Courtesy Titles (or) Not, a Confusing Aspect of Reading and Writing Historical Novels

One of the most confusing aspects of writing Regency-based novels is the issue of courtesy titles. We authors are always going back and questioning what we think we know. I have heard readers say to me that this is one area that often confuses them. I will admit that I was in my final round of edits of The Earl Claims His Comfort before I realized I had called a minor character “Lady Delia,” when as a daughter of a viscount, she should have been “The Honorable Miss Phillips” or to those more familiar to her “Miss Phillips” or even “Miss Delia” for close acquaintances.I  cannot tell you how many times I had overlooked the error; nor did three editors catch the mistake, thinking I had it correct. Therefore, I thought it useful if we reviewed some of the basics of courtesy titles

By courtesy title, I am referring to the words “Lord,” “Lady,” and “The Honourable.” A peer’s wife and children are granted the use of certain titles, depending upon the rank of the peer. These are customarily used by the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, daughter-in-law and sisters-in-law of a peer. The son and heir apparent of a duke, marquess or earl may use one of his father’s peerage titles by courtesy providing it is of a lesser grade than that used by his father.

The duke’s wife is a duchess. His eldest son usually assumes the next-highest of the duke’s titles as a courtesy title, customarily it is that of a marquess. The duke’s subordinate titles are distributed by courtesy only to his direct heirs, that is, his eldest son, and his eldest son’s eldest son, etc. His younger sons are are Lord First name Surname. The daughters are Lady First name Surname. For example, in my Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep, we find the Duke and Duchess of Devilfoard, the Marquess of Malvern, Lord Harrison McLaughlin and Lady Henrietta McLaughlin. When the Marquess of Malvern’s son is born, he will become an earl, assuming the duke’s next-highest title, etc. In actual practice in the United Kingdom, the Duke of Devonshire’s eldest son bears by courtesy the title the Marquess of Hartington, and Lord Hartington’s eldest son is the Earl of Burlington. If Lord Hartington were to predecease his father, then Lord Burlington would become the Marquess of Hartington, and his son, if he were to have one, would be born as Earl of Burlington. (Courtesy Titles)

A marquess’s wife is a marchioness. She is called Lady (His Title), i.e., Lady Stonecrest. His eldest son would become an earl as the courtesy title, depending upon the marquess’s highest-ranking minor titles.. The younger sons would be Lord First name Surname. The daughters are Lady First name Surname. 

An earl’s wife is a countess. She is called Lady (His Title). His eldest son assumes the next-highest title as a courtesy title. He is customarily a viscount. The earl’s younger sons are The Honourable First name Surname. Just as it is with the daughter of a duke or marquess, the honorific prefix of “Lady” is used for the daughter of an earl. The definite article ‘The’ (written with the capital letter ‘T’ even when the title appears in the middle of a sentence) before the prefix. The courtesy title is added before the person’s given name, as in the example The Lady Diana Spencer. Because it is merely a courtesy with no legal implications, the honorific persists after the death of the holder’s father but it is not inherited by her children. The spouse of a woman with an honorific title does not hold any courtesy title in right of their spouse. Neither does the husband of a man with any title (including the husband of a peer). Do you recall in Pride and Prejudice, that although Lady Catherine de Bourgh married a baronet, she keeps her courtesy title of “Lady Catherine” because she is the daughter of an earl? As the wife of a baronet, she should be “Lady de Bourgh.”

Laura Wallace provides us some very specific examples: “It was a 17th century custom to throw in a number of new lesser titles to “fill in” when creating a new higher title, so the older a dukedom or an earldom, the more likely the second title is to be a much lower one, skipping steps, if you will: the eldest sons of the Dukes of Norfolk, Grafton, St. Albans, Richmond, Buccleuch, Newcastle, and Northumberland are earls, the Dukes of Dorset’s and Manchester’s are viscounts, and the Duke of Somerset’s only a Lord.  But since Dorset’s and Machester’s eldest sons are viscounts, their eldest sons cannot take a barony as a courtesy title.  If there is no courtesy title available, the eldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl takes the family name as a courtesy title.  

“Several marquesses have the same title as marquess and earl, e.g., the Marquess and Earl of Hertford and the Marquess and Earl of Salisbury.  In these cases, the heir skips the matching peerage, and takes the next highest title as a courtesy title, to distinguish him from his father.  The heir of the Marquess and Earl of Salisbury is thus Viscount Cranbourne, and the heir of the Marquess and Earl of Hertford is thus Earl of Yarmouth (whose father happens to have two earldoms at his disposal).  

“The Duke of Wellington similarly holds two marquessates:  that of Wellington and that of Douro, so his heir takes the courtesy title Marquess Douro to distinguish him from his father.  [During the 1st Duke’s lifetime, all of his lesser titles were also either Wellington or Douro, and the family name, Wellesley, was used as a title by his brother, the 1st Marquess Wellesley, so I’m not sure what courtesy title would have been given to the eldest son of the eldest son of the 1st Duke of Wellington.   Fortunately, the issue never came up;  and eventually the Dukes of Wellington also inherited the lesser titles of the 1st Marquess Wellesley (whose title became extinct upon his death), which include the Earl of Mornington and Viscount Wellesley, so there are currently three titles available to the direct heirs of the Duke of Wellington.]

“It is important to note, however, that an heir of a peer who is not a direct descendant of that peer (i.e., his eldest son or his eldest son’s eldest son) does not take any secondary title as a courtesy title.   He remains known by whatever title (if any) he derived from his own father until he accedes to the peerage.  This is a common mistake in historical romances.

“For example, the 6th Duke of Devonshire never married.  Since he also had no brothers, his heir was a cousin.  The cousin was a great-grandson of the 4th Duke; before the 6th Duke died, he was plain Mr. William Cavendish.  Even though the line of succession was clear, Mr. William Cavendish was never given the courtesy title Marquess of Hartington.  Similarly, after Mr. William Cavendish succeeded and became the 7th Duke, he was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, who became the 8th Duke.  But the 8th Duke had no son, and he was succeeded by his nephew, a son of his younger brother, Lord Edward.  Before he acceded, the 8th Duke was plain Mr. Victor Cavendish.”

A viscount’s wife is a viscountess. She is known as Lady (His Title). All the sons and daughters of a viscount are The Honourable First name Surname. 

A baron’s wife is a baroness. Both the baron and his wife are addressed as either “Lord” or “Lady” (His Title). It is not correct to call him Baron Johnstone. He is Lord Johnstone, and his wife is Lady Johnstone. All the sons and daughters of a baron are addressed as The Honourable First name Surname. 

 Ranks-And-Privileges-Of-The-Peerage.jpg According to Debretts “A peer’s sons and daughters who are legitimated under the Legitimacy Act 1926, as amended by the Act of 1959, are now under an Earl Marshal’s Warrant accorded the same courtesy styles as the legitimate younger children of peers, though they have no right of succession to the peerage (except under certain circumstances in Scotland), or precedence from it. Courtesy styles may continue to be borne by the children of peers who have disclaimed their peerage.

“Children adopted into a family do not acquire rights of succession to a title, and children adopted out of a family do not lose their rights. An Earl Marshal’s Warrant dated 30 April 2004 decreed that the adopted children of peers should be accorded the styles and courtesy titles as are proper to the younger children of peers, but without right of succession to the peerage. Thus, for example, the adopted son of the Marquess of Ely is now known as Lord Andrew Tottenham (which is the style for the younger son of a marquess), rather than Viscount Loftus, which is the subsidiary title for that peerage.”

Debretts peerage has a section on siblings of peers who have special grants of precedency. In all of these cases, a sibling inherited because the father died before the grandfather-before the father could inherit.

When the eldest brother succeeds to the peerage, he can request that his siblings be granted the  precedency they would have had if the father had inherited. Though it is called a grant of precedency it really gives the person all the privileges of such rank such as courtesy titles. 

51da9RnvUwL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg In Valentine Heywood’s British Titles: the Use and Misuse of the Titles of Peers and Commoners (page 113), Heywood addresses what happens with courtesy titles when the heir is not in the direct line of succession. If a nephew, cousin, or other distant relative NOT in the direct line of succession to a peerage becomes the new peer, the Sovereign can accord the new peer’s brothers and sisters with the customary styling, which would have been theirs had their father held the title. Such would be conferred by Royal Warrant.

Heywood mentions only ones not in the direct line, but it is often a case that a marquess’s son is an earl, and the earl’s oldest son is a viscountcy, but the siblings are plain honourables. If the father dies and the viscount becomes an earl, the brothers remain the same, but the sisters can be referred to as Lady First name, however, all the siblings generally would be raised to the higher ranks when the brother succeeds as marquess.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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10 Responses to Courtesy Titles (or) Not, a Confusing Aspect of Reading and Writing Historical Novels

  1. nmayer2015 says:

    Authors and writers of book blurbs confuse matters by naming peers as Lord First Name Title rather than First Name Lord Title. or First name title — They say Lord George Jersey instead of George Lord Jersey or George Earl of Jersey.
    The uneducated country man or woman might Lord and Lady all who appear to be aristocratic but there is enough material out there for us not to.

    • I admit to making some silly mistakes early on in my writing. Since then, I have made it my “mantra” to attempt to get it right. Thanks for more clarification on this subject.

  2. WordPress was not cooperating with Catherine Kullman this morning. I told her I would share her comments here.
    Catherine Kullmann A clear and concise summary of ‘The Rules’. Thank you.
    One additional point: My edition of Titles and Forms of Address, published in 1945 says about the title ‘Honourable’: “The use of this title is not without its difficulties……….The important rule to note is that it is never used in speech, even by a servant. Neither is it used for letter-writing, excepting on the envelope.” Later, when discussing younger sons of Earls, they add ‘The title is never printed on visiting-cards, so that without inner knowledge it is difficult to recognize the rank.”
    I have seen it printed in La Belle Assemblée’s list of attendees at Queen Charlotte’s Drawing-Room in 1816, where they simply broke the list down by rang e.g. Dukes, Duchesses, Marquisses, Marchionesses, etc. right down to Misses.
    I have also seen in painted on a steamer trunk e.g. The Hon. Mrs John Smith.

  3. Beatrice says:

    Thank you! The one issue you have not covered is the title of the spouse of a younger son. She gets his rank and both his first name and surname. Her own name is lost. For instance when Prince Harry marries, he will probably be made a duke and his wife a duchess, but otherwise she would become Princess Harry or Henry, never Princess Meghan. When Prince Michael of Kent married, his wife became Princess Michael of Kent. In contrast, when eldest son of the Queen, Prince Charles. married Lady Diana Spencer, she became Diana, Princess of Wales.

  4. Sarah Trevor says:

    There are numerous Englishmen scattered through history called as Sir (first name) + (surname) in history. Sir Francis Drake. Sir Walter Raleigh. I doubt they fall into any of the categories above,(Knights perhaps?), but I wonder how their wives should be addressed? As Lady (His surname) or Lady (her first name) or Lady (his first name). There are a number of such men in my current historical novel and two are married, so would welcome your insight.

    • Sarah, Sir is used for a man who is knighted ( or a man who is a baronet. The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) tells us, “A knight is always addressed and referred to as Sir Firstname. Nothing more. This is not disrespect, but correct and proper usage. Sir Yehudi, Sir Winston, Sir Francis. Never, never, Sir Menuhin, Sir Churchill or Sir Austen. Wives of knights, on the other hand, are always addressed as Lady Husband’s Lastname: Lady Menuhin, Lady Churchill, Lady Austen. A knight’s title is not inherited. The young Lucas who would drink a bottle of wine a day if he were as rich as Mr. Darcy will never be Sir Firstname Lucas. If writing a letter to a knight and his first name is not known, the address is Sir – Lastname. Never, never Sir Lastname. These are things that used to be learned at one’s mother’s knee. All these forms of address apply equally to baronets, who are the next rung up the titled ladder.”

      A baronet is the holder of a baronetcy, a hereditary title awarded by the British Crown. The practice of awarding baronetcies was originally introduced in England in the 14th century and was used by James I of England in 1611 as a means of raising funds.
      Like knights, baronets are accorded the style “Sir” before their first name. Baronetesses in their own right use “Dame”, also before their first name, while wives of baronets use “Lady” followed by the husband’s (marital) surname only, this by longstanding courtesy. Wives of baronets are not baronetesses; only women holding baronetcies in their own right are so styled.

      Unlike knighthoods – which apply to the recipient only – a baronetcy is hereditarily entailed. The eldest son of a baronet who is born in wedlock succeeds to a baronetcy upon his father’s death, but will not be officially recognised until his name is recognised by being placed on the Official Roll. With some exceptions granted with special remainder by letters patent, baronetcies descend through the male line.

      Remember a baronetcy is a hereditary title, but it is not part of the peerage. The peerage is duke/duchess, marquess/marchioness, earl/countess, viscount/viscountess, and baron/baroness.

      Wives of both knights and baronets are Lady (His Surname). In “Pride and Prejudice,” Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the king during his mayoralty. Throughout the book, he addressed as Sir William. His wife is Lady Lucas.

  5. Books Tea Gardens says:

    Reblogged this on BOOKS & TEA & GARDENS and commented:
    REGINA JEFFERS BLOG: Courtesy Titles (or) Not, a Confusing Aspect of Reading and Writing Historical Novels

  6. Michelle H says:

    Great informative article/post. But now my grey matter has gone to mush. I want to print this out to refer to.

    Well Regina, I know what a stickler you are in your writing, especially where it comes to accurate historical references. So, I am trying to say that I enjoy your stories for that in general, but the real appeal is the plot. The story with its characters and their struggles and eventual HEA are what keeps me buying your books. Yes, I was completely a ‘green girl’ when I started reading JAFF and Regency so these mistakes passed over my head. Eventually I learned something though. Titles are so confusing at times and I will agree that this has been perpetrated by authors who have made those mistakes. What always confused me the most was that between his friends, equals in education or property, etc., would refer to a title holder as: His last name (family) or just his title, or his actual full proper title, e.g., Jeffers, Lord Reggie, Hartford, etc. I’d wonder ‘what? who? wait a minute, another character?’

    • I received quite a tongue-lashing from several JAFF readers when in one book I had both Elizabeth and Georgiana refer to Mr. Darcy as “Darcy.” If there were others around, the ladies would not call him “Fitzwilliam” or “William,” but those readers objected, saying the women would not address him by his last name.

      I am thrilled you buy my books for the stories. It’s the history geek in me that attempts to have the right details. LOL! I screw up occasionally, but not from a lack of effort on my part.

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