The word baron comes from the Old French baron, from a Late Latin barō “man; servant, soldier, mercenary” (so used in Salic law; Alemannic law has barus in the same sense). The scholar Isidore of Seville in the 7th century thought the word was from Greek βᾰρῠ́ς “heavy” (because of the “heavy work” done by mercenaries), but the word is presumably of Old Frankish origin, cognate with Old English beorn meaning “warrior, nobleman”.
Cornutus in the first century already reports a word barones which he took to be of Gaulish origin. He glosses it as meaning servos militum and explains it as meaning “stupid”, by reference to classical Latin bārō “simpleton, dunce”; because of this early reference, the word has also been suggested to derive from an otherwise unknown Celtic *bar, but the Oxford English Dictionary takes this to be “a figment”.
Britain and Ireland
In the Peerage of England, the Peerage of Great Britain, the Peerage of Ireland and the Peerage of the United Kingdom (but not in the Peerage of Scotland), barons form the lowest rank, placed immediately below viscounts. A woman of baronial rank has the title baroness.
In the Kingdom of England, the medieval Latin word barō (genitive singular barōnis) was used originally to denote a tenant-in-chief of the early Norman kings who held his lands by the feudal tenure of “barony” (in Latin per barōniam), and who was entitled to attend the Great Council (Magnum Concilium) which by the 13th century had developed into the Parliament of England.
Feudal baronies (or “baronies by tenure”) are now obsolete in England and without any legal force, but any such historical titles are held in gross, that is to say are deemed to be enveloped within a more modern extant peerage title also held by the holder, sometimes along with vestigial manorial rights and tenures by grand serjeanty.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Norman dynasty introduced an adaptation of the French feudal system to the Kingdom of England. Initially, the term “baron” on its own was not a title or rank, but the “barons of the King” were the men of the king.
Previously, in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England, the king’s companions held the title of earl and in Scotland, the title of thane. All who held their feudal barony “in-chief of the king”, that is with the king as his immediate overlord, became alike barones regis (“barons of the king”), bound to perform a stipulated annual military service and obliged to attend his council.
The greatest of the nobles, especially those in the Marches, such as the Earls of Chester and the Bishops of Durham, whose territories were often deemed palatine, that is to say “worthy of a prince”, might refer to their own tenants as “barons”, where lesser magnates spoke simply of their “men” (homines) and lords of the manor might reference “bondmen”.
Baron (from the Old German baro, freeman). Always referred to and addressed as ‘Lord’; Baron is rarely used. The wife of a baron is a baroness and all children are ‘Honorables’.
Initially those who held land directly from the king by military service, from earls downwards, all bore alike the title of baron, which was thus the factor uniting all members of the ancient baronage as peers one of another. Under King Henry II, the Dialogus de Scaccario already distinguished between greater barons, who held per baroniam by knight’s service, and lesser barons, who held manors.
Thus in this historical sense, Lords of Manors are barons, or freemen; however they are not entitled to be styled as such. John Selden writes in Titles of Honour, “The word Baro (Latin for Baron) hath been also so much communicated, that not only all Lords of Mannors have been from ancient time, and are at this day called sometimes Barons (as in the stile of their Court Barons, which is Curia Baronis, &c. And I have read hors de son Barony in a barr to an Avowry for hors de son fee) But also the Judges of the Exchequer have it from antient time fixed on them.”
Within a century of the Norman Conquest of 1066, as in the case of Thomas Becket in 1164, there arose the practice of sending to each greater baron a personal summons demanding his attendance at the King’s Council, which evolved into the Parliament and later into the House of Lords, while as was stipulated in Magna Carta of 1215, the lesser barons of each county would receive a single summons as a group through the sheriff, and representatives only from their number would be elected to attend on behalf of the group.
These representatives developed into the Knights of the Shire, elected by the County Court presided over by the sheriff, who themselves formed the precursor of the House of Commons. Thus appeared a definite distinction, which eventually had the effect of restricting to the greater barons alone the privileges and duties of peerage.
Later, the king started to create new baronies in one of two ways: by a writ of summons directing a chosen man to attend Parliament, and in an even later development by letters patent. Writs of summons became the normal method in medieval times, displacing the method of feudal barony, but creation of baronies by letters patent is the sole method adopted in modern times.
Since the adoption of summons by writ, baronies thus no longer relate directly to land-holding, and thus no more feudal baronies needed to be created from then on. Following the Modus Tenendi Parliamenta of 1419, the Tenures Abolition Act 1660, the Feudal Tenure Act (1662), and the Fines and Recoveries Act of 1834, titles of feudal barony became obsolete and without legal force.
The Abolition Act 1660 specifically states: baronies by tenure were converted into baronies by writ. The rest ceased to exist as feudal baronies by tenure, becoming baronies in free socage, that is to say under a “free” (hereditable) contract requiring payment of monetary rents.
In the 20th century, Britain introduced the concept of non-hereditary life peers. All appointees to this distinction have (thus far) been at the rank of baron. In accordance with the tradition applied to hereditary peers, they too are formally addressed in parliament by their peers as “The Noble Lord”.
In addition, baronies are often used by their holders as subsidiary titles, for example as courtesy titles for the son and heir of an Earl or higher-ranked peer. The Scottish baronial title tends to be used when a landed family is not in possession of any United Kingdom peerage title of higher rank, subsequently granted, or has been created a knight of the realm.
Several members of the royal family with the style of Royal Highness are also titled Barons. For example, William, Prince of Wales is also The Baron of Renfrew and The Baron Carrickfergus. Some non-royal Barons are somehow related to the royal family; for example, Maurice Roche, 6th Baron Fermoy is William’s first cousin once removed, through William’s late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, who was the 4th Baron Fermoy’s granddaughter.
A person holding a peerage in the rank of baron is entitled to a coronet bearing six silver balls (called pearls) around the rim, equally spaced and all of equal size and height. The rim itself is neither jeweled nor “chased” (which is the case for the coronets of peers of higher degree).
The actual coronet is worn only for the coronation of a new monarch, but a baron can bear his coronet of rank on his coat of arms above the shield. In heraldry, the baron’s coronet is shown with four of the balls visible.
Style of address
Formally, barons are styled The Right Honourable The Lord [Barony] and barons’ wives are styled The Right Honourable The Lady [Barony]. Baronesses in their own right, whether hereditary or for life, are either styled The Right Honourable The Baroness [Barony] or The Right Honourable The Lady [Barony], mainly based on personal preference (e.g. Lady Thatcher and Baroness Warsi, both life baronesses in their own right). Less formally, one refers to or addresses a baron as Lord [Barony] and his wife as Lady [Barony], and baronesses in their own right as Baroness [X] or Lady [X]. In direct address, barons and baronesses can also be referred to as My Lord, Your Lordship, or Your Ladyship or My Lady. The husband of a baroness in her own right gains no title or style from his wife.
The Right Honourable is frequently abbreviated to The Rt Hon. or Rt Hon. When referred to by the Sovereign in public instruments, The Right Honourable is changed to Our right trusty and well-beloved, with Counsellor attached if they are a Privy Counsellor.
Children of barons and baronesses in their own right, whether hereditary or for life, have the style The Honourable [Forename] [Surname]. After the death of the father or mother, the child may continue to use this style.
Courtesy barons are styled Lord [Barony], and their wives Lady [Barony]; the article “The” is always absent. If the courtesy baron is not a Privy Counsellor, the style The Right Honourable will also be absent.
The title ‘Baronet’ was originally introduced in England in the 14th century and was used by King James I-VI in 1611 to raise funds for a war in Ireland. James sold the title, which lies below baron but above knight in the hierarchy, for £1000 to anyone whose annual income was at least that sum and whose paternal grandfather had been entitled to a coat of arms.
Seeing this as an excellent way to raise funds, later monarchs also sold baronetcies. It is the only hereditary honour that is not a peerage.
Peerages are created by the Monarch. New hereditary peerages are only granted to members of the Royal Family; for example on his wedding day, Prince William was given a dukedom by Queen Elizabeth II and became the Duke of Cambridge. The day after the death Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III created his eldest son Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.
The Monarch cannot hold a peerage him or herself, although is also the Duke of Lancaster.
As well as hereditary titles, the British peerage also includes life peerages, part of the British honours system. Life peerages are granted by the Government to honour individuals and give the recipient the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Today, most of those who sit in the House of Lords are life peers: only 90 of the 790 or so members are hereditary peers.