A Basic Primer on British Noble Titles

I keep alluding to “Lord This” and “Lord That” on this blog because of the period I am currently writing in and because I like to read Regency and other historical settings where there are British people running about who happen to be titled.

And, of course, there’s the small matter of my little Downton Abbey obsession.

Americans don’t have these titles. We abolished them during our revolution. Other countries may still retain such honorifics, but they are probably different to the British styles. I’ve come across a few instances of mistakes when reading Downton fanfic lately… and really, who else has such arcane knowledge in their heads except authors, writers, Regency fans, Anglophiles and actual peers?

The top tier of the British peerage is ranked after the monarch and the royal family.

Dukes. To start, a small distinction: there are dukes in the royal family. The most recent example is obviously Prince William, now the Duke of Cambridge. These dukes are called royal dukes and rank a bit higher than regular dukes.

So, dukes. The first duke in the then-English peerage was created in 1337 for Edward, the Black Prince of Wales. The premier duke in the peerage of England is the Duke of Norfolk.

Dukes are always the Duke of Something. Think of the Duke of Crowborough in Downton Abbey. His formal title is His Grace the Duke of Crowborough. He is called “Your Grace” or “His Grace” by his inferiors and “Duke” by his social equals, which is why Cora calls him “Duke” that time he shows up to the Abbey.

If Crowborough marries, his wife will be Her Grace the Duchess of Crowborough. She’s usually called “Her Grace,” not Lady Crowborough, and she is never referred to as Lady Jane, even if she’s the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl and entitled to use “Lady” before her name.

If they have a son, the eldest son will take the Duke’s highest subsidiary title, so he could be the Marquess of SomethingorOther, called Lord SomethingorOther. This title doesn’t give him a seat in the House of Lords or anything. It’s called a courtesy title. However, in conversation, the heir is referred to as “Lord SomethingorOther.”

Any younger sons of the duke and duchess get to use “Lord” before their name, as in Lord James Smith. All daughters of the duke and duchess are ladies, as in Lady Elizabeth Smith.

Marquesses: Undoubtedly stolen from the French “marquis.” Most of them are the Marquess of Something, but there are exceptions.

The only Downton example I can think of is a character we haven’t actually met: the Marquess of Flintshire, who is married to Robert’s cousin. He is called “my lord,” “my lord marquess, “Lord Flintshire” or just “Flintshire” by his equals.

His wife is Lady Flintshire. More formally, the Marchioness of Flintshire. I don’t know where they got “marchioness” from.

Their heir would have a courtesy title. Younger sons are Lord FirstName and all daughters are Lady Name. When the daughter marries, she either has to go with the precedence set by her husband, if he’s already a peer or the heir to a dukedom or a marquessate. But if she marries a commoner, a baronet or an heir to a lesser noble title than her father’s, she can retain her Lady FirstName LastName style.

Earl: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. Not all earls are the Earl of somewhere. He is called Lord Grantham, my lord, His Lordship, Grantham. Never Lord Robert.

Cora, his wife, is the Countess of Grantham. “Earl” is the peculiar British version of “Count.” She’s called Lady Grantham, Her Ladyship, My Lady. Not Lady Cora.

If they had a son, he would have been Viscount Downton or “Lord Downton” until he became the Earl. A second son would have been titled “The Honorable” John Crawley. No more “Lord Firstname” here–younger sons of Earls are “The Honorable” in formal, written address and plain Mr. John Crawley in spoken address.

All daughters are “Lady Firstname,” so Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. When the girls marry, they can take their title with them. So Mary, if she marries Sir Richard Carlisle, could very well be called Lady Mary Carlisle.

Viscount: Derivation of “vicomte.” On Downton, it’s said that Evelyn Napier’s father is Viscount Branksome or Brankston (I’m not sure which is actually the title). Lord Brankston. Brankston. His Lordship. My lord.

His late wife would have been Lady Branksome, the Viscountess of Branksome.

Evelyn is the heir. The heirs to viscounts did not get special courtesy titles. In writing, Evelyn is The Honorable Evelyn Napier (as are any brothers and sisters he may have had) and in spoken address, he is simply Mr. Napier.

Baron: Lowest on the peerage totem pole. He is formally titled The Right Honorable Lord Title and is rarely called “Baron Title,” but referred to mainly as “my lord” or “Title.”

His wife, the baroness, is called Lady Title.

All of their children are “Honorables.”

Knights (like Sir Richard) and baronets are not in the peerage, despite the “Sir” before their names. They did not sit in the House of Lords and could stand for the House of Commons in Parliament. In addition, knighthood was not hereditary.

So Matthew is Lord Grantham’s heir. How come he doesn’t get a title?

Matthew is Lord Grantham’s heir and will inherit Downton Abbey, but as illustrated by the season one plot point of the pregnancy, Matthew is actually only the heir presumptive–he’s presumed to be the heir as long as Robert and Cora do not have a son. Heir presumptives do not gain the lesser title; only a direct, heir apparent would.

Why can’t Mary inherit?
Because when the Crawleys became the Earls of Grantham, the letters patent that designated their title and the land they gained along with the title probably said something like “inheritance to heirs male.” That is the way the majority of British noble titles work. They go to the next male in line, bypassing the daughters entirely. Now, Mary and her sisters will get a lot of money when Lord Grantham dies, but they can’t become Countess of Grantham unless they marry Matthew, the heir.

Other letters patent designated the next heir–male or female–to inherit. This is what happened with the Duke of Marlborough, whose daughter then became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough after her father, the 1st duke, died.

Sources. Check these out for excellent information:

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