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More Yanks Buying Their Way Into British Peerage

December 12, 1986|MARIAN SMITH HOLMES | Holmes is a former View copy editor who lives in London. and

LONDON — Californian John Egan can't claim he was to the manor born, but for 7,000 ($10,000) he has bought his way into British nobility. The retired schoolteacher has become the new Lord of Wicks Bishop, a title first granted by Richard I and later Henry VIII.

Similarly, Arthur Williams of Dallas said he wanted to make his wife, Martha, "a lady on her birthday." For 7,000 they were ennobled Lord and Lady of Stratford St. Andrew, a manorship Henry VIII once gave to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

A New Status

The Williamses and Egan acquired their new status recently at a manorial title auction in London's financial district. Sales were brisk at Painters Hall where, under the gaze of royal portraits lining the room and the glare of TV minicameras, an SRO crowd paid a total of 450,000 ($639,000) for 78 titles. In an auction a few days earlier, 36 titles changed hands for 348,500 ($500,000). Included was the lordship to the former Hampshire home of the Duchess of York (Sarah Ferguson) for 17,000 ($24,140).

The boom in the sale of titles represents yet another chink in the eroding armor of the British aristocracy. Between the world wars the aristocracy lost much of its land, grand houses and servant class, but the titles were bequeathed. Now even that bit of gentility is up for sale to the highest bidder.

People are selling because "they need the money" said Robert Smith, a former publisher who spotted the potential market about five years ago while researching a book on lordships. "It struck us that it was far more valuable (than initial sales prices), and it went from there," he said. In five years, the average price has gone from 2,000 ($2,840) to 7,000 ($10,000).

Manorial titles date back to feudal times when the monarch granted the title Lord of the Manor and a plot of property to subjects for their loyalty and service.

What do today's lords and ladies get for their money? In most cases, just the title--the right to call themselves Lord (or Lady) of the Manor. They are entitled to have their new rank printed on their passports, stationery and business cards or etched on their silver and china. Their names will be submitted to Debrett's Peerage for inclusion in the achievers handbook, but not of course in the authoritative list of true blue bloods.

Historical Documents

Some titles come with historical documents such as court papers and tenant accounts. However, the hundreds-years-old documents are so fragile and of such historical value that they must remain in the local archives.

Occasionally, the purchase includes certain antiquated rights, such as the lord's right to graze his sheep on the village common. One new lord is trying to exercise his manorial right to market and fair by renting stalls to antique dealers and craftsmen, Smith said.

These days, the sale of a title with a major house or land is almost non-existent. However, one lordship in the recent sale included the ruins (read, crumbling stone wall) of an 11th-Century castle on about four acres in Herefordshire. Snodhill was expected to draw at least 50,000, ($71,000) but was withdrawn when bidding stalled at 31,000 ($44,000). Bids usually began at 6,000 ($8,500), and the top price of the day was 19,000 ($27,000).

Of particular interest at the recent auction, which had been advertised in American newspapers, was the Lordship of Hingham in Norfolk. Manorial experts claim that Hingham is the ancestral home of Abraham Lincoln. According to manorial records, the Lincoln family sold its estates and followed the Rev. Robert Peck and his parishioners to Massachusetts in the 17th Century.

Hingham sold for 11,000 ($15,600), about 4,000 ($5,700) less than expected, to a Dutchman who has been living in Norfolk for 30 years. "With the history, it's a good buy," said the new lord, Adrian Surruys, the owner of a sports and leisure center. For him it's purely an investment, he said.

New lords can apply for a coat of arms and join the Manorial Society of Great Britain, an organization of about 1,000 lords, including 100 Americans. Smith is its chairman and himself a lord.

The reasons people lay out thousands of pounds for seemingly meaningless titles is "fairly nebulous," he said. "People see status in the title. New rich see it as a first step up the aristocratic ladder. From the American point of view, it's an attempt to find a link with the old country."

Martha and Arthur Williams have spent years finding their links to England, so buying the Stratford St. Andrew lordship, as well as another title prior to the auction, was a way of cementing the bond.

Hallowed Survey

"It was because of our English ancestry," said Mrs. Williams. "We're just about 100% English. We even have one ancestor listed in Domesday Book." This hallowed survey record of Britain's landowners was compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086.

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