A marquesal coronet has four strawberry leaves and four pearls, slightly raised on points above the rim. In the British peerage, a marquess ranks above barons, viscounts and earls but below a duke.
The title itself originates from the medieval ‘marcher lords’ – trusted nobles appointed by the king of England to guard lands forming the borders of the realm. This is most evident in the female title ‘marchioness’, while the European titles ‘margrave’ and ‘marquis’ have similar origins.
Marquis is sometimes used in English instead of marquess but is generally used only to refer to foreign holders of the rank.
Ironically, no marcher lords were ever marquesses, though many were earls. William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, commented in 1838 that this was because ‘baron’ and ‘duke’ were the only truly English titles in the peerage and that the marquessate arrived from the Continent much later – quipping people were only made ‘mere’ marquesses when it was not wished that they should be dukes.
The title was first created in 1385 as the life peerage Marquess of Dublin for Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford. A year later, Oxford was also made Duke of Ireland for life. Both were later forfeit. A marquessate was first conferred as a hereditary peerage in 1397 for John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, who was made both Marquess of Dorset and Marquess of Somerset.
However, in 1399, Somerset was deprived of his marquesal titles following the deposition of Richard II by Henry of Bolingbroke – later crowned Henry IV. Despite this setback, his eldest son John was made 1st Duke of Somerset while his third son Edmund became 1st Marquess of Dorset and, later, 2nd Duke. As probably the most powerful nobleman in England from 1451, Somerset became the principal target for Richard, Duke of York, and was killed in the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses in 1455.
The oldest extant marquessate is held by Nigel Paulet, 18th Marquess of Winchester, who presently lives in South Africa. The title was created for his ancestor William Paulet, Earl of Wiltshire and Baron St John of Basing, in 1551. Winchester was Lord High Treasurer from 1550 which, together with his comital and marquessal titles, came from successfully supporting the Earl of Warwick against the Duke of Somerset in the minority of King Edward VI. He was said to ‘rule’ the King’s court with the Duke of Northumberland and maintained his titles and positions under the subsequent reigns of the Mary I and Elizabeth I until his death in 1572 – even becoming Speaker of the House of Lords twice, well past his 70th birthday.
His survival may have come from a lack of religious and moral scruples, however, as he changed his religion no less than four times. Initially a Catholic, he converted to Anglicanism following Henry VIII’s break with Rome before becoming an evangelical, persecuting Catholic and Anglican alike, under Edward VI, only to reconvert to Catholicism under Mary and persecute all Protestants, before returning to moderate Anglicanism under Elizabeth. Indeed, he attributed his progress and survival to being ‘a willow not an oak’.
The last time a marquessate was created was in 1936, for Major Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon – a Liberal politician who had served as Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. He was succeeded by his son Inigo in 1941 though, as he died without issue, the title became extinct in 1979. The most recent extant marquessate is held by Simon Rufus Isaacs, 4th Marquess of Reading, a banker and philanthropist. His great-grandfather Rufus Daniel Isaacs was raised to the marquessate in 1926. A barrister and Viceroy of India, he could claim to be both the first practicing Jew to be appointed to the Cabinet and the last Liberal to serve as foreign secretary.
Perhaps the two most well-known marquesses, however, are eccentric Liberal Democrat Alexander George Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath, and Conservative Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury – both of whose titles were created in 1785. Salisbury was a titan of the Conservative party and is widely credited with its revival in, and subsequent domination of, the twentieth century. As well as being the first Prime Minister of the century, he was also the last to conduct his full administration from the House of Lords (Alec Douglas-Home was still the 14th Earl of Home four days into his premiership before renouncing his title).
The family have retained their stature in the party and the 7th Marquess was leader of the House of Lords under his courtesy title, Viscount Cranborne, from 1994-97. He had been able to take his seat in the House of Lords before the death of the 6th Marquess via a writ of acceleration in 1992, in which Prime Minister John Major summoned him to Parliament as Baron Cecil of Essendon – his father’s most junior dignity. He is principally remembered for negotiating the deal, behind Conservative leader William Hague’s back, to accept Labour’s House of Lords Bill on the provision 90 hereditary peers were retained via election when the Act expelled hereditaries from the House. Hague found out about the deal only after being told by Tony Blair and promptly sacked Cranborne as Lords Opposition leader. As a former Leader of the House, Cranborne was given the life peerage Baron Gascoyne-Cecil and was active on the backbenches until taking a leave of absence in 2001. He succeeded to the marquessate in 2003.
Lord Bath lost his seat in the House of Lords following the 1999 Act. He first entered as a Liberal Democrat in 1992 following the death of his father, the 6th Marquess, where he was an advocate of regional devolution – though this preceded his entry into Parliament. With a large family seat in Wiltshire, the young Viscount Weymouth came to believe in the need for a devolved Wessex legislature and stood as a Wessex Regionalist in the February 1974 General Election. He later became a founder member of the Wessex Regionalist Party, which he stood for in the first European Parliament elections in 1979.
A colourful dresser, Bath picked up his penchant for loud shirts and waistcoats as an art student in Paris in the 1950s and is a prolific erotic painter, as well as the writer of several novels. Never a conventional man, he claims to have had sexual relations with more than 70 women during his marriage to Hungarian-born Anna Gael Gyarmathy, many of whom live in cottages on his estate as ‘wifelets’. He has an estimated wealth of £157,000,000 and was president of the Bullingdon Club while at Christ Church College, Oxford. His heir, Ceawlin (a Wessex name pronounced See-aw-lin), Viscount Weymouth, told the Daily Telegraph he is a supporter of David Cameron with political ambitions and has recently taken over the running of the family business.