A word about titles and how to use them…

I thought today that, for a change, I would do something useful.  Indeed, I went so far as to decide that this blog must be both fun and accurate. 

(I even tried to contract those two words into one for this purpose:  Fun + accurate = fu…Yes, yes, stopping now.)  


Because, you see, there is this small matter which apparently requires clarification.  For those who find it tricky.

And it is, as the bold letters at the top of this bijou blogette would suggest, to do with the use of titles.  Which as I say appear to cause untold confusion in some quarters. 

So I thought I’d do my best to lay it out clearly.  For my friends… (Yes, that’s right, I do have friends.) …Who occasionally write about Englishy things, but get tripped up by this.

So to begin:  There are five ranks of nobility–Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron–all of whom, prior to 1999, sat in the House of Lords.  Below them come the ranks of Baronet and Knight. 

(Not to worry.  There’s no test at the end.)

At the top of the heap are Dukes and Duchesses. 

A duke’s title is derived from a county or a geographical location.  Also, dukes very often are of royal blood–legitimate or illegitimate doesn’t seem to matter much historically.  Or, it might be a title given by the monarch to a great military leader, like Marlborough or Wellington. 

(For those who write Regency novels, can I just say, the royal blood thing and/or the military hero bit means that there are and have always been very few Dukes about…so a lesser title may be more credible for your character.)   

This duke then is referred to by his title, not his given name, not his surname. 

So we have the Duke of Wellington, for example.  His equals will call him Wellington.  His wife will be called the Duchess of Wellington.  They will be addressed by inferiors or people who don’t know them as Your Grace. 

His name (given name + family surname) is Arthur Wellesley–but he is never known as Lord Arthur.  Nor as Lord Arthur Wellesley, nor Lord Arthur Wellington.  Never.  Not any of those.

The eldest son and heir of a duke will often use one of his father’s lesser titles–this is known as a courtesy title.  The other children of a duke will be known as Lord Peter Wellesley or Lady Mary Wellesley–i.e. Lord/Lady + given name + family surname (not the title).  (Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’ character, Lord Peter Wimsey, son of the Duke of Denver, for example.)  They are never known by just title + surname.  It’s therefore wrong to address Lord Peter Wimsey as Lord Wimsey–though in conversation one would refer to him as Lord Peter.

Good so far?

Now, if and when said daughter marries, she will still have her title attached to her name, regardless of whether she marries a peer or not.  

Thus, even if Lady Madeira Snotsworthy marries plain Mr. Smith, she will still be known as Lady Madeira Smith.  And in speech, she will always be referred to (except by her bratty sisters and cousins) as Lady Madeira.  That is to say it’s still always title + given name + (married) surname.  What she won’t be is Lady Smith. 

Everyone got that?

Now onto the titles of Marquis (or Marquess) and Marchioness and Earl and Countess. 

Like a duke, the title of Marquis or Earl usually is associated with a place or a county, though in some cases, the surname will be the title.  

He is referred to as the Marquis of Petersfield and his wife is the Marchioness of Petersfield.  Or we have the Earl of Wallop or the Earl Wallop; his wife is the Countess of Wallop or the Countess Wallop.  In address, both men would be called Lord + title.  For example, Lord Wallop.  And in the case of the Countess, unless she was born with a title of her own, she is called Lady Wallop.

The heir of a Marquis or Earl again uses a courtesy title.  The other children of a Marquis also carry the Lord and Lady bit, just like the children of the Duke.  And like them, carry their titles forward into marriage.  The daughter of an Earl is Lady Joyful Handsome.  His son is the Honourable Jolly Handsome until he reaches his majority, then he has that courtesy title.

Now we have Viscounts and Viscountesses.  The Viscount Turniptoes will generally be referred to as Lord Turniptoes, and his wife the Viscountess Turniptoes as… yes, you’ve guessed it, Lady Turniptoes.  Barons and Baronesses are always referred to as Lord or Lady X.

When it is necessary to give the given name of a peer, one does so before the title.  Thus, Gerald, Duke of Denver; Horatio, Lord Nelson and never Lord Horatio Nelson.

Baronets and Knights are always referred to formally as Sir + given name + surname, and in speech or in writing as Sir + given name; never Sir + surname.  Their wives are called Lady + surname.  Thus, we have Sir David and Lady Hornswoggle.   (She is never Lady Letme Hornswoggle, or Lady Letme, unless she is the daughter of a duke, marquis or earl and was born with that title.)

And these, ladies and gentlemen, mums and dads, are the basic rules of how it works.  Simple, you see?

(A word about ‘of”.  It’s always the Duke of X and the Marquis of Y.  It’s sometimes the Earl of Z, sometimes just the Earl Z, but the two aren’t interchangeable .  When the title was first conferred it will have been created as one or the other. Lower ranks of nobility aren’t entitled to ‘of’ – it’s the Viscount A and Baron B.)

And now for a little pop quiz to make sure you’ve got it all right. 

What?  Yes, I did say there wouldn’t be a test at the end. 

I lied. 

So…When Lady Amelia Bucktooth marries Sir George Knockknees, she will be known as:

  • (a) The mother of ugly children;
  • (b) A poor honey with a harridan for a mother-in-law;
  • (c) Lady Amelia Knockknees;
  • (d) Lucky to find anyone who would have her.

When Miss Ermintrude Squynt marries Viscount Pigeonchest (known as Pooter to his friends), she will be known as:

  • (a) Bad money after good;
  • (b) Blind;
  • (c) My unfortunate brother Algy;
  • (d) Lady Pigeonchest or the Viscountess Pigeonchest;
  • (e) Lady Ermintrude Pooter. 

When the Earl of Peckham marries Miss Katharine Bosomworth, she will be known as:

  • (a) A rolypoly pudding made properly with breadcrumbs;
  • (b) No better than she should be;
  • (c) Lady Peckham or the Countess of Peckham;
  • (d) Not Lady Katharine Peckham.  She does not carry a title in her own right.

When the scheming mama of Miss Fanny Whackham manages to marry her off to the elderly, goitrous Sir Slavering Droole, Bart., Fanny will be:

  • (a) Relieved to get away from her scheming mama;
  • (b) Faintly nauseated by her husband, but hopeful that he might peg out before long;
  • (c) Lady Droole – which, let’s face it, has to be better than going through life with a silly name like Fanny Whackham;
  • (d) Not Lady Fanny Droole.  And not just because that would be…oh, don’t go there.

 Sir Slavering Droole himself is, of course, known as:

  • (a) Puffle to his chums at the Club (but only because they shared a tuck-box at Eton);
  • (b) A slubberdegullion and a knave;
  • (c) Sir Slavering to his wider acquaintance;
  • (d) Not Sir Droole. Not under any circumstances.

When the Duke and Duchess of Shropwell (family surname, Egmont) have a daughter, she is called:

  • (a) Lady Prudence Shropwell;
  • (b) Lady Shropwell;
  • (c) An odious screaming brat;
  • (d) Lady Prudence Egmont.  (And if you chose either a or b, I get all your cakey for the next six months.  So ha ha.)

There now.  See how simple and straightforward it is, once you get the knack of it?  Excellent.  (Oooh, and look at how much cakey I shall be having for the next six months…)


31 comments on “A word about titles and how to use them…

  1. linda collison says:

    You are in rare form today!

    This is very useful for readers and writers alike, not to mention screamingly funny (but a little intimidating)

    How does one properly pronounce Viscount?

    • Vyscount, Linda. As in vie; not Vis as in…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The rare form, I’m afraid, was family wide. It was a daughter who blurted out what she believed was the correct contraction of fun + accuracy. (To general laughter.) And I did try to make it not intimidating. But as young Vizzard says (that’s pronounced to rhyme with pays) above, the details can drive a reader crazy. And this one particular detail drives me to distraction. (And people round here are fed up with my ranting…Ha ha ha.)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Also, Linda, since I know you’re desperate to have a handle on all these little known facts of doubtful value, in England, the spelling Marquess is used more widely, while Marquis is mainly a Scottish title.

  2. Love your explanations! Very helpful for writing a Regency novel….

  3. Beautiful work, M. One of those irritations guaranteed a ‘turn off’, is when an author gets those details wrong.

    One suspects that Sir Slavering Droole would be known as Puffle for reasons other than sharing a tuck-box at Eton. Just a thought.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Mr. Vizzard, sir, I believe you may be right on the last, though I did feel it might be inappropriate in me to enquire too closely, don’t you see?

  4. M. M. Fahren says:

    Squire Micklethwyte says, HUMPPHHHH!
    drigglewort, indeed…..

  5. I am completely, absolutely confused. I understood the Duke bit (that must be good)…the quiz was fun. I got all wrong answers just because I could.

    And is Marquis pronounced marquee as in tent or Marquess so it doesn’t sound French?

  6. This was a fascinating and I mean FASCINATING blog post. Everything I have been wondering about answered all at once, it’s like you wrote it just for me 🙂

    I am totally going to be using this as a reference for writing, in fact, might’n you write me a nice big reference book?? Would be awfully helpful ol’ chum!!

    P x

    p.s. I am catching up on all you’re blogs, as you’ve probably realised, and it’s snowing on my screen – wonderfully christmassy!

  7. […] answered here at  http://www.debretts.com/forms-of-address.aspx on Debrett’s website.  Or here.  […]

  8. […] A word about titles and how to use them… « M.M. Bennetts […]

  9. “if and when said [duke’s] daughter marries, she will still have her title attached to her name, regardless of whether she marries a peer or not.”

    I’m confused… I thought that if she married a peer, Lady Agatha Dukesdaughter would become Lady Snot, not Lady Agatha Snot. Please clarify…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      No, when Lady Agatha Dukesdaughter married the peer of choice, Lord Snot, she became Lady Agatha Snot. She always keeps her title.

      There may be variations within families in order to keep clear who’s the heir and who’s the younger sibling–so when Lady Caroline Ponsonby married Lord William Lamb (he was the second son and not the heir), she became known as Lady Caroline Lamb (keeping her title), although within the coterie of their friends and families, she was known then as little Caroline William.

  10. cavalrytales says:

    I guess that means the children of knights have no courtesy titles, I sincerely hope. To avoid more re-writing.

  11. Cora Lee says:

    Reblogged this on And Then He Kissed Her and commented:
    I was going to do a post on titles, but M.M. Bennetts beat me to it, and is more entertaining!

  12. So… Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, daughter of an earl, was known as either Lady Jersey or Lady Sarah Jersey (or more familiarly, Sally Jersey)? Does the fact that she married an earl make a difference to what title she uses (as opposed to, say, if she married a peer of a lower degree than her father)?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      She was christened Lady Sarah Sophia Fane and was the daughter of the 10th Earl of Westmorland–though because of her connection through her grandfather with Child’s Bank where she remained the principal shareholder, she was considered by many to smell of the shop. When she married the Earl of Jersey in 1806, she by rights became Lady Sarah, Countess of Jersey.

      However, her mother-in-law, Frances, Lady Jersey, was still very much alive and causing trouble and didn’t die until 1821. Which would probably account for what might be seen as the irregularity of correct address. By rights, her mother-in-law should have been called the Dowager Lady Jersey and she Lady Sarah Jersey or Lady Sally Jersey…but her mother-in-law was…ehm…I think notorious is probably the best word, and I don’t see her taking to the word Dowager without kicking up a fuss.

      Sally Jersey was also known as “Queen Sarah” and Byron called her, “The veriest tyrant that ever favoured fashion’s fools.” By which, I must assume, he meant they didn’t get on and she didn’t succumb to his blandishments. (Though since I rarely accept his views on others in the political arena, I probably shouldn’t pay him any heed now.)

  13. Ha Ha, hilarious. I loved your examples ;o))))

  14. This has been the funniest thing I have read in a long time! Thank you for the fun. 🙂

  15. Elizabeth Gayle Fellows says:

    Thank you for the clarification…I will definitely save this article for future reference…! I did enjoy it tremendously.

  16. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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