Saturday, February 7, 2009

Peerage & the Use of Titles

This article will try to give a short description of the very basics in the use of titles. After all Regency Romances abound with titled gentlemen; based on the books you would think they were a majority rather than a small minority. :) Unfortunately, in many regencies titles are used incorrectly, which is a pity. Authors, editors etc could quite easily look up what the rules are and use them properly.

The rules for correct manner of addressing or referring to members of the peerage can be quite complicated, and depend on the situation as well. eg. Announcing someone, referring to someone, addressing them, writing to them, whether it is a formal situation or informal, whether it is close friend or family member speaking to them, an acquaintance of higher or lower rank, a servant etc. Here only the very basics will be mentioned. And although there are complications and exceptions, there is rime and reason in the rules. In their own way, they are actually straightforward, logical and consistent.

If you want further information and more details please have look at the really excellent website of Laura Wallace which has all the information you could possibly want on the subject.

Note: all the info below refers to the peers during the regency ie hereditary peers. Nowadays we also have life peers (eg Baroness Thatcher).
Peer's Wife
Peer's Children
Peer's Eldest Son
Lord [Firstname] vs Lord [Title]


Peers, or members of the peerage, are men who hold a title. The title has been given to them or their ancestor by their monarch. The peers are Lords and hold a seat in the house of Lords. When they die their title is inherited by their closest male relative in the all-male line. There are exceptions; in very rare cases, a daughter might inherit. The monarch who gave the title to the original ancestor must have allowed for this possibility. Since this occasion is very rare, it is not included in this brief article. So for the purposes of this article peers are always men. Even if daughter inherited she did not get a seat in the House of Lords. Because, obviously, she is not a Lord ! :)

There are 5 titles in the peerage. In descending order they are:
  • Duke

  • Marquess

  • Earl

  • Viscount

  • Baron

There are also 2 lesser titles: Baronet (ie small Baron) and Knight. These are not peers, do not sit in the House of Lords, and they are not ‘Lords’.

The title is usually a territorial designation (usually for the higher titles) but could also come from a surname (usually for lower titles). Eg. Earl of Leicester (Leicester is place not a surname) The current Earl of Leicester surname is Coke. Also we could have: John Hastings, Baron Hastings. Here the family name (surname) and the title happen to be the same. The same word ‘Hastings’ may carry out both roles here, but surname and title are by nature two different animals. So a Lord has to have one of each, rather than somehow trying to change/replace their surname with a title, (as many regency authors seem to think is the way to do things). And actually peers have a surname and usually more than one title. Their ancestor was pals with the then King and was made, say, Baron X. Then another ancestor got a promotion by also becoming Viscount Y (but still being also Baron X), then another made it to Earl Z etc. Rather than using the whole string of titles a peer is referred to by his higher title only. But you can bet that a Duke, would probably hold one of each (or maybe more) of the lower 4 titles.

Peer’s Wife

A peer’s wife gets a courtesy title from her husband so the wife of Lord X, is Lady X. She is also Viscountess X (if husband is Viscount), Countess X, if husband is Earl etc.

The non-peers, Baron and Knight are not Lords, but Sir Firstname, but their wives are Ladies.

DukeDuke of WellingtonHis Grace of WellingtonDuchess of WellingtonHer Grace of Wellington
MarquessMarquess of SalisburyLord SalisburyMarchioness of SalisburyLady Salisbury
EarlEarl of LeicesterLord LeicesterCountess of LeicesterLady Leicester
ViscountViscount HerefordLord HerefordViscountess HerefordLady Hereford
BaronBaron DudleyLord Dudley-Lady Dudley

Non Peers

BaronetSir Henry Bunbury, BaronetSir Henry Bunbury-Lady Bunbury
KnightSir George FitzGeraldSir George FitzGerald-Lady FitzGerald

A simple basic rules as to how women should be addressed is: Are they married or not? If married/widowed, looked at the husband’s title to see how the wife should be addressed. If unmarried look at her father’s title.

The peer and his wife (or widow) are the only people referred to as Lord [title]/ Lady [title]. Also the eldest son, more on that later.

Peer’s Children

Depending on the peer’s rank, his children may also have courtesy titles, but these are never Lord [title]/ Lady [title] (apart from the eldest son). The younger sons of the peer and all unmarried daughters are Lord Firstname, Lady Firstname (eg Lord John, Lady Mary), if the peer is an Earl, Marquess or Duke for daughters, and Marquess or Duke for sons. So to be Lord Firstname, your father has to be at least a Marquess. To be a Lady Firstame your father has to be at least an Earl. All other unmarried daughters and younger sons of peers are plain Mr. and Miss.

Peer’s Eldest Son

As for the eldest son, his case is special since he will inherit his father titles. The eldest son is the heir apparent (ie the certain heir), since he is certain to inherit, as long as he outlives his father! So as the heir, he is known from his birth until he inherits, by his father’s 2nd highest title, and he is referred to and addressed as if he really held that 2nd highest title. But he is not a peer although he is addressed as one, and he does not sit in the House of Lords. There is only one seat in the House for the titles his family holds, and his father has that seat. The eldest son’s eldest son, also has a courtesy title, his grandfather’s 3rd highest title. And his eldest son the 4th highest etc. Note that this applies only to heirs in the direct line (son, grandson etc).

If a peer does not have any surviving sons (or more generally an heir in the direct line ie son, grandson, great-grandson etc), his current heir would be a brother, cousin, nephew, or uncle. He would be the heir presumptive. He is not certain to inherit. The peer may yet have a son! Even if he is single or widowed and in his 80’s. He may get married tomorrow and manage to get his wife pregnant. You never know... :) So the heir presumptive, the closest living male relative in the all male line, but who is not the peer’s descendant, does not hold the peer’s 2nd highest title by courtesy.


The woman who marries a peer, say an Earl, becomes a Countess. Usually women live longer plus at those times they could be much younger than their husbands, so it is very likely that the Countess will outlive the Earl. So if, say, the 6th of Earl Withington dies his heir will become the 7th Earl and his wife the Countess of Withington (we now have two of those). And if the 7th Earl dies and his heir becomes the 8th Earl, the wife of the 8th Earl is now also the Countess of Withington, (so there will be a third Countess Withington). There is always only one Earl though. The whole point is that the previous one has to die before the next one can inherit.

In order to help distinguish between the 2 or more Countesses of Withington, the widow of the earlier earl may use the style Dowager Countess of Withington. However, there is a rule for when the widow of the precious peer, can used the style of Dowager:

A widow of a peer may be called dowager only if
(a) her husband bore the title and
(b) the current peer is a direct descendant of her deceased husband.

So if the heir is a brother, cousin, nephew (ie not in the direct line), the widow of the previous peer is not a Dowager.

Lord [Firstname] vs Lord [Title]

We have mentioned that Lord [Firstname] means something completely different than Lord [Title].

Lord Firstname and Lord Firstname Lastname mean the same thing and interchangeable. Eg. Lord John, Lord John Smith. The word ‘Lord’ is in both cases in front of the first name. It means John is a younger son of someone who is at least a Marquess. And it means that the family surname is Smith. We do not know John’s father’s title.

But Lord Smith would be someone else entirely. They would be a peer (Baron, Viscount, Earl etc) themselves or the eldest son of one. Not the younger son of one. And Smith would in this case be their title, not the surname. In this case we know the title, Smith, but do not know what the family surname is.

Same reasoning holds for women. Lady Mary Smith is the unmarried daughter of an Earl, Marquess or Duke, but Lady Smith would the wife of Lord Smith. So you can spot immediately if a lady is married/widowed or unmarried. Lady firstname is single, Lady Smith married! We can not deduce this for either Lord John Smith or Lord Smith, since marrying would not change a man’s title or surname. [There is an exception where a Lady Mary can be married: if she married someone of lower rank or commoner, she gets to keep her courtesy title rather than be demoted].

The basic rule to remember is that men get their rank from their father. Women get their rank from their father while unmarried. Once they marry they derive their title from their husband. In this sense, we could also have Lady John Smith. She would be the wife of Lord John Smith. So Lady Man’s-Firstname is also married, not single.

Further info:
British Titles of Nobility by Laura Wallace




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