued; but these are treated as valid.
The Irish peers were in a peculiar political position: because they were subjects of the King of England, but peers in a different kingdom, they could sit in the English House of Commons, and many did. In the 18th century, Irish peerages became rewards for English politicians, limited only by the concern that they might go to Dublin and interfere with the Irish Government.
Scotland evolved a similar system, differing in points of detail. The first Scottish Earldoms derive from the seven mormaers, of immemorial antiquity; they were named Earls by Queen Margaret. The Parliament of Scotland is as old as the English; the Scottish equivalent of baronies are called lordships of Parliament.
The Act of Union 1707, between England and Scotland, provided that future peerages should be peers of Great Britain, and the rules covering the peers should follow the English model; because there were proportionately many more Scottish peers, they chose a number of representatives to sit in the British House of Lords. The Acts of Union 1800 changed this to peers of the United Kingdom, but provided that Irish peerages could still be created; but the Irish peers were concerned that their honours would be diluted as cheap prizes, and insisted that an Irish peerage could be created only when three Irish peerages had gone extinct (until there were only a hundred Irish peers left). In the early 19th century, Irish creations were as frequent as this allowed; but only three have been created since 1863, and none since 1898. As of 2011, only 66 "only-Irish" peers remain
The mode of inheritance of a hereditary peerage is determined by the method of its creation. Titles may be created by writ of summons or by letters patent. The former is merely a summons of an individual to Parliament—it does not explicitly confer a peerage—and descent is always to heirs of the body, male and female. The latter method explicitly creates a peerage and names the dignity in question. Letters patent may state the course of descent; normally, only male heirs are allowed to succeed to the peerage. A child is deemed to be legitimate if its parents are married at the time of its birth or marry later; only legitimate children may succeed to a title, and furthermore, an English, Irish, or British (but not Scottish) peerage can only be inherited by a child born legitimate, not legitimated by a later marriage.
Normally, a peerage passes to the next holder on the death of the previous holder. However, Edward IV introduced a procedure known as a writ of acceleration, whereby it was possible for the eldest son of a peer with multiple titles to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of one of his father's subsidiary dignities.
A person who is a possible heir to a peerage is said to be "in remainder". A title becomes extinct (an opposite to extant, alive) when all possible heirs (as provided by the letters patent) have died out, i.e., there is nobody in remainder at the death of the holder. A title becomes dormant if nobody has claimed the title, or if no claim has been satisfactorily proven. A title goes into abeyance if there is more than one person equally entitled to be the holder.
In the past, peerages were sometimes forfeit or attainted under Acts of Parliament, most often as the result of treason on the part of the holder. The blood of an attainted peer was considered "corrupted", consequently his or her descendants could not inherit the title. If all descendants of the attainted peer were to die out, however, then an heir from another branch of the family not affected by the attainder could take the title. The Forfeiture Act 1870 abolished corruption of blood; instead of losing the peerage, a peer convicted of treason would be disqualified from sitting in Parliament for the period of imprisonment.
The Titles Deprivation Act 1917 permitted the Crown to suspend peerages if their holders had fought against the United Kingdom during the First World War. Guilt was to be determined by a committee of the Privy Council; either House of Parliament could reject the committee's report within 40 days of its presentation. In 1919, King George V issued an Order in Council suspending the Dukedom of Albany (together with its subsidiary peerages, the Earldom of Clarence and the Barony of Arklow), the Dukedom of Cumberland and Teviotdale (along with the Earldom of Armagh) and the Viscountcy of Taaffe (along with the Barony of Ballymote). Under the Titles Deprivation Act, the successors to the peerages may petition the Crown for a reinstatement of the titles; so far, none of them has chosen to do so (the Taaffe and Ballymote peerages would have become extinct in 1967).
Nothing prevents a British peerage from being held by a foreign citizen (although such peers cannot sit in the House of Lords, while the term foreign does not include Irish or Commonwealth citizens). Several descendants of George III were British peers and German subjects; the Lords Fairfax of Cameron were American citizens for several generations.
A peer may also disclaim a hereditary peerage under the Peerage Act 1963. To do so, the peer must deliver an instrument of disclaimer to the Lord Chancellor within 12 months of succeeding to the peerage, or, if under the age of 21 at the time of succession, within 12 months of becoming 21 years old. If, at the time of succession, the peer is a member of the House of Commons, then the instrument must be delivered within one month of succession; meanwhile, the peer may not sit or vote in the House of Commons. Prior to the House of Lords Act 1999, a hereditary peer could not disclaim a peerage after having applied for a writ of summons to Parliament; now, however, hereditary peers do not have the automatic right to a writ of summons to the House. Irish peerages may not be disclaimed. A peer who disclaims the peerage loses all titles, rights and privileges associated with the peerage; his wife or her husband is similarly affected. No further hereditary peerages may be conferred upon the person, but life peerages may be. The peerage remains without a holder until the death of the peer making the disclaimer, when it descends normally.