Baronet. Although the origin of this title has been the subject of learned speculation, it is not known for certain why it was selected as that of "a new Dignitie between Barons and Knights" created by James I. The object of its institution was to raise money for the crown, as was also done by the sale of peerage dignities under this sovereign. But the money was professedly devoted to the support of troops in Ulster, that is, each grantee was to be liable for the pay of thirty men, at 8d. a day for three years. This amounted to £1095, which was the sum paid for the honour. When it was instituted, in May 1611, the king, to keep the baronetage select, covenanted that he would not create more than two hundred, and that only those who had £1000 a year in landed estate and whose paternal grandfathers had borne arms should receive the honour. But these qualifications were before long abandoned. As an inducement to apply for it, it was made to confer the prefix of "Sir" and "Lady" (or "Dame"), and was assigned precedence above knights, though below the younger sons of barons. Eight years later (30th of September 1619), the baronetage of Ireland was instituted, the king pledging himself not to create more than a hundred baronets.
Meanwhile, questions had arisen as to the exact precedence of the baronets, and James by royal decree (28th of May 1612) had announced that it was his intention to rank them below the younger sons of barons. As this had the effect of stopping applications for the honour, James issued a fresh commission (18th of November 1614) to encourage them, and finally, as "the Kinges wants might be much relieved out of the vanities and ambition of the gentrie" (in Chamberlain's words), he granted, in 1616, the further privilege that the heirs apparent of baronets should be knighted on coming of age.
The baronetage of Nova Scotia was devised in 1624 as a means of promoting the "plantation" of that province, and James announced his intention of creating a hundred baronets, each of whom was to support six colonists for two years (or pay 2000 marks in lieu thereof) and also to pay 1000 marks to Sir William Alexander (afterwards earl of Stirling), to whom the province had been granted by charter in 1621. For this he was to receive a "free barony" of 16,000 acres in Nova Scotia, and to become a baronet of "his Hienes Kingdom of Scotland." James dying at this point, Charles I. carried out the scheme, creating the first Scottish baronet on the 28th of May 1625, covenanting in the creation charter that the baronets "of Scotland or of Nova Scotia" should never exceed a hundred and fifty in number, that their heirs apparent should be knighted on coming of age, and that no one should receive the honour who had not fulfilled the conditions, viz. paid 3000 marks (£166, 13s. 4d.) towards the plantation of the colony.
Four years later (17th of November 1629) the king wrote to "the contractors for baronets," recognizing that they had advanced large sums to Sir William Alexander for the plantation on the security of the payments to be made by future baronets, and empowering them to offer a further inducement to applicants; and on the same day he granted to all Nova Scotia baronets the right to wear about their necks, suspended by an orange tawny ribbon, a badge bearing an azure saltire with a crowned inescutcheon of the arms of Scotland and the motto "Fax mentis honestae gloria." As the required number, however, could not be completed, Charles announced in 1633 that English and Irish gentlemen might receive the honour, and in 1634 they began to do so. Yet even so, he was only able to create a few more than a hundred and twenty in all. In 1638 the creation ceased to carry with it the grant of lands in Nova Scotia, and on the union with England (1707) the Scottish creations ceased, English and Scotsmen alike receiving thenceforth baronetcies of Great Britain.
It is a matter of dispute whether James I. had kept faith with the baronets of England as to limiting their number; but his son soon rejected the restriction freely. Creations became one of his devices for raising money; blank patents were hawked about, and in 1641 Nicholas wrote that baronetcies were to be had for £400 or even for £350; a patent was offered about this time to Mr Wrottesley of Wrottesley for £300. On the other hand, the honour appears to have been bestowed for nothing on some ardent royalists when the great struggle began.
Cromwell created a few baronets, but at the Restoration the honour was bestowed so lavishly that a letter to Sir Richard Leveson (3rd of June 1660) describes it as "too common," and offers to procure it for any one in return for £300 or £400. Sir William Wiseman, however, is said to have given £500.
The history of the baronetage was uneventful till 1783, when in consequence of the wrongful assumption of baronetcies, an old and then increasing evil, a royal warrant was issued (6th of December) directing that no one should be recognized as a baronet in official documents till he had proved his right to the dignity, and also that those created in future must register their arms and pedigree at the Heralds' College. In consequence of the opposition of the baronets themselves, the first of these two regulations was rescinded and the evil remained unabated. Since the union with Ireland (1800) baronets have been created, not as of Great Britain or of Ireland, but as of the United Kingdom.
In 1834 a movement was initiated by Mr Richard Broun (whose father had assumed a Nova Scotia baronetcy some years before), to obtain certain privileges for the order, but on the advice of the Heralds' College, the request was refused. A further petition, for permission to all baronets to wear a badge, as did those of Nova Scotia, met with the same fate in 1836. Meanwhile George IV. had revoked (19th of December 1827), as to all future creations the right of baronets' eldest sons to claim knighthood. Mr Broun claimed it as an heir apparent in 1836, and on finally meeting with refusal, publicly assumed the honour in 1842, a foolish and futile act. In 1854 Sir J. Kingston James was knighted as a baronet's son, and Sir Ludlow Cotter similarly in 1874, on his coming of age; but when Sir Claude de Crespigny's son applied for the honour (17th of May 1895), his application was refused, on the ground that the lord chancellor did not consider the clause in the patent (1805) valid. The reason for this decision appears to be unknown.
Mr Broun's subsequent connexion with a scheme for reviving the territorial claims of the Nova Scotia baronets as part of a colonizing scheme need not be discussed here. A fresh agitation was aroused in 1897 by an order giving the sons of life peers precedence over baronets, some of whom formed themselves, in 1898, into "the Honourable Society of the Baronetage" for the maintenance of its privileges. But a royal warrant was issued on the 15th of August 1898, confirming the precedence complained of as an infringement of their rights. The above body, however, has continued in existence as the "Standing Council of the Baronetage," and succeeded in obtaining invitations for some representatives of the order to the coronation of King Edward VII. It has been sought to obtain badges or other distinctions for baronets and also to purge the order of wrongful assumptions, an evil to which the baronetage of Nova Scotia is peculiarly exposed, owing to the dignity being descendible to collateral heirs male of the grantee as well as to those of his body.
A departmental committee at the home office was appointed in 1906 to consider the question of such assumptions and the best means of stopping them.
All baronets are entitled to display in their coat of arms, either on a canton or on an inescutcheon, the red hand of Ulster, save those of Nova Scotia, who display, instead of it, the saltire of that province. The precedency of baronets of Nova Scotia and of Ireland in relation to those of England was left undetermined by the Acts of Union, and appears to be still a moot point with heralds. The premier baronet of England is Sir Hickman Bacon, whose ancestor was the first to receive the honour in 1611.
See Pixley's History of the Baronetage; Playfair's "Baronetage" (in British Family Antiquity, vols. vi.-ix.); Foster's Baronetage; G. E. Cokayne's Complete Baronetage; Nichols, "The Dignity of Baronet" (in Herald and Genealogist, vol. iii.)
(J. H. R.)