Titles and Forms of Address

by Michelle Jean Hoppe

For the outsider, one of the most confusing areas in British Society is the peerage and how to properly address them.  We'll start here with a brief overview of the peerage, then discuss some of the rules associated with their titles.  To make this easier to understand, we'll create an imaginary family--the Duke of Strathmore, with the family name of Jones.

The peerage has five descending grades, and five classes within each grade.  The grades are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.  All peers have a family name as well as a title.  In lower ranks, these are often the same.  Sons and daughters use the family name, except for eldest sons of dukes, marquesses and earls.  Almost all of these three peerages also have lesser titles, which are conferred upon their eldest son as a courtesy title.  

The five classes are Dowager (earliest surviving widow), 

Territorial titles are those where the title is taken from the name of a place.  All dukedoms are territorial titles.  They are never taken from the family name.  Formally, they are the Duke and Duchess of Strathmore.  In conversation, they would be addressed as His Grace and Her Grace, or Your Grace.  The same rules for addressing the duke's wife apply to addressing the Dowager Duchess.  Eldest sons of dukes take the highest courtesy title from their father (usually Marquess in the case of a dukedom), with their family sharing all the privileges of the courtesy title.  Daughters and younger sons bear the title 'Lord' or 'Lady' with their Christian and family names.  A daughter then, would be Lady Margaret Jones. In conversation, daughter and sons are addressed by 'Lord' or 'Lady' and their Christian name--never the family name.  Wives of younger sons are addressed using the husband's Christian name--Lady John Jones.  Children of younger sons are addressed as Mr. or Miss.  Married daughters take their husband's title, unless it is a lesser title, in which case she retains her own title with her Christian name and new family name. Children of daughters of duke receive no titles or distinctions of any sort through their mother.

The title of Marquess (also Marquis), is generally taken from the name of a place.  The Marquess and Marchioness are addressed as Lord and Lady in speech, with their title--Lord Nottingham, for example. The same rules apply for Dowagers (retaining title privileges), eldest sons (using courtesy title), and daughters and younger sons (Lord or Lady with Christian name and family name.) Also, wives of younger sons use their husband's Christian and family names in their title, preceded by 'Lady.'  The children of younger sons and daughters have no distinction of any sort.  The same rules of rank apply for married daughters as those of the dukedom.

The grade of Earl and Countess is sometimes taken from a territorial name, and sometimes from a family name.  In cases where it is territorial, the preposition 'of' is generally used, and in family names, it is not.  Earls and Countesses are addressed as Lord and Lady in speech.  The same rules as above apply to Dowagers, eldest sons, and daughters.  Younger sons, however, are referred to as 'Honourable,' but only in letter writing.  In speech, they are Mr. William Jones, for example.  Children of younger sons and daughters have no titles or distinctions of any sort.  The same rules apply for married daughters as above. 

The title of Viscount and Viscountess can be territorial or taken from a name.  But in no case is the preposition 'of' used between the style and the title. Thus, it is always Viscount Jones or Viscount Hereford, not the Viscount of Hereford.  They are addressed as Lord and Lady in speech. Dowager rules are the same as above.  There are no longer courtesy titles for eldest sons, however.  They are merely The Honourable, in writing, with wives sharing the title.  The same rules as for earls apply tp younger sons and their wives. Daughters all bear the title 'Honourable,' and upon marriage keeps her title only if marrying someone of lower rank. Children of sons and daughters have no distinction of any sort.

The title of Baron and Baroness is sometimes territorial and sometimes taken from the family name, and sometimes from other sources entirely.  They are addressed Lord and Lady in speech, but Baronesses in their own right are sometimes called by this title.  All children are referred to as 'Honourable.'  The same rules apply as earls for younger sons and their wives.  Again, married daughters keep their title only if marrying below their rank. Children of sons and daughters have no distinction of their own.

There are more ranks below peerage--too many to go into here.  But just a few general notes on the peerage.  Life peers and peeresses can not be handed down.  They end when the person upon whom it is conferred passes away.  Life peers rank with hereditary barons and baronesses according to the day of their creation.  Wives of life peers take the title of Lady, and their children are 'The Honourable.'  

Some baronies and a few earldoms descend in the female line, but very few.  

Husbands of peeresses in their own right take no style or dignity from their wives.  Their children, however, are in all respects peers as if the peerage were held by their father. Husbands and children of peers' daughters take no distinction whatsoever.  

Sources: Titles and Forms of Address by Arminger, A&C Black, 1966.

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Copyright 2002, M. Hoppe