As with peers, there are various classes of baronets - those of England, Scotland (with which we can include baronets of Nova Scotia), Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and the reason for the difference is the same as in the case of peers. But, unlike peers, all rank alike and the distinctions do not affect even precedence, which is decided by the date of creation alone. Since the union with Ireland all baronetcies have been creations of the United Kingdom.
There has been great disputation from time to time on the subject of baronetcies. There are those who have tried to link the rank with the peerage, adducing its quality of heritability in support; and those who argue that it is merely a hereditary order of knighthood, and who point out that it confers no political or other privileges such as those which attach to the peerage. The edict by which King George V, in 1929, granted to baronets the right to wear "upon all appropriate occasions" a badge denoting their rank referred to "the state and dignity of the Hereditary Degree of Baronet".
But baronets, quite naturally, have as a body been very touchy about their position and the necessity of differentiating them from mere knights. To "clear it of all resemblance to Knighthood" was one of the aims of the Standing Council of the Baronetage when that body was first established. The Crown which created the degree showed little concern for it during most of the three centuries which have elapsed. Baronets as a body have had to fight hard for what little privilege they possess apart from the right to the prefix "Sir" and the ability to transmit that style to their next male heir. The right to demand a knighthood for the elsest son and heir on his coming of age has long fallen into desuetude, after fitful attempts to maintain it. Their position in the table of precedence has at times been the subject of controversy and protest. Although baronets of Scotland were granted a distinctive badge as early as 1629, the rest did not secure this right until 1929, and not until the reign of Edward VII were they conceded the privilege of sending representatives to the Coronation of the Sovereign. Nor until this same reign was there any official step taken to safeguard the status of the degree and protect it against fraudulent assumptions. As the result of consideration by a Commission a Royal Warrant was issued in 1910 ordering that an official Roll of Baronets should be kept, and that no person whose name is not inscribed on the Roll should be received as a baronet or should be addressed or mentioned by that title in any civil or military commission, Letters Patent or other official document.
In these days baronetcies are also given a territorial basis, as it were, on the official Roll, usually in the form of their address; but this is a modern innovation and has no such historical justification as that in the case of peers. It was solely for purposes of convenience that the practice was adopted when the official Roll to which I have referred was compiled in 1910, and it was found necessary to differentiate between creations with the same surname. For that reason the name of the original grantee's place of residence was added and the practice was adopted throughout the Roll.
As with peers in the Fighting Services, so soldier and naval baronets now often have their titles associated with their professional triumphs. So Field-Marshal Lord Birdwood's baronetcy was "of Anzac" (which, of course, is not even a place-name, but a popularised combination of initials!) and Admiral of the Fleet Lord Keyes' was "of Zeebrugge".
But not all the Letters Patent of the past thought fit to mention the residence of the grantee, so that some baronetcies on the Roll have no distinguishing territorial basis.
A baronet in formal documents is referred to as "Sir John Blank, Baronet". In a list of names, where it is sought to distinguish him from knights, or in addressing a letter to him, the customary abbreviation to-day is "Bt.". The abbreviation "Bart.", which was formerly in general use, now seems to be disliked.
I knew of one baronet who took himself and his "hereditary degree" so seriously that he instructed his servants and all others who might be amenable to his will to address him not as "Sir" but as "Sir Baronet". Tradesmen were instructed that they should not write to him as "Dear Sir", but should put "Sir Blank" - giving his Christian name - at the beginning of their communications.
A quite harmless foible, which no doubt caused amusement to his friends, but there is no rule or convention to justify it. Nor do I think the attempt to establish one would ever succeed. Baronets as a body may be, as I have said, rather touchy about their position - not without the justification of past neglect - but as individuals there is no reason to believe that their sense of humour is not as keen as that possessed by less august members of the community.
The wife of a baronet is styled Lady Blank unless she herself holds the courtesy style of Lady as the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, or that of "the Hon." as the daughter of a viscount or baron. In the former case she retains her own style and merely alters her surname, and becomes Lady Arabella Blank. In the latter case, she becomes the Hon. Lady Blank. Thus we never referred to the former British Ambassador in Madrid (now Viscount Templewood) and his wife as Sir Samuel and Lady Hoare, but as Sir Samuel and Lady Maud Hoare, for Lady Maud, as the daughter of a former Earl Beauchamp, had the precedence of a viscountess and her courtesy style thus took precedence of her husband's.
An old form of address for the wives of baronets and also of knights is Dame, but in this case the Christian name must be used. Thus the imaginary Arabella who has been serving as our model, had she no courtesy style of her own, would in such a case be termed Dame Arabella Blank. It is a style still used in formal documents - one sees it occasionally in the recital of a will - and some ladies seem to have preferred it. But it has almost entirely gone out of use and is likely to do so completely in view of the fact that the title of Dame has become so much better known as the style accorded to women holders of the two highest ranks in the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of the British Empire - Dames Grand Cross and Dames Commanders.
The widow of a baronet, as with the widow of a peer, should prefix either "Dowager" or her Christian name to her former style. Of course, if she has a courtesy style of her own, her style remains unaffected by the change, for even if the new baronetess also had a courtesy title it is unlikely that the Christian name would be the same in each case. If the unlikely did occur, then I fear she would have no other recourse than to adopt that unpopular term "Dowager"!
The children of baronets have no distinguishing style. Decent of a baronetcy is governed by the same rules as in the case of peerages, i.e. to heirs male of the body, unless there are special provisions in the Letters Patent to prescribe otherwise. Most of the patents granted by Charles I were to heirs male whatsoever, but since then, with occasional variations, the rule has been to heirs male of the body.
In Scotland, before the Act of Union (as has already been noted in regard to peerages), it was possible for a baronet to surrender his honour into the hands of the King to get it re-granted with an altered limitation. Sir Humphrey Colquhoun of Luss, the fifth baronet, availed himself of this device only three years before the Union. Having no son, he secured a re-grant in favour of his son-in-law, James Grant, second son of Ludovic Grant of Grant, who was ancestor of the present line of baronets of Colquhoun of Luss (a subsequent creation) and also the Earls of Seafield, to whom the original baronetcy descended with the name altered to Grant.
There is record of one case in which a baronetcy was bestowed on a woman - that of Dame Maria Bolles, of Osberton, Nottingham, in 1635 - but it has long been accepted that the degree shall be confined to men. There seems no logic in this, since peerages can be and are conferred on women, and they are eligible to be Dames Grand Cross and Dames Commanders in two of the Orders of Knighthood. But under some of the older patents, as I have indicated, succession can be through a woman.
Thus when Sir John Maxwell, eight baronet of Pollock, a creation of 1682, died without issue, his baronetcy went to the son of his sister, William Stirling, since when the family name has been Stirling-Maxwell.
I have referred to the provision in some of the earlier patents according to the eldest son of a baronet the right to receive the honour of knighthood on coming of age. The most remarkable example of this attaches to the Irish baronetcy of Perceval, of Burton, a creation of 1661, held by the Earls of Egmont. The patent of this enables the eldest son or grandson, on attaining the age of twenty-one, not only to claim knighthood but to have the rank and precedence of a baronet concurrently with the father or grandfather.
I have written "eldest son or grandson", but there seems to be some doubt whether it should not be "and grandson". The result is that there could certainly be two, and possibly three, baronets in the family at the same time. Whether the right has ever been exercised I am unable to say; or whether to-day it would be conceded.
The claim to knighthood for the eldest son has been discouraged since the time of George IV. The right to it has been omitted from all patents since 1827, and in the intervening century I believe I am right in saying that in only three cases has such a claim been granted. The last was in 1874 in the case of the heir to the baronetcy of Cotter, of Rockforest.
In regard to the Percevals, if the exceptional privilege to which I have referred is confined to the son, and not extended to the grandson, the right could have had no particular point during the two centuries which have elapsed since the creation of the Earldom, since the courtesy peerage title accorded to the heir (Viscount Perceval) would submerge the courtesy baronetcy.
It was a member of this family, Spencer Perceval, who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812 while Prime Minister. Mr. Perceval was only the seventh son, by a second marriage, of the second Earl, but it is a descendant of his, now domiciled in Canada, who is the present holder of the family honours, the direct line having failed with the death of the ninth Earl in 1929. When the present Earl and his father (who died before his claim was established) visited the ancestral home, Avon Castle, in Hampshire, in the early 'thirties, there was much talk in the newspapers of the "Rancher Earl" and his son.