The fourth rank in the peerage, the viscount is ranked below duke, marquess and earl, but above baron.
This title had its origin in the office of the deputy or the lieutenant (vice-comes) of a count, a rank that had become hereditary in the Holy Roman Empire by the beginning of the 10th century. It was also used for the sheriff of a county.
As a rank in the British peerage it was first recorded in 1440, during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1450). King Henry VI, crowned King of England and France, sought to consolidate the titles of the two countries, and therefore created John Lord Beaumont both Viscount Beaumont in England and Viscount Beaumont in France.
This new peerage title received precedence above all barons, but it did not become popular until the 17th century. Viscounts were always created by letters patent under the Great Seal, which represents the Sovereign's authority.
At the present time there are 115 viscounts (not including courtesy viscounts). The premier viscount of England is Viscount Hereford (created 1550). The premier viscount of Scotland on the Roll is Viscount Falkland (created 1620), and the premier viscount of Ireland is Viscount Gormanston (created 1478).
Since 1989 eight viscountcies have become extinct: Muirsheil, Furness, Watkinson, Lambert, Leverhulme, Greenwood, Cross and Ingleby, and Barrington is dormant or extinct.