Can Courtesy Titles Be Bestowed?

Since my last post on Courtesy Titles on February 15, I have received several inquires about how courtesy titles were bestowed upon others. First, permit me to clarify, once again, there is a difference between an actual title of the peerage and a courtesy title. The confusion comes in the form that the sovereign, or in the case of the Regency (the Prince Regent), possesses the right to bestow an actual title upon an individual, meaning privileges of the peerage, but NOT a courtesy title. The sovereign may also bestow an “honorific.” 

There are honorific titles presented to individuals. A title of honor or honorary title is a title bestowed upon individuals or organizations as an award in recognition of their merits.

knight is a person granted an honorary title of knighthood by a monarch or other political leader for service to the monarch or country, especially in a military capacity. In the United Kingdom, honorific knighthood may be conferred in different ways: The first is by membership of one of the pure Orders of Chivalry such as the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle and the dormant Order of Saint Patrick, of which all members are knighted. In addition, many British Orders of Merit, namely the Order of the Bath, the Order of St Michael and St George, the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of the British Empire are part of the British honours system, and the award of their highest ranks (Knight/Dame Commander and Knight/Dame Gran Cross), comes together with an honorific knighthood, making them a cross between orders of chivalry and orders of merit. The second is being granted honorific knighthood by the British sovereign without membership of an order, the recipient being called Knight Bachelor. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sir William Lucas has been made a knight because of his dedication to duty as mayor of Meryton.

Dame is an honorific title and the feminine form of address for the honour of knighthood in the British honours system. The masculine form of address is “Sir.” The word damehood is rarely used, but the official website of the British monarch uses it as the correct form. A woman appointed to the grades of Dame Commander or Dame Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, the Royal Victorian Order, or the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire becomes a dame. Since there is no female equivalent to a Knight Bachelor, women are always appointed to an order of chivalry. 

Since 1611, the British Crown has awarded a hereditary title in the form of the Baronetcy. Like knights, baronets are accorded the title Sir. Baronets are not peers of the Realm, and have never been entitled to sit in the House of Lords, therefore like knights they remain commoners in the view of the British legal system. However, unlike knights, the title is hereditary and the recipient does not receive an accolade. The position is therefore more comparable with hereditary knighthoods in continental European orders of nobility, such a ritters, than with knighthoods under the British orders of chivalry. However, unlike the continental orders, the British baronetcy system was a modern invention, designed specifically to raise money for the Crown with the purchase of the title.

Now to the issue of “real” titles. 

Anyone could recommend a man for knighthood, a baronetcy, or one of the lower peerages, but only the sovereign could act upon the deed. A man could be made a knight, baronet, baron, viscount, or earl depending on the rank he already held and the service he had preformed. It was very rare for anyone to be made a peer of higher rank than earl. Even Wellington was only made a viscount at first.

James I was the only king openly to sell baronetcies. Most other peerage titles were advancements in the peerage for those already peers or a new creations, such as it was for Wellington. We must remember that Wellesley was born in Ireland at the Honourable Arthur Wesley, for he was the third of five surviving sons (fourth otherwise) to Anne and Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington. He had no right to his father’s peerage and so a new one was created for him. Most new creations  in the peerage were made barons. The most issued honor was a common knighthood. Next was a baronetcy. 

Oftentimes the new position was created to cause a political shift, say from Tory to Whig. Even so, the reason stated behind the creation had to be a good one: Saving the King’s life, preventing another Guy Fawkes-type conspiracy, preventing political upheaval, valor during war, etc., or something that is unique to his talents, abilities, or wealth.


In the early days of England history, the king/queen would take a sword and tap the man on the shoulder and then fasten a belt around his waist. Up to the seventeenth century an earl was invested by the Sovereign with a sword which was girded around his waist – hence ‘a belted earl’, a phrase beloved by Victorian novelists and others.


Camelot International tells us, “Though a barony is the oldest peerage title proper, the word ‘earl’ has much older origins, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon magnate known as an ealdorman who was more of a local ruler than a legislator. The term itself comes ultimately from the word Karl’ – a powerful Viking noble, so that the title of earl has very ancient roots.

earl2.gif“Although the oldest extant English earldom is that of Arundel (1433), it has long been merged with the Dukedom of Norfolk and the Earl of Shrewsbury is regarded as the premier Earl, his creation dating from 1442.

“The origin of the earldom of Mar, the premier earldom of Scotland is, according to an 18th century lawyer, ‘lost in its antiquity’. Certainly there were Mormaers (earls) of Mar in the early 12th century and the present holder is the 31st. This earldom, like a number of other Scottish ones, passes through female lines and is at present held by a woman.

“It was long the custom for retiring Prime Ministers to be offered a peerage – usually an earldom. Churchill refused a peerage and Sir Harold Wilson accepted a life barony. For a time it looked as if hereditary peerages had been phased out but Mrs. Thatcher revived the custom and the late Harold Macmillan accepted the earldom of Stockton.”

By 1820,  the man had to be asked what title he preferred. Wellington’s brother is said to have chosen Wellington for his brother’s peerage when the man was first  made a viscount. Then the College of Arms checks to see if anyone else has that title, if it had been attainted, or if it is in abeyance. Next, a patent is drawn up bestowing the peerage on the man. If the patent has an error in it, it cannot be corrected. Therefore, great care is taken in a patent’s creation. There is a ceremony at which time the king bestows the title on the man and presents him the patent. The man must pay the College of Arms a fee for the “gift.” Then  he applies to the House of Lords for admittance as a peer. This “permission” is known as a writ of summons.  He sends in a statement that he has a patent and gives the information about it which has already been published in the London GazetteHe asks two peers of his rank—one the most senior he can find and the other the  youngest before him (meaning the youngest in date of peerage presentation, not of person) to accompany him. He receives a writ of summons and when the House is in session, he dresses in his parliamentary robe, with his two sponsors also in their robes. These two sponsors must be the same rank as the new peer, and they cannot be a duke.

During the ceremony, he approaches the woolsack and presents his credentials. His patent is read aloud. Then he and his two sponsors step out to remove their robes and return quietly to take their seats in ordinary clothes.

For a more detailed summary of the ceremony, I would recommend “Introduction of a New Peer to the House of Lords on Nancy Regency Researcher

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Can Courtesy Titles Be Bestowed?

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    How about a little musical exposure with Henry Bishop, the composer (contemporary of JA ) who was given his “Sir” title (knighted in 1842). He makes a cameo appearance in Darcy’s Melody as the newly appointed music director of Covent Garden, a position which he actually held for several years. Not sure if Andrew Lloyd Weber inherited his “Baron” or not, but then there is one of my all time favorites “Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, not to mention “Dame” Janet Baker. I’m sure there are more. Fun post. Jen

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