What price a peerage? How I bought a title

Arguably, it wasn’t a small amount of money that let me style myself as Merryn Jane Henderson, Lady of the Manor of Newton by Castle Acre in the County of Norfolk

July 13, 2017
Photo: Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Archive/PA Images

“When I want a peerage,” said Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, “I shall buy one like an honest man.” The press baron was eventually ennobled without reaching for his cheque-book, becoming Lord Northcliffe in 1904. Today, any aspirations of easily-purchased grandeur are thwarted by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

It was William the Conqueror who insisted that our British feudal system should give way to a more organised, European hierarchy. There exists an impressive ecosystem of Dukes, Marches, Earls, Viscounts and Barons—generically known as “Lords.” To hold one of these titles is a privilege commanding respect all around the world. Some of our overseas cousins are so impressed that they even try to buy one online. They mistakenly believe they’re purchasing a great British peerage. Sadly, they don’t realise there’s a big difference between an official ennoblement and novelty dispensations.

In the House of Lords today, 798 individuals use their titles on a daily basis. They comprise hereditary peers, a small number of senior Bishops from the Church of England, and life peers who’ll be in residence until they retire or are expelled for misdemeanours—which is unlikely but is not impossible. (Historic reasons include trying to corrupt the Speaker of the House of Commons or procuring a girl under the age of 21 for an immoral purpose. As I said, unlikely but not impossible.)

What you may buy online is a title—Lord of the Manor—enshrined in English law as a “property without body” or an “incorporeal hereditament.” But it is almost always only a name. The 1922 Law of Property Act put an end to feudal tenure. Very few titles that come onto the market offer the rights to useful benefits and when they do, it’s likely to be fallen timber; fish from a river; or some involvement in choosing a vicar. Chris Eubank became entitled to 4,000 herring, three cows and a single slave when he paid £45,000 to become Lord of the Manor of Brighton, a purchase he saw as a metaphor for his own emancipation.

However, if you’re dead set on a little more status, it’s not onerous to acquire it. It is true, some websites blatantly misrepresent the potential benefits of buying a title (“You’re a ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ now and there’ll be first class tickets fluttering at your feet!”), but finding a real deal and then changing your name is actually only a formality. A deed poll takes five minutes to organise and an admin fee of £36 enrols your new name with the Courts via Queen’s Bench Division at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Arguably, it wasn’t a small amount of money that let me style myself as Merryn Jane Henderson, Lady of the Manor of Newton by Castle Acre in the County of Norfolk, but it was a pain-free process. And yes, it is impossible to write that on a cheque—but it is official. If I want to then I may, now, put a note in the Official Observations section of my British passport, setting out the full version. But what I must not do, is pass myself off as a peer of the British realm. In Britain, you may call yourself whatever you like as long it’s not with the intent to deceive.

For my part, the title I have is just that—it’s a title. I live near the Manor in question and, way back when, the title was held by a branch of my family. That said, with legal precedents being what they are, my “of the Manor” status has given me food for thought more recently.

In 1986 a gentleman named Michael Farrow bought the Lordship of the Manor of Newtown in Berkshire from the Earl of Carnarvon, for £4,200. As an astute businessman, Farrow discovered that Newtown Common (part of his new Manor), was not registered at the Land Registry.

It took no time at all to put in a claim to over 100 acres of woodland and pasture, and along with ownership of the land came a historic right to charge adjoining properties for the privilege of driving on it. Farrow then transferred his ownership to a private company and wrote to the owners of those properties citing the Law of Property Act 1925 and demanded payment. A mixed bag of legal cases delivered various outcomes over the next five years on both sides.

Now, let me take you to the hamlet of Newton by Castle Acre in the county of Norfolk. In its history, the village has had plenty of “common land.” The company from which I bought the title did its due diligence: there were no feudal rights apparent. With a little Googling though, I found evidence that ownership of the manor’s common land was disputed in the mid 1970s. But, in the absence of an official Lord or Lady of the Manor putting in an appearance with the Commons Commissioner at the time, everything was handed over to the incumbent farmer. Nothing much, you understand. Just 400 acres of prime grazing, which, on today’s market, would sell for about £7,500 per acre.

Shouldn’t I chase this up, I ask myself, while gnashing my teeth and bemoaning the curse of curiosity? In truth, probably not. The legal fees would be too big a gamble—and besides, I don’t have that many cows. No, I prefer martyr-like homage to the ethos of Harmsworth’s comment on the peerage. I bought my title, like an honest woman, but a title is all that I bought.