Of late, I am once again dealing with the term “dowager” in one of my works in progress (WIP). The Earl of Remmington’s mother resides at one of his smaller estates. As she is the widow of the late earl, I, at first, was referring to her as the dowager countess. Then I began my first round of edits, during which I slapped my forehead with a “Duh!” Until Lord Remmington remarries, his mother is still the Countess of Remmington. So, what does all this mean? What exactly is a “dowager”? Are all Dowagers like Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey? When would one use the term “dowager”?
In the Regency Period the word “dowager” was used in newspapers, letters, the Gazette, etc., but not in oral forms of address. One would never say for example, “I am pleased for the acquaintance, Dowager Countess.”
Oxford Dictionaries defines the word as: A widow with a title or property derived from her late husband. Its origin is Mid 16th century: from Old Frency douagiere, from douage ‘dower’, from douer ‘endow’, from Latin dotare ‘endow’. A dowager is a widow who holds a title or property—a “dower”—which was derived from her deceased husband. As an adjective, dowager usually appears in association with monarchical and aristocratic titles. In popular usage, the noun dowager may refer to any elderly widow, especially one of both wealth and dignity. (Dowager)
The word dowager started attracting negative emotions and widows began trying to avoid its use. However, it was in use in the Regency for widows of landed and usually titled men. In the United Kingdom, the widow of a peer may continue to use the style she had during her husband’s lifetime, e.g., “Countess of Remmington,” provided that his successor, if any, has no wife to bear the plain title. Otherwise she more properly prefixes either her forename or the word Dowager, e.g. “Ianthe, Countess of Remmington” or “Dowager Countess of Remmington.” In any case, she would continue to be called “Lady Remmington.” (Dowager)
A queen dowager (also known as dowager queen or queen mother) is a title generally held by the widow of a king, while empress dowager is the widow of an emperor. A queen regnant is a female monarch, who reigns in her own right and not as the wife of the reigning king (queen consort) or guardian of a child monarch reigning temporarily in their stead (queen regent).
According to Debrett’s Correct Form: “Officially the widow of a peer is known as the Dowager Countess (or whatever [title she held previously]) of X, unless there is already a dowager peeress of the family still living. In the latter event, the widow of the senior peer of the family retains the title of Dowager for life, and the widow of the junior peer in that family is known by her Christian name, e.g., Mary, Countess of X, until she becomes the senior widow. . . . When the present peer is unmarried, by custom the widow of the late peer continues to call herself as she did when her husband was living, i.e., without the prefix of (a) dowager, or (b) her Christian name. Should the present peer marry, it is usual for the widowed peeress to announce the style by which she wishes to be know in future.”(113) This last bit is twentieth century, and Black’s agrees: most widows don’t use “dowager” at all anymore, and simply use the Mary, Countess of X option, announcing in the press the style they will be using. (Dowager Peeresses)
Laura A. Wallace ©2004 says, “If she is eligible, a widow assumes the title of dowager immediately she becomes a widow. However, she continues to be referred to as “Lady Denville” without the “Dowager” tacked on as long as the current title-holder (her son or grandson) remained unmarried, i.e., so long as there is not another “Lady Denville. (Titles and Forms of Address: A Guide to the Correct Use. London: A. & C. Black, Ltd., Third Edition, 1932) I think sometimes people also referred to dowagers as “the elder Lady Spenborough.” (Unless, as in Fanny’s case, the new Lady Spenborough is older than she is!) I seem to recall reading some contemporary letters which refer to “the old duchess” when meaning the widow of the 1st Duke of Marlborough (and in that case, it was one of her own daughters who was the new duchess). The rules for addressing a dowager in speech are in all ways the same as if her husband were still living, except that if confusion arises, she is referred to as The Dowager Countess (or Amabel, Countess of Denville) to distinguish her from the current peer’s wife, or from any other countesses still alive.
“In False Colours, when Lady Denville decided to marry Sir Bonamy, one beneficial circumstance she noted about the match was that after she was married, she would no longer be a dowager countess. Fanny, Lady Spenborough, is not a dowager and never will be, because the new Lord Spenborough was not a descendant of her deceased husband.
“In Their Noble Lordships (Winchester, Simon. Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain. New York: Random House, 1982.) Winchester notes is that thanks to dukes’ apparent inability to make or maintain good marriages, there are twice as many duchesses today as there are dukes. That’s because most divorceés are entitled to the “Mary, Duchess of Southampton” style until they remarry.” (Dowager Peeresses)
Invitations to court and the lady’s name in the newspaper or on formal lists ( as in the list of those who attended a Queen’s birthday bash) would use “dowager ” if there were another one with her same title. If there were more than one widow, the first widow is the dowager and the others are Mary Countess of XX. The main purpose was to avoid confusion between or among ladies. One never addressed the lady as a “dowager” in person. One only spoke of her as the dowager when it was necessary to distinguish her from any other living Countess of Someplace, for instance.
However, as girls could marry at age twelve in England during the early 1800s, a “dowager” wasn’t connected to age. That being said, because old women were usually “dowagers” (in the upper crust of society) and because people spoke poorly of sitting among the dowagers and chaperones at social events, widows of the time decided they did not like the word “dowager.” If woman wanted to present her granddaughter at court, or her new daughter-in-law, she would need to describe herself as a “dowager” XXX (title). Ordinarily she wouldn’t use it at all.
In Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith portrays Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Ms. Smith’s popularity has brought the word “dowager” into style again.
Nancy Mayer’s Regency Researcher ~ Titles and Names