Victoria Lambert, or more properly the Countess of Clancarty, complains in today’s Daily Telegraph about the rules of primogeniture and male succession in the British Peerage. Although it will shortly be open for male and female heirs to the British Throne to be treated equally for the purposes of succession, the same is still not the case for a host of British titles of nobility. Families such as her own, where there are daughters but no male heir, are bound to see the extinction of their titles, which are tied to descend only by the male line. Her daughter, she laments, will be the last Lady Le Poer Trench, and in time we will see the end of their familiy’s titles of distinction - a range of baronies, viscouncies, and even a Dutch title, the Marquisate of Heusden.
While one might be sympathetic to her call for equality in the rules for succession to peerages – why should the Crown be exceptional in this matter? – perhaps it might be better to look at the problem from the long perspective of history. This would remind us that families, far from complaining about losing their titles after many generations, should be thankful that they were able to inherit them at all. In its beginning with the development of feudalism in Europe, the peerage was not hereditary at all. A territorial lordship was simply an office held at the pleasure of a King, Emperor or Pope. It was not legitimately passed on at death to a family member, let alone an eldest son, without the express permission of the same king. Kings would frequently remove these “lords” from their office, or compel them to exchange one for another. The tenancy of such a title was never something that was assured.
Thus, if we are looking to revive the oldest traditions, let us not see the Earldom of Clancarty extinct. Yet, instead of tying it to the Le Poer Trench family, let it be bestowed on someone who has merited the title in the course of their lifetime, for their lifetime. Is there a better way to serve the cause of equality, not just between the sexes, but between those who have merited distinction in our own age and also in the ages of the past?