What’s So Special About A Duke? A Quick Guide To British Titles

Years ago, when I first started reading historical romance novels, I was confused by British titles. As an American, I had no reference to what a duke was or if an earl was more important than a viscount. If you’ve watched Bridgerton or recently picked up your first historical romance novel, you might be confused too. So I thought I’d give you a very brief “Cliff Notes” version of British titles to help you understand what makes a duke so special.

There are five titles that make up the British peerage (nobility) and all are hereditary. A hereditary title is one that is passed down in the family from father to son, or to the next eldest male relative. A title can be create for someone based on outstanding service to the crown, but once that title is in the family, it stays there until there is no one left to pass it on to in that family line. Now, let’s find out what these titles are. We’ll start at the top and work our way down. Ready? Here we go.

Duke

Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle under Lyne, byJ.M.W. Turner. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

A duke is at the top of the chart, immediately under royalty. His wife is called a duchess. Regardless of what you might assume with all the dukes you find in historical romance novels, there weren’t many of them during the Regency era (1811-1820). For example in 1818, when some of my stories take place, there were less than 30. The prestige and influence granted to someone holding the title and the fact that there were so few of them are part what made a duke the ultimate marriage prize to unmarried Regency women and their families, who wanted to elevate their place in Society. The title always refers to a place, such as the Duke of Devonshire. Oh, and one fun thing about a duke is that it is such a special title it comes with its own unique form of address. A duke or a duchess is only referred to as “Your Grace” by their inferiors. Every other person holding a title in the peerage is referred to as “My Lord” or “My Lady”.

Marquess

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, ca. 1805

One down from the duke is marquess. The wife of a marquess is called a marchioness. According to Debrett’s Handbook there are currently only three marquessates which do not have the word “of” attached to them. They are Camden, Conyngham, and Townshend. Like a duke, the title is associated with a place and not the man’s family name. An example would be Christopher Nevill, the 6th Marquess of Abergavenny. Frequently, a duke would also hold the title of a marquess until his eldest son is born. Then the title would transfer to his son until he then becomes a duke and had his own son. That’s part of the hereditary thing.

Earl

Portrait of Frederick John Robinson, First Earl of Ripon, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1820. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The third step down on Society’s staircase is earl. The wife of an earl is a countess. The title of earl is a bit tricky in the sense that most peers that hold the title are earls of “somewhere”, but there also are a good number that are not. So there is no strict rule about connection to a place.

Viscount

Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson. Oil painting by J.F. Rigaud. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

If you’ve been watching Bridgerton, this is where Anthony Bridgerton falls in the food chain. He is a viscount (pronounced vī-ˌcount). A viscount is under an earl and his wife is a viscountess. An interesting thing to note about a viscount is that ecclesiastical, ambassadorial, and armed forces ranks precede a viscount’s rank when being addressed in coorespondence. So a viscount that was in the military would place that distinction before his title such as Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson.

You may have noticed in Bridgerton that Anthony’s brothers are not referred to as “Lord”. There is a reason for that. The person holding the title of viscount gets that honor. Their siblings, do not. So Benedict, Colin, and Gregory are referred to as “Mister Bridgerton” while Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, and Hyacinth are “Miss Bridgerton”.

Baron

Portrait of Thomas Willoughby, 4th Baron Middleton, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (1761)

A baron is the lowest rank within the peerage. His wife is a baroness. Unlike the other titles, a baron is always referred to verbally or in correspondence as “Lord (last name)”. He is never referred to “Baron (last name)”. As an example, in the portrait above we have Lord Willoughby, 4th Baron Middleton.

While that takes care of the peerage, there are two other British titles that are not part of the peerage. Below the peerage we have baronets and knights. The title of baronet is passed down within a family like in the peerage, however baronets are not peers. They do not sit in the House of Lords or enjoy the privileges of being a peer. Below baronet, and at the bottom of the title chain, is the knight. A knighthood is bestowed on an individual. It is not a hereditary title so it does not pass to a family member. The title is held just for the life of that individual. To help separate them from the peers, baronets and knights are never addressed as “Lord”, but as “Sir”. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte’s father is called Sir William Lucas. Now, just to confuse you, the wife of a baronet or knight however is called Lady. So William’s wife would be Lady Lucas.

I hope this helps you get a better feel for the world those Regency era characters inhabit. If you also found the British titles confusing, or if I can answer any other title questions you have, let me know.

In the meantime, if you’re in the mood to snuggle up with a duke, I have a few for you to pick up.

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