Ever since my husband bought me Scottish land titles as a birthday gift last year, we have enjoyed jokingly (and sometimes not-so-jokingly) referring to each other as “my lord” and “my lady.” And while the idea of being lord and lady of the manor is extremely fun, there is something to be said about actually being a Lady, capital L, in a formal way.
The good news is that there is actually a very objective way to distinguish who gets to be styled as a “Lady” in terms of British aristocracy. The bad news is that the vast majority of us normal people might never have the chance to be one!
The easiest way to remember who exactly gets to be a lady is to narrow down the qualifications to two simple facts: you are either born a lady or made one through marriage to a lord (or a knight). Between the two, marriage is the easier one to understand, even if remembering what to call everyone might be a little convoluted. When a woman marries a marquess, an earl, a viscount, or a baron, she gains the title that is the “Lady” counterpart of her husband’s “Lord.” Different rules govern the titles of wives of baronets and knights, but we’ll get to that later.
The marchioness married to the Marquess of Hadford is “Lady Hadford,” and the wife of the Earl of Kipper is “Lady Kipper.” Do note that the family’s title is often different from their last name, such as Robert Crawley being the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. The “Lord” or “Lady” address always uses the title rather than the surname. So the Crawleys were always Lord and Lady Grantham, not Lord and Lady Crawley.
There are some cases, of course, in which the title might be one and the same as the family’s last name (e.g. Lord Bridgerton). In that situation, the husband would be Lord-Last Name, with his wife being the corresponding Lady-Last Name.
One deviation from the rules above is that baronets and knights are addressed as “Sir-First Name,” while their wives are still addressed as “Lady-Married Last Name.” Hence, the fictional Sir Jacob Powell would be called “Sir Jacob” while his wife would be “Lady Powell.”
As opposed to women who become capital-L ladies through marriage, those who are born that way retain that privilege throughout their lives. This right, however, is reserved only for daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls. Unlike their mothers, who would be styled according to the family’s title, these daughters get to go by “Lady-First Name” since birth. If a woman born to such a station marries a man with a title, she would switch to that title upon marriage. If she marries someone without a title, she may continue to be styled as Lady-first name-married last name, with the most familiar example of this being Lady Anne Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s mother. As an earl’s daughter, she was Lady Anne Fitzwilliam since birth. But since she married the untitled Mr. Darcy senior, she became known as Lady Anne Darcy for the rest of her married life.
It’s taken me a while to get used to all these formal addresses, but characters do sound so much fancier with them!