Curious about the various ranks of lords who appear in Regency novels? Read on. The order of precedence in England, starting at the top.
King - Queen - “His/Her/Your Majesty”
Prince of Wales - Princess of Wales - “His/Her/Your Royal Highness”
Duke of York - Duchess of York - ditto for all royal dukes and their duchesses
*You may read of “the royal dukes” in Regency novels. This refers to the whole slew of younger brothers of the Prince of Wales. The titles the king’s sons receive is determined by their birth order. The first born son is always the Prince of Wales, just like Prince Charles today. The second born son is always the Duke of York, (Fergie's ex-) and so on. In the Regency, King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte had no less than seven sons. After the firstborn Prince of Wales came the Dukes of: York, Clarence, Cumberland, Sussex, Kent, and Cambridge. (Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, went on to father the future Queen Victoria.) The King and Queen also produced five daughters—Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, and Amelia—all of whom were termed Princesses and addressed as “Her/Your Royal Highness.”
THE UPPER NOBILITY
Duke - Duchess - “His/Her/Your Grace”
Dukes are always a duke “of” someplace. They are never addressed as “my lord” nor a duchess as “my lady.”
Marquess/Marquis - Marchioness - “My Lord / My Lady”
Pronounced “MAR-kwess.” Marchioness is pronounced “mar-shen-ESS.” Later in England the French spelling was more generally adopted, “Marquis.” (In France, pronounced “mar-KEE.”) Like dukes, marquesses also are always “of” someplace. For marquesses and for all ranks below them, the “of” is dropped in addressing them directly, so that Ian Prescott, Marquess of Griffith should be called Lord Griffith. But Robert, the Duke of Hawkscliffe, could never be called Lord Hawkscliffe. Robert could be addressed “Your Grace” or “Duke” or “Hawkscliffe” to his friends, but he told me it’s ok if you call him Sweet Cheeks.
Earl - Countess - “My Lord / My Lady”
Most earls are “of” someplace, but not all of them, for example, Princess Di’s brother is “Earl Spencer.” Question: Why does a countess go with an earl? The terms don’t match like the other married pairs. Answer: “Earl” is the particularly British form of the same title-level that corresponds to a “Count” in the rest of Europe. Count/Countess.
THE LOWER NOBILITY
Viscount - Viscountess - “My Lord / My Lady”
Pronounced “vye-count” in England, “vee-count” in France. The “s” is silent. Viscounts can be either “of” someplace or not. In Devil Takes a Bride, Dev was Viscount Strathmore or Lord Strathmore.
Baron - Baroness - ditto
Can be “of” someplace or not. This is the most numerous rank of the aristocracy. In Victorian times, barons were being created left and right from wealthy industrial tycoons buying their way into the peerage or men being recognized for political service by receiving this title.
A hereditary title, but not included as part of the peerage. Baronets were addressed as “Sir First-name Last-name.” For example, in The Duke, there was a baronet called Sir Dolph Breckinridge. A very bad fellow indeed! The wife of a baronet was called “Lady Last-name.” If Dolph had lived long enough to marry, his wife would have been called “Lady Breckinridge.”
Same title usage as above for both Sir Whomever and Lady Whomever, the difference being that this is not a hereditary title, i.e., it could not be passed down to one’s son. Knighthood was usually gained through some achievement, as in Sir Mick Jagger (yikes!).
Last Names and Titles
Most of the families of the upper nobility have a last name separate from their titles. The family of the Dukes of Rutland bears the last name of Manners. The Regency Duke of Devonshire had the last name of Cavendish. The poet, Lord Byron, had the last name of Gordon. This was stated as: George Gordon, Lord Byron. (He was a baron, by the way.) A few earls and most of the lower nobility have their last name as their title, such as Earl Spencer (Princess Di’s brother again). In such cases, the correct designation would be, for example: Alfred, Lord Tennyson. You would not repeat Alfred Tennyson, Lord Tennyson because that would just be silly. Nor would it be correct to switch the order, saying Lord Alfred Tennyson. Lord Alfred Tennyson would be . . . what? Can you guess? If not, see the next paragraph.
Cases of “Lord First-name Last-name” such as “Lord Alec Knight.”
Younger sons of dukes and marquesses were entitled to use “Lord” in front of their first name as a nod to their lofty parentage, while daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls also received the right to attach “Lady” to their first name, as in “Lady Diana Spencer” (daughter of an earl before her marriage) or in my novels, “Lady Jacinda Knight.” You could call her Lady Jacinda, but never Lady Knight. Though these courtesy-title bearers could be addressed as “my lord” and “my lady,” technically, they are commoners.
Thus, “Lord Alfred Tennyson” from the example above would signify the younger son of a duke or marquis, whereas in fact Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a baron in his own right.
Even the firstborn son who will inherit his father’s title is technically a commoner until his old man “turns up his toes,” as they said in Regency days. However, to mark him out as someone to whom people had better show respect as a future peer, the heir apparent was given a “courtesy” title, usually one or two steps in rank below that of his father.
In the Knight family series, Robert, the 8th Duke of Hawkscliffe, has a little son Bobby who receives the courtesy title of Earl of Morley or Lord Morley. Bobby will stay the Earl of Morley all through his life until Robert dies, which of course he won’t. Ever. Period! *g*
You see, the way a title progresses throughout history is that somewhere in the mists of time, some ancestor, a commoner, did something great and was awarded by the king or queen with a title. Most of the great lords started out on the lowest rank, as barons. The goal, then, is to keep producing strong offspring who are natural leaders and also accomplish great deeds, and thus see the family’s glory elevated still further by being “promoted” by the Crown to the next step in rank. So, if the original commoner had been a Norman captain who helped take a castle, then he might be made be made a Baron. If a hundred years later, one of the baron’s descendants, say, uncovered a plot to abduct the king’s favorite confessor, he would be rewarded by being promoted to Viscount and given additional land holdings. If another few hundred years later, the current Viscount helped overthrow Cromwell, then he might be promoted to Earl; and if still later on, the Earl provided another grand deed of service to his country, then he could be made a Marquess or even a Duke.
Technically, the Prime Minister is the one who recommends a person to the King/Queen to receive a title. When the title is granted, it is issued with "letters of patent" -- the official papers defining exactly what privileges and restrictions apply to that particular title. If it is a new title, the College or Arms designs an appropriate and relevant coat of arms or crest for the new title-holder.
Do not imagine that all awarded titles were for valor in battle, however. Getting toward the 19th century, titles have also been awarded for political efforts and industrial or financial leadership, even scientific advances. In addition, royals throughout history have awarded titles out of simple infatuation with their favorites or even less noble reasons, say, as a way of thanking someone who has done them a personal favor, such as helping to cover up an indiscretion.
This is what makes doing character backgrounds so challenging in a Regency historical. Rather than just dreaming up some half-baked title and sticking it onto the aristocratic hero, one has to think about the whole family line and how the clan has interacted with all of British history to get them where they are by Regency times. For that matter, the “ancestral pile” or seat of the lord, the main country house, will have a history itself that parallels the family history.
In any case, the courtesy title that the eldest son, the not-quite-a-peer-yet inherits is the highest-ranking title that his historical ancestors held before the most recent one was added.
Supposing that someday a million years from now our dear Robert were to die, then the grown-up Morley would become the new (10th) Duke of Hawkscliffe and his wife would be the new Duchess of Hawkscliffe. At that point, Bel, Robert’s widow, would become known as the “Dowager” Duchess of Hawkscliffe. She does not relinquish her title of duchess, but you could say that she sort of “retires” from being the main duchess. Her daughter-in-law becomes the new duchess and takes over her duties as the public face of the family, just as her son takes over being the duke.
Dowagers pop up a lot because of the frequency with which women outlive their husbands. The term could be used for any rank and simply avoided confusion so that one knew which Lady Whomever someone was referring to, the old one or the new one.
This phrase was used to distinguish all children, male and female, of viscounts and barons, and for the younger sons of earls. In Devil Takes a Bride, Dev is reunited with his little sister, Sarah. As the daughter of a viscount, Sarah would be properly referred to as The Honourable Miss Strathmore. If she had had a sister, then the two girls’ first names would also be used to distinguish one from the other.
The number designation of a peer’s title
Example: “Devlin Kimball, 8th Viscount Strathmore.” This simply means that eight male ancestors have held this title before Dev inherited it. It need not always descend in a straight line from father to son. Sometimes a man dies without a son, and so the title might go to his younger brother. If there is no younger brother, it could go to a different branch of his family, provided the bloodlines can be traced back through the male line (almost always) to one of the preceding lords. Thus, each “number” represents one lifetime or generation. Of course, mishaps happen in every family.
Number three might’ve died of a childhood disease. Number eight could’ve fallen off his horse, etc. I forget who they were, but I heard about one aristocratic family that had a bunch of sons who went off, I think to World Word I and they ran through the title pretty quickly, from one brother to the next as the poor men kept getting killed. But in general, the higher the number, the older the title, and thus, the more prestigious.
Women bearing titles “in their own right”
In very rare cases, a lord could die and his title could go straight to his eldest daughter. The occasion of a woman becoming a title-holder in her own right is very, very rare, but the royal family allows it, which is why England enjoyed the reins of both Queens Elizabeth, the Shakespearean-era one and today’s. A title must be set up from the beginning to allow female inheritance. It cannot be changed later except by a bill in Parliament. Generally the situation was avoided. A female inheriting the title was used as a last resort when there was no male heir to be found, and the quicker she gave birth to a son to pass it onto, the sooner the rest of the family could breathe a sigh of relief. If the title had not been set up to allow for female inheritance at its creation, then, in a case where no male heir could be found, the title would become “extinct.”