There is one other peerage term which should perhaps be explained briefly. With the death of a peer his peerage is sometimes said to be dormant. This phrase is used when there is no discoverable heir but there is a strong presumption that, somewhere or other, there may be an heir if only he could be found. No peerage is deemed to be extinct unless it is certain that all possible lines of succession have been exhausted. With the method of creation by Letters Patent this is generally a simple business, but the position is often not so clear in regard to some of the more ancient dignities.
When there is any reason for doubt, however slight, there is usually a strong disinclination subsequently to create another peerage with the same title in another family, just in case a claimant from the original line may turn up. But again this reasoning is not always followed precisely.
An instance is that of the de Vere Earldom of Oxford, one of the oldest and most famous of English earldoms. The de Vere line of earls lasted from 1135 to 1702 and ended with the death of the twentieth Earl. Now it seems extremely unlikely that during the course of nearly 600 years - or 300-odd years if one takes it from the time that the Earldom was declared forfeited but was later restored with succession limited to heirs male - there was no offshoot from the main line which would be entitled to inherit once that main line has failed. There were then no careful records of births, marriages and deaths in the sense in which we know them, and it would not be difficult for some branch to be lost sight of and sink into obscurity. Names tended to get corrupted in course of time, nor did people cling as tenaciously to their patronymics in those days. They were frequently troublous times in which a man might very well have good cause to change his name.
For these reasons students of the subject are, I think, agreed that the probability is that, somewhere or other, there is a perfectly genuine de Vere Earl of Oxford. But the chances now of his being discovered, and still more of his being able at this time of day to prove his descent, are infinitely remote. Still, there is the doubt - and the chance.
This, however, did not prevent Queen Anne, nine years after the last de Vere's death, creating an Earldom of Oxford for her favourite Minister, Robert Harley. But it was not just Earl of Oxford that he became, but Earl of Oxford and Mortimer. One suspects in this variation the hand of Garter King of Arms, putting in, as it where, a safeguarding clause just in case a de Vere claimant came to light. For, as I have already pointed out, once a patent has passed the Great Seal, there is no power short of a special Act of Parliament to alter it, and in that event there would have been two Earldoms of Oxford existing simultaneously.
The Harley peerage lasted until the death of the sixth Earl in 1853, when it became extinct. There was no shadow of doubt in that case.
The same considerations, no doubt, were responsible for the late Mr. H. H. Asquith being created Earl of Oxford and Asquith. When, after his defeat at Paisley in 1924, King George V wrote pressing him to take a peerage, Mr. Asquith replied:
If it be your Majesty's pleasure, in accordance with precedent, to confer upon me the dignity of an Earl, I should propose to take the title of Oxford, which has fine traditions in our history, and which was given by Queen Anne to her Prime Minister, Robert Harley.
In reply the King wrote:
Your Peerage will of course be an Earldom, and subject to the necessary references to the College of Arms which will at once be made, I shall be very glad that the historic title of Earl of Oxford should now be restored in your favour.
Again one suspects that it was due to Garter King of Arms that the title inscribed on the Letters Patent was Earl of Oxford and Asquith.