History – or Fancy Dress?

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We all have our little quirks and bugbears when we’re reading. Things that we love, or things that we hate. Things that snuggle us into the story and are comforting, and things that throw us, fuming, right out of the narrative and which we then have to try and overcome before reading on. They can be tiny little things, too.

With historical fiction like JAFF stories, those little things can make all the difference between reading something that genuinely feels right for the period with no major bloomers, or something where the characters are all swanning about in Regency Fancy Dress, but have no stronger connection to the real period than their corsets and bonnets.

A little hint: I am not fond of fancy dress.

I can more or less get by with an eyeroll when a writer talks about wolves howling when there have been no wild wolves in Britain since the 1680s, or turtles or cardinal birds. One story about an underground railroad for escaped slaves had me actually ‘tutting’ out loud at this retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Derbyshire. But the biggest bugbear that has me huffing with displeasure? When an author just does not get how the nobility (the British aristocracy/peerage) works, or how baronetcy and knighthood titles work. Specifically English titles, as Scotland differs in some aspects and I don’t want to get in so deep we’re all drowning.

It annoys me to death when otherwise good writers decide that the daughter of a baron is Lady Somebody or other (she isn’t); or that if Caroline marries a Baronet—Sir Walter, shall we say?—she is henceforth known as Lady Caroline (she isn’t); or that Sir William Lucas is known to all and sundry as Sir Lucas (he isn’t).

I do get that is possibly arcane stuff, but it is important. It really matters in Jane Austen, because society was stratified and clearly delineated, and everyone knew his or her place in it. Pride and Prejudice is usually described as a comedy of manners: that is, it’s about the behaviour of people within a particular social group. That means it really only works if you have a good idea about that social group. You have to grasp some understanding of the group before you can be ironic about it. You need to appreciate the similarities and differences between Darcy and Elizabeth to get every little nuance of their conversations, to understand their relationship. Otherwise, all the JAFF story is, is fancy dress.

There are rules governing titles. Who has them, who doesn’t, what a ‘peer’ is, how the hierarchy works from royalty down to gentry, how you address someone with a title, how titles get passed on.

All of which is Googleable.

That’s what gets me, you see. I can forgive mistakes made in the dark ages before Tim Berners-Lee created the world-wide web, but for the last 20 years at least, finding this stuff out could not have been simpler. You just have to ruddy google it. Debrett’s has an entire website on this stuff. How can so many authors have missed it?

So, here’s a quick reference sheet for those people who are allergic to Google, or something. Taking it from the top down (ignoring Royalty)…

The Peerage

(i) Duke

If all you ever read was Regency fiction, you’d get the idea that the UK has so many dukes you could stand them in a line, shoulder to shoulder, from John O’Groats to Lands End, and they would still be so numerous that they’d be falling into the briny at either end.

In reality, there are very, very few of them. Some dukedoms (Cornwall, Clarence, York, Cambridge, Sussex – and of course, Edinburgh) are reserved for members of the royal family. Putting those aside, there are so few you’d be hard put to be able to form any sort of line at all. In 1818, there were 28 dukes. That’s right. 28.

Dukes are rare animals.

They are always ‘of’ somewhere, by the way. So Darcy’s noble neighbour up in Derbyshire is “The Most Noble, the Duke of Devonshire.” Not “Duke Devonshire” (who sounds rather more like he’d be a porn star).

The duke is addressed as “Your Grace” (by inferiors) or “Duke” (by social equals) the first time in conversation, followed by “Sir” as the conversation proceeds. The Duchess is Your Grace, or Duchess, followed by Madam or Ma’am.

The duke’s eldest son will use one of his father’s titles as a courtesy. In the case of the Devonshires, for example, the eldest son is the Marquess of Hartington. The duke’s daughters are all Lady Firstname Familyname, his younger sons are all Lord Firstname Familyname – again these are courtesy titles, rather than a title in its own right.

Things get complicated with girls marrying one of those younger sons. Think of Lord Peter Wimsey, the 1920s detective as written by Dorothy Sayers, who is the second son of the Duke of Denver. When he marries Harriet Vane, she doesn’t become “Lady Harriet Wimsey” or “Lady Wimsey”. Her title is Lady Peter Wimsey or Lady Peter.

I may as well mention here that royal dukes (siblings/children of the monarch) are His (or Her)/Your Royal Highness.

Dukes, by the way, are the only rank of the peerage who may be addressed by rank: ie, simply as “Duke”.


(2) Marquess

Note that it’s Marquess (pronounced mar-kwess), not Marquis. His wife’s rank is Marchioness. He is the possessor of a marquessate, usually (like a duke) ‘of’ somewhere.

Back to the Devonshire family: the Marquess of Hartingdon is addressed as Lord Hartington the first time in conversation, followed by “my lord” (or, more familiarly, “Hartington” if you’re one of his best chums). The Marchioness is addressed as Lady Hartington, then “my lady”.

As with dukes, the heir apparent to a marquessate may use one of his father’s lesser titles by courtesy (probably, but not always, an earldom). Again, just as with a duke’s family, a marquess’s daughters are courtesy-styled Lady, the younger sons courtesy-styled Lord.


(3) Earl

An earldom is usually but not always ‘of’ somewhere: so Earl of Matlock in so much JAFF, but the brother of Princess Diana is Earl Spencer with nary an ‘of’ to his title. Either is valid. It depends upon how the title was bestowed on the first Earl.

His wife’s rank is Countess – but he is never called “Count”. That’s the European version, but not the UK.

Let’s use Matlock as an example. As we know from P&P, the family name is Fitzwilliam. We’ll call him John.

John Fitzwilliam is formally The Right Honourable The Earl of Matlock and Viscount Derwent. He is addressed as Lord Matlock, the first time in conversation, followed by “my lord” (or, more familiarly, “Matlock”), but never as Lord John Fitzwilliam. His wife is The Countess of Matlock, and addressed as Lady Matlock, then “my lady”; but never as Lady Firstname Fitzwilliam.

Lord Matlock has two sons and a daughter. His elder son The Hon James Fitzwilliam is given the viscountcy as a courtesy title and becomes Viscount Derwent (not ‘The’ Viscount Derwent, mind – see more below). He is addressed as Lord Derwent, his wife is addressed as Lady Derwent.

The younger son is, as we all know, a colonel in the army. Let’s call him Richard, shall we? Otherwise it seems blood will flow. Cough. So, he is Colonel The Hon Richard Fitzwilliam. Younger sons are never given the courtesy title of “Lord.” They only have the right of using ‘The Honourable’ before their names, which is shortened to “The Hon” when writing it.

Lord Matlock’s daughter Mary, is given the courtesy title Lady. She is Lady Mary Fitzwilliam.


(4) Viscount

This is where it’s a substantive rank, a viscountcy, rather than a courtesy title given to an eldest son of one of the big three peerages (see above).

Let’s pretend there is a George Darcy, The Viscount Lambton. He is addressed as Lord Lambton, the first time in conversation, followed by “my lord” (or, more familiarly, “Lambton”). His wife is a viscountess, addressed as Lady Lambton. Children are The Honorable (shortened to The Hon): The Hon Fitzwilliam Darcy and The Hon Georgiana Darcy.

Note: because this is a substantive rank, rather than a courtesy title, it has the “The” in front of it.


(5) Baron

A barony is the lowest rung of the peerage. Again, let’s play pretend, this time that there is a Thomas Bennet, The Baron Meryton. This works in the same way as Viscounts: he is addressed as Lord Meryton, the first time in conversation, followed by “my lord” (or, more familiarly, “Meryton”). His wife is a baroness, addressed as Lady Meryton. Children are The Honorable (shortened to The Hon) . So Thomas Bennet, The Viscount Meryton, has a son, The Hon Robert Bennet, and five daughters, The Hon Jane Bennet, The Hon Elizabeth Bennet etc etc.



Non Peerage titles

(i) Baronet

Baronet is an hereditary title, but baronets don’t count as peers. A baronet is “Sir” somebody – so Sir Walter Eliot, in Persuasion. He is addressed as Sir Walter. His wife was Lady Eliot, and if his son (we’ll call him John) had survived childhood, the son would have inherited the baronetcy to become Sir John Eliot. None of his other children, of either sex, have titles. Not even an “The Hon.”


(ii) Knight

A knighthood cannot be inherited. It’s a one-off, once only deal.

Mr William Lucas, shop keeper and merchant in the county of Hertfordshire, receives a knighthood for his making an address to the king. He is now Sir William Lucas. He is addressed as Sir William.

He is NEVER addressed as “Sir Lucas”. “Sir” only ever goes with the first name—Sir William. I cry every time I read of this mythical Sir Lucas, and that is not a pretty sight.

His wife is Lady Lucas. Their children do not have titles, and are just Mr/Miss Lucas.



Some general points:

(i) For all the peerage except dukes, speakers should address them as Lord/Lady, and not the rank. (Scots titles may be different.)

(ii) A girl with the courtesy title of Lady Firstname Familyname – whether the daughter of a Duke, Marquess or Earl –can retain her title on marriage if she marries ‘beneath’ her. If her husband is of the same or higher rank, she takes on his title. But if she marries a mere Derbyshire gentleman, or a knight or baronet (it’s not clear which Sir Lewis de Bourgh is), then she can keep her Lady: hence Lady Anne Darcy, not Mrs Darcy, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not Lady De Bourgh.

(iii) titles aren’t interchangeable. By that, I mean you address the title holder the way Debretts tells you to. John Fitzwilliam is, The Right Honourable, The Earl of Matlock, or Lord Matlock, or Matlock (or even John) depending on who’s speaking, and to whom. He is NEVER Earl John Fitzwilliam, Earl Matlock, Earl John, Lord John or Lord Fitzwilliam.

(iv) “The” in the title (eg The Viscount Lambton) always is capitalised, even in the middle of the sentence, if it’s formally stating the title, eg on a legal document or correspondence.

(iv) Re those sons and daughters who have “The Honourable” title. This is written as “The Hon Firstname Family Name” BUT they are addressed in speech simply as Mr/Miss—nobody is called “The Hon/ourable” to their face.

(v) Military titles come before the nobility title. For example, the Iron Duke’s formal title was Field Marshal His Grace The Duke of Wellington, or as above, Colonel The Hon Richard Fitzwilliam.

(v) An heir apparent is the eldest son. If there are no sons, another man in the close family (brother/brother’s son/cousin) may be next in line, but doesn’t get a courtesy title because he is only an heir presumptive: he would be totally out of the running if the duchess or whatever suddenly has a son. This is Mr Collins’s position by the way. He is heir presumptive to Longbourn, but if Mrs Bennet has a son, or dies and Mr B remarries and the second Mrs Bennet has a son, Collins will not inherit.



Edited to add:

(a) You can’t bequeath a title in your will. No, really. You can’t. Not ever. It’s not quite the same as your second best coat or that diamond necklace you leave to the handsome footman who tickled your fancy. So, no, Lord Matlock can’t disinherit his eldest son and pass the title on to Richard. He can pass on all the unentailed property, but the title and the estates and property attached to it go to Lord Derwent. That also means that Elizabeth’s father-in-law and her dead husband’s uncle via his mother, cannot just plot together and leave her son the uncle’s earldom. It’s just not done that way. Elizabeth’s son might inherit if the letters patent for the earldom allow for the title to descend through the female line. Otherwise, no dice.

(b) by all means have Elizabeth be the widow of William X, Fourth Earl of Someplace but her title would NOT be Lady Elizabeth X. She isn’t the daughter of an earl, or marquess or duke. She would be Lady Someplace.
Even if William died childless, Elizabeth cannot inherit his title. No. Never. Not in a billion years. Elizabeth would inherit whatever widow’s portion was agreed in the marriage settlements. The title and the estates would probably go to a remote cousin (they’d backtrack through the third Earl’s brothers and cousins etc before they’d give up, and if necessary go back another generation still) and if it proved that there was no-one at all to inherit, then the title and property goes back to the Crown. If there was an heir, however remote, and he is married then his wife becomes the Countess and would be addressed as Lady Someplace. Elizabeth would be the Dowager Lady Someplace.
When she marries Mr Darcy, she loses the title and becomes, simply, Mrs Darcy.

(c) Yes, it is true that most noblemen have several titles. A Duke may also own a marquessate but will own an earldom or two and a viscountcy. The full panoply of these titles will be listed on all official documents (wills, for example). But no, you can’t arbitrarily call him or his wife by these lower titles – for one thing, his son will be using the next title down (as a courtesy). So please stop calling her the Duchess of X in one paragraph and Countess Y in the next when what you mean is the same woman. She’s the Duchess. Full stop. (But Mr Darcy is not a Duke in disguise. Just saying.)



And…. breathe. There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? And really, it was rather fun…


  1. Julia
    Well done! As you say, it’s not that hard to find out how titles work now we have the internet – my biggest bugbear is “Sir Lucas” instead of “Sir William”, although addressing the wife of a peer as Lady Christian-name when she isn’t the daughter of an earl or higher rank is irritating too.
    Thankyou for expressing it so well!


    • 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s a rant, really, but I had just read another ‘Sir Lucas’ and I could bear it no longer. A mistake like that is far more likely to jolt me out of the narrative than, say, a wolf howling on the outskirts of Meryton, even though that is just as ridiculous and is just as easy to Google.

      My mother’s family worked on the estate of the Marquess of Londonderry (Wynyard Park in Co Durham) so it’s possible I imbibed some of this by a kind of osmosis. But even if I hadn’t, Debretts has this all set out.


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