Is it possible to be giddy with delight over a post? I don't know what I'm more excited about today. The content of Barbara Burke's blog post, or the style with which it's written. Either way, get ready for a delightful and insightful look into understanding the naming protocols of the English aristocracy. I can guarantee you I'll be referencing this as I continue on with my regency writing.
Your Grace, my Lord and plain old Mr: Recognizing Who’s Who in a library full of bodice rippers and Regencies by Barbara Burke
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage...So begins Jane Austin’s novel Persuasion.
To Sir Walter and, indeed, most people reading Persuasion in 1818 when it was first published, the information found in the Baronetage about Sir Walter and his family tells a lot about him, his family and the Elliots’ place in society.
However, a North American audience of nearly two hundred years later can excuse itself for finding the intricacies and convolutions of a by-gone British society more than a little difficult to sort out. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that there are numerous guide books to correct usage attests to the complexity of the subject. In fact, even the titles of the guide books are complicated, as witnessed by Debrett’s Correct Form: Social and Professional Etiquette, Precedence and Protocol: An Inclusive Guide to Everything From Drafting Wedding Invitations to Addressing An Archbishop. A quick glance through Debrett’s shows that there is a correct title for absolutely anyone in ‘society’, from the king to the child of a disclaimed peer (a lord who for one reason or another gives up his title), and clear rules and guidelines for their usage.
Though it isn’t really necessary for someone who enjoys a good Regency or Historical romance to have a complete grasp of these rules, it does make it rather more fun to have some understand of who’s who and why, particularly if it gives you an opportunity to shake your head and feel superior when you catch an author making a faux pas.
Though things have now altered slightly to the extent that even the British royal family is changing its definition of primogeniture so that three generations from now (i.e., in Prince George’s time) the eldest child of the monarch rather than the eldest son will inherit the throne, historically speaking it is a pretty universal truth that the whole social system is patriarchal and women derived their status from the men in their families. Therefore, any list of ranks and honours is based on the men holding them rather than the women of their families, no matter how important those women may be.
At its simplest and leaving out the royal family, British society is divided into two categories: the nobility (also known as the aristocracy and the peerage) and the gentry. The aristocracy consists of five ranks, starting with Dukes at the top and then descending in order through Marquesses (or sometimes, depending on the individual title, Marquises), Earls, Viscounts and Barons. Though they have different ranks as peers they share some common features: they are all titled, their titles are hereditary and they have a right to a seat in the House of Lords, the British Upper House of Parliament (although this last privilege has now been considerably abridged).
Their wives are, in the same descending order, Duchesses, Marchionesses, Countesses (there is no such thing as an Earless, mores the pity - I always picture some deaf old dear at Almack’s trying desperately to hear the latest on dits and scandals) Viscountesses and Ladies. Barons’ wives are not and never were called Baronesses. Baroness is one of the few titles that a woman can hold in her own right (this is the title that Margaret Thatcher was granted, for example) although it was seldom seen in England until recently. Any Baroness who turns up in a Regency had better either be foreign or, in some rare cases, Scottish. If she isn’t she’s probably in the wrong book.
Ranking beneath the aristocracy is the gentry, who generally consists of knights and everyone else who is accepted in polite society. Sir Walter falls into this category and is of the highest rank of the gentry. He is a baronet, which is a hereditary title. However, he is not a lord and he cannot claim a seat in the House of Lords. One step down from him are knights, who are still considered titled but do not pass the title down to their children. Finally there are the lowly Misters who, as gentlemen, may put esquire after their names when they write them but have no other title.
Those are the ranks of the British aristocracy and gentry and they are relatively simple to learn. However, after that things get a lot more complicated.
Armiger, the pseudonymous author of Titles; Being A Guide To The Right Use Of British Titles And Honours written in 1918 has this to say when talking about addressing or discussing members of the nobility and gentry:
Nobody “who knows” would talk about “The Marquess, or Marchioness, of Montgomeryshire.” They would be called “Lord, or Lady, Montgomeryshire.”
Still less would they be referred to as “The Marquess” or “The Marchioness.” There are occasions on which the full title would be used, but it should never be done in intimate speech. “The Marquess” or “The Earl” are so very often used by popular novelists, who love the Peerage better than they know its ways, that it may be difficult to believe that they are showing ignorance where they wish to show intimacy. It is only wrong, of course, in that it is never done by the people of title themselves, or by those who mix with them...Anyone who spoke habitually of “The Marquess of Montgomeryshire” or “The Countess of Malvern,” instead of saying “Lord Montgomeryshire” or “Lady Malvern”, would show plainly that he had small knowledge of the matters in which he is now being instructed, and would be put down as an outsider, just as much as if he were to speak of Lady John Smith as “Lady Smith”.
How’s that for English snobbery at its finest?
There is some compensation in the fact that his condemnation is so widespread. Obviously, there are a great many people in the world labouring under a burden of ignorance. So how does one talk to and about the British nobility?
There are some fairly simple guidelines. First of all, dukes and duchesses abide by their own rules which are, generally speaking, different from those laid down for the rest of the Peerage. For one thing, all Ducal titles are territorial. You can’t have a Duke without him being the Duke of Somewhere. For another, they are never referred to as My Lord or My Lady. They are called Your Grace in the second person and His or Her Grace in the third. In the most formal circumstances they are also called The Most Noble as in The Most Noble Duke of Devonshire. Finally, even in relatively informal cases, it is always made clear that one is talking about a Duke or a Duchess rather than some more common garden variety of peer. So one never says Lord Devonshire, for example, but Duke in the second person or The Duke in the third. Personally, however, I can’t help but feel that if I met the Duke of Devonshire sauntering through the park and simply said: “Hi, Duke!” I’d feel like my next move would be to throw a stick for him to fetch.
The next two ranks, Marquesses and Earls, have some rules that they share with Dukes but not with the two lowest orders of the peerage. One of these rules is that their eldest son is given what is called a courtesy title. If money begets money then titles beget titles. The British aristocracy has been around for a long time and most noble families have managed through the generations to accumulate more than one title. Presumably so that at least some of these excess titles do more than just lie around collecting dust and waiting for a really, really formal occasion to get brushed off and put on, a peer’s eldest son gets to use one of them. The only condition is that it must be of a lower order then that of his dad. So if someone was both the Duke of Smith and the Duke of Jones his son couldn’t use the title Duke of Jones. However, if he were also the Marquess of Brown, and that was his next highest rank, then his son would use that title. Thus in Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, Dominic, the son and heir of the Duke of Avon, bears the title Marquis of Vidal which is his father’s next highest rank. This carries on to the next generation so that if, somewhere between Devil’s Cub and the sequel An Infamous Army, Dominic and his wife have a son while the Duke is still alive then he gets the next most important title in the line.
There is one more condition. A courtesy title can only be given to the heir apparent, never the heir presumptive. The heir apparent is someone whose claim to the title can never be challenged. In just about every case that is the eldest son. An heir presumptive can lose that position at any time. For instance, to continue using the Duke of Avon as our example, in the precursor to Devil’s Cub, These Old Shades, which takes place before Dominic is born, the Duke of Avon’s heir is his brother Lord Rupert Alastair. Lord Rupert is the heir presumptive because he can be displaced at any time simply by Avon managing to sire a legitimate son. Therefore, he doesn’t get to use the courtesy title Marquis of Vidal. This is probably because once you’ve given someone a title it’s not very nice to ask to have it back because a more worthy candidate has just been born.
(In Scotland they do things a little differently. The heir to a title is called the Master and it doesn’t matter whether he’s the heir apparent or the heir presumptive. Consequently, younger brothers of a peer are called the Master until the peer has a legitimate son who then takes over (and keeps) the title.)
Notice that Rupert, the Duke of Avon’s brother, is called Lord Rupert. This is a courtesy title granted to the younger sons of Dukes and Marquesses. These kinds of courtesy titles are always attached to the bearer’s first name to distinguish them from ‘real’ lords who have an actual hereditary title. All daughters of earls as well as dukes and marquesses follow the same rule and are referred to as Lady. So before she became the Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spenser was so called because she was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick.
Finally, younger sons of earls and all the children of viscounts and barons are simply ladies and gentlemen although their name is prefixed by the term ‘The Honourable’ when it is written.
As we have been informed by the ever so proper Armiger, any peer ranking below a duke is referred to as Lord followed by his title (not his last name). So we say Lord Vidal, even though his name is Dominic Alastair. In the second person the correct way to refer to that person is “My Lord” and “His Lordship” in the third person. So, unless the peer is a duke you can’t tell what rank he holds. The same is true for his wife, so we refer to her as Lady Vidal and call her “My Lady” or “Her Ladyship”.
Baronets and knights are called Sir followed by their first names informally and their first and last name formally. Their wives are called Lady followed by their last names (to distinguish them from the daughters of peers). Thus Sir John Brown would be married to Lady Brown and that is the only proper way to refer to her. If her name was given as Lady Mary Brown it would mean she was the daughter of a high ranking peer. And if she were referred to as Lady John Brown it would mean that her husband was Lord John Brown, the younger son of a duke or marquess. Their children have no titles at all.
There are probably a thousand other rules of address and nuances to polite society which are well beyond the scope of this blog, including titles reserved for members of the royal family. And then there’s the question of how to address grandchildren of peers and younger daughters of gentlemen, members of the military, members of the clergy, members of the military or clergy who are also peers, widows, widows with married sons, widows with unmarried sons, widows who remarry...
Hmm, maybe historical romance writers can be forgiven their occasional mistakes after all.
Barbara Burke’s parapetetic life means she’s lived everywhere from a suburban house in a small town to a funky apartment in a big city, and from an architecturally designed estate deep in the forest to a cedar shack on the edge of the ocean. Everywhere she’s gone she’s been accompanied by her husband, her animals and her books. For the last 15 years she’s worked as a freelance journalist and has won several awards. She was a fan of Jane Austen long before that lady was discovered by revisionists and zombie lovers and thinks Georgette Heyer was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She lives by the philosophy that one should never turn down the opportunity to get on a plane no matter where it’s going, but deep down inside wishes she could travel everywhere by train.
You can find out more about Barbara here and follow her on Facebook as well.