Noble Titles - Source: Richard Grant White

Typed directly from England Without and Within, by Richard Grant White, 8th Edition, 1885.

More About Titles and the Nobility

The various ranks of noblemen now in England are, beginning at the lowest, baron, viscount, earl, marquess and duke. Every peer is a baron and every baron a peer. The House of Lords is, and always has been, as assemblage of the barons of England. A baron being in the old feudal sense of the word a man who is lord of certain manors and who, upon the summons of his sovereign, must take the field at the head of a body of retainers, the title is a generic one for noblemen all ranks. Thus Magna Charta was exhorted from King John by certain barons; but they were the most important and powerful noblemen in the kingdom. A man summoned to Parliament by writ was summoned as baron of a certain lordship in land which gave him his title, or one of his titles; and a man who in modern days is raised to the peerage is made a baron, whatever other and right rank may be bestowed upon him. But the title baron is never used in England in addressing a peer ... In England the word used is simply "lord" and this applies to all peers below the rank of duke except in formal addresses or other documents or "in print" when there is some reason for particular distinction.

The next step in nobility is to the rank of viscount, which, however, is not an old title in English nobility, and like marquess, is not regarded as particularly English. A nobleman raised from the rank of baron to that of viscount still retains his baronage. Thus if a gentleman were raised to the peerage as Baron Stratford, he would be called Lord Stratford and if he were afterward made Viscount Avon he would be called Lord Avon, but he would still be Baron Stratford as well as Viscount Avon. This adhesion of the inferior titles (except in certain cases of limitation by patent) continues as the nobleman rises, if he should rise, to the highest rank; and if our supposed example were made Earl of Kenilworth, then Marquess of Coventry and finally Duke of Warwickshire, he would be baron, viscount, earl and marquess, as well as duke; and he might also be a baronet; and all his titles would be mentioned in an account of his rank in the peerage.

Earl is the oldest of English titles, and of all titles is the most thoroughly English....

Marquess, which means lord of the marches (that is, borders) is a title unknown in England before 1385. The first English Marquess, Robert Vere, had an Irish title, Marquess of Dublin, which was bestowed upon him by Parliament at the pleasure of Richard II. It was rarely bestowed afterwards, until the last century....

Dukes, the title of the highest rank next to that of the princes of the royal blood, is the third in antiquity in England as a title of honor and dignity.... The first English duke was Edward the Black Prince, whom his father made Duke of Cornwall.

A duke is the only English noble who is usually addressed by his title. It is proper, in addressing him at the beginning of a conversation, or after a break in it, to say, for example, "Duke, will you be kind enough?" etc., at other times, it is almost needless to say, he is addressed as "your grace," in the use of which title much want of discretion and self-respect may be shown. But no other nobleman is commonly addressed by his title, as marquess, earl or viscount. All from baron to duke are addressed simply as "my lord;" and in the use of "your lordship" although it is legitimate, there is a peril similar to that in the use of "your grace."

This phrase, "your grace," is called "the style" of a duke, who is formally addressed on letters and otherwise as His Grace, the Duke of, etc. The style of a marquess is the Most Noble; that of earls, viscounts and barons, the Right Honorable. But, except in the case of a duke, who is supposed to be a very awful and inapproachable person, friends, in writing to each other, usually omit these styles and address the marquess or earl of ---------, or, more generally, use simply Lord.

All other titles are merely what are called courtesy titles borne by commoners, or titles of knighthood, the bearers of which are also commoners. The son of a duke, a marquess or an earl bears the second title of his father, by courtesy of the crown. A duke, as I have already remarked, is also an earl, a viscount, and a baron, and generally, but not always, a marquess; a marquess is also an earl and a viscount and a baron and so on. The eldest son of a duke bears, therefore, as his courtesy title, that of his father's marquessate or earldom. For example, the Marquess of Huntingdon is a commoner, just like John Smith; and he is a member of the House of Commons, which he would not be if he were really a marquess. But by courtesy he is called by the second title of his father, the duke of Devonshire. The Duke of Norfolk's eldest son, however, is not by courtesy a marquess, but an earl -Earl of Surrey because the dukedom of Norfolk is older than the day when the fashion of making English marquesses came into vogue, and his second title is Earl of Surrey, which he would not have made marquess for any sum of money that could be offered him. The younger sons of dukes and marquesses (although of course commoners) are called Lord, and their daughters Lady. Thus, the eminent statesman who was known to all the world as Lord John Russell was only a commoner, and would have been described in a legal document as the Honorable John Russell. His "lordship" came to him merely by courtesy, because he was a younger son of the Duke of Bedford. He was made a peer in his own right, as Earl Russell.

The presence of a Christian name after the title Lord is in itself evidence that the bearer of the title is not a nobleman, not a peer, and also that he is a younger son of a duke or marquess. And so also Lady Marys and Lady Sarahs are not peeresses, but the daughters of earls, marquesses and dukes. For the sons and daughters of viscounts and barons bear no courtesy title, but are styled Honorable. This title Honorable, which is made ridiculous in the United States by its bestowal upon every man who fills or who has ever filled, one of our million public offices, is little used in England, except as a token of noble descent; and it pertains, as I have remarked, as well to women as to men, which is also true of Right Honorable in case of peeresses or the daughters of dukes and marquesses.

A knight baronet, or a simple knight... is called Sir and his wife his called Lady, just as any peeress is, under the rank of duchess.

Baronets are peculiar to England. They are commoners; and yet they have an hereditary title. The title was originally sold by James I, who invented it for the purpose of raising money by its sale to quell a rebellion in Ulster; whence all baronets bear the red hand of Ulster in their shields of arms.

Knighthood is not hereditary; because it is always conferred upon the bearer for services or qualities personal to himself. It was originally a very high honor, and one which noblemen did not always bear, but bearing, always greatly prized.... In Shakespeare's time, [it] was given "on carpet consideration," and from that time on became more and more common until now it is the lowest and least regarded of all tokens of social distinction. It has, however, one remnant of its original value: it belongs to the person and must be won....

Baronetcy, however, and even simple knighthood are prized for one reason, - precedence.

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