Likely, when someone uses the word “Dowager,” images of Dame Maggie Smith’s portrayal of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham from “Downton Abbey” fame. But what does the word “dowager” mean? According to Wikipedia, a dowager is a widow who holds a title or property, often referred to as a “dower.” That property is derived from the woman’s 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. 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 Loamshire,” provided that his [the deceased husband’s] successor, if any, has no wife to bear the plain title [Countess of Loamshire]. Otherwise, she [the countess being displaced by her successor] properly prefixes either her forename or the word Dowager, e. g., ‘Jane, Countess of Loamshire’ or ‘Dowager Countess of Loamshire.’ In any case, she would continue to be addressed as ‘Lady Loamshire.'” As with a lot of styling, it is up to the lady to set how she wishes to be addressed–she may not want to become a dowager just yet and so may resist that push. The term “queen dowager” is used in both the UK and several other countries to indicate the widow of a king. To make it simple, “dowager” is another way of saying “widow.”
In the Regency the word dowager was used in newspapers, such as The Gazette, and in letters. HOWEVER, one is NEVER addressed as a Dowager. One does not say “Good day, Dowager Countess.” The woman is simply addressed as a countess, i.e., “Good day, Countess.”
Later, the word dowager began attracting negative emotions to its use, and widows attempted to avoid its use. However, it was in common use during the Georgian/Regency period for widows of landed and usually title men. Though today, widows prefer not to use Dowager, during this period, a widow of a man of property was a dowager, meaning she was entitled to dower.
Laura A. Wallace‘s website defines a “dowager” says, “The rule is:
A widow of a peer may be called dowager only if (a) her husband bore the title and (b) the current peer is a direct descendant of her deceased husband.
Put another way, “A dowager peeress is the mother, stepmother, or grandmother of the reigning peer, and the widow of a preceding one. In no other case is she a dowager.“
“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.’ 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 Debrett’s Peerage, Barontage, Knightage and Companionage (Royal Edition, 1902), we learn: “A widow who remarries loses any title and precedence she gained by her previous marriage. Society, however, from pure motives of courtesy, sanctions the retention of a former rank, and with one exception permits ladies who have remarried to be address as though their titled husbands were living. The exception is that of a widow of an Honourable, who is not permitted even by courtesy to retain after remarriage the prefix gained through her first husband. But officially a widow who remarries is not recognized as having any claim to bear the title of her deceased husband, e. g.: —at a coronation or other State ceremonial, the widow of a peer would not be summoned as a peeress if she had subsequently married a commoner; and, if having espoused a peer of lesser degree than her former husband, she would only be recognized by the rank acquired by her last marriage.”
Again from Laura A. Wallace, we have, according to Debrett’s Correct Form:
“Officially the widow of a peer is known as the Dowager Countess (or whatever) 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.”[Debrett, John. The Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland. 8th ed. London: F. C. Rivington, et al., 1812.] 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.
Resources not noted in the piece itself: