Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Peerage in Elizabethan England

Everyone has heard of at least some of the notable personalities of the Elizabethan era, even if it is only in passing in school or in a movie. But how much do we really know about the institution of nobility in Queen Elizabeth's time?

Well, I have found us the answers and am going to decode the "peerage" for you here!

In 1547 there existed only 48 men within the peerage. In 1553 the number had grown to 56, then 57 in 1558. Then, their numbers decreased again, to 55, by the year of Elizabeth's death.

The power to appoint worthy men to the peerage was reserved for the sovereign, and the survival of a given title was dependent on the nobleman's ability to produce legitimate male issue. Should a member of the nobility die without a legitimate son, like the Earl of Oxford did, the title reverted to the crown and was, for lack of a better word, dormant, until resuscitated by the monarch.

In other unfortunate cases, such as a nobleman being convicted of treason and subsequently executed, the title and the land reverted to the crown, regardless of whether the nobleman had legitimate issue. Part of the tragedy of having a traitor in the family is that not only would your name be dishonored, but you would loose your inheritance.

There were cases when a monarch made exceptions, such as an instance where Elizabeth took mercy on the heirs of a corrupt nobleman and bequeathed land back to them.

During Elizabeth's nearly 45 year reign, the queen only created 18 peerages. All but two of those (Burghley and Compton) were restorations or grants to old, loyal aristocratic families. Upon her ascension, 46% of England's peers were first or second generation in their title. By 1603, only 18% were.

D.M. Palliser, a Reader in Economic History at the University of Birmingham,  proposes that the actions of the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland in King Edward Tudor's brief reign made both Mary I and Elizabeth I wary of promoting any of their subjects to a dukedom. Being a duke was traditionally one of the most powerful positions in the English kingdom, and usually reserved for brothers of kings.

A detail from a portrait of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, wearing his chain of office. Somerset was the Lord Protector of England during his nephew King Edward VI's minority. He was eventually executed for high treason. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

After the execution of the traitorous Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk in 1572, England would remain without a duke until 1623.

Thomas Howard, the proud 4th Duke of Norfolk, who after many shady grasps at power, was executed for treason. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

 As for knighthoods bestowed during Elizabeth's reign, the queen and her lords and generals created 878 knights. Robert Devereux, the tempestuous and willful Earl of Essex, would create the most knights at any one given time during Elizabeth's reign, 81, when he knighted his following during his disastrous term in Ireland. Essex did this without reason, as he had achieved no military victory; he also failed to ask the queens permission, which was becoming more and more typical at this point in their relationship. His knighting of his cronies was a thinly veiled attempt at earning loyalties and building a faction. Elizabeth of course saw through it, and was not pleased.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The stepson of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and the queen's  favorite for the second half of her reign, until he betrayed her. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Essex was an exception, as was Norfolk, and for the most part, the members of the Elizabethan peerage were extremely loyal to their queen and hardworking on her behalf. Elizabeth's confidence, charisma and diplomacy commanded respect and instilled fierce commitment, and her people served her well.


Statistics taken from D.M. Palliser's socio-economic study The Age of Elizabeth: England under the later Tudors 1547-1603