A story bearing upon the matter of the long descent of our premier peers was told by Sir Horace Rumbold regarding the pretty daughter of Prince Lobanow, the Russian Ambassador to the Court of St. James's.
Lady Granville and her guests were not a little diverted at the task which the ingenue believed herself to have accomplished. Our premier peers were not created yesterday, and the history of their illustrious houses is interwoven for many centuries with the history of our land, and it would be a patient person indeed who should trace all the links in their pedigrees.
As duke is the highest title in the British peerage, the first duke is the premier peer, although there may be peers of lesser degree with older titles. It is not wealth or broad acres, or even the heritage of valiant deeds performed for king and country-although all these belong to the Duke of Norfolk-but the date of creation which decides the matter of the premier peer. The dukedom of Norfolk dates from 1483, and has the advantage of sixty-four years over that of Somerset.
To the Duchess of Norfolk, therefore, belongs the proud position of premier peeress of England. Her Grace ranks next in precedence to the Princesses of the Blood, and is entitled to go before the wives of princelings not belonging to our Royal houses. She was the Hon. Gwendolen Constable Maxwell, eldest daughter of the twelfth Baron Herries, and became the second wife of the Duke of Norfolk in 1904.
During the long period that the Duke was a widower, the Duchess of Somerset held the position of premier peeress, and the dignity still falls to her Grace at Court functions when the Duchess of Norfolk is not present.
Although the dukedom of Norfolk is only some four centuries old, the family of the Howards is of Saxon origin. There was a Howard, or Hereward, who figured in the reign of King Edgar, in 957. But, to pass onwards, we find the family represented by the princely Sir John Howard, a noble of great wealth and magnificence, who was summoned to Parliament as Lord Howard in 1470. On June 28, 1483, he was created Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. The next year he fell fighting at Bos worth Field, when leading the army of Richard III., and his son, who had been created Earl of Surrey, was attainted and sent to the Tower. Before the fatal battle a warning had been sent to the Duke of Norfolk in the famous lines:
Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold,
For Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold.
But he declined to desert his king.
After this untoward event, the history of the Howards is one of rise and fall, imprisonment, execution, attainder, and restoration, as was the usual fate of ancient families. An English nobleman might almost feel himself insulted for it to be suggested that no ancestor of his had fallen on Tower Hill.
The Howards have done valiantly in many ways, and the premier peeress, who, as well as being the wife of the head of the house, has Howard blood in her veins through her mother, may be excused a thrill when she recalls that a Howard defeated the Armada, and a Howard won Flodden Field. The family escutcheon bears the inspiring motto, Sola virtus invicta, "Virtue alone is unconquerable."
We cannot stay to trace the history of the illustrious house and its representatives, but one figure stands out conspicuously, the gallant Surrey, grandson of the hero of Flodden, poet, orator, and statesman, whose execution leaves a dark blot on the closing years of Henry VIII.'s reign. While a prisoner at Windsor, in the Norman Tower, he wrote his "Elegy on Windsor." His son, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, who inherited Arundel Castle from his mother, perished on the scaffold, and his grandson died a prisoner in the T o w e r. His descendant was, in 1660, restored by Act of Parliament to the dukedom of Norfolk, with the precedence of premier duke, and so the dignities and honours have descended to the present representative, who succeeded to the dukedom in 1860 as the fifteenth of his line.
The honour accorded to the ladies of the ducal house of Howard as premier peeresses is frequently attested in history. A Duchess of Norfolk was godmother to Mary I., and when Mary's unfortunate mother, Catherine of Aragon, was divorced, the old Duchess of Norfolk bore the train of Anne Boleyn at her coronation. A niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and the adopted daughter of his Duchess, was the ill-starred Queen Catherine Howard. The young Duchess of Norfolk of the time carried the train of Mary Beatrice of Modena at her coronation. Most interesting of all was Margaret Plan-tagenet, granddaughter of Edward I., who was created Duchess of Norfolk in her own right. She further claimed the hereditary office of Earl Marshal, which had been held by her father, Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Norfolk.
The claim of the premier peeress was allowed, although the fair mareschale did not exercise the functions of the office herself, but deputed them to her son, Thomas de Mowbray, afterwards Duke of Norfolk. She invested him with the famous Earl Marshal's rod. This is a golden staff, tipped at each end with black; the upper part thereof is adorned with the Royal Arms and the lower with those of the holder.
To support the dignity of the office a grant was originally made of £20 annually, to be paid out of the fee farm rent of Ipswich in Suffolk. As Earl Marshal, his Grace of Norfolk is empowered to carry this staff in the presence or in the absence of the King. The duties of the Earl Marshal are brought into great prominence at a coronation, when he is the chief authority for the procedure and arrangement of the great ceremonial. The Duke of Norfolk of to-day has the unique honour of having arranged two coronations, an arduous task.
The premier peeress is usually a Roman Catholic, for the Dukes of Norfolk have held staunchly to the ancient faith, and are regarded as the leaders of the English Catholics. Love, however, sometimes oversteps the barriers of religious differences, as was the case with the father of the present Duke. He first of all fell under the fascination of Miss Pitt, but, being a Protestant, she was deemed unfit as a bride for the heir of the Howards, and the young man was sent abroad, to be away from the influence of her charms.
However, while travelling in Greece he met the daughter of the first Baron Lyons, and the sister of that distinguished ambassador, Lord Lyons, whose gracious personality remains a tradition at the Paris Embassy, and again fell a victim to Cupid in the form of a Protestant beauty. The
The Duchess of Norfolk, to whom belongs the proud position of premier peeress of England. Prior to her marriage she was the Hon. Gwendolen Constable
Maxwell, eldest daughter of the twelfth Baron Herries
Photo, Walter Barnett wits of the time said that "he had escaped from the Pitt only to fall into the mouth of the Lyons." The object of his choice embraced the Roman Catholic faith, and the difficulty to the union was removed.
This lady did not enjoy the rank of premier peeress until many years later, when her husband succeeded to the dukedom. His Grace died four years later, leaving the Duchess with a large family, her eldest son, the present Duke, being little more than twelve years of age. She maintained much quiet state and dignity at Arundel Castle, devoting herself chiefly to the upbringing of her family, and particularly to watching over the welfare of the young Duke. On his marriage her position of premier peeress passed to her young daughter-in-law, the Lady Flora Abney-hastings.
The Lady Flora, as Duchess of Norfolk, greatly adorned the position. Her wedding at the Oratory, Brompton, celebrated with the utmost pomp and pageantry, was one of the most brilliant functions of the Victorian era.
The premier Duke and his bride kept up great state at Arundel Castle and at their town house in St. James's Square. They maintained their position of precedence amongst the nobility with the utmost distinction. Large retinues of servants attended them when they travelled abroad or sojourned in Rome, where his Holiness paid them marked deference. They attended Ascot in the first year of their marriage with a cortege so imposing as to be almost equal to that of the Royal procession up the course. Everything seemed to augur that the young Duchess would have one of the most brilliant reigns in history as the premier peeress.
But, alas ! for human hopes, her first and only child, Philip, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, was born sadly afflicted. As the years passed by, and the greatest medical skill of the world proved futile to bring vigour to the enfeebled heir, the mother grew averse to society; her proud position no longer brought her satisfaction, her health suffered, and she died at the early age of thirty-three.
For many years afterwards the Duke kept much apart from the gay world, devoting himself to his afflicted son, and finding reliel from private sorrow in public service. Not until after the death of the young Earl did he marry again.
To the lady who now occupies the position of premier peeress it has been given the sweet and womanly part of bringing joy and contentment where sorrow and disappointment had been. Beautiful children have blessed the happy union, and in tender care for them, devotion to her husband, and in the exercise of her religion and the superintendence of her many charities, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, the young Duchess finds the satisfaction of her life. Social ambition plays little part in her character.
It would be impossible to find a home better suited to be the abode of the premier peeress than is Arundel Castle. Not only the fortress castle itself, but the little town which clusters around it has an air of feudal antiquity. The Duke spent many years in rebuilding and restoring the family portion of the castle. The Duchess has her rooms in the restored wing. Even her Grace's tennis-court has a mediaeval air. It is near the famous Bevis Tower in the old tilt-yard, and around it are still ranged the low, grey embattled walls with the little chambers from which fair ladies viewed the tilts and tourneys in ancient days. In the Baron's Hall of the castle the Duke and Duchess entertain their friends and neighbours on special occasions, and such a scene carries the mind back through the centuries, and affords the picturesque suggestion of feudal times which we associate with the premier peeress.
The Quadrangle, Arundel Castle, one of the beautiful homes of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk