The archive at the Red House spans all aspects of Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’ lives: from high art and high society to the most mundane nuts and bolts, from Royal receptions to MoT tests. Today’s Archive Treasures article spans both ends of the range. It’s well known that in the last year of his life Britten received a Life Peerage for his services to music: the illuminated manuscript of the Letters Patent awarding the honour is one of the archive’s more spectacular objects.
But what actually happens when you receive such an honour – what are the practicalities of the presentation, and what other unexpected issues arise? For most of us this is unknown territory, but the archive allows us to go behind the scenes, into a file of correspondence labelled “Peerage”, and find out what happened next.
New peers, of course, are created on a regular basis and once the honour was confirmed Britten received a handy set of notes setting out the answers to various questions that might arise (they were, in 1976, not yet referred to as FAQs). The notes are dated January 1975, so Britten was receiving very up-to-the-minute guidance.
The first question is to settle your title: point 1 notes that “Garter King of Arms … will have approached you with the object of settling your title and no public mention of your intended title should be made before it has been announced.” We discussed this in our previous article and Britten had probably already dealt with this by the time that the FAQs document arrived, as this file holds a typed transcription of the official writ of summons – the illuminated document held in the archive – dated 2nd July 1976, in which the Queen elevates “Our trusty and well beloved subject EDWARD BENJAMIN BRITTEN … to the state degree style dignity and honour BARON BRITTEN of Aldeburgh in Our County of Suffolk”. (As a side issue, the writ illustrates well the way in which unnecessary punctuation is avoided in documents that will have legal force in order that an infelicitously-placed comma should not lead to an unexpected meaning: the document has not a single comma or full stop in it.) The covering letter that accompanied the transcript informed Britten that “your Letters Patent … were sealed this morning. You should accordingly now sign in your new style. Formal Notices or your elevation have been sent to both the London and Edinburgh Gazettes for publication as soon as possible.”
From 2nd July, then, Britten was officially Baron Britten of Aldeburgh and could sign himself as such. However, this was by no means the end of the formalities. Britten was becoming a member of the House of Lords and as such required introduction to the legislative body of which he would now be a part. Most of the FAQs document is concerned with the nuts and bolts of this ceremony. Britten will be introduced on a Wednesday of his choice, at the start of the House’s business for the day, and will need to find two sponsors – peers of his own rank – to introduce him. Most of us would find this a daunting prospect but fortunately there will be time for a rehearsal, 30 minutes before the introduction. All timings will be sorted out by the office of Black Rod, the Parliamentary functionary. How one dresses for such an occasion would also be a worry, of course: fortunately, the relevant robes can be borrowed from the office of Black Rod, and one is even free to wear a lounge suit under the robes (or morning dress if one wants to be more formal). No guidance is offered as to how female peers should dress; there may, of course, have been separate sets of guidance notes for peers of the different sexes, though nothing about the document suggests this and it is all too believable that this is the only guidance, assuming that peers were male by default. One may well, of course, wish to be photographed in one’s robes; it was doubtless a relief to the peer-to-be that he or she could name up to three photographers who would accompany them, or indeed that if need be Black Rod could recommend a firm to do this.
The FAQs, however, do not cover disability: something that the current version would doubtless put right. There is an exchange of letters in July about Britten’s frailty and the fact that he will need to be introduced in a wheelchair. As is often the case with British constitutional arrangements, the key question is what may have been done in similar cases in the past. In 1970, apparently, the introduction of Lady Masham of Ilton was curtailed due to illness. The Parliamentary Clerk writes to lament that “no-one appears to have made a written record of what occurred then” but that it his understanding that Lady Masham propelled herself in a wheelchair to present her writ to the Lord Chancellor, omitted (obviously) the part of the ceremony in which she would kneel to present it, and doffed her headgear from a different, wheelchair-accessible location to the usual one. Striking out beyond precedent, the Clerk notes that if Britten is unable to propel himself in his wheelchair a doorkeeper will help him move into position.
All this information came to Britten in the middle of summer, of course, when Parliament would not have been sitting. His first chance to be introduced as a peer would come with the State Opening of Parliament in November (set initially for the 17th, then deferred to the 24th) and the file contains documentation relating to this. An order form is included, on which a peer may ask for an invitation for themself, for their peeress (the form does not address the situation in which the peer is female and their spouse male) and for their eldest son. Peers’ eldest sons may attend provided that they are over 14 years old and that their parent is also attending the ceremony: there is a special Peers’ Eldest Sons Box from which they may watch. If one arrives by car, there will be a label to attach to your car indicating that it is an authorised vehicle: the labels carry different codes to indicate whether the car is chauffeur-driven or driven by the peer themselves. A peer arriving by taxi, and unworried by the fact that the meter will still be running, is able to have it wait for him or her on site provided that the “chauffeur-driven” label is attached to it. These instructions do also answer the question of what female peers should wear on the floor of the house: evening dress, with appropriate decorations and the collar of any noble order to which they may belong.
In addition to the official documentation, of course, being awarded a peerage brings other people keen to communicate. Britten’s file also includes correspondence from Debrett’s, offering to sell him a copy of Debrett’s Correct Form, a guide to etiquette in the potential social minefield he now found himself negotiating. Given his long history of contact with the Royal family, he had doubtless long since ceased to worry about whether, when addressing the Queen as “Ma’am”, this should rhyme with “Pam” or “Palm” – one of the questions Debrett’s reassures him that they can answer – but there are many other things to worry about. How, for example, does one begin a social letter to a Duke? In what way do visiting cards differ from business cards? And how does one address an American woman and her husband when she is a representative of the United States government? All these, and more, can be answered for £4.95 (plus 50p for postage and packing). Debrett’s are also keen to learn more from Britten for his entry in their Peerage and the editor writes to Britten in September sending a form for him to complete. This he clearly did, as the file contains a typed copy of his eventual entry sent back in mid-November for him to proof-read, but there were aspects of the process with which he did not engage: the editor’s request that he should furnish Debrett’s with details of any coat of arms that he may inherited or applied for has a firm “No!” written next to it in Britten’s distinctive hand.
The draft Debrett’s Peerage entry sent for checking in mid-November is the last piece of paper on the file. We, with hindsight, can see the clock ticking towards Britten’s death in early December: by the time that the State Opening of Parliament took place he was too frail to attend, and he never was presented formally as a peer. The FAQ document promised “A red box containing your Letters Patent will be place in the Moses Room [the space in which peers would put on their robes] in advance of your Introduction. You will be asked to sign a receipt for this…” The red box and its illuminated Letters Patent did indeed find their way to the Red House and now, of course, have an honoured place in the archive, but Britten was not able to collect them. All the advice on parking arrangements and photographers was not needed in the end. But the honour, of course, was real even if Britten did not manage to travel to Westminster for the ceremony. And we have, perhaps, a better photograph than any that Black Rod’s office could have arranged: that taken of Britten and Pears at the party held that summer to celebrate his peerage, where the two men – one standing, one sitting – look lovingly at each other in the garden of the house they made their home, looking back over their years together and the career that had led to this honour.
- Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library