On Peers and Patents

First part of an Heraldic Trilogy by Hector of the Black Height

When discussing Peers and Peerages, the question of Peerage by Letters Patent often comes up. This is one of the most perplexing questions I have tried to face as a Peer in the SCA, and it remains one I mustn't understand entirely, because for the life of me I cannot see what all the fuss is about.

For those not familiar with Patents, let me provide some background. There are three types of Arms given by any Crown in the Society. First is the Award of Arms, the infamous "AoA" which is the first Kingdom-level award most people receive. An Award of Arms is considered to bestow noble stature on a person; the recipient may style himself or herself "Lord" or "Lady" as an official title and not just a courteous form of address. The Award of Arms is seen by some as the mark of an individual who has been accepted into the Society as a fully-fledged participant. In the Middle Kingdom an armiger (a person who has been awarded Arms) may also display his or her Arms on a pendant with a coronet dancetty above them, which I have never seen done.

Ranking above an Award of Arms is a Grant of Arms, which is said to indicate a higher state of nobility. In the Middle Kingdom the only people who receive Grants of Arms are Great Officers of State (i.e. the Kingdom Seneschal or Earl Marshal). In other Kingdoms a Grant accompanies a Kingdom level arts, science or service award. So in An Tir, if you receive their equivalent of a Willow or Silver Oak, you also receive a Grant of Arms. Persons with a Grant of Arms rank higher in the order of precedence than people who've only been awarded Arms. They may be referred to as "Your Lordship" or "Your Ladyship".

Finally, there are Patents of Arms. Patents accompany a Laurel, a Pelican, a Knighthood or recognition as a Master-at-Arms. The Patent is said to imply a higher state of nobility than a Grant. In order of precedence, a Patent outranks a Grant so people with Patents of Arms (or Arms by Letters Patent) outrank people with Grants or Awards of Arms. So that makes people with Patents (Peers) the highest-ranking people in the SCA, right?

Of course not! Above the holders of Arms by Letters Patent come the Royal Peers and Royalty. So in the Middle Kingdom, precedence now runs as follows:


The King and Queen


The Crown Prince and Crown Princess (Heirs to the Throne)


The Prince and Princess of Northshield


The Heir and Heiress of Northshield


Dukes and Duchesses (King or Queen twice or more often), in order of seniority


Counts and Countesses (King or Queen once), in order of seniority


Viscounts and Viscountesses (Prince or Princess of a Principality once or more often), in order of seniority


Holders of Patents of Arms, in order of seniority (i.e. Peers by Letters Patent who are Knights, Masters- and Mistresses-at-Arms, Laurels and Pelicans)

Then come Barons and Baronesses (Landed first, then Court), then holders of Grants of Arms, then holders of the various Kingdom awards, then persons with Awards of Arms. This is a bit detailed and just a trifle stuffy but otherwise it's reasonably straightforward. GoAs outrank AoAs, Patents outrank Grants and Royal Peers outrank everybody. That's too simple, so of course the Society complicated it.

A Patent of Arms is considered to be a Good Thing. It accompanies many but not all Peerages, and this causes some people a lot of grief. Y'see, not all Royal Peers have Patents. Up until a few years ago, if a King or Queen of the Middle wasn't already a Peer by Letters Patent (through Knighthood, Mastery-at-Arms, the Laurelate or Pelicanate) he or she could be awarded a County or Duchy "by Letters Patent" at the end of the reign. With or without the Patent the ex-King became a Count or the ex-Queen became a Duchess, or whatever. The Patent carries with it a certain cachet in some circles, apparently; "real" Peers have Patents and "lesser" Peers don't, or something like that.

You may have noticed that I didn't mention the Order of the Rose in my list of high ranks above. The Rose is the Order composed of those who have sat as Consort to a Kingdom's Sovereign by Right of Arms. Note I was carefully gender-neutral; there has been a Queen by Right of Arms (Duchess Sir Rowan in Ansteorra), so there is one Lord of the Rose (Duke Sir Hector Martell) in the Known World. There are at least couple of hundred Ladies of the Rose around the Known World, though. Virtually every King in the Known World is a Knight before winning his Crown, so they have Arms by Letters Patent as Knights. Their Queens may not have Patents before becoming Queen, and there's the problem. After stepping down from the Throne a former Queen is invested as a Countess or Duchess and possibly as a Lady of the Rose. In the Midrealm the Roses used to poll, i.e. vote, to see if the new Countess would get a Rose. This became a popularity contest and a political struggle which some Queens lost, which caused much grief. It was then decided that all former Queens of the Middle would become Ladies of the Rose automatically, but not necessarily with a Patent; the Royal Peers would be polled (all of them, male and female) to see if the new Rose would receive a Patent if she already didn't have one (see note 1). Again there was much grief. Finally, it was decided that nobody would get a Patent just for being a past King or Queen. Now the Midrealm system is fair; there's no politics or favouritism, and in my opinion that makes for a better system, period.

In some Kingdoms (such as the East) Viscounts and Viscountesses may receive their titles by Letters Patent in the same way former Kings and Queens may be awarded a County or Duchy by Letters Patent if they don't already have one. No Viscount or Viscountess of Ealdormere has received Letters Patent for serving as Prince or Princess, and this bugs some people.

There are two sides to every coin. For a time past Kings and Queens could receive Patents of Arms while past Princes and Princesses couldn't. Now no Royal Peer in the Middle can get a Patent for having been Royalty. I'm led to believe it's different in every other Kingdom, but at least in the Middle all our Royal Peers (see note 2) are equally without Patents.

With my Laurel I received a Patent of Arms. I have a Patent while any Viscount of Ealdormere, Count or Duke of the Midrealm from the last few years who's not a Knight, Pelican or Laurel doesn't. So what? The Viscount, Count or Duke is a Royal Peer, has a Royal title and a nice coronet of rank. He is called "Your Excellency" or "Your Grace" and in the event of a formal procession would get to enter the hall long before I would. That's the case for any Royal Peer, with or without a Patent. I'm JABL (see note 3), even with my Patent. The Patent of Arms doesn't accomplish anything that I can see, except it gets on the nerves of some Royal Peers who don't have one and want it, or who do have one and think others shouldn't have it. Even with a Patent, that and a quarter will pay for a phone call.

I do not advocate the abolition of the Patent, nor do I advocate its expansion; while I am sympathetic to the unhappiness some Royal peers feel, it's a non-issue to me. The Midrealm gives out far fewer Grants of Arms than most Kingdoms and somehow we've survived. I think we can live through a localized Patent shortage. If a Royal Peer doesn't have a Patent, it doesn't show. The coronet's just as shiny, his or her place in the order of precedence is just as lofty when compared to the rest of us and the individual is called "Your Excellency" just as often as the other Counts and Viscounts. I believe rank and title are only as important as what you use them for. If a Royal Peer without a Patent is doing good things for others through use of that Royal status, then that particular Royal Peer is doing the job right. If the Patent really matters to that person, he or she can strive towards the Chivalry, the Pelicanate or the Laurelate just like any other SCAdian may. I wouldn't let the Patent become a goal in itself, though. Nobility is an attribute, not an award; you don't earn it, you can only try to live it. That's worth more than a nebulous Patent any day, in my opinion.

NOTES to this essay:

Note 1: To be fair, at this time the Royal Peers could have been polled about giving the King a Patent on stepping down. There hasn't been a Midrealm King who wasn't a Knight in the past ten years so it was always a non-issue.

Note 2: Who aren't Laurels, Pelicans or Chivalry on their own.

Note 3: Just Another Bloody Laurel

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.