When reading Jane Austen and other historical novels or watching popular shows like Bridgerton and Downton Abbey, do you find the myriad of titles and forms of address to be confusing? If so, you’re not alone!
Aristocratic titles are notoriously baffling to most people. With so many ranks, how does one know whether a viscount should come before or after a baron, or an earl come before or after a marquess? Should a person be addressed as Your Majesty or Your Highness, Lord or Lady, or Sir or Dame? Does their title include their last name, their first name, or a place name? What does it mean when they have a courtesy title, and why do some people have an “honorable” before their name? How should they be addressed in speaking vs writing?
Add to the fact that titles and ranks can vary a good deal between countries, and it’s no wonder that the average modern-day commoner has no idea what the proper order of ranks and forms of address for nobility are. I see common mistakes in regards to this even among authors that write historical fiction/romance novels. I know I was sure clueless when I first started writing Jane Austen variations and historical romances!
Jane Austen happened to be excellent at knowing the proper ways to address people of nobility. She had the advantage (or perhaps disadvantage!) of living in a time when a person’s rank and title dictated their place in society, therefore she was all too familiar with the intricacies of forms of address. Whenever you see a person of rank appear in her novels, you can be sure that she called them by their proper title, and you can glean a lot of information about that character’s place in society by the way that person is addressed.
So what is the proper style for each member of the aristocracy, and what is their order of ranking?
I’ll limit this post to just the titles and forms of address as they are used in the United Kingdom. I’ve learned a lot during my research on this subject, but one of my go-to resources is this chart on Wikipedia.
What is the order of rank in the aristocracy?
Generally speaking the order of aristocratic titles from highest to lowest is
King or Queen
Prince or Princess
Duke or Duchess
Marquess or Marchioness
Earl or Countess
Viscount or Viscountess
Baron or Baroness
Baronet, Knight, or Dame
Women who marry one of these title holders are usually entitled to the female form of their husband’s title if they do not already have an equal or higher title in their own right.
Is it “Your Majesty”, or “Your Highness”?
Only the king and queen use the style “Your Majesty”, and never “Your Highness”. After the first greeting, they may be addressed as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. They are referred to in third person as “His Majesty” or “Her Majesty”.
“Your Royal Highness/His Royal Highness” was, in Georgian times up until the Great War, used only for sons of the king. All other princes, princesses, and members of the royal family used “Your Highness/His/Her Highness” and were ranked lower. In present day, any senior member of the royal family that serves in an official capacity may use “His/Her Royal Highness” before their title.
Is it “Your Grace” or is it “Your Lordship/Your Ladyship”?
A duke or duchess uses the style “Your Grace”, rather than “Your Lordship” or “Your Ladyship”.
Dukes and duchesses also do not use the style “Your Highness”, etc, unless they are a royal peer, a member of the royal family who has a peerage in their own right. For example, Prince William, third in line for the crown, was given the peerage of Cambridge upon his marriage, so he is now styled “His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge.”
Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, Barons, and their wives, are all styled “Your Lordship” or “Your Ladyship” (His Lordship/Her Ladyship in third person). A person serving under them would call them “My Lord” or “My Lady.”
Is it “Lord Place Name” or “Lord Family Name”?
Actually…it can be either one. Nearly all dukes are “Duke of Place Name”, or “Lord Place Name”. For example, Simon Basset in the Bridgerton series is the Duke of Hastings, or Lord Hastings.
Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons are also usually titled after a place name, rather than their family name, but the first two are Marquess of Place Name, Earl of Place Name, whereas Viscounts and Barons are simply Viscount Place Name, Baron Place Name. In all these cases, the simple title would be “Lord Place Name”.
Originally, all peerages were named after a place in the realm. Over time though, the crown began to run out of places in their dominion to dispense as peerages, and the practice of giving titles based on family names began to emerge. Thus, in some cases a peer might be titled “Lord Family Name”, rather than “Lord Place Name.” The words “the” and “of” are removed from the title when it is a family name rather than a place. One example would be Earl Fitzwilliam, or Lord Fitzwilliam, whose title comes from his surname Fitzwilliam. A fictional example (also from the Bridgerton series) is Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who goes by Lord Bridgerton to most people.
What about “Sir” or “Dame”?
Knights and Baronets (hereditary knights) are the lowest rank among the aristocracy, and are not considered to be “peers.” Both use the honorific “Sir”. The title holder always uses either their full name, “Sir First Name Family Name” or “Sir First Name”, never just “Sir Family Name.” For example, it’s always “Sir William Lucas” or “Sir William”, but never “Sir Lucas.” A dame is the female equivalent of a knight. The honor is given to her in her own right, not in her husband’s, and does not pass on to the next generation. Like knights and baronets, the title is never used with her family name alone, only her first name or full name. Example, “Dame Emma Thompson” or “Dame Emma”, but not “Dame Thompson.”
The main difference between a knight and a baronet is that a knight’s title is given to them during their lifetime for services rendered to the crown, and does not pass down to the next generation, whereas a baronet’s title is inherited through the male line, and is passed down to their son.
Is it “Lady Place Name”, “Lady Family Name” or “Lady First Name”?
This one seems to be especially confusing to people. A woman’s title is usually derived from her husband’s, so if her husband is the Earl of Grantham, then she is the Countess of Grantham, and has the style “Lady Grantham.” If he’s Earl Fitzwilliam, she’s Countess Fitzwilliam, or “Lady Fitzwilliam”, and so on. “Lady Family Name” is also the standard title used for the wife of a knight or baronet who is not titled in her own right. So the wife of Sir William Lucas is “Lady Lucas.” The exception to this is when the wife holds a title in her own right or is the daughter of a peer who married down in rank. In that case, her own title supersedes that of her husband and she is entitled to use the highest rank belonging to her.
Daughters of a Duke, Marquess or Earl are allowed to use the courtesy title “Lady First Name Family Name”, or simply “Lady First Name.” When unmarried, they will use their maiden family name, not their father’s title. Example, the daughter of the Earl of Grantham is “Lady Mary Crawley” or “Lady Mary.” If they marry another peer of equal or higher rank, they will assume their husband’s title upon marriage. If they marry down, as noted above, then they will use their birth title along with their husband’s surname. “Lady Catherine de Bourgh”, although the widow of “Sir Lewis de Bourgh” is the daughter of an earl, and therefore always uses her full name or “Lady Catherine”, “Your Ladyship”, etc., and not simply “Lady de Bourgh.” Her sister, though married to a gentleman landowner who is only a “Mr.”, is still called “Lady Anne Darcy”, rather than “Mrs. Darcy”, since she too is the daughter of an earl.
So what’s up with those courtesy titles?
I touched on the courtesy title “Lady First Name” given to daughters of the higher ranking peers. Sons, grandsons, and other descendants had it even more confusing though.
The eldest son of a Duke, Marquess or Earl is allowed the courtesy of using one of his father’s subsidiary titles as his own, if the father has more than one title. Thus the heir of the Earl of Harrington would use his father’s second title, “Viscount Petersham”, and be called “Lord Petersham.” If there are multiple subsidiary titles, then the peer’s eldest grandson would take the next title. Once the current title holder dies, his heir would assume the title, and the subsidiary title would pass down to the next generation.
If a Duke, Marquess or Earl had no subsidiary titles, then the eldest son would simply use the title “Lord Family Name”, as his courtesy title.
In some cases, a lesser courtesy title might be used, in order to distinguish the courtesy holder from their father. For example, the Marquess of Salisbury is also the Earl of Salisbury, but in order that he and his son are not both called “Lord Salisbury”, his son takes the next courtesy title, “Viscount Cranbourne”, or “Lord Cranbourne.” Choosing which subsidiary title to use is usually a matter of family tradition.
How about younger sons?
Younger sons of Dukes and Marquesses usually take their courtesy titles in the same manner that daughters do. They would be called “Lord First Name Family Name” or “Lord First Name”. They are never called “Lord Family Name”, as that title or courtesy title is reserved for their father or eldest brother and his descendants.
Younger sons of Earls, along with all the sons of Viscounts, Barons, Baronets and Knights are simply called “Mr. Family Name”, not “Lord.” The only exception would be if they have a military title that would be used in place of “Mr.” Likewise, daughters of Viscounts, Barons, Baronets, and Knights are simply “Miss Family Name”, not “Lady”, even if their mother has a title.
Why do some people have an “honorable” in front of their name?
You might have heard somebody referred to as being the “Right Honorable Lord So-and-So”, or “The Honorable Mr. So-and-so.”
In writing, such as when addressing someone on an envelope, or on a formal list or invitation, that person’s full title with all honorifics might be used.
Thus a duke would be “His Grace the Duke of _______”
A marquess would be “The Most Honorable Marquess of _______”
An earl down to a baron would be “The Right Honorable Earl/Viscount (etc) ________”
Courtesy titles for sons and daughters from younger son of an Earl down through a baron’s children would be “The Honorable Mr./Miss ________”, in writing.
These prefixes are not generally used in speech when referring to the person, and are never used to address the person directly.
Children of baronets and knights do not have an “honorable” prefix before their names in writing.
Well, I could go on all day about the various titles and their distinctions, but this ought to give you a rough understanding about the basics of aristocratic hierarchy in Jane Austen’s day, as well as in the present-day United Kingdom, and how to address them.
So the next time you crack open one of Jane Austen’s books, and you see somebody with a title in there, take note of how that person is addressed. It may just give you some clues about that person’s place in society in relation to other characters.