What man wouldn’t wish to be a duke? As Debrett’s, an authority on elite society, explains in its guide to the peerage, the term ‘duke’ is derived from the Latin word for leader. What’s more, dukes hold the peerage’s highest-ranking hereditary titles. Lucky fellows!
If asked to guess who has the honour of being the Premier Duke of England, you might well plump for a member of the Royal Family. Prince Charles, who’s held the title of 24th Duke of Cornwall for almost 70 years, is surely the most obvious candidate.
After all, the Duchy of Cornwall was England’s first duchy and dates back to 1337. (‘Duchy’ is an archaic term for a dukedom, the area overseen or ruled by a duke.) It was created by Edward III and bestowed on his son and heir, Prince Edward, who therefore became the 1st Duke of Cornwall. It’s been customary for the title to be given to the heir to the throne ever since.
The Oldest Dukedom of the English Nobility
As surprising as it may seem, the Duke of Cornwall isn’t actually England’s Premier Duke. Why? The reason is that the appellation is applied to a duke of the nobility rather than a royal duke. The Premier Duke of England is the Duke of Norfolk, a title currently held by Edward Fitzalan-Howard. He inherited the title, becoming the 18th Duke of Norfolk, in 2002 following the death of his father.
In a nutshell, England’s Premier Duke is the nobleman who possesses the country’s oldest surviving non-royal dukedom. (The Norfolk dukedom was established by Richard II in 1397.) As the Premier Duke, the Duke of Norfolk is regarded as superior to the other dukes of the English nobility (though his importance doesn’t, of course, outweigh that of the royal dukes).
History of the Elite Title Duke of Norfolk
Richard II created the title Duke of Norfolk for Thomas Mowbray, a senior figure at the royal court. In 1476, the 4th Duke died without an heir, so the title died with him. Edward IV recreated it the following year for his son, Prince Richard. In 1483, however, the prince was declared illegitimate and disappeared in mysterious circumstances, rendering the title extinct again.
Richard III recreated the title that same year for his loyal supporter, John Howard, Thomas Mowbray’s grandson. When a title in the peerage is recreated, it is, in effect, reset. As a result, Howard was known as the 1st Duke of Norfolk even though two other individuals had previously borne that title. The subsequent Dukes of Norfolk have all been his descendants.
One of England’s Foremost Aristocratic Families
The dukedom cemented the Howards’ position as one of the most powerful families of the period – and one of the closest to the monarchy. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was a prominent politician at the court of Henry VIII and uncle to not one but two of the monarch’s wives: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
The 4th Duke, also named Thomas Howard, forged an advantageous alliance between the Howards and another hugely influential family when he married Mary Fitzalan, the 12th Earl of Arundel’s daughter, in 1555. Since then, the Dukes of Norfolk have had the surname Fitzalan-Howard and their seat has been the magnificent, medieval Arundel Castle in West Sussex.
Responsible for Organising State Ceremonies
For hundreds of years, the Dukes of Norfolk have performed the tremendously significant role of Earl Marshal on behalf of the monarchy. This involves organising ceremonies of national importance, such as coronations and the State Opening of Parliament.
The 18th Duke’s wife, Georgina Fitzalan-Howard, Duchess of Norfolk, has been called on to stand in for the Queen at rehearsals for the latter ceremony.
The couple have five children, including the heir to the Duke of Norfolk title, Henry Fitzalan-Howard. The future of England’s pre-eminent non-royal dukedom therefore looks assured. The Premier Duke is likely to remain the Duke of Norfolk for many years to come.
Your Very Own Duke and Duchess Titles
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Thanks to our Seated Titles, you can become Duke or Duchess of your chosen place name for show purposes. You’ll receive a legal change of title, ownership of a small English land parcel (your ‘seat’) and comprehensive supporting documentation. You can even include your partner at no extra cost.
Of course, this isn’t the same as joining the aristocracy. But you can have great fun with your new aristocratic-style title and may even receive preferential treatment when out and about!
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