Baron is a title of nobility. The word baron comes from Old French baron, itself from Old High German and Latin (liber) baro meaning "(free) man, (free) warrior"; it merged with cognate Old English beorn meaning "nobleman".
In the British peer system, barons rank below viscounts, and form the lowest rank in the peerage. A female of baronial rank has the honorific title baroness. A baron may hold a barony (plural baronies), if the title relates originally to a feudal barony by tenure, although such tenure is now obsolete in England and any such titles are now held in gross, if they survive at all, as very few do, sometimes along with some vestigial manorial rights, or by grand serjeanty.
William I introduced "baron" as a rank in England to distinguish the men who had pledged their loyalty to him (see Feudalism). Previously, in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England, the king's companions held the title of earls and in Scotland, the title of thane. All who held their barony "in chief of the king" (that is, directly from William and his successors) became alike barones regis (barons of the king), bound to perform a stipulated service, and welcome to attend his council. Before long, the greatest of the nobles, especially in the marches, such as the Earls of Chester or the Bishops of Durham, might refer to their own tenants as "barons", where lesser magnates spoke simply of their "men" (homines).
Initially those who held land direct of the crown by military service, from earls downwards, all alike bore the title of baron, but under Henry II, the Dialogus de Scaccario already distinguished greater (who held in baroniam by knights' service) or lesser baronies (generally smaller single manors). Within a century of the Norman Conquest, as in Thomas Becket's case (1164), there arose the practice of sending to each greater baron a special summons to the council that evolved into the House of Lords, while the lesser barons, Magna Carta (1215) stipulated, would receive summons only in general, through the sheriffs. Thus appeared a definite distinction, which eventually had the effect of restricting to the greater barons the rights and privileges of peerage.
Later, the sovereign could create a new barony in one of two ways: by a writ of summons directing someone to Parliament, or by letters patent. Writs of summons featured in medieval times, but creation by letters patent has become the norm. Baronies thus no longer directly relate to land ownership, following the Modus Tenendi Parliamenta (1419), the Feudal Tenure Act (1662), and the Fines and Recoveries Act (1834) which enabled such titles to be dis-entailed.
In the twentieth century Britain introduced the concept[dubious ] of non-hereditary life peers. All appointees to this distinction have taken place at the rank of baron, and life-peers are not counted as part of the aristocracy.
In addition, Baronies are often subsidiary titles, thus being used as courtesy titles by the eldest sons of viscounts.
In Scotland, the rank of baron is a rank of the ancient feudal nobility of Scotland and refers to a holder of a feudal barony, formerly a feudal superiority over a proper territorial entity erected into a free barony by a Crown Charter, and is not usually considered a rank of Peerage; as such it can be transferred by either inheritance or conveyance.
The Scottish equivalent of an English baron is a Lord of Parliament.
Normally one refers to or addresses Baron [X] as Lord [X] and his wife as Lady [X]. In the case of women who hold baronies in their own right, they can be referred to as Baroness [X] as well as Lady [X]. In direct address, they can also be referred to as My Lord, Your Lordship, or Your Ladyship, but never as My Lady (except in the case of a female judge). The husband of a Baroness in her own right does not receive any style in her right. Children of Barons and Baronesses in their own right, whether hereditary or for life, have the style The Honourable [Forename] [Surname]. After the death of the father or mother, the child may continue to use the style Honourable.
Scottish feudal barons style their surnames similarly to Clan Chiefs, with the name of their barony following their name, as in John Smith of Edinburgh or John Smith, Baron of Edinburgh. Most formally, and in writing, they are styled as The Much Honoured Baron of Edinburgh. Their wives are styled Lady Edinburgh, or The Baroness of Edinburgh. The phrase Lady of Edinburgh is wrong, if the lady in question does not hold a Scottish barony in her own right. Orally, Scottish barons may be addressed with the name of their barony, as in Edinburgh or else as Baron without anything else following, which if present would suggest a peerage barony. Informally, when referring to a Scots feudal baron in the third person, the name Laird of [X] is used or simply [X].
Non-Scottish barons are styled The Right Honourable The Lord [Barony]. Barons' wives are styled The Right Honourable The Lady [Barony]. Baronesses in their own right are either titled The Right Honourable The Baroness [Barony] or The Right Honourable The Lady [Barony], mainly based on personal preference (cf, Margaret, Lady Thatcher and Brenda, Baroness Hale hold the same title). Note the order of the names. 'Lady Margaret Thatcher' would denote that she was the daughter of an earl, marquess or duke. Right Honourable is frequently abbreviated to Rt Hon. When referred to by the Sovereign in public instruments, The Right Honourable is changed to Our right trusty and well-beloved, with counsellor attached if they are a Privy Counsellor.
Courtesy barons are styled simply Lord [Barony], and their wives are Lady [Barony]. The style of Right Honourable and/or the article "The" in front of the title is not used for them.
A baron, in the peerage of England and Wales, Great Britain, (Northern) Ireland, or the United kingdom, or lord, in the peerage of Scotland, is entitled to a coronet bearing six silver balls (called pearls, but never real pearls) around the rim, equally spaced and all of equal size and height. The rim itself is neither jewelled, nor "chased" (which is the case for the coronets of peers of higher degree).
The actual coronet is mostly worn on certain ceremonial occasions, such as the coronation of a new monarch, but a baron can bear his coronet of rank on his coat of arms above the shield. In heraldry, the baron's coronet is shown with four of the balls visible.
Scottish feudal barons were entitled to a red cap of maintenance (chapeau) turned up ermine if petitioning for a grant or matriculation of a coat of arms between the 1930s and 2004. This chapeau is identical to the red cap worn by an English baron, but without the silver balls or gilt. This is sometimes depicted in armorial paintings between the shield and the helmet. Additionally, if the baron is the head of a family he may include a chiefly coronet which is similar to a ducal coronet, but with four strawberry leaves. Because the chapeau was a relatively recent innovation, a number of ancient Arms of Scottish feudal barons do not display the chapeau. Now Scottish feudal barons are principally recognised by the baron's helm, which in Scotland is a steel helmet with grille of three grilles, garnished in gold. Occasionally the great tilting-helm garnished with gold is shown, or a helmet befitting a higher rank, if held.
In the medieval era, some allodial and enfiefed lands held by nobles were created or recognized as baronies by the Holy Roman Emperors, within whose realm most of the Low Countries lay. Subsequently, the Habsburgs continued to confer the baronial title in the Southern Netherlands, first as kings of Spain and then, again, as emperors until abolition of the Holy Roman Empire, but these had become titular elevations rather than grants of new territory.
In the Netherlands after 1815, titles of baron authorized by previous monarchs (except those of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Holland) were usually recognized by the Dutch kings. But such recognition was not automatic, having to be authenticated by the Supreme Council of Nobility and then approved by the sovereign. This ceased to be possible after the Dutch constitution was revised in 1983. More than one hundred Dutch baronial families have been recognized. The title is usually inherited by all males descended patrilineally from the original recipient of the title, although in a few noble families baron is the title of cadet family members, while in a few others it is heritable according to primogeniture.
After its secession in 1830, Belgium incorporated into its nobility all titles of baron borne by Belgian citizens which had been recognized by the Netherlands since 1815. In addition, its monarchs have since created or recognized other titles of baron, and the sovereign continues to exercise the prerogative to confer baronial and other titles of nobility.
Luxembourg's monarch retains the right to confer the baronial title. Two of the grand duchy's prime ministers inherited baronial titles that were used during their tenures in office, Victor de Tornaco and Félix de Blochausen.
During the Ancien Régime, French baronies were very much like Scottish ones. Feudal landholders were entitled to style themselves baron if they were nobles; a roturier (commoner) could only be a seigneur de la baronnie (lord of the barony). These baronies could be sold freely, until the abolition of feudalism in 1789. The title of baron was assumed as a titre de courtoisie by many nobles, both members of the Nobles of the Robe and cadets of Nobles of the Sword who had no legal right to any noble title. Napoléon created a new empire nobility, in which baron was the second lowest title. The titles followed a male-only line of descent and could not be purchased. In 1815, King Louis XVIII created a new peerage system based on the British model. Baron-peer was the lowest title, but the heirs to pre-1789 barons could remain barons, as could the elder sons of viscount-peers and younger sons of count-peers. This peerage was abolished in 1848, though some titles still exist today.
In pre-republican Germany all the knightly families of the Holy Roman Empire (sometimes distinguished by the prefix von) eventually were recognised as of baronial rank, although Ritter is the literal translation for "knight", and persons who held that title enjoyed a distinct, but lower, rank in Germany's nobility than barons (Freiherren). Families which had always held this status were called "original nobility" (Uradel), and were heraldically entitled to a seven pointed coronet. Families which had been ennobled at a definite point in time (Briefadel or "nobility by patent") had only five points on their coronet. These families held their fief in vassalage from a suzerain. The holder of an allodial (i.e. suzerain-free) barony was thus called a Free Lord, or Freiherr. Subsequently, sovereigns in Germany conferred the title of Freiherr as a rank in the nobility, without implication of allodial or feudal status.
Today there is no legal privilege associated with hereditary titles in Germany, and in Austria they have been banned (though persisting in social use). In republican Germany, Freiherr and Baron remain heritable only as part of the legal surname, (and may thereby be transmitted by females to their husbands and children, without implication of nobility).
In Luxembourg and Liechtenstein (where German is among the official languages), barons remain members of the recognized nobility, and the sovereigns retain authority to confer the title (morganatic cadets of the princely dynasty received the title Baron of Lanskron, using both "Freiherr" and "Baron" for different members of this branch).
Generally, all legitimate males of a German baronial family inherit the title Freiherr or Baron from birth. As a result, German barons have been more numerous than those of, e.g., France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, where primogeniture prevails.
In the beginning, Finnish nobles were all without honorific titulature, and known simply as lords. Since the Middle Ages, each head of a noble family had been entitled to a vote in any of Finland's provincial diets whenever held, as in the realm's Herrainpäivät, later Aatelissääty of the Riksdag of the Estates. In 1561, Sweden's King Eric XIV granted the hereditary titles of count and vapaaherra to some of these, but not all. Although their cadet family members were not entitled to vote or sit in the Riksdag, they were legally entitled to the same title as the head of the family, but in customary address they became Paroni or Paronitar. Theoretically, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, families elevated to vapaaherra status were granted a barony in fief, enjoying some rights of taxation and judicial authority. Subsequently, the "barony" was titular, usually attached to a family property, which was sometimes entailed. Their exemptions from taxes on landed properties continued into the twentieth century, although in the nineteenth century tax reforms narrowed this privilege. Nobility creations continued until 1917, the end of Finland's grand ducal monarchy.
In Spain the title follows Vizconde in the noble hierarchy, and ranks above Señor. Baronesa is the feminine form, for the wife of a baron or for a woman who has been granted the title in her own right. In general, titles of baron created before the nineteenth century originate from the Crown of Aragon. Barons lost territorial jurisdiction around the middle of the nineteenth century, and from then on the title became purely honorific. Although most barons have not also held the rank of grandeza, the title has been conferred in conjunction with the grandeza. The sovereign continues to grant baronial titles.
Like other major Western noble titles, Baron is sometimes used to render certain titles in non-western languages with their own traditions, even though they are necessarily historically unrelated and thus hard to compare, which are considered 'equivalent' in relative rank.
In the Polynesian island monarchy of Tonga, as opposed to the situation in Europe, barons are granted this imported title (in English), alongside traditional chiefly styles, and continue to hold and exercise some political power.
Furthermore it is customary in Western languages to use the word Baron to render somewhat 'equivalent' ranks in non-related aristocratic hierarchies in non-Western cultures.