A Groundbreaking Study of European Nobility
John Selden. Titles of Honor. London: By William Stansby for John Helme, 1614.
Lords: “The Lords that are ancient wee honor, because we knowe not whence they were, but the new ones wee slight because wee know their beginning.” Table-Talk.
Selden’s scope of historical inquiry extended well beyond England, as revealed in Titles of Honor (1614). With its systematic delineation of the nobility, this work paved the way for Debrett’s Peerage and Burke’s Peerage, later reference works on the English aristocracy and genealogy. Selden approached the subject as a legal historian, and comparative law comprised a sizeable portion of the work. In the treatise, each chapter considered the derivation of a particular title and then explored its history and permutations throughout Europe from the Roman period to the modern era.
Selden produced a second edition in 1631, with expanded discourses on England that carried contemporary political ramifications. In investigating the origins of England’s political structure, Selden argued that the king had always been advised by assemblies, whether it be a “witenagemot” or a “parliament,” Norman conquest notwithstanding. By asserting such long-standing precedents for regular meetings, Selden signaled his opposition to the country's current political situation. The reigning king, Charles I, had called a Parliament out of necessity to raise funds in 1628, but then suspended it to avoid making concessions. The suspension lasted ten years. Selden was among the members of that session of Parliament imprisoned upon its dissolution. Selden may have used this enforced leisure to complete the second edition.