We focus a great deal on the peerage: lords and ladies among the aristocracy of nineteenth century England. They had the power, they (generally) had the wealth, they were considered the Beau Monde, the good people. Title holders were considered peers (nobles); their wives (unless she had a title in her own right) and their children were considered commoners. So how exactly did one go about joining the peerage in the nineteenth century?
Some, of course, were born into it. The Baron le Despencer’s title, for example, dates back to 1264. The title Viscount Hereford goes back to 1550. The older your title, the more impressive your lineage. So, if you were the oldest son (or rarely, a daughter) of a title holder, you could virtually guarantee yourself a title when dear Papa passed to his just reward. If you were the oldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl, and dear Papa had a slew of titles, you were given one as a courtesy until you inherited them all. So you might be Viscount Victorious or Baron Beefcake (although they generally didn’t call anyone “baron”).
But let’s say you can’t inherit a title. You might instead do something sufficiently impressive that the ruler would grant you a title in gratitude. Earlier peers won mighty battles against foreign enemies, championed the poor and oppressed, and provided care and comfort to fleeing kings and queens. By the nineteenth century, sadly, many were created peers for far less glorious pursuits, such as the ability to steer politics in a certain direction. One exception was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who finally brought Napoleon to his knees. At various times in his illustrious career, he was made a baron, a viscount, an earl, a marquess (twice), and finally a duke.
But perhaps you aren’t in a position to save the nation from utter ruin. I was surprised to learn this week that you might buy yourself a peerage. Yes, I’ve heard of people who do so today. Certainly I can imagine wealthy families lobbying for peerages for their second sons and third sons. What I can across this week was something different: a doting father who bought a peerage for his daughter.
Henrietta Laura Pulteney was the only daughter of wealthy barrister and later Parliamentarian William Johnstone, who later changed the family name to Pulteney when his wife inherited the vast Pulteney fortune. You can see she was a happy child. Laura was only 16 when her mother died, and she in turn inherited the fortune. She led a sheltered life, attending a convent school in France and coming out in French society. Her father, however, was busy in the House of Commons. Several times he was approached about a peerage, but he decided instead to buy one for Laura. She was created Baroness Bath when she was 26 and elevated to Countess of Bath when she was 39. Sadly, she passed away three years later, very likely from consumption. As she had no children, her titles died with her. Her fortune at her death was valued at nearly 600,000 pounds (over $50 million in today’s dollars).
No ever said it was cheap to be a peer.