The title of Duke of Somerset was first created in 1443 for John Beaufort a descendant of John of Gaunt, although dignity of Somerset had a prior history as an earldom, being first granted to William de Mohun in the twelfth century, before being revived at the turn of the fourteenth in favour of the Beauforts. The most recent creation of the title was in 1547 in favour of the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, and his descendants still hold the title to this day making it the second most senior dukedom in the British peerage, ranking only behind the Duke of Norfolk in precedence.
Beaufort, Tudor and Fitzroy
The Beauforts were a family descended from John Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt and therefore a grandson of Edward III. John de Beaufort was created Earl of Somerset in 1397 and two of his sons were on separate occasions created Duke of Somerset, with the title eventually becoming extinct with the death of the 3rd Duke in 1471. (Further details of the history of the Beaufort tenure of the Somerset title are given at Earl of Somerset.)
In 1499 Henry VII declared that his son Edmund Tudor would be created Duke of Somerset, but as Edmund died within a few months he may or may not have been formally appointed as Duke. However Henry VIII most certainly did confer the title on his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy in 1525, together with the title Duke of Richmond but Henry Fitzroy died without heirs in 1536 thereby rendering the title extinct.
The Seymour family first appear in the guise of one William St Maur, apparently a follower of Gilbert de Clare, 4th Earl of Pembroke, who established himself in the Gwent area around the year 1240. A century or so later a Roger St Maur married one of the co-heiresses of John Beauchamp, 3rd Baron Beauchamp de Somerset who died in 1361, and thus came into the possession of estates in Somerset, Devonshire, Buckinghamshire and Suffolk. By the sixteenth 'St Maur' had mutated into 'Seymour' and the family had become a powerful influence in the south-west of England under the leadership of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall whose daughter Jane Seymour attracted the attentions of king Henry VIII and became his third wife in 1536.
Such a connection with royalty naturally provided an invaluable opportunity for advancement to the Seymours, and Sir John's eldest son Edward Seymour soon profited from his sister's new status. Edward was created Viscount Beauchamp of Hache in 1536 and Earl of Hertford in the following year. He was later appointed one of the executors of the will of Henry VIII, after whose death he became both governor of his nephew, Edward VI and Protector of the Realm; and was thereafter known simply as the Protector or Lord Protector. Further honours followed; on the 15th February 1547, he was granted the title Baron Seymour, on the 16th February the title Duke of Somerset, and the following day appointed to the office of Marshal of England. One of the peculiarites of this grant of the title of Somerset was that as Edward was on his second marriage at the time, the letters patent specified that the title would pass first to the sons of this second marriage, and only on the failure of their heirs would the title be inheritable by the offspring of his first marriage.
Despite his position as defacto Ruler of England from 1547, Edward found himself undermined by his brother Thomas Seymour who has bitterly jealous of his sibling's pre-eminence and intrigued against him. In 1549 Thomas hatched a rather hare-brained scheme to seize hold of Edward VI and instigate an uprising. But he was apprehended as he was breaking into the king's apartment, imprisoned and executed for treason within a few weeks. Although the death of his brother removed a rival it also undermined Edward's authority and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (and later Duke of Northumberland) stepped forward to take advantage. Kett's rebellion provided the excuse to imprison Seymour in the Tower of London and sweep him from power. Although Edward Seymour was released in February 1550 and appeared to have reached a compromise with Dudley, he was arrested again in October 1551, convicted of a charge of felony and executed on the 22nd January 1552. By an Act of Parliament of the following year he was attainted, his honours were forfeited, therefore bringing to and the Seymour line of Dukes for the moment.
The Restoration of the Seymours
Despite his father's fall from grace Edward Seymour, eldest son of the Protector named above, succeeded in partially restoring the family's fortunes by regaining the title Earl of Hertford in 1559. Subsequent Seymours retained this dignity and one William Seymour succeeded on advancing himself to the dignity of Marquess of Hertford and later managed to reverse the attainder imposed on his great-grandfather and duly became the 2nd Duke just a few weeks before his death in 1660.
William's three eldest sons had predeceased him and hence he was followed by his grandson also William Seymour, as the 3rd Duke of Somerset. This William Seymour died unmarried in 1671, and he was succeeded by his uncle (the fourth son of the 2nd Duke) John Seymour, who became the 4th Duke of Somerset. The 4th Duke similarly died without male issue and the title of Somerset passed to a descendant of Francis Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Trowbridge and brother of the 2nd Duke, another Francis Seymour who became the 5th Duke of Somerset. The 5th Duke died unmarried in 1675, and the title passed to his younger brother Charles Seymour.
Charles Seymour, the 6th of his line became known as the 'Proud Duke' thanks to an over-inflated idea of his own importance. He was famous for having built or acquired houses at convenient points between London and his various estates in order to minimise the opportunity for coming onto contact with the lower classes, and once severely reprimanded his second wife for daring to tap him on the shoulder. Charles simply did not regard his second wife as being quite as distinguished as his first wife, who was Elizabeth Percy the only daughter of Josceline Percy, 11th Earl of Northumberland and therefore a fabulously wealthy heiress.
Thus their son Algernon Seymour, the 7th Duke, who suceeded in 1748, inherited not only the accumulated wealth of the Seymours but that of the Percys as well. Unfortunately for Algernon his only son predeceased him and he also managed to outlive all his brothers, none of whom managed to produce any male heirs either. He was left with a single daughter Elizabeth Seymour and a nephew named Charles Wyndham, the son of his sister. Algernon Seymour therefore endeavoured to have himself created Earl of Northumberland in 1749 with provision that the title could pass to his son-in-law, Hugh Smithson, and similarly created Earl of Egremont in the same year with a similar remainder in favour of his nephew.
Therefore on Algernon's death in 1750 the title Earl of Northumberland passed to his son in law, and that of Earl of Egremont to his nephew, both of whom also inherited their share of Algernon's wealth. The title of Earl of Hertford (also held by Algernon) became extinct as there were no remaining male heirs. However as far as the title Duke of Somerset was concerned, the original grant of the title had specifically made provision for the title to be inherited by the descendants of the children of the 1st Duke's first wife Katherine Fillol, should there be any failure of heirs of the second marriage who had originally enjoyed precedence in the original Letters Patent.
More Seymours and St Maur
As it happens there was indeed a descendant of this first marriage about in the form of a 5th cousin once removed named Edward Seymour, the 6th Baronet Seymour of Berry Pomeroy, a descendant of Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy, Sheriff of Devon and second son of the original Seymour Duke. The 6th Baronet Seymour duly became the 8th Duke, but did not, of course, inherit anything much in the way of property which had all been shared by his predecessor Algernon's close relatives as described above.
The 8th died on the 15th December 1757 and was succeeded by both of his sons in turn. The elder son Edward Seymour and 9th Duke died unmarried on the 2nd January 1792 and was succeeded by his younger brother Webb Seymour, the 10th Duke and a noted hypochondriac who lived in fear of catching smallpox and thus avoided human contact as far as possible. He died almost two years later on the 15th December 1793 and was followed by his eldest son Edward Adolphus as the 11th Duke.
Edward Adolphus was something of an intellectual, being a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries , author of the Properties of the Ellipse, and a close friend of John Playfair with whom he shared an interest in the emerging science of geology. In his youth he apparently became enamoured of Susan the younger daughter of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, but ended up marrying her elder and craftier sister Charlotte. It was the 11th Duke who decided to change the family name back to the original 'St Maur' at a time when such 'authentic' surnames became fashionable.
The 11th Duke died on the 15th August 1855 at the age of eighty and was succeeded by his eldest son Edward Adolphus. The 12th Duke married one of the grand-daughters of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Although stunningly attractive she was a commoner and viewed with disdain by the rest of the family; her brother-in-law and eventual 13th Duke called her a "low born greedy beggar woman". The 12th Duke however appears to have been quite content with his 'Sheridan Duchess' despite her fondness for eating guinea-pigs, who bore him two sons and three daughters. His later life was however beset by tragedy. His younger son Edward was attacked by a bear in India in 1865 and died of his injuries. His elder son Edward Adolphus Seymour, Earl St Maur travelled throughout India and the Far East, fought in the siege of Lucknow, converted to Islam, but fell ill and died shortly after returning to England on the 30th September 1869. The Duke was thus heartbroken at losing both his heirs and spent the remainder of his life in morose exclusion until his death on the 28th December 1885.
Whilst he was in India the Earl St Maur had 'married' a girl by the name of Rosa Elizabeth Swann who had borne him both a son and a daughter who took the surname of St Maur. When the 12th Duke died he therefore left the bulk of his wealth to these children and to his own daughters, and in fact seems to have gone out of his way to ensure that his brother Archibald got as little as possible. Naturally Archibald, now the 13th Duke, was not best pleased and referred to his elder brother's will as "a lasting monument of infamy"; he was left with little more than the bare walls of the ducal home at Maiden Bradley and a few thousand acres encumbered with debt. The embittered Archibald died eventually died on the 12th January 1891 when the title passed to his younger brother Algernon Percy who passed away a few years later on the 2nd October 1894. He was succeeded by his son Algernon Seymour, the 15th Duke, who after a long and largely unremarkable tenure of the title died on the 29th October 1923 without a direct heir and so left the future succession of the title in some doubt.
The modern Dukes of Somerset
With the death of the 15th Duke in 1923 a number of claimants to the title emerged. The front runner was Brigadier-General Sir Edward Hamilton Seymour KBE, great-grandson of a Colonel Francis Compton Seymour and younger son of the 8th Duke. There were however other claimants such as the Marquess of Hertford and Harold St Maur (the 'illegitimate' grandson of the 12th Duke). The matter was not as clear cut as it should have been as there was some argument regarding the precise marital status of Edward's great-grandfather. Francis Compton Seymour had married Leanor Perkins, the daughter of an East End publican and the widow of a sailor named John Hudson, and doubts were expressed as to whether the aforesaid Mr Hudson was actually dead at the time of this marriage. The matter was brought before the House of Lords and on the 25th March 1925 the Committee of Privileges ruled in favour of Edward Hamilton Seymour, who thus became recognised as the 16th Duke of Somerset.
The 16th Duke stuck with Seymour as his surname, married a Rowena Wall, and died on 5 May 1931 at the age of seventy, when he was succeeded by his son Evelyn Francis. The 17th Duke followed his father into the army, won the DSO, was mentioned in despatches and bore the sceptre at the coronation of George VI in 1937. He married an Edith Parker who bore him three sons. The first two died young succeeded by his third son on his death on the 26th April 1954. Percy Hamilton the 18th Duke, continued the recent military tradition and rose to the rank of major in the British Army. He very rarely attended the House of Lords and lived quietly at Maiden Bradley where he died in 1984.
His eldest son and successor, John Michael Edward Seymour is the current and 19th Duke of Somerset. Thanks to the peculiarities of the descent of the dukedom, he holds no other peerage titles whatsoever, although he is the Baronet Seymour of Berry Pomeroy. Thus his eldest son and heir Sebastian Edward Seymour, simply styles himself as the 'Lord Seymour', rather than as a Marquess which would be customary for the heir to a dukedom.
The special remainder of the 1547 creation
The thing to note about the 1st duke Edward Seymour was that his first marriage to Anne Stanhope was somewhat troubled and that he had serious
doubts as regards the paternity of the first son. The Letters Patent for the title Duke of Somerset therefore specified that the title should descend to;
- firstly his heirs male by his second wife (Katherine Filiol), then to
- his heirs male by any future wife, then to
- Edward, the second son of his first wife (Anne Stanhope), and his heirs male, then
- his brothers, and finally to
- his heirs female
The 1st Duke's eldest son by his first marriage does not feature at all and conveniently died unmarried in 1552. The heirs male by his second wife were exhausted with the death of the 7th Duke in 1750; the 1st Duke never took a third wife so the second condition does not apply; the 8th Duke and all subsequent title-holders are all descended from Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy, that is his second son by his first wife. As we can see even in the event of a failure of male heirs under condition 3, nos 4 and 5 remain available thus making it unlikely that the title will ever become extinct.
The Hertford title
Both the 1st and 2nd Dukes of Somerset were also Earls of Hertford (although under different creations) whilst the 2nd Duke was also Marquess of Hertford. The title of Marquess of Hertford became extinct with the death of the 4th Duke in 1675, whilst that of the Earl of Hertford similarly ended with the death of the 7th Duke in 1750. Francis Seymour-Conway who was a younger son of Edward Seymour, 5th Baronet and thus uncle to the 8th Duke was created Earl of Hertford some time later in 1750 and Marquess in 1793; an entirely separate creation from that originally held by the Dukes of Somerset.
THE DUKES OF SOMERSET
Duke of Somerset created 1443
Duke of Somerset created 1448
Title forfeited by attainder in 1552, restored in 1660, but conferred as an earldom on Robert Carr between 1613 and 1645; see Earl of Somerset.
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for SOMERSET, EARLS AND DUKES OF See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
- Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
- The Seymour Dukes of Somerset
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
- Stirnet Genealogy at
- The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm