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  • Writer's pictureChantel Grayson

THE NOBILITY, THEIR RANKS, THEIR EXCEPTIONS TO THEIR RULES

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Dear reader,


One can’t speak of the Victorian era and not mention the peerage--a group of men who held one (or more) of five titles that were inherited from a paternal ancestor or bestowed by the Queen. Historically, the peerage were all known as barons (men of importance), and pledged their loyalty or their services to the monarch in exchange for money, protection or land that they could pass down to their heirs. In January of 1801, all barons were summoned to Parliament where they formed the House of Lords of the United Kingdom/the House of Lords/the House of Peers--unlike the House of Commons which is composed of elected officials. In addition to the peerage, the House of Lords is also made up of Lords Spiritual (Church of England established Bishops) and Lords Temporal (Life Peers which I will briefly discuss a bit later).


In novels, the following terms have been used interchangeably to describe this group of people: the peerage, peers, peeress’, nobility, aristocracy, gentry, genteel, well-bred, well-born, society, the lords, the ton, (“toff” was used by lower class individuals)


A baron or a “peerage” was created through a “patent” which was a legal document authenticated with the Great Seal of the Realm/Great Seal of the United Kingdom/Seal of Majesty. These seals were usually large and coin-shaped and attached to a document either with a rope, or ribbon threaded between a hole or two of the seal. If the initial design of a seal bore no holes, the emblem sat on a velvet cushion along with said document that was secured in a fancy vessel. These seals were custom to each monarch, meaning they were often retired and replaced. For Queen Victoria, the one I have seen in a museum was silver with a younger version of herself mounted on top of a horse with a cherub-like page holding the reins.


The letters inscribed are VICTORIA DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR-- Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of the Britains, Defender of the Faith.


These patents were important when it came to deciding what would happen to the title after the death of the holder. Most titles passed to a male heir but sometimes, there were exceptions included in the documents that allowed a title to be passed down to a relative or even a daughter. This was especially important for barons who had high-risk situations (knights, war leaders, etc.) that had a slimmer chance of creating a male heir before they died. This ensured the title would survive. These exceptions were made in the best interest of the monarchy, for if there was no male heir to inherit, the title would become extinct and everything with it would go back into the Queen’s possession for her to keep or distribute how she pleases.





In 1801, the Peerages of Scotland and England, which were once separate, combined under the name The Peerage of the United Kingdom. If you are interested in 19th Century Scotland, please note they have their own hierarchy system and I will not be mentioning them here.


A child of the peerage was essentially born with social and political influence and knowing one title from another determined how these individuals were addressed, who held more power and who entered the dining room first. In this post, I will be listing them in order of rank, as well as anything I have learned over the years or discovered throughout my research that differentiates them from one another. I will briefly begin with the monarchs:


THE MONARCHY


King / Queen

Queen Victoria assumed the throne when she was eighteen, in 1837. When she married Albert, he wasn’t given the title of Prince Consort until much later.


Prince / Princess

Addressed as His Royal Highness/Her Royal Highness


Royal Duke / Royal Duchess

Duke of the royal family.


THE NOBILITY


Duke/Duchess

A duke is a tier below the monarch and royal family, although a Prince can be a duke. He is in charge of a duchy (a domain of land) where he manages the estate, its tenants and any resources it may harvest--livestock, coal mines, etc. Many dukes were related to the Queen in some form or another (either a cousin or distant relative). The Queen could also award the title of duke to anyone she liked, including her own family members when they came of age or married. Prince William and Kate became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they married. Prince Harry and Meghan became the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (although...they may not be anymore…). Regardless, the title has to be available. The current Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward became the Earl of Wessex when he married and will become the Duke of Edinburgh when his father, Prince Phiilip, passes.


With any title of the aristocracy, a dukedom was only passed down paternally (unless stated otherwise in a patent), therefore, in fiction, many dukes would seek a woman of “good breeding.” He needed a woman who would give him many healthy children including a male heir and a “spare” considering the lifespan of people in the Victorian era was short due to illness, railroad accidents and dangerous activities such as hunting or horse jumping--In the 19th Century, no country in the world had an average life expectancy longer than 40 years. His wife needed to be perfect by the standards of society and know how to host balls and events. If not her heritage, he, like many struggling nobility at the time, would choose a wife who had a handsome dowry that consisted of a lump sum of money, a lifetime annum from her male guardian or benefactor, land, or a combination of the above.


  • Both a Duke and his Duchess are addressed as “Your Grace”

  • If they are in a setting among friends or peers, they could be addressed by their duchy. For example, the “Duke of Appleseed” would simply be called, “Appleseed” and very rarely called by his given name outside his close friends or family. If the couple was affectionate, the wife may call him by his given name in private. She could also be called “Duchess” or him “Duke” by those they interact with while in their territory (similar to how you would call your state senator, “senator”).

  • A Duke’s first born son is addressed by his father’s subservient or lesser title. Ex: “Earl of Apples” or “Viscount of Grapes” (There is no “the” considering the father still holds power over that particular territory. I will offer further explanation under “courtesy titles.”)

  • A Duke’s remaining sons are addressed as “Lord [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Duke’s daughters are addressed as “Lady [First Name] [Last Name]”



Marquess/Marchioness [Mark-wes] [Mar-she-ness]

His territory or possession would be called a marquessate. Throughout my research and general knowledge of studying the period over the years, I have always wondered what made a marquess significant aside from holding a title. Even in historical fiction/romance novels, the woman is seduced by a duke or an earl or a viscount, and French history shows the title was so controversial it was at one point removed. I learned that historically, a marquess oversaw the frontier or border territories (equal to a German Margrave). Marquess was a position that was adopted by England in the late 1300s.


In Downton Abbey, Edith is married to Bertie who assumes a title after a death in his family. She becomes a marchioness and outranks her entire family.


  • Both a Marquess and his Marchioness are addressed as “My Lord/My Lady” or “Your Lordship/Your Ladyship” or “Lord [marquessate]/Lady[marquessate]”

  • If they are in a setting among friends or peers, they could be addressed by their marquessate. For example, the “Marquess of Looney Tunes” would simply be called, “Looney Tunes” and very rarely called by his given name outside his close friends or family. If the couple was affectionate, the wife may call him by his given name in private.

  • A Marquess’ first born son is addressed by his father’s subservient or lesser title Ex: “Earl of Bugs Bunny” or “Viscount of Daffy Duck” (There is no “the” considering the father still holds power over that particular territory. I will offer further explain under “courtesy titles.”)

  • A Marquess’ remaining sons are addressed as “Lord [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Marquess’ daughters are addressed as “Lady [First Name] [Last Name]”



Earl/Countess

What I’ve learned, and what is important to note, is that the title of an earl was the first title of peerage created and established long before that of a marquess, hence the above when I mentioned the controversy regarding a marquess ranking above an earl. In fact, the title of earl was the highest and oldest title until 1337 when Edward, the Black Prince was named the Duke of Cornwall. Like other titles, an earl can reign over a particular land or territory. Also like the others, his title would have been passed down through a paternal lineage.


  • Both an Earl and his Countess are addressed as “My Lord/My Lady” or “Your Lordship/Your Ladyship” or “Lord [earldom]/Lady [earldom]”

  • If they are in a setting among friends or peers, they could be addressed by their earldom. For example, the “Earl of Grantham” would simply be called, “Grantham” or “Lord Grantham” and very rarely called by his given name outside his close friends or family. Since the couple was affectionate, Cora called him Robert.

  • An Earl’s first born son is addressed by his father’s subservient or lesser title. (There is no “the” considering the father still holds power over that particular territory. I will offer further explain under “courtesy titles.”)

  • An Earl’s remaining sons are addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • An Earl’s daughters are addressed as “Lady [First Name] [Last Name]”



Viscount/Viscountess [Vye-count][Vye-countess]

Historically, this title was created for the sheriff of a territory (hence, vice-comes) and sometimes as a subservient to the earl. A viscount could also be an earl’s eldest son who adopted his father’s lesser title, however, he would have no power over the dominion until his father passed.


  • Both Viscount and his Viscountess are addressed as “My Lord/My Lady”

  • If they are in a setting among friends or peers, they could be addressed by their viscountcy. For example, “Viscount Appleseed” would simply be called, “Appleseed” or “Lord Apleseed” and very rarely called by his given name outside his close friends or family.

  • A Viscount’s first born son is addressed by “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Viscount’s remaining sons are addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Viscount’s daughters are addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”



Baron/Baroness

The last rank of the peerage is the baron. A baron was essentially a man who pledged his services or loyalty to a superior (could be one of the above noblemen or the monarchy) and acquired land that he could pass down to his heirs, as mentioned above. It is a generic term for someone who was adopted into the peerage (given a baronetcy) and often, these titles were “life titles” and not passed down.


  • Both the Baron and his Baroness are addressed as “My Lord/My Lady”

  • A Baron’s first born son is addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Baron’s remaining sons are addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”

  • A Baron’s daughters are addressed as “The Honourable/The Hon [First Name] [Last Name]”


A baron is a title of honor and sometimes does not come with self-named territory. I have read that some barons are given the title, money, a bit of land or property on an estate ruled by a higher member of the peerage. Sometimes baron titles were only for the life span of the person, so a father would have to work diligently and use the umbrellas of his title and influence to make sure his daughters had good dowries and good marital matches to a man of the nobility before he passed.


COURTESY TITLES

Above, when I mentioned the first son of a peer being granted his father’s subservient titles, you might have noticed it only applies to the first three tiers: Duke, Marquess, Earl. This is because a courtesy title has to be “lesser than” and you can’t go lesser than a Viscount or Baron. I should note that although the son carries these titles, they are a courtesy in that they are only spoken as a form of respect. In general, the son has no real power or claim over those territories (and therefore, no seat at Parliament). To make matters more confusing (and this I had to reach out to others to clarify), these subservient titles are passed down to the first son, and then the eldest son of the first son. Let us play pretend: You meet a man who is England’s Duke of Bacon whose full title is “Ronald McDonald, Duke of Bacon, Earl of Lettuce, Baron Tomato.” If Ronald McDonald has a son, his son would be given the courtesy title “Earl of Lettuce” and if Earl of Lettuce had a son, his son would be given the courtesy title “Baron Tomato.” Neither Ronald’s son nor grandson are official title holders and therefore are not called The Earl of Lettuce or The Baron of Tomato. Ronald is still legally over those domains and out of the three of them, is the only peer with a seat of political influence. Upon Ronald’s death, his son inherits all titles and the cycle continues.


If the father’s title and his subservient title were the same name (Example, the Duke of Appleton could also be the Earl of Appleton), the son would not take on the lesser title because in social situations they would both be called “Appleton.” In order to avoid confusion, the son would use another subsidiary or, if one did not exist, he would use “Lord [surname].”


The “the” is arguably not used in titles of wives, although I will admit having seen it in a few readings. I have seen both the Duchess of Appleton and Duchess of Appleton. Personally, I don’t fret over it.


An heir presumptive does not use a courtesy title. For example, in Downtown Abbey, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham had an heir in season 1, a cousin named James Crawley who died along with his son on the sinking of the Titanic. James Crawley did not have a title considering he was not within Robert’s immediate line of succession. He was simply James Crawley, heir of Downton Abbey estate and eventually the 6th Earl of Grantham.


THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN HEIR APPARENT AND AN HEIR PRESUMPTIVE

Both an heir apparent and heir presumptive are in line for inheritance, however, an heir apparent cannot be replaced whereas an heir presumptive assumes their position but can be displaced by a more eligible heir.


For example, The Duke of Cumberland (Queen Victoria’s uncle) was the Queen’s heir presumptive while she remained childless. Had she passed without having married or had children, he would have assumed the throne. Once Bertie was born, her son became her heir apparent and would not be displaced.


Downton Abbey was full of heir presumptives. Robert and Cora had only given birth to girls (stamping the overall plot of the entire show). They assumed his cousin, James Crawley would inherit his titles and the estate but he and his son died in the sinking of the Titanic. Matthew Crawley also dies. Regardless, each of the three men would have been replaced by the baby boy Cora would have had, had she not miscarried. Even though Mary gave birth to her and Matthew’s son (the new heir presumptive), if the Earl and Countess of Downton somehow conceived a son, that child would be the heir apparent and would not be displaced. Mary’s son would become the heir apparent once the Earl of Grantham passes and is officially unable to produce a male heir.


THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN EXTINCT TITLE AND A DORMANT TITLE

A title can become extinct when there are no heirs. In such a case, the title and territory returns to the Queen’s Treasury for her to keep or grant to someone else. A Dormant title is in essence, a pending title. This means that there may be an heir, but the heir has not yet been located or, the heir that claims the title has not provided sufficient evidence that they are the rightful heir, proving their legitimacy (remember, they didn’t have DNA tests back then so they had to rely on words from a reliable source, letters, a will, the word of a solicitor or some form of documentation).


DUAL TITLES

Many of the nobility have dual titles, either by being given from the Queen or by inheritance from another male relative that is not their father. For example, let us say that you have a grandfather who is a duke and your grandfather has a brother who is an earl. Eventually, you will inherit the title of duke from your grandfather’s passing and from your father passing. Now, if your uncle dies without any male heirs, you would also inherit his earldom, giving you the title “The Duke of Oranges, The Earl of Apples.” As stated above, if you had a son, your son would go by the courtesy title “Earl of Apples.” If your son had a son, his son would go by “Lord [first name][last name].”


LIFE PEER

Members of the peerage whose titles were not and cannot be passed down. They were usually created on the level of a baron, an honorary title, and their children were given the courtesy title “The Honourable/The Hon [first name][last name].” In readings, I’ve even seen these children referred to as lords and ladies.


ADOPTION

In the 19th century, adopted children of the peerage were not given courtesy or legitimate titles and they could not inherit domains. They were rarely even addressed by courtesy titles such as lord or lady and often assumed positions as governess’ or companions to their legitimate siblings.


WOMEN AND TITLES

This is essentially a topic that could have an entire post dedicated to it, however, I will try to list only key factors when it came to women who held titles. Either through marriage or a rare accord in a patent, women held titles among the peerage, making them a “peeress” and there are many scenarios in which a woman’s title can change, unlike a man’s, primarily depending on if she married, whom she married, if she divorced, if she was a widow, or if she was a widow whose eldest son had married.


If She Married

If a woman decided to marry, regardless if she was born into the nobility, she would adopt the title equivalent to her husband. If she married a duke, she would be a duchess. If she married and earl, she would be a countess. If she married a commoner, she would adopt his name “Mrs. [his first name][his last name].”


Whom She Married

Let us say a woman is the daughter of a duke and she has an unmarried sister. She and her sister are given the courtesy title of “Lady [her first name][her last name]” and she would outrank a countess. Now let us say she marries an earl. She would become a countess and therefore, her unmarried sister would continue to outrank her.


A tricky contradiction I have found is something like this: If the daughter of a duke married the first son of an earl, she would be “Lady [his first name][his last name],” formally, but until her husband inherited his earldom from his father (making her a Countess) she could use her courtesy title from her father’s duchy “Lady [her first name][her last name],” formally. In situations like these, I always default to “Lady [her first name][his last name].”


If she married the second son of an earl, she would be “The Honourable/The Hon Mrs. [his first name][his last name].”


If the daughter of a duke married a commoner she would still be called “Lady” by some, even though she is no longer legally tethered to the nobility. No one is required to address her as such, but depending on the influence of the family from which she came, out of respect, they would continue to call her by her former, unmarried title. If she prefers, she can simply be “Mrs. [his first name][his last name],” formally or “Mrs. [his last name].”


One must remember that women were viewed as property of their husbands so ensuring she had his name meant their children would also have his name, and thereby there would be no questions raised of whether or not they belonged to him. In the 19th century, and in the case of divorce, the man had all legal claims over the children.


If She Divorced

If a woman divorced or received an annulment, she was no longer respected or accepted by the nobility. She would lose her title and possibly, the titles she had prior to her marriage. She can regain access to the peerage by attempting to marry a nobleman, but by then, the woman would be considered “scandalous” and unmarriageable. If her husband had a low ranking status of a baron, the aristocracy may continue to shun her. If she married a powerful duke, society would have no choice but to be cordial (at least to her face), for she would be under his protection. I plan to cover divorce in the 19th century in a future post.


If She Was A Widow

Widowed women followed the same rules as a divorcee without the shunning aspect. If she chose to remarry she would obtain the equivalent of her new husband’s status. If he was a commoner, out of respect, the peerage and those subservient to her (such as staff or members of her former duchy, for example) may continue to call her “duchess” (if there is no new duchess that has replaced her) or she could prefer to be called by her new married name “Mrs. [his first name][his last name].”


If she were the wife of a duke who passed, she would remain a duchess only if they had conceived a male heir and her son had yet to marry.


One must keep in mind, widowed women were disadvantaged by the deaths of their husbands, especially if he did not leave her anything or left her a small yearly annum. Some husbands even had marital contracts that determined her yearly wages upon his death, depending on whether or not she bore him male children. Having a son was sometimes the only way for a woman to keep her home and lifestyle.


Early on in my writing career, I read a story of a woman who was married to an Earl and had yet to conceive a male heir by the time he died. She sought out the “donation” of a willing man to ensure her pregnation and ensure that she had either a male heir to inherit the earldom or a daughter who would still inherit a future dowry laid aside by her late father. The child was a girl so the woman wasn’t prodded with an investigation, but because there was rumors of her misdeed, if the child had been born a boy, the writer implied the title would be “dormant” in that the legitimacy of the child would need to be proven in some way or another.


If She Was A Widow And Her Eldest Son Married

If a woman marries an earl, who leaves her a widow, she would continue to be a countess as long as they had a male heir. Her son would immediately inherit his father’s earldom and the estate would run with the late earl’s appointed guardian to oversee his estate and the teachings of his son until the child became of age. When her son married, the new wife would be the countess and the widow would be a Dowager. Her official title would be “The Dowager Countess of Appleseed,” or “Dowager Countess.” If she did not want to use the title of Dowager, she could adopt the title, “[her first name], Lady [her surname].” It wouldn’t be “Lady [her first name][her last name]” because those are the rules followed by the daughters of a duke, marquess, or earl.


Reader, I was in the process of giving a brief description of entailments, but as with this post, I found myself researching the loopholes and complex scenarios regarding women, land and possessions. I will devote all of that to a future post.


NON-HEREDITARY TITLES OF NOBILITY

I won’t go into details but this would be the category for your knights, clergy, popes, bishops, archbishops, priests, monks, high steward, chamberlaines and constables, etc. They all had a hierarchy, ranks and duties under the monarchy.


DOUBLE TITLES

Double titles were sometimes granted as a way to show unity between one country and another. Example: The Duke of Kent and Strathhearn.


***

If you’ve gotten this far, again, I thank you. I hope you found this information useful and easy to understand. If you have found that I misspoke (mistyped?) please reach out, as I am always eager to discuss the period with other enthusiasts and there is SO much information, details, and “if not that, then this” situations that would make exceptions to certain rules.


Other things I have learned, as I said, have been gathered throughout the readings of many books and watching many documentaries over the years. If you would like really good resources, I advise you to look in the author’s note sections of any historical fiction/romance novel. Many authors list little tidbits of information they found that inspired their stories and you can chase them down the rabbit holes to learn more.


Before I leave you, here is something fun: The current Prince Phillip’s official royal title:


"His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Extra Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Grand Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand, Extra Companion of the Queen's Service Order, Knight of the Order of Australia, Royal Chief of the Order of Logohu, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, Extraordinary Commander of the Order of Military Merit,Canadian Forces Decoration, Lord of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, Member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, Personal Aide-de-Camp to His Majesty King George VI, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom.” Try remembering that and reciting it to him the next time you see him lol.



A few sources:

For those complex words, I like the Merriam-Webster

And of course, the Encyclopedia Britannica


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