Four centuries of the Baronetcy

PUBLISHED: 11:55 28 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:47 20 February 2013

Four centuries of the Baronetcy

Four centuries of the Baronetcy

A 'fund-raising wheeze' or 'for services rendered'? Maxwell Craven delves back into the past of one of our oldest historic institutions

Four hundred years ago, the heads of three Derbyshire families were amongst the first baronets ever created. This strange caste of hereditary knights neither lords nor just plain gentlemen was founded by the permanently cash-strapped King James I & VI on 22nd May 1611 in order to raise funds for the colonisation of the estates of two rebellious Irish chieftains, the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel. These native grandees had absconded to the Continent in 1607 when summoned by James to account for their actions concerning a dispute between them over land, which had led to constant raiding and a good deal of bloodshed.

Having fled, the earls were assumed to be guilty and deprived of their extensive estates in Ulster, which were re-distributed to (mainly) Scots settlers. The money required to finance the defence of Ireland in the subsequent upheavals was to be raised by the creation of the baronetage, the new rank was offered to the heads of all the leading county families in England excluding those with a peerage. If offered a baronetcy, one paid the king a fee, anyone refusing the honour was fined more or less the same amount by the Crown. The fee was set at a precise level: to pay for 30 infantrymen to serve in Ireland at 8d per day for three years, which amounted to approximately 1,093, although it was raised to a flat fee of 3,000 in 1615.

The honour itself derived from the degree of knight banneret first created by Edward I, although these were not hereditary. Later, Sir William de la Pole was granted an hereditary knighthood by Edward III in 1339, but apart from occasional others mainly in Ireland and not always strictly hereditary the practice had died out with the accession of the Tudors. It is said that the discovery of de la Poles patent in the papers of Sir Robert Cotton in the early 17th century gave the impetus to a revival of the degree, which was originally planned to be restricted to 200.

Three batches of new baronets were created initially on 22nd May, 29th June and 25th November 1611, in each case involving about 15 to 20 country gentlemen, all of whom had to have a land rental income of over 1,000 a lot in those days. The grants were normally made to the recipient and the heirs male of his body only, although a number of special remainders were allowed from the Civil War onwards, which allowed the title to pass to a brother and his male heirs. An exception is that granted to Sir William Wheler, Bt., whose monument still graces the north wall of Derby Cathedral. His title was granted in 1660 with remainder to his cousin Charles and male heirs.

The order of Baronets in Scotland, incidentally, had been established in 1625 to raise money to colonise Nova Scotia, in return for which the original batch of those honoured were granted 16,000 acres of land on the island as well! There have never been baronetesses, except for in Scotland where there has been one eccentric Nova Scotia creation (Dame Mary Bolles Bt., of Osberton, Nottinghamshire, 1635). The recently deceased baronetess Dame Anne Maxwell-MacDonald of Largie, Argyll (ne Stirling-Maxwell) was one of a very small number remaindered through the female line, reflecting the slightly different conventions in Scotland covering the inheritance of honours and estates.

Baronets of Ireland were created from 1618 on exactly the same basis as English ones, but the baronets badge was only designed and granted in 1929; previously a baronet had no distinguishing mark to wear on his person, although all baronets may charge their coat-of-arms with the red hand of Ulster on a white shield. Nova Scotia baronets however, always had their own badge to wear and to place on their arms.

Baronets, who ranked next after Barons in the order of precedence (and indeed, still do), also had the privilege of being allowed to claim as of right to have themselves and their sons and heirs dubbed a knight, a practice which was revoked by George IV in 1827 but was revived in 1854 and 1884 and finally declared obsolete in 1895. The normal mode of address of a baronet is to prefix the Christian and surname with Sir and add Bart. or Bt. as a suffix followed by a territorial designation, thus: Sir John Gell, Bt., of Hopton.

Of the very first batch created in 1611 by King James, four were to East Midlands families: the Cliftons of Clifton Hall, Nottinghamshire; the Gerards of Bryn (Lancashire), which family then lived at Etwall Hall where they owned the estate and were hereditary governors of Repton School; the Leakes of Sutton Scarsdale and the Shirleys of Shirley and Staunton Harold.

In the June, nine more local families were added: the Gresleys of Drakelow, the Knivetons of Mercaston and the Willoughbys of Risley (all in Derbyshire); the Molyneux of Teversal, Nottinghamshire, the Noels of Brook in Rutland, the St Pauls of Snarford, the Monsons of (South) Carlton and the Tyrwhitts of Stainfield, all in Lincolnshire, and the Treshams of Rushton, Northamptonshire. Finally, in the November, two Lincolnshire baronetcies were created: the Saundersons of Saxby and the Wrays of Glentworth. All in all, with six creations, Derbyshire did rather well!

Of this first years local crop, the baronetcies granted to the Gerards and the Shirleys still exist, in the persons of 5th Lord Gerard (also the 17th baronet) and 13th Earl Ferrers, who is also 19th baronet, but of the June and November lots, only the Monsons, in the person of 11th Lord Monson (who is also 15th baronet) are still going, all the rest having died out.

In Derbyshire there have been several notable families of baronets, like the Harpurs of Calke (1626), the Burdetts of Foremarke (1619), the Boothbys of Broadlow Ash (1644 confirmed 1660) and Bateman of Hartington (1806), many now extinct, although I suspect that Harpur, Bt. is merely dormant. There are other Derbyshire families of Baronets, created after they had left the County, like the two Mackworth ones (1619 and 1776) and the two Heathcote ones (both 1733) not to mention the Hill-Woods of Moorfields, Glossop (1921) and Platts of Grindleford (1959) who have forsaken our county for pastures new. Yet until last year we still had four baronetcies flourishing amongst us, one now regrettably lost to us being Sitwell of Renishaw Hall (1808) the unforgettable and amiable Sir Reresby, died last year and his nephew and successor lives outside the county.

Two other local baronets are Sir Henry Every, 13th Bt. Of Egginton (recently High Sheriff) and Sir Richard FitzHerbert, 9th Bt. Of Tissington, for of the surviving 1611 creations, Lord Ferrers now lives in Norfolk and Lord Gerard lives in the USA. Sir Henry Everys ancestor got his baronetcy in 1641 not by paying the Crown to support a soldier in Ulster, but for services rendered as a keen, but rather accident-prone, supporter of the Crown. Sir William FitzHerbert, 1st Bt. of Tissington was raised to the baronetage in 1784 for his services to George III as a courtier. These, of course, demonstrate that a baronetcy quickly became an honour given for services rendered rather than the fund-raising wheeze it started out as. Even Cromwell created a few.

The late Francis, Viscount Scarsdale, was also a (11th) baronet indeed, a double one, the senior creation having been a Nova Scotia one of which he was exceedingly proud. Whilst the reason for this 1636 grant to Sir Nathaniel Curzon of Kedleston is quite unclear, the subsequent English one of 1641 was, like that awarded Sir Simon Every and to the local Parliamentary leader Sir John Gell of Hopton, an attempt by the King to keep key men on-side as the attempts to avoid Civil War started to unravel. In neither the case of Curzon nor Gell was the inducement successful!

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria was famously heard to pronounce that baronetcies were an excellent way of honouring the middle classes. Indeed, baronetcies had long been given to retiring and long-serving MPs who had not quite done enough to deserve a peerage! Examples include the ex-Derby Mayor and Alderman, Sir Thomas William Evans of Allestree Hall MP a member of the Darley Abbey Mills family of cotton spinners included in the Jubilee honours of 1887, and Sir Henry Stephenson of Hassop, Bt., created in 1936 as an ex-Chief Cutler of Sheffield, MP and leading industrialist whose successor and namesake the 3rd Bt. still lives nearby. From the Regency period until 1963 most ex-Lords Mayor of London were granted a baronetcy, and provincial lords mayors who hosted a Royal State Visit were also likely to be in line for one. Sir Nicholas Bowden of the City of Nottingham, 4th Bt., for example, is the great-grandson of the founder of Raleigh.

There have been about 4,048 baronetcies created between 1611 and 1990, of which around 1,320 survive the most recent, of course, being that bestowed upon Sir Dennis Thatcher in 1990, the first such creation since 1965, when the newly-elected Harold Wilson stopped awarding them, along with hereditary peerages, in a fit of egalitarianism.

A non-official body called the Standing Council of the Baronetage regulates the surviving baronets for, not having any legislative functions as peers did until 1999, there was no official oversight of succession and right to title, a function which the standing council records after the College of Arms has confirmed the nuts-and-bolts of any succession.

Although never endowed with a legislative function, baronetcies are a recognition of merit and represent more than merely getting a good table in a restaurant, even in this egalitarian age. A baronetcy represents a substantial element of our shared heritage, just like many other aspects of life, like historic buildings or other valued institutions, ever under threat in an iconoclastic age. Perhaps we should list historic families, like historic buildings!

It would be rather appropriate, then, if Her Majesty would (on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, naturally) create a very small number of new baronets (or even baronetesses) in favour, not of celebrities, but of people of exceptional, even understated, distinction, especially as such awards have been made so very sparingly since October 1964 in order to celebrate the quatrecentenary of the institution of the Order of the Baronetage.

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