Celtic Ties of the Baronetage

By Douglas S. Files

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The Baronetage of the British Isles is strongly tied to the Celtic parts of the islands. A baronetcy resembles a hereditary knighthood, and the titles are unique to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The order of baronets is distinct from both the peerage and the knightage and lies in between the two in honor. Baronets are addressed as “Sir John Doe, Baronet”, where the prefix “Sir” derives from the Latin “Senior” meaning of higher rank. The vanishingly rare female baronetesses are called “Dame Jane Doe, Baronetess”. Baronets are not peers but experts disagree whether their baronetcy automatically qualifies them as noblemen. General agreement exists that they inhabit some middle ground between peers and knights.

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King Richard II and his Arms

The Baronetage is older than most people are aware. The modern baronetage was founded by King James I in 1611, but the term was used centuries before that. The word “baronet” was employed during the reign of Richard II to denote nobles who had lost the right of summons to Parliament. A 1321 account of the Battle of Barrenberg mentioned baronets and records exist that seven years later Edward III created 8 new baronets.  These may have been knights banneret, a term that in the early years was used interchangeably with “baronet”. Knights banneret brought men into the field of battle under their own banner and Medieval kings occasionally created knights banneret for valor on the battlefield. King Henry VII created Sir Richard Croft a knight banneret after the Battle of Stoke in 1487. It is not known if any knight banneret creations were hereditary, but if they were they expired centuries ago.

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King James VI of Scotland (= James I of England) and his Armorial Bearings

In 1611 King James I of England created the modern order of baronets, at least partly to raise money.  He granted letters patent to 200 gentlemen of good birth whose income exceeded £1,000 per year.  They had to own considerable land to qualify, and their paternal grandfathers had to have been armigerous.  In return for the honor, each baronet was expected to pay for the upkeep of 30 soldiers for three years, which amounted to £1,095 – an enormous sum in those days.  The troops were used to settle and subjugate Ireland after the Ulster Rebellion, and that is why most baronets’ badges carry the Red Hand of Ulster.  In the early 17th century British kings attempted to displace Catholics from Ireland by bringing in Protestant settlers and troops (not unlike what Russia did in the former Soviet Republics or what Israel does today on the West Bank).  The baronetage of Ireland was founded soon thereafter, with some of the money used to subjugate their own countrymen.

Baronetcies of Nova Scotia (New Scotland)

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The Flag and Arms of of Nova Scotia

When sea captains told King James I tales of the New World they spoke of New England, New France and New Spain, but to his chagrin there was no New Scotland. Accordingly, in 1621 he granted a royal charter to Sir William Alexander to settle the territory between New England and Newfoundland.  James planned to create a new baronetage to support the colonization of Nova Scotia but he died before enacting his plan.  Several years later his son and successor Charles I founded the baronetage of Nova Scotia (Latin for “New Scotland”).  Starting in 1625 successful applicants paid 2,000 marks to the king - enough to support six settlers for 2 years - and received the baronetcy and a New World land grant of 16,000 acres.

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Sir William Alexander and Nova Scotia (in yellow)

In 1629 Sir William Alexander’s son brought 70 settlers to Nova Scotia but when the land was returned to France three years later the Scots departed.  As of 1638 baronetcies of Nova Scotia ceased to carry the grant of land in the New World and as of 1707 both Scotsmen and Englishmen were granted only Baronetcies of Great Britain.  No more baronetcies of England or Nova Scotia were issued.  After the formation of the United Kingdom in 1801, grants were called Baronetcies of the United Kingdom.  Thus, 21st century Baronets of Nova Scotia are the descendants of those who were granted the honor prior to the 18th century.  These titles were apparently popular because over a hundred of these “Scottish baronetcies” exist to the present day.

Under the original system set up by King James I, baronets’ eldest sons had the right to be knighted and they were permitted to use the Arms of Ulster - in a field Argent, a Hand Gules - in an escutcheon to their armorial bearings.  They took precedence over all knights, except Knights of the Garter, Knights of the Thistle and Knights of St. Patrick.  Originally James I had planned to limit the number of baronetcies to 200 but when Charles I and Charles II found how lucrative they could be, they issued them liberally.  Currently the United Kingdom counts about 1,266 baronetcies, of which 62 are of Ireland, 115 of Scotland, 142 of England, 129 of Great Britain and 818 of the United Kingdom.  The website of the Standing Council of the Baronetage - http://www.baronetage.org/official-roll-of-the-baronets/ - contains an up-to-date listing of current baronets.

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Queen Elizabeth I knighting Sir Francis Drake in 1591

Technically, a baronetage is not a hereditary knighthood, because a knight is such by creation and not by descent.  Both baronets and their eldest sons had to be knighted by the monarch separately from the inheritance of the baronetcy.  Knighthoods for baronets were automatic at the age of majority until King George IV revoked this right in 1827.  Later in the 19th century it became customary for technical specialists such as engineers, physicians and Lord Mayors of London to be granted baronetcies. For example, Sir Frederick Treves, the surgeon who treated the Elephant Man, was created a baronet after he saved King Edward VII’s life by performing an experimental appendectomy.  When the king protested ahead of time that he could not delay his 1902 coronation to undergo surgery, Treves retorted, “It will be a funeral, Sir, if you do not have the operation!”

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Sir Frederick Treves, 1st Baronet
Vanity Fair’ caricature by “Spy” (1900)

In 1897 Queen Victoria ordered that the sons of life peers should take precedence over baronets, which greatly annoyed the latter group.  Banding together, they formed the Honorable Society of the Baronetage to lobby the Crown.  Six years later the name of the group was changed to the Standing Council of the Baronetage.  In 1910 the group persuaded King Edward VII to establish the Official Roll of the Baronetage.  The accompanying Royal Warrant stated that no person whose name was not on the Official Roll could be addressed as a baronet.  Currently, to succeed to a baronetage in the UK a person must submit evidence to the Secretary of State.

Recent British governments have shown a reluctance to create new baronetcies, and the only one created since 1964 has been Baronet Thatcher of Scotney granted to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis.  Since Sir Denis’ death in 2003, his eldest son has been the 2nd Baronet Thatcher of Scotney.

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Badges of Baronets of Nova Scotia and the United Kingdom

Centuries ago baronets of Scotland or Nova Scotia were granted the Arms of Nova Scotia in their armorial bearings and the right to wear around their neck the Badge of Nova Scotia, suspended by an orange ribbon. The badge depicts an escutcheon argent with a saltire azure, an inescutcheon of the arms of Scotland with an imperial crown above the escutcheon and encircled with the words “Fax mentis honestae gloria” (Glory is the light of a noble mind). Baronets of England and Ireland petitioned King Charles I to be allowed to wear a badge, but he demurred. It was not until 1929 that King George V granted all baronets permission to wear a badge.

Only four women have held baronetcies in their own right: Dame Daisy Dunbar of Hempriggs, Dame Eleanor Dalyell and Dame Anne Maxwell Macdonald inherited from their fathers. Dame Mary Bolles (1579-1662) was the only woman created a baronetess. Currently no women hold baronetcies, but there probably remain some whose letters patent allow for a woman to inherit.

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Sir Benjamin Guinness, 1st Baronet and his Famous Porter

Notable baronets have included Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, and Sir Benjamin Guinness, Irish brewer and Lord Mayor of Dublin.  Sir Walter Scott, author of ‘Ivanhoe’ and many Scottish adventure novels, such as ‘Waverley’ was created Baronet of Abbotsford in 1820.

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Sir Walter Scott, Baronet and an Image from Ivanhoe

Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, 11th Baronet, was a famous Scottish herald and genealogist.  He worked in the Office of the Lord Lyon, working his way up from Falkland Pursuivant to Albany Herald.  His books on heraldry are informative but light, and delightfully illustrated by Islay Herald Don Pottinger.

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An illustration from Sir Iain Moncreiffe’s book ‘Simple Heraldry’

The “Premier Baronet” is the senior member of each nation’s baronetage.  The Premier Baronet of Nova Scotia (Scotland) is The Innes baronet of that Ilk, currently Guy Innes-Ker, the 10th Duke of Roxburghe.  His baronetcy dates to 1625.  The Premier Baronet of Ireland is Francis William Dighton Annesley, 16th Viscount Valentia.  His baronetcy dates to 1620.

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The 10th Duke of Roxburghe, Premier Baronet of Nova Scotia (Scotland) and his Arms

Baronetcies form a unique part of the culture of the British Isles.  The men - and women - bearing the titles have played important roles in the lives of the nations represented.  Modern Celtic nations continue to have baronets who can take pride in their honors, and baronetcies will remain part of the life of Ireland and Scotland.