A baronet (// or //; abbreviated Bart or Bt) or the rare female equivalent, a baronetess (//, //, or //; abbreviation Btss), is the holder of a baronetcy, an hereditary title awarded by the British Crown. The practice of awarding baronetcies was originally introduced in England in the 14th century and was used by James I of England in 1611 as a means of raising funds.
A baronetcy is the only British hereditary honour that is not a peerage, with the exception of the Anglo-Irish Black Knight, White Knight and Green Knight (of which only the Green Knight is extant). A baronet is addressed as "Sir" (just as is a knight) or "Dame" in the case of a baronetess but ranks above all knighthoods and damehoods in the order of precedence, except for the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, and the dormant Order of St Patrick.
Comparisons with continental titles and ranks are tenuous due to the British system of primogeniture and the fact that claims to baronetcies must be proven; currently the Official Roll of the Baronetage is overseen by the Ministry of Justice (United Kingdom). In practice this means that the UK Peerage and Baronetage consists of about 2000 families (some Peers are also Baronets), which is roughly 0.01% of UK families. In some continental countries the nobility consisted of about 5% of the population, and in most countries titles are no longer recognised or regulated by the state.
The term baronet has medieval origins. Sir Thomas de La More, describing the Battle of Boroughbridge, mentioned that baronets took part, along with barons and knights. Edward III is known to have created eight baronets in 1328; further creations were made in 1340, 1446 and 1551. At least one, Sir William de La Pole in 1340, was created for payment of money. Whether or not these early creations were hereditary, all have died out.
Present-day Baronets date from 1611 when James I granted Letters Patent to 200 gentlemen of good birth with an income of at least £1,000 a year; in return for the honour, each was required to pay for the upkeep of thirty soldiers for three years amounting to £1,095, in those days a very large sum. In 1619 James I established the Baronetage of Ireland; Charles I in 1625 created the Baronetages of Scotland and Nova Scotia. The new baronets were each required to pay 2,000 marks or to support six colonial settlers for two years. Over a hundred of these baronetcies, now familiarly known as Scottish baronetcies, survive to this day.
As a result of the Union of England and Scotland in 1707, all future creations were styled baronets of Great Britain. Following the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, new creations were styled as baronets of the United Kingdom.
Under royal warrants of 1612 and 1613, certain privileges were accorded to baronets. Firstly, no person or persons should have place between baronets and the younger sons of peers. Secondly, the right of knighthood was established for the eldest sons of baronets (this was later revoked by George IV in 1827), and thirdly, baronets were allowed to augment their armorial bearings with the Arms of Ulster on an inescutcheon: "in a field Argent, a Hand Geules (or a bloudy hand)". These privileges were extended to baronets of Ireland, and for baronets of Scotland the privilege of depicting the Arms of Nova Scotia as an augmentation of honour. The former applies to this day for all baronets of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom created subsequently.