Commoners in the United Kingdom

Commoners in the United Kingdom

In British law, a commoner is someone who is neither the Sovereign nor a peer. Therefore, any member of the Royal Family who is not a peer, such as Prince Harry of Wales or Anne, Princess Royal, is a commoner, as is any member of a peer's family, including someone who holds only a courtesy title, such as the Earl of Arundel and Surrey (eldest son of the Duke of Norfolk) or Lady Victoria Hervey (a daughter of the 6th Marquess of Bristol).[1]

Traditionally, members of the House of Commons were commoners — though the name of the House of Commons comes from the communities they represent, not their rank — while members of the House of Lords were peers. Peers whose only titles are in the Peerage of Ireland have been able to stand for election to the House of Commons for centuries. Since the House of Lords Act 1999, which excluded most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, most hereditary peers can now stand for election to the House of Commons. For example, the 3rd Viscount Thurso (aka John Thurso) is currently a member of the House of Commons.

In popular usage, a commoner is a person who does not belong to royalty or aristocracy: in other words, someone who is not a member of a peer's family. In that context, The Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph and the BBC have all seen fit to distinguish Kate Middleton as a "commoner".[2] Many English-language publications have noted that Middleton is the first commoner to marry an heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married James the Duke of York (later King James II) more than 350 years ago.[3][4]


Commoners in the Three Estates

In Medieval literature, commoners are one of three estates. The General Prologue, from the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, explores "the Medieval social theory that society was made up of three 'estates'".[5] The Nobility were a "small hereditary aristocracy, whose mission on earth was to rule over and defend the body politic". The Church had the responsibility of "look[ing] after the spiritual welfare of that body". Commoners "were supposed to do that work that provided for its physical needs". The social status was a division of different classes and their places and occupations in Medieval society.

The General Prologue introduces "social organization",[6] which Chaucer demonstrates when depicting the Knight, Parson, and Ploughman to exemplify the most noble character from each estate. These three characters are chosen to "seem as governing ideals". Each character has a certain role in society, and with their ideal moral lifestyles, they represent the most virtuous of the estates in which they belong. It is apparent that Medieval society values that class system as the main categories of hierarchical society. The set social division is evident, and with all three estates, the General Prologue examines the good and bad people in society. Chaucer's "representatives of the three estates are moral and social exemplars; the Knight, the Parson, and the Ploughman all strive but they do it selflessly rather than competitively".

British universities

In some British universities (notably Oxford and Cambridge), a commoner is an undergraduate student who does not hold either a scholarship or an exhibition. This form is also mimicked by certain British public schools (for example, Winchester College).[citation needed].

A mature commoner was an older commoner at traditional universities such as Oxford.[7]

In the past, there have been gentleman-commoners (those who paid all their fees up front) and fellow-commoners (those associated with the Foundation of the Colleges).

Other meanings

A commoner can also refer to someone who, by right of landholding or residence, holds a common right in a given manor. See commons.


  1. ^ William Charteris Macpherson, The Baronage and the Senate: or The House of Lords in the Past, the Present, and the Future (London: John Murray, 1893), p.21.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ The Norton Anthology English Literature Volume A. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 213.
  6. ^ Chaucer's General Prologue as History and Literature. Comparative Studies in Society and History (1970)81.
  7. ^ Alan B. Cobban, The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organization, Taylor & Francis, 1975. ISBN 9780416812503. Page 148.

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