Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Barons and Viscounts and Earls, Oh My!

Before we get started, a quick note from Regina...

Thanks to all who commented last week! The winner of the autographed copy of La Petite Four is Jennifer Rummel. Jennifer, e-mail me at reginascott@owt.com and provide mailing details as well as the name you'd like on the book. I'll be on travel this week, but will let you know as soon as I get your e-mail when you can expect the book. Thanks again!

Congratulations, Jennifer!

Now, it occurred to us that we discuss a lot of people with titles of nobility here--and while we're comfortable with those terms and what they mean, not all of our readers might be as familiar with them. So today's post is a brief lesson on what we're talking about when we refer to the Duke of Thisplace or Viscount Thatplace.

First, I want to note that we're talking about titles of nobility in England. Though titles with the same or similar names might have existed in other countries in Europe, they don't necessarily hold the same rank...so a Duke in England is not necessarily the same as a Duke in, say, France or Russia. Just so you know.

The Peerage in England consisted of the following titles (which were awarded my the ruling monarch and almost always handed down through the male line--that is, except for a very few specialized cases, females did not inherit or pass on titles). Being a peer meant that you were entitled to sit in Parliament in the House of Lords.

1. Duke: the highest rank below royalty...though there were several ducal titles that were pretty much reserved for the use of the king if he had an extraordinary number of sons (think George III and his 15 children). A Duke was addressed as "Your Grace" by non-nobles and as "Duke" by those closer to him in rank.

2. Marquis (or Marquess--two spellings were in use in the earlier part of the century until Marquess won out): next below dukes. A marquis/marquess was referred to as "Lord Title name"...so John Breeches, the fifth Marquess of Fancypants would be called Lord Fancypants, not Lord Breeches. Note that Fancypants wasn't his actual family name--the name of a peer's title and of his family were generally different (though again, exceptions do exist just to confuse things.) The same goes for the rest of the ranks of nobility.

3. Earl: Next in rank after marquesses. There were a LOT of earls, many more than dukes or marquesses. As with marquesses, earls were called "Lord Title name".

4. Viscount: A newer rank, relatively speaking, that first came into use mostly in Tudor times. Like marquesses and earls, viscounts were adressed as "Lord Title name", but there was a slight difference in that there generally wasn't an "of" in there...for example, while we had the Marquess of Fancypants, his neighbor the viscount would be Viscount Whitecravat, not the Viscount of Whitecravat.

5. Baron: the lowest rank of peerage, also addressed as "Lord Title name".

Below the peerage were two other classes of titles. Being one of these did not get you a seat in the House of Lords, but you could be elected to the House of Commons.

1. Baronet: An inherited title...a baronet was called Sir Firstname Lastname.

2. Knight: A non-inherited title--that is, it would not get passed down to a man's son. Knighthoods were given out for various reasons, usually for some service to the Crown (but which could be something pretty trivial. Remember Sir William Lucas in Pride and Prejudice? He got made a knight after delivering a speech to the king, but had started out "in trade"--that is, working for a living. None of his sons would become Sir Whomever after him.)

So that's it for the titles of nobility. There are just a few other concepts that go along with them that you ought to know:

  • Titles went to a peer's eldest son. If his eldest son died, then his next son would inherit. If the eldest son died but had married and left a son, then that child would inherit. A peer did not decide who would inherit his title and any land or estates tied to it--there were legal rules that declared the line of inheritance.
  • Titles went through the male line. If a peer had only daughters, none of them could inherit his title and the heir would probably his next youngest brother, if he had one. If he didn't, then genealogical research would indicate the next living male relative most closely related to his father. It could get very complicated, as you might guess.
  • Precedence among nobility depended on the age of their title. So if you were trying to decide which earl had the higher rank, you looked to see when the family received their title. An earl whose family got their title in 1415 was considered to be of higher rank than an earl who got his title in 1815.
  • Family members of peers often received what were called "courtesy titles". For example, all the sons of a duke or marquess were automatically called "Lord Firstname", but that title didn't carry any meaning. Only the peer himself was a peer--his family were, legally speaking, all commoners. That is why a young man called "Lord So-and-so" could still be elected to the House of Commons--he wasn't a "real" lord.
  • Peers often had more than one title. A Duke might also be a marquess and a baron, but he used only the highest ranking title. He might let his eldest son use his next highest title and his eldest grandson the title after that, but just like above, those were considered "courtesy titles".

There's a lot more I could discuss here--a whole lot more--but these are some of the basics. If you have any questions, let me know! And please come back on Friday when Regina discusses how the peerage system work among the ladies.

1 comment:

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Came on over from Tia's site. I love your site. It reminds me of the book What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens knew by Daniel Pool. I like finding out about all sortsa Victoriana. Great blog. -C