7th May 2017
One of the most common questions we are asked at Warwick Castle is “how does succession work?”. This, you may be surprised to learn, is much harder to answer than expected. With this in mind, I am going to take this opportunity to explain it as accurately and succinctly as possible, using the Earls of Warwick as a case study.
To begin with, let’s discuss the peerage in general. There are two types of peerage in modern Britain; hereditary and lifetime titles. Both are rather self-explanatory. Lifetime peers hold their titles for the duration of their lives but they do not pass on to children, whereas hereditary titles will pass to an heir. In the case of the Warwick Earldom, it is a hereditary title.
Within the peerage, there are 5 ranks. In order, we have Baron, Viscount, Earl, Marquis and, finally, Duke. The title ‘Earl’ is unique to British peerage. It was an Anglo-Saxon title, deriving from the word ‘jarl’, meaning chief. When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he set about replacing the old Saxon nobility with his own Norman allies. Across the channel the equivalent title would have been Count but William chose to adopt the Saxon title to ensure that the population of England would understand the role of these new lords.
Hereditary titles pass from father to son, always through the male line where possible. Sons must be legitimate at birth and cannot be legitimised after birth to inherit the title. In the case of no male heirs being found then it will pass through the female line, to the husband of the eldest daughter. If none of these criteria can be met, the title will pass to the next living heir, be that cousin, nephew or uncle.
The first Earls of Warwick, after William II created the title in 1088, were the de Newburgh family. This family would hold the title for the next 154 years, consisting of 6 earls before the line died out. All 6 earls were sons of the one before (excluding one case where a brother inherited), making it a very simple line of succession. Things got remarkably more complicated in 1242 when Thomas de Newburgh, 6th Earl died. His only living relative was his sister, Margaret. As a woman, she was not entitled to inherit the title in her own right and so it passed to her husband, John du Plessis, whom she had been forced to marry by Henry III. This marriage did not, unfortunately, produce any children so, on Margaret’s death, the title passed to her cousin William Maudit. He, again, died with no children, and so this time, the title passed to his nephew, William de Beauchamp.
In terms of succession, the de Beauchamp family are perhaps the easiest to discuss. For the next 178 years the title passed from father to son. In the time they owned the castle, the family became one of the most powerful in England thanks to their success in the Hundred Years War. However, their fortunes took a decline after the death of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl, in 1439. With this, his son Henry became earl but died only 7 years later in 1446. After this, in an unusual twist, Henry VI allowed Henry de Beauchamp’s daughter, Anne, to assume the title, Countess of Warwick, in her own right, the only woman in history to do so. However, she was only 2 years old when she inherited it and died aged 5, in 1449.
After Anne’s death and, with it, the end of the de Beauchamp line, her uncle (by marriage), Richard Neville, became the new Earl of Warwick. Richard became one of the most powerful men in England in his lifetime due to his part in the Wars of the Roses, nicknamed ‘the Kingmaker’ for his actions. He remained Earl until his death in 1471. At that point, with no sons, Richard’s daughters and their husbands became the heirs to the title. George, Duke of Clarence, younger brother of King Edward IV and husband of Isabelle Neville, unofficially assumed the title Earl of Warwick in 1472 before his son, Edward, would inherit the title legally, becoming the 17th Earl of Warwick. Edward never had any children of his own, spending most of his life in the Tower of London on the orders of Henry VII until Edward’s execution in 1499.
From this point, the title lay dormant for 50 years, until Henry VIII recreated it and bestowed it upon John Dudley in 1547. As the title had died out completely previously, this time it started again at number one. John was executed by Mary I after his attempts to make Lady Jane Grey queen in 1553. He was succeeded by his sons John and Ambrose respectively. After Ambrose’s death in 1590, the title died out again as he had no relatives to inherit it.
It was renewed once again in 1618 when Robert Rich paid King James I £10,000 (£4 million today) for the title. Again, it would restart at one. The Rich family held the title for the next 141 years, despite never living at Warwick Castle itself. It passed through father to son almost exclusively with two exceptions; one occasion where it passed to a brother, and once to a cousin, until the title died out once again in 1721.
In 1759 the Greville family successfully petitioned for the title from King George II. After 155 years of living at Warwick Castle, they now also possessed the title they had craved for so long. They still hold that title to this day, the longest any family has held it. It has always passed from father to son, and the current Earl of Warwick is Guy Greville, 9th Earl, and his son Charles will be the next to inherit. So long as they continue having sons, the Greville’s will continue to hold the title.
That, in its simplest form, is the succession of the title Earl of Warwick along with a brief overview of peerage and inheritance in general. Hopefully that clears the process up a bit, and if you have further questions, please feel free to visit the History Team at Warwick Castle and we will happily do our best to explain it further.