The baronetage or the collective body of baronets, forms the sixth division of the British Nobiles Majores; (the other five being the five degrees of the Peerage) the title of baronet being an hereditary dignity ranking below that of baron but above the honour of a knightood within the British Honours System.
The origin and history of the baronetage
Oddly enough, the term baronet does not seem to derive from the title of baron but is rather a corruption of banneret, being "the name given to those nobles who had the right to lead their vassals to battle under their own banner" which was regarded as a dignity ranking below a baron but above that of a knight. The term baronet appears to have been first applied, during the reign of Richard II, to those members of the nobility who lost the right to an individual summons to Parliament. (And therefore ceased to become members of the peerage.)
Sometime afterwards the title fell into disuse and was largely forgotten until around the end of the sixteenth century the antiquarian Robert Cotton discovered a copy of a patent by Edward III in which he conferred upon William de la Pole the dignity of a baronet in return for a sum of money. This is presumably what provided the inspiration for king James I's decision to institute (or re-institute) the baronetage in 1611.
James I was always short of money and he needed money to finance the Ulster plantation and therefore decided to sell baronetecies for a sum equivalent to three years' pay for 30 soldiers at 8d per day per man. Which came to the grand total of £1,095 payable in three equal installments. This offer was however restricted to "gentlemen of good birth" who possesed an income of at least £1,000 a year.
On the 22nd May 1611 James I therefore granted the first Letters Patent to 200 gentlemen who met the conditions oulined above, and a few month later on the 30th September 1611 extended the privilige to Irish residents and thus erected the Baronetage of Ireland.
James I planned to erect a further new baronetage to assist in the colonisation of Nova Scotia in North America, but died in 1624 before he could do so. It was thus left to his son Charles I to complete the task
and on the 28th May 1625 Baronetage of Scotland or Nova Scotia came into being. These new baronets were each required to support six settlers for two years (or pay the sum of 2000 marks) and pay the sum of 1000 marks to Sir William Alexander later Earl of Stirling, who had been earlier been granted the province by charter in 1621. These Scottish baronets were also to receive a free barony of 16,000 acres in Nova Scotia, although this practice was later discontinued after 1638.
It was originally promised that the title of baronet would be issued on a strictly limited basis. James appears to have kept faith with this promise, but it seems that the lure of easy money was too much for Charles I who began selling them for as little as £300 or £400 in his thirst to raise funds. After the Restoration his son Charles II was similarly lavish with the honour and the ranks of the baronetage swelled as a result.
The maintenance of separate baronatages for England, Scotland and Ireland continued until 1707, when the union of England and Scotland brought forth the Baronetage of Great Britain (after which no new baronets of England or Scotland were created) and 1801 when with the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, all future creations were in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom.
The Nature of a Baronet
One of the most common mistakes is to state that a baronet is a kind of hereditary knight, but as Edward Coke stated "the knight is by creation and not by descent"; there is accordingly no such thing as an hereditary knight. To become a knight baronets need to be knighted like anybody else, and indeed far from being knights one of the specific priviliges originally granted to a baronet (as an inducement to apply for it) was that they and their successors had the specific entitlement to receive a knighthood. This privilige of an automatic knighthood was extended to their eldest sons and heirs-apparent, on reaching the age of majority, although this was to be revoked by George IV in 1827.
As with a peerage, the inheritance of a title is defined by the terms stated in the Letters Patent granting the dignity; in most cases the title passes to the eldest living son of the last holder. There are however a number of Scottish baronatecies where the title can pass to or through the female line.
A baronet is entitled to the prefix 'Sir' before his given names followed by the designation of baronet and thus will be known as Sir John Smith, Baronet or if one wishes to be specific, Sir John Smith, 6th Baronet Smith of London. The designation of baronet is often abbreviated and replaced by the post-nominal letters 'Bt' or 'Bart'. Some people will try and convince you that use of the abbreviation 'Bart' is "wrong"; it is not, it is merely unfashionable.
A baronet's wife known by the courtesy title of 'Dame' or 'Lady' although the latter is the more common with the use of the former designation limited to formal and legal doucments.
The Structure of the Baronetage
There are five classes of the baronetage
- Baronatage of England (established 1611);
- Baronatage of Ireland (established 1611);
- Baronatage of Scotland or Nova Scotia (established 1625);
- Baronatage of Great Britain (established 1707); and the
- Baronatage of United Kingdom (established 1801)
One of the funadamental problems with the baronetage was that, unlike the peerage, there was no automatic method of verifying the validity of any particular claim to the dignity. Since peers attended the House of Lords there was a regular process by which succeeding generations were verified by the process of the issuing of writs of summons each time a new heir inherited. Over the years, as memories dimmed and in the absence of any official records, there were a number of individuals who claimed to be baronets on the basis of various spurious genealogies and forged documents.
An attempt was made in 6th of December 1783 to remedy this problem by requiring baronets to prove their right to the dignity and to require
new baronets to register their arms and pedigree at the Heralds College, but this was abandoned after opposition from the baronets themselves.
By the nineteenth however the baronets became increasingly concerned about protecting their priviliges and were particularly annoyed by an order issued in 1897 giving the sons of life peers precedence over baronets and in the following year some of their number formed the Honorable Society of the Baronetage in order to defend their privileges. This body which later in July 1903 became known as the Standing Council of the Baronetage succeeded in obtaining invitations for some representatives of the order to the coronation of Edward VII.
After much lobbying Edward VII issued a Royal Warrant dated 8th February 1910 which established the Official Roll of the Baronetage and announced that "no person whose name is not entered on the Official Roll shall be received as a Baronet, or shall be addressed or mentioned by that title in any civil or military Commission, Letters Patent or other official document". A further Royal Warrant issued by George V dated 10th March 1922 required the Home Secretary to appoint a senior official as the Registrar of the Baronetage to maintain the Official Role, although this responsibility now lies with the Department of Constitutional Affairs.
The Official Roll of the Baronetage was first published on the 23rd February 1914; only those persons listed on the Official Roll are now regarded as officially being members of the baronetage and every person who wished to claim succession to a baronetcy must produce the necessary proofs of succession to the Secretary of State.
There are currently a total of 1314 baronetcies on the Official Roll, of which 146 are of England, 63 of Ireland, 119 of Scotland, 133 of Great Britain and 853 of the United Kingdom. The Roll lists every extant Baronetcy in chronological order of creation; the most senior and therefore Premier Baronet is Sir Nicholas Bacon, 14th Baronet of Redgrave whose title was created in 1611.
No new baronets have been created since 1964, with the single exception of the title Baronet Thatcher of Scotney created in 1992 and granted to Dennis Thatcher, husband of the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and now held by Mark Thatcher following his father's death on the 26th June 2003. John Major, who was the prime minister that granted this title, was to later admit that it was only awarded after some pressure had been applied. "There were a series of very powerful arguments that were put to me at the time. I am sure you would not wish me to go into detail," is how he later explained the matter.
- The Standing Council Of The Baronetage at http://www.baronetage.org/
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for BANNERET and BARONET
- Peerage and Baronetage – Baronets at
- Baronets at http://hereditarytitles.com/Page17.html
- Guardian Online on John Major