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[Updated February 2013, to account for recent comments on Scottish feudal titles from the Lord Lyon's office.]

The titles game: can you buy nobility?

Let's suppose that Fred and Freda Bloggs have a hankering to stop being plain old Mr and Mrs Bloggs, and to become Lord and Lady Bloggs of Dogpatch instead. Or perhaps Fred fancies a nice knighthood — Sir Frederick has a certain ring to it. So they have a nose around the Internet, and come across a number of sites that appear to be offering titles of nobility for sale. They learn, for example, that for a measly hundred quid, they can become a lord and lady, or a couple of Scottish lairds. For a bigger investment — say a couple of thousand — they can buy a title that can be inherited by their descendants, or even sold at a profit. Titles are even auctioned on eBay. But how genuine are these offers? Can you really, legally buy and sell titles? If not, what is it that you are getting from these offers? This article seeks to answer these questions. But in order to understand the answers, and indeed the questions, it's necessary to know something about the English system of nobility and titles.

Basic principles of nobility, peerage, titles, and honours

In general, to be titled is to hold a title of honour granted by the Crown. English common law recognizes two broad classes of these titles of honour: titles associated with the nobility, or peerage titles (they are the synonymous, for our purposes), and titles of less than peerage rank. We must also consider titles that are not titles of honour (Doctor, Reverend, etc), honours that are not titles (OBE, etc), and title-like forms of address whose exact status is disputed (feudal titles, for example, of which much more later). We must also say a few words about the legal issues associated with the creation, grant, and recognition of titles and honours.

Peerage titles

Formerly, a peer — a nobleman, in other words — was visibly distinguished from a titled person of lesser rank by having the right to sit in the House of Lords. However, since most peerages are hereditary, and the right of hereditary peers to sit in the Lords has now been curtailed, hereditary peerage is now merely a tradition with no particular common-law rights apart from the use of the titles of the rank. There are five ranks of peerage, in descending order of precedence:
  • Duke/Duchess
  • Marquess/Marchioness
  • Earl/Countess
  • Viscount/Viscountess
  • Baron/Baroness
Typically a peerage would come with certain lands attached, but this was not inevitable.
       The way in which a peerage passes from generation to generation, if it passes at all, depends on the way in which the peerage was granted. In most cases, it passes to the direct male heir, although there are still some titles extant that are capable of passing down the female line. The rules are quite complicated, and not always consistent, but for the purposes of this article there are a couple of basic principles you should be aware of. First, the peerage does not normally lie in the grant of the holder. That is, although the holder can renounce a peerage (this might happen, for example, to allow a peer to stand for election as an MP), he can't dispose of it any any other way apart from as set out in the original grant. Second, life peerages are not inheritable at all. Nearly all modern peerages are life peerages, including all political appointments, and the Law Lords (now judges of the Supreme Court). These people technically rank as barons or baronesses. Third, Some of a peer's household may conventionally have courtesy titles. For example, the eldest male heir of an earl might conventionally be addressed as if he held one of the earl's lesser titles (a viscountcy, perhaps). Holders of courtesy titles do not necessarily hold noble rank (although they might expect to do so in due course). The important point for our purposes is that a courtesy title is not something that can be passed by inheritance, or indeed in any other way, since it has no substantive existence. Female heirs also sometimes take courtesy forms of address, but technically not courtesy titles. Of course, women can hold peerages in their own right, and take the full titles of their husbands on marriage — not courtesy titles.

Titles of honour of less than peerage rank

Title-holders of less than peerage rank include knights — of which there are various orders — and baronets. A baronet outranks a knight in order of precedence, and the rank is inheritable. Again, the rules about inheritance are complicated, and depend on the original grant. For some time it was thought that male heirs of baronets had an automatic right to a knighthood. Most likely this right has lapsed but, whether it has or not, the acquisition is not automatic — the heir must still petition the Crown.

Titles which are not honours

Both peerage titles, and titles of less than peerage rank, are titles of honour. There are other titles, of course, with legal recognition, that are not titles of honour. For example, 'Doctor' (as in 'Dr. Bloggs') is a title, but not a title of honour, much less a mark of nobility. The title of Doctor is not awarded by the Crown, but by academic organisations with a charter to award such titles.

Honours which are not, strictly speaking, titles

There are numerous other honours that the monarch can bestow, independently or on ministerial advice, but on the whole they do not amount to a recognition of titled status. For example, the Order of the British Empire (OBE) is an honour, but not a title.

Disputed titles

The last class of titles we must consider is that small class whose status is not entirely certain, particularly 'feudal' titles. Of particular interest to title merchants are the titles of 'Lord of the Manor' — which is generally believed not to amount to a title of honour, much less a peerage title — and the Scottish feudal Barony, which is generally believed to be a true noble title (at least for now). There is a great deal more to say about these particular titles, as we shall see.

The legal basis of titles and honours

In the UK, titles and honours are not merely matters of social convention. There is, for example, a defined procedure for determining whether somebody is a baronet, and a correct answer to whether a member of one Order of Chivalry takes social precedence over a member of another. These issues are determined by what is known as nobiliary law. Questions of nobiliary law may be difficult to answer, particularly because some rulings are of great antiquity and not easy to follow. However, they are, for the most part, questions which do have definite answers which can be researched, rather than matters of social preference.

On the whole, nobiliary law is not to be found in statute. Although there is a small body of statute law which applies to titles and honours, the creation, recognition, and grant of titles of honour is technically one of the prerogative powers of the Crown. Prerogative powers are the vestiges of the archaic powers of the monarch to rule by proclamation, rather by the procedures of Parliament. In practice, the exercise of prerogative powers is now by 'the Crown', which is that uniquely English constitutional phenomenon in which the monarch acts on the 'advice' ('instructions' might be a better word) of the Government of the day. So, in practice, new titles are conferred by the Queen or by the Prime Minister of the day. In theory, it lies in the power of the Crown to create not just new title-holders, but whole new titles. This has happened in the past, of course — in the immediate post-Conquest era there was only the rank of baron; all the other classes of peerage are more recent creations.

Regulations governing titles and honours are usually formally insituted by letters patent or royal warrant, signed by the monarch, and in many cases countersigned by a minister to indicate that ministerial advice has been given.

One statute that is important for our present purposes is the Honours (Prevention of Abuse) Act (1925). This Act makes it a criminal offence to offer, or to accept, money or other reward to obtain the grant of a dignity or title of honour. In the medieval past, however, there is no doubt that noble status was attendant on wealth, particularly in the form of land. A person who had acquired a sufficiently large estate could petition the monarch for a peerage. In practice, Prime Ministers do reward their long-term supporters with honours and peerages, and this support may take the form of money.

Although peerages cannot be bought or sold in the UK, titles of nobility may have been saleable in other jurisdictions. You may sometimes come across people offering to sell French and German titles. Apart from pointing out that these titles would confer no particular status in English law, I can't really comment further as I don't know anything about the nobiliary law of these countries. Of course, since the reform of the House of Lords a hereditary English peerage probably carries no more extensive legal rights in the UK than does a hereditary French one.

Legitimate uses of titled forms of address and honorifics

The following is a brief description of the more important titled forms of address and honorifics that are recognised in English common law. Most titles are accompanied by honorifics, but there is a technical distinction between the two. An honorific qualifies a full name — it cannot be part of a name. For example, 'Reverend' is an honorific, not a title. You could be, for example, 'The Reverend Mr Bloggs', or 'The Reverend Fred Bloggs', but you can't, strictly speaking, be 'The Reverend Bloggs'. However, 'baron' is a title. You can be 'Baron Bloggs', but not 'Baron Mr Bloggs'. Many people get this distinction wrong and, to be honest, it isn't hugely important for our present purposes.

Please bear in mind that I am a law graduate with a particular interest in the historical aspects of English law; correct modes of address, courtesy titles, etc, are — for the most part — not legal issues at all, but matters of social convention, and not really within my area of expertise.

His Grace, Her Grace

This honorific is legitimately used only by dukes and duchesses, and certain bishops.

Lord and Lady

In English common law, only peers are entitled to be addressed as 'Lord Bloggs'. Male heirs of dukes and marquesses are by convention addressed as 'Lord Fred Bloggs', that is, including the first name. In fact Fred Bloggs, if he is a senior peer, may in fact be, say, Earl Dogpatch. That is, the peerage has a title of its own, distinct from the surname of the holder. The only women entitled to call themselves 'Lady Somebody' are peeresses in their own right, the wives of peers, knights, and baronets. Female heirs of dukes, marquesses and earls are by convention addressed as Lady Freda Bloggs, with the first name, like male heirs of dukes and marquesses. Strangely, this courtesy extends to female heirs of earls, but not to male heirs.
       Of course, a peer could also use his rank as a title, e.g., Baron Bloggs, or Fred, Earl of Dogpatch. However, this form of title is rarely used in speech, except for dukes. Normally peers would be introduced as 'Lord Bloggs' or 'Lord Dogpatch'.

The Honourable, most honourable, and right honourable

To be The Most Honourable Fred or Freda Bloggs, you must be a Marquess or a Marchioness.
       To be The Right Honourable Fred or Freda Bloggs you must be an Earl or a Countess, or a Privy Councillor.
       To be The Honourable Fred Bloggs, or the The Honourable Freda Bloggs, you must be a viscount or a baron or their female equivalent.
       These honorifics are also by convention granted to people who hold courtesy titles of the equivalent rank. For example, the eldest son of the Duke of Dogpatch might have the courtesy title of a marquess, and be the Most Hon. Fred Bloggs as well. The son of a baron is also allowed to be an Hon. Somebody. Despite the complex rules surrounding these honorifics, and their apparent grandness, they are only ever used impersonally, that is, in describing someone or addressing an envelope. They are never used as a form of address or introduction.

As far as obtaining a title is concerned, the only legitimate way to acquire the honorifics of 'The Hon.', etc., is to be a peer of the realm, or a member of the immediate family of a peer of the realm, or a Privy Councillor. In short, it is no easier to obtain the legitimate use of these honorifics than it is a peerage itself.

Sir

The honorific prefix 'Sir' is used for knights and baronets. If knighted, Fred Bloggs will be Sir Fred Bloggs or, in speech, Sir Fred.

His Excellency

This honorific is used by ambassadors appointed by the Crown. Like the Honorific 'The Honourable...' it is only used impersonally, never as a form of address or introduction.

Esquire

The title of esquire was widely abused even by the 16th century. Technically an esquire is a person of higher social rank than a gentleman, and less than a knight. In writing, a gentleman would be 'Mr Bloggs', and an esquire 'Fred Bloggs, Esq.' (not 'Mr Fred Bloggs, Esq.'). Over the years the rank varied in seniority, so in the 14th century it meant approximately the same as a knighthood, while in the 19th century it meant little more than gentleman. Debrett's gives a (long) list of those who might be entitled to be addressed as esquire. This list includes, for example, male heirs of peers and knights, sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, officers of the royal household, QCs and senior judges, senior military officers, and holders of postgraduate degrees. Despite widely held belief, the title of esquire does not merely signify a gentleman or a landowner, although it has often been thus misapplied.

In practice, as their is no formal legal ruling on the use of Esquire, it has become rather haphazard. In practice, it is difficult to object to the use of the title by anybody — even the College of Arms routinely uses it in correspondence with people who have no grander title.

Acquiring a title

So, let's suppose you want to acquire a noble title, or an honour, or to use an honorific that goes with one. How can you do this? This section describes various services that are offered by the title merchants, in ascending order of value.

Outright hoaxes and scams

In the UK there is very little to prevent a person going by whatever name he or she likes. If you want to present yourself as Lord Bloggs of Dogpatch then there really isn't much the law can do to stop you. Currently there are a number of rather pernicious scams that capitalise on this fact. These work because if a person believes that he is Lord Foobar, in practice no-one is going to question the validity of the title. There are, for example, people who claim to be fons honorem, that is, entitled to bestow honours. They might claim that this right derives, for example, from some honour bestowed on their crusader forebears. Alternatively, the right might have been granted by some European monarch at some point in the past (maybe, but who's going to know?) The reality is that English common law only recognizes one fons honorem — the Crown. Any document that purports to create a right to bestow honours must carry the autograph of a legitimate monarch of England.

If you sign up for one of these scams, you can expect to receive an impressive-looking document evidencing the grant of the honour. If you believe it to be effective, then up to a point it will be. However, these documents are no more valuable than anything that you could print yourself. If you have some parchment and a printer you can do at least as good a job, at a fraction of the price.
       A common trick with title scams is to have the signature of the grantor validated by a person of impeccable credentials. In general, where English law requires a signature to be witnessed, this means exactly what it says: the witness must watch the document being signed. The witness does not need to know, or care, what the document itself concerns. If done carefully, it can be made to look as though the witness is attesting to validity of the document itself.
       It's important to bear in mind that many unscrupulous title merchants confuse purchasers by offering a mixture of valid and bogus services. For example, anyone can break up his or her land and sell it in chunks. A title merchant might tell you (wrongly) that a noble title goes with that land, and can be passed to purchasers of the chunks of land. The land certificate you get from the Land Registry if you buy such a chunk of land is a valid, British legal document. You have entered into a perfectly genuine land transaction, and have the certificate to prove it. If you believe that the title is passed with the land, then you have a certificate that attests to your new status. Of course, you don't: noble titles don't pass with dispositions of land in England, but the land certificate gives a certain specious authenticity to the transaction.

A relatively recent development in the world of bogus baronies is the sale of baronial appointments. While barons could, and did, appoint people to offices such as 'baron marshall', these were merely offices, not titles. They were almost certainly not hereditary. Nevertheless, there are scammers suggesting that purchasers of their bogus baronies will be able to offset some of their costs — or even make a profit — by selling the appointments to baronial offices. Such a scheme might well amount to pyramid selling, and therefore be unlawful in the UK.

These scams are particular contemptible because they offer absolutely nothing of value. Some of the other schemes do trade in assets that are of some value, even if they don't offer what they purport to offer.

Becoming a 'Lord' by deed poll

So, we have established that you can legally go by whatever name you like. Fred Bloggs can legally refer to himself as Lord Bloggs. However, if you want to change your name as it appears on, for example, your driving licence or passport, then you will need to produce documentary evidence of the sincerity of your intention to change your name. In the UK, this evidence usually takes the form of a deed of change of name, informally known as a 'deed poll'. There is nothing magical about a deed poll: it is simply a document signed by you and witnessed, which sets out your determination to go by a new name and renounce your old one. In general you can send the signed and witnessed deed to any official agency and request that your records be changed. This request will normally be honoured, however mad your new name. It does not appear to be unlawful to change your name from Fred Bloggs to Lord Bloggs, although any change of name would be illegal if used to effect a fraud. You can ask a solicitor to prepare a deed poll for you, or go to one of the many agencies that provide this service. However, you can save money and time simply by printing, completing, and signing the deed below in the presence of a witness. You can then start sending it to the appropriate agencies.
''By this deed I, the undersigned, of _________________, having been born at _________________ on ____________________, do hereby absolutely renounce and abandon the use of my former name _________________, and in lieu thereof assume and adopt the name of _________________. I hereby declare that at all times hereafter in all business, actions, proceedings, records, deeds, instruments in writing, and upon all occasions whatsoever, the use of this name as my full name and family name. I hereby request and authorise all persons to designate and address me by such name.''

Signed on the _ of ____, 20__,
_______________

Witnessed by ______________
of _______________,
of the occupation of _________________.

So, for example, for Fred Bloggs to legally and legitimately become Lord Bloggs:
''By this deed I, the undersigned, of 21 Acacia Avenue, East Dogpatch, Wessex, having been born at 13, Scumbag Alley, Mousehole, Wessex, on the twenty-third of June nineteen hundred and sixty, do hereby absolutely renounce and abandon the use of my former name Fred Bloggs, and in lieu thereof assume and adopt the name of Lord Bloggs. I hereby declare that at all times hereafter in all business, actions, proceedings, records, deeds, instruments in writing, and upon all occasions whatsoever, the use of this name as my full name and family name. I hereby request and authorise all persons to designate and address me by such name.''

Signed on the 20th of August, 2003
F Bloggs

Witnessed by Mr Bill Scoggins of 23 Acacia Avenue, East Dogpatch, Wessex,
of the occupation of town rat catcher
B Scoggins

There are many other perfectly valid formulations of a deed poll, of course; but you can have this one with my compliments.

It appears to be entirely possible to use this technique to get a passport issued in the name of Lord Bloggs, or Viscount Scoggins, or whatever you like. Of course, you haven't acquired anything of value. Deed polls can be formally registered by enrolment at the Supreme Court, but there is no legal obligation to do so, and most people don't bother.

A number of organisations 'sell' titles by helping you to change your name by deed poll. They charge about £200 for this service. It's worth bearing in mind that you can do this yourself, for free, at any time, simply by editing and signing the sample deed above. An agent might carry out the additional step of checking whether there really is a Lord Bloggs, as your use of his title might cause an upset. You can check this yourself if your local library keeps a copy of Burke's, for example.

Buying a Lairdship

In principle, in Scottish law a person can use the designation 'Laird of Someplace' merely by owning some land in that place. So all Mr Bloggs needs to do to become Laird Bloggs is to buy a piece of land in Scotland. Traditionally the title 'Laird' was reserved to major landowners and public dignitaries, rather like the English 'Squire', but in theory any landowner can use it. Of course, this makes all Scottish landowners notional lairds, although there are, of course, proper, traditional Lairdships in Scotland, recognized by the Lord Lyon. A number of companies are selling off tiny pieces of land ('souvenir plots') in the highlands to allow people to become lairds, to the chagrin of the 'real' lairds. The more reputable vendors are quite tongue-in-cheek about the whole business, and charge what appears to be a reasonable sum, given that a certain amount of administration is involved. The going rate is £50-100. For the money you do get a real piece of land (albeit tiny) which you can go and visit if you want to feel connected to the soil. It is real property and the title of Laird, such as it is, can be inherited, or sold at a profit if you're lucky. Be aware that there are a number of companies who are charging extortionate sums for this service; I have seen fees of more than £500. Such companies often exaggerate the value of what they are sell. For example, it isn't unusual to read that the Scottish word 'laird' is simply an Scottish equivalent of the English word 'lord' (which might be true, in the linguistic sense), so Laird Bloggs could legitimately call himself Lord Bloggs (which isn't). Morevoer, there are some vendors that claim that the souvenir parcel of land they sell has some special, lordly status because it comes from the estate of the Lord High Foobar. This is baloney. Even in Scottland, where there may be such a concept as a barony by tenure (see below), you'd still have to buy the caput of the barony to qualify (big bucks).

On the whole, this method of acquiring a 'title' is usually harmless and unobjectionable, although slightly tacky — like having personalised number plates on your car — and most people who buy 'lairdships' appear to do so as gifts. Iwantoneofthose.com sells lairdships for £29.99, and describes them as delighfully silly, which seems about right.

Lordships of the manor, and (non-existent) English feudal baronies

In feudal times, the monarch owned all the land in the country (this is technically still the case today, although a formality). He divided up the country between his 'tenants in chief', who would have been the nobility of the day. The tenants in chief further divided the land into sub-tenancies for the lesser nobility, each with its own feudal obligations. At the bottom of this pyramid of land ownership was the manor, managed by a lord of the manor. Typically a manor would consist of a manor house and some parkland, surrounded by some acres of demesne. The demesne land was for the personal use of the lord of the manor. Surrounding the demesne land was land worked by villeins - bonded labourers - who held their land by copyhold tenure. The term 'copyhold' denotes that the villeins' rights were proved by a copy of the records of the manorial court.
       For the purposes of our present discussion, it is important to understand that the lords of the manor, although important personages in their own communities, were not necessarily nobility. Of course some lordships of the manor were held by noblemen, even by royalty (even kings have to live somewhere, after all). Lordship of the manor was, and is, a form of property ownership, and the word 'lord' in the title has the same sense that it does in the word 'landlord'. Now, over the years the traditional feudal manors got broken up and sold off. What happened to the lordships of the manor when there was no manor? Well, technically a lordship is an incorporeal heriditament, an intangible right over land that persists even when the land changes ownership. For example, if your house is completely surrounded by other peoples' land, and you have to pass over that land to get to it, then you probably have an incorporeal heriditament in the form of an 'easement of access' (you'd better hope so, anyway, unless you have a helipad on the roof). This right belongs to you, but concerns somebody else's land. If the land over which your right exists is sold, then your right is enforceable against the new owner (this is a bit of a simplification, but the details aren't important here).
       A lordship of the manor is a right of this sort. It is attached to land, but not necessarily owned by the owner of the land itself. Even selling the manor house itself does not necessarily result in a sale of the lordship of the manor. Like other property rights, a lordship of the manor can be bought and sold. It is part of the estate of its owner, and passes to his successors when he dies. This probably sounds very grand, but the rights attached to a lordship of the manor are, for the most part, nugatory. You may find yourself the owner of a few hundred yards of grass verges, for example. By buying a lordship you are probably entitled to style yourself 'Fred Bloggs, Lord of the Manor of Dogpatch' or (pushing your luck a little) 'Fred Bloggs, Lord of Dogpatch'. Although people who sell titles will tell you that the designation 'Lord of Dogpatch' is a customary contraction of the full title 'Lord of the Manor of Dogpatch', I believe that this 'custom' is less than a decade old. Even the full title Lord of the Manor of Dogpatch is of questionable validity. The College of Arms suggests that the usage of the full title is probably acceptable, but will not say for certain. Some lordships still have some land attached, often the manor house itself. Some have other rights, sometimes quite peculiar, such as the right to present coins to the Queen on certain state occasions. More commonly, lords of the manor are able to collect (notional) tithes from utility companies for the use of grass verges in the manorial district.
       A lordship of the manor is a genuine property right, recognised by legislation. It does not, however, accord the lord any particular status. It must be stressed that a lordship of the manor is probably not a title of honour, and is certainly not a peerage. It does not give Fred Bloggs, Lord of the Manor of Dogpatch, the right to call himself 'Lord Bloggs' or 'Lord Dogpatch'.
       Similar to a manor is a 'feudal barony'. Like a manor, a barony comprised land ownership and administrative obligations. Although feudal baronies probably do still exist in Scotland and Ireland, the balance of authority is that there are no English feudal baronies. Any that were still extant by the 17th century were absorbed into the peerage, and feudal tenure was abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1660. There have been a number of attempts to revive English feudal baronial titles in the courts, most recently in the late 19th century. None has been successful. Consequently, anybody claiming to be selling an English feudal barony needs to be treated with caution.
       Lordships of the manor are usually sold by auction. Bidding starts from about £1000. The most prestigious, and therefore expensive, lordships are those that have been associated with royalty in the past. For these you can expect to pay perhaps £20,000 or more. The problem with buying a lordship is ensuring that it is genuine. Before the system of compulsory land registration, it could often be difficult to determine whether a person had genuine title to a plot of land or a house. Imagine how much difficult it is, therefore, to ensure the validity of an intangible property right. We will return to this subject later, in the discussion of bogus lordships.

It is difficult to know what to make of lordships of the manor. On the one hand, a lordship is not a peerage, despite the similarity of the titles. It is almost certainly not even a title of less than peerage rank, because lordships were not created by the same mechanisms used to create nobility. However, since the reform of the House of Lords, interest in lordships has increased enormously. The reason might be that now real, genuine hereditary peerages carry no real rights (they have all been taken away), so lordships and peerages are increasingly difficult for the non-expert to distinguish. Indeed, a lordship of the manor may actually have land attached, while some peerages do not. In the 1980s, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, commented in one of the few reported court cases that concerned lordships of the manor, that a lordship without any land could be bought for £200-£300. These days, many change hands for tens of thousands. Agencies that specialise in the sale of lordships claim that they are an investment, and if you buy at the right time this could be true. You may also be lucky, as one purchaser recently was, to find that the manorial wasteland that you have rights over is not limited to grass verges, but includes 200 acres of prime development land. On the other hand, you may find that you have bought the right to maintain the church roof in perpetuity.

Lordships of the manor by trademark

While a genuine lordship of the manor is a thing of some value, albeit limited, and probably does confer on the owner the right to a dignified form of address, it is difficult to know what to make of this new scheme, of registering lordships as trademarks. If it does work — which is doubtful — it is much cheaper than buying a real manor.
       The way the system appears to work is as follows. The title agent tracks down a manor that appears to be defunct, that is, its rights are currently not claimed by anyone. He then registers the description of the manor as a trademark on behalf of the purchaser. The owner of the trademark then asserts himself as being in adverse possession of the 'land' of the lordship of the manor. After a period of time defined by the Limitation Act (currently 12 years), it becomes impossible for a person with a prior claim on the lordship of the manor, if there is anyone with such a claim, to take legal action to recover possession from the trademark owner. In reality, the agents will have checked that there is no-one around to make such a claim. The owner of the trademark can apply to have his possessory title to the lordship registered at the Land Registry, and after 12 years can apply to have the possessory title uprated to absolute title.
       Schemes like this are widely advertised, but I would suggest that there are a few problems which a potential buyer should bear in mind. First, it is not obvious whether a defunct lordship of the manor can be revived, or whether it simply vanishes. To be sure, it isn't clear that it can't be revived, but it would be a gamble to rely on this. Secondly, while it is clear that one can obtain real, tangible land and property by adverse possession, it isn't clear that one can establish an incorporeal heriditament by adverse possession. It is possible to establish an easement (e.g., a right of access) by long usage, but this does not amount to adverse possession. Thirdly, while it is true that a lordship of the manor can be registered (at least at the moment — see below), to register it requires an accurate plan of the demesnes land of the manor, and this will almost always be hard to come by these days. Fourthly, now that the Registration Act (2002) is fully in force, it is longer possible register lordships of the manor with the Land Registry.
       The administration costs for setting up a 'lordship' by trademark are quite high, and you may find that you end up paying as much as you would if you had bought the genuine article. Given the uncertain legal status, prospective purchasers should think quite hard about whether it's worth the risk.

Bogus lordships of the manor

Consider the following problem. You would like to buy a house, some three hundred years old, which is currently unoccupied. You find out from the estate agent handling the sale that the present owner is a certain Mr Swindler, who lives abroad. How can you be sure that Mr Swindler really does own the house, and can legally sell it? If you are lucky, the house will be registered as an estate with the Land Registry. If the house is old, and has not changed ownership recently, you will probably not be so lucky. The process of establishing ownership of unregistered land interests is for the vendor to show an unbroken chain of title, from a good root of title to the present day. A good root of title is a document that establishes ownership — a deed of conveyance, or a will, for example — that dates back a certain length of time (currently 15 years; since the Limitation Act prevents legal actions to recover land after 12 years, a 15-year proof of title is usually sufficient). Of course, if the good root of title is 200 years old, that's OK, so long as the chain of title is unbroken to the present day. So, there should be documents establishing all changes of ownership from the good root of title to the present vendor. If you are a solicitor acting for a house purchaser, and the vendor cannot provide this proof of ownership, then you would probably advise your client to buy elsewhere.
       What relevance does this have to lordships of the manor? Well, the overwhelming majority of lordships are not registered, and the process of proof of ownership will be much the same as it is for tangible unregistered land. However, because a lordship is intangible, it is much easier for an unscrupulous person to fake evidence of ownership. It's hard to do this with a house or a farm — if I try to sell my neighbour's house the buyer will find out soon enough that I'm not the real owner, because someone else lives in it. Moreover, the owner of a lordship of the manor may not even have documentary evidence of his rights; ownership may have passed down the family for generations without any formal description. What documentary evidence there is may be obtainable from the Public Records Office, or inferred from the old manorial court records, if they can be found.
       In the last couple of years, there have been numerous reports of fraudulent manor sales. In some cases deeds of conveyance are simply faked up from scratch. In others, the 'vendor' provides genuine documentary evidence of the ownership of the manor for the period 1400-1900, then claims that the manor has been in the same family for the last hundred years, and that it is this family that is selling the manor.
       In the most egregious cases, people have bought manors that don't even exist, or that actually belong to someone else. Unless you are experienced in conveyancing unregistered land, you should seek expert legal advice before parting with any money.

Scottish and Irish feudal baronies

Unlike English feudal lordships of the manor, Scottish 'baronies by tenure' are probably genuine titles of honour. If they are, then they are the only real UK titles of nobility that are capable of being bought and sold. Unlike English noble titles, Scottish baronies by tenure can (or, at least until recently, could) pass with the land to which they are attached, rather than by personal descent. The barony is not a full peerage, and the equivalent Scottish term for an English baronial peerage is 'Lord of Parliament'. In short, an English barony is a peerage, a Scottish barony is not, but might be a noble title in its own right. I will return later to why there are so many maybes and probablys in this discussion.
       If Mr Bloggs has a genuine Scottish barony by tenure, then he probably gets the right to call himself 'Fred Bloggs, Baron of Someplace'. This right, if it exists at all, is inheritable along with the Caput, or property, of the barony. Such baronies are typically associated with land, usually a few acres accompanied by a crumbling castle. Because Scottish baronies might be genuine titles of honour, they are highly sought after and not easy to obtain. Typically about a dozen baronies change hands every year. The sales are not well publicised, and large sums of money are involved. You can expect to pay a minimum of £40,000, although I understand that one sale has recently been agreed at £1M.
       To complicate an already complicted situation, when the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act (2000) came fully into force, Scottish baronies by tenure ceased to exist as substantive rights over land. However, the 2000 Act specifically preserves the right to treat feudal dignities as incorporeal heriditaments — rather like English manorial rights. So we now have a situation, as in England, where the dignity of the barony can potentially be traded indepedently of any interest in land that can be registered (there is a private voluntary register — more on this later).
       To some extent, the records of the Lord Lyon — the officer of the Crown responsible for Scottish title and heraldry disputes — are determinative of the existence of a baronial title. Although the Lord Lyon's office does not record baronial titles as such, a form of address appropriate to a (feudal) baron is usually stated in a grant of arms, or a matriculation (alteration) of an existing grant. Debrett's and other authorities on etiquette recognize the discretion of the Lord Lyon in this respect, stating that the form of address noted on the grant of arms should be used for official purposes. However, the Lord Lyon does have considerable autonomy, particularly when approached for a grant of arms by a person who has no particular connection with Scotland. The views of successive Lords Lyon have varied but, at the time of writing, it seems that the Lord Lyon is willing to consider a person who owns the dignity of a barony — with or without associated land — for a grant of arms and, therefore, the recording of a baronial form of address.
       However, the Lord Lyon still has to ensure that the applicant meets the standards of character necessary for a grant of arms, quite apart from satisfying himself that the applicant actually owns the dignity of the barony. Since there is no statutory register, other forms of evidence have to be considered. The voluntary private register has had a mixed reception with the Lyon's Court. The present Lord Lyon, David Sellar, has stated that he is prepared to respect the expertise of the current keeper of the register, but his views on the evidential value of the register per se seem less clear.
       Given the huge sums of money involved, the prospective purchaser of a Scottish barony should seek specialist legal advice, particularly now that the 2000 Act is in force. Validating the authenticity of a barony has all the same problems as validating a lordship of the manor, with the additional hazard that you'll lose a great deal of money if you get it wrong.

The situation is more complicated in Ireland, because the term 'barony' is used both in an administrative sense — like an English lordship of the manor — and in the Scottish sense of a barony by tenure. Baronies by tenure were almost certainly abolished in Ireland by Act of Parliament in 1662, soon after England and Wales abolished the vestiges of feudalism. The 1662 Act might have abolished Baronies in the sense of lordships of the manor too, but this is less certain. The balance of authority at present seems to be that there are no valid Irish feudal titles still extant, but few experts seem prepared to assert with full conviction that this is the case. This lack of complete certainty has provided an opening for sellers of bogus baronies, because it is extremely difficult to discredit their offerings without extensive, costly research.
       In addition, there is no Irish equivalent of the Scottish Lord Lyon to keep an eye on the use of baronial arms. As a result, buying an Irish barony is particularly risky.

As to the title 'baron' itself, there are a number of uncertainties concerning its legitimate use.
       First, it is uncertain whether the title 'Baron of Someplace', or 'Baron Somebody', is recognised in law outside of Scotland (or Ireland, as the case may be), even if its use is considered good etiquette. Consider the following extract from the transcript of the case of Harvey-Bussell v Sun Alliance Group (I have X'ed out the names to reduce the likelihood of causing embarrassment):

''In evidence, the Applicant told us that her husband had, during 1995, acquired the title Baron X of Moycarne. It was put to her in cross-examination, and she did not deny, that he had acquired the title by purchase, and that it was the equivalent, in Ireland, of an English Lordship of the Manor rather than a peerage... With absolutely no disrespect to the Applicant, it does not appear self-evident to us, that in England, she is entitled to describe herself as "Baroness" which, since the passing of the Life Peerages Act, has come to imply that the holder of the title is a Life Peeress by creation... So in this decision we shall refer to the Applicant... as Mrs X.''
Arguably the judges in this case (which was before the Employment Appeal Tribunal) were not experts in nobiliary law, and in any event the case did not turn on whether the Applicant was entitled to be known as 'Baroness' or not, so the matter did not receive all that much attention. However, it does demonstrate the general belief that the titles 'Baron' and 'Baroness' should be reserved to the baronial peers.
       Second, whether or not the title 'Baron' is acceptable, it remains unclear whether the title confers noble status or not, particular since it is now possible to trade the dignity of the barony separately from the caput. A former Lord Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes, asserted strongly that any grant of Scottish arms was a recognition of noble status in Scotland. So if the baron was granted arms as a result of purchasing the barony, then this could be taken to indicate that the barony did indeed confer nobility. However, although the matter has never been directly at issue in a court case (as far as I am aware), there have been numerous judicial mutterings that a grant of arms is not evidence of nobility, even in Scotland. In addition, recently academic writings have started to question whether the view expressed by Innes has any historical basis, or just reflected his own (albeit very influential) take on the matter. Since Innes, some Lords Lyon have refused to accept the existence of a baronial dignity as having any bearing on eligibility for a grant of arms; more recently, this attitude seems to have softened, as I mentioned above. Whether this casts further doubt on Innes' claims about the close relationship between arms and nobility is not clear — my impression is that it probably does.

The role of HM Land Registry in all this

The Land Registry is the department of the British Civil Service charged with maintaining the register of what property rights are owned by whom. Since 1989, all transfers of freehold land (and certain leases) have been required to be registered, and the Registry is not empowered to refuse registration on the basis that the transfer is for suspicious purposes. Similarly, it does not lie within the registry's duties or powers to inquire into the bona fides of the person making a disposition of land, provided that the appropriate legal formalities are complied with. Why is this such a big deal? Well, suppose I own a few acres of desolate scrubland somewhere. I can sell a foot-square piece of it, and on the Registry paperwork I can state that the land is called 'East Dogpatch', and that I sold it to 'Lord Bloggs of Dogpatch'. The registry will not check whether there really is a 'Lord Bloggs', nor whether the person buying the land really lives on it. After all, businesses buy and sell land with which they have no personal connection all the time. 'Lord' Bloggs will, in the normal course of events, receive a land certificate from the Registry, recording that Lord Bloggs of Dogpatch is the registered owner of the freehold land of East Dogpatch. In a nice frame such a certificate will look very impressive, no doubt. A number of title vendors have capitalized on the Land Registry's inability to inquire into the validity of the details of the transferee of a piece of land. One company, Elite Titles, has the following on its web site, underneath a heading Is it legal? ''Please remember, we deal with an official Government agency in these matters and clearly, they (HM Land Registry) would not be party to anything illegal'' This is perfectly true, but unless one is well informed about how land registration works, apt to mislead. All the land certificate really certifies is that the registrar made an entry on the register for a particular piece of land in a particular name. It says nothing about the rights of the registered person to use that name, or whether the name of the land is of any historical significance. These matters are simply outside the remit of the Registry. In March 2004 the Registry issued a press release distancing itself from the purported legitimation of titles. The press release pointed out that it is not the job of the registrar to inquire into the particulars of the land or its new owner, beyond what is required to satisfy its statutory duty.

Conclusion

If Mr Bloggs wants to be known as Lord Bloggs, then there are a number of ways he can legally go about it. He could simply change his name from 'Fred' to 'Lord'. This appears to be legal; after all, as far as I know, no-one ever complained about Duke Ellington not being a real duke. Alternatively, he could purchase something that gives him the right to use a dignified form of address. It appears that a valid lordship of the manor does this. If he has sufficient money, he could try to purchase a Scottish barony by tenure, which appears on balance — with a grant of arms — to confer noble status, at least in Scotland (but the balance of authority seems recently to be swinging the other way on this point).
       However, he will have to be very careful to avoid the scams that are going on. Many title merchants are simply fraudsters, and are selling things that either don't exist, or that really belong to somebody else. Of those that are not actually criminals, many vendors inflate their offerings by using complicated and bogus language, or making grandiose claims that don't bear close inspection.
       And finally, a challenge. If anyone out there has a genuine way to sell a title of nobility, that would be recognised by English courts in England, and can explain the legal basis in clear language: tell me, and I'll include details here. I'm not expecting many takers.

[Update 10/2010 — I wrote this article nine years ago, and have still had no takers.]

Copyright © 1994-2013 Kevin Boone. Updated Feb 23 2013