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View Full Version : English peerage and titles - a few questions



wendymarlowe
05-26-2013, 07:29 AM
I like to think I've got a pretty good grasp of how titles in the peerage work, but I'm finding that being able to read Regency books and being able to properly write about them are two different things!

1) What would a dowager countess be called? (And would "dowager countess" be capitalized?) My main character is Lord Alexander Courtenay, Earl of Penholm. I'm assuming he'd be "Penholm" or "Lord Penholm" most of the time, and "Alex" to his mother and his sister (and the heroine, who is a long-time good friend, at least in private). I think the dowager countess would be "Lady Courtenay" just like my earl's (is that capitalized too?) hypothetical wife would be, but maybe that would be confusing and there's another way it would be done?

2) A side character is the son of a viscount. My characters are talking about him informally in the third person. What would he be? Assume his parents are John and Jane Smith and John Smith is the Viscount Something-or-other (making them Lord John Smith, Viscount Something-or-other and Lady Something-or-other *I think*). Would my main character call him "John Smith" or "Lord John Smith" or "John, Lord Smith?"

3) How would titles change between public and private? I know that even wives often had to call their husbands by their formal titles while in public, but what defines "public?" In a private get-together with close friends? With family? At an informal dinner party? I know I can't have my heroine going around calling her friend "Alex" all the time, even if that's how she thinks of him, but I'm worried that using three or four forms of address for each character will get very confusing very quickly!

ULTRAGOTHA
05-26-2013, 08:36 AM
1) What would a dowager countess be called? (And would "dowager countess" be capitalized?)

The Dowager Countess of Penholm is called Lady Penholm, and "my lady". She's only a dowager, though, if the Earl is married. If he's not yet married because he's busy courting your FMC, his mother is not a dowager, she's still the only Countess.


My main character is Lord Alexander Courtenay, Earl of Penholm. I'm assuming he'd be "Penholm" or "Lord Penholm" most of the time, and "Alex" to his mother and his sister (and the heroine, who is a long-time good friend, at least in private).

He's not "Lord" Alexander Cortenay, Earl of Penholm. He's Alexander Courtenay the Earl of Penholm and is addressed as Lord Penholm or "my lord". He hasn't been Lord Alexander* since his father died. (His brothers are not Lord anyone, they're all The Honorable Mr. Courtenay. His sisters are all Lady Firstname.)

*He might not have been Lord Alexander even then. If his father had a lesser title such as Viscount Fauntleroy then his father would have allowed his eldest son to use that title and Alexander would have been Lord Fauntleroy. If he was born when his grandfather was still the Earl, he would have gone from being Alexander Courtenay to being Lord Fauntleroy (when his grandfather died) to being Lord Penholm (when his father died).

If your story is set in the Regency, then he's "Penholm" most of the time even to his family. Intimately--in other words only around the intimate family and very intimate friends--would he be Alex. But around anyone who is not very, very close they'd call him and refer to him as "Penholm".

ETA: If he's gone off to Eton or Harrow or Oxbridge he may have picked up a nick name that his school and university friends call him in all sorts of circumstances. Just to add to the name confusion! ;)




I think the dowager countess would be "Lady Courtenay" just like my earl's (is that capitalized too?) hypothetical wife would be, but maybe that would be confusing and there's another way it would be done?

No, the mother (and wife) of the Earl of Penholm are Lady Penholm. Not Lady Courtenay. Courtenay is the surname, Penholm is the title.



2) A side character is the son of a viscount. My characters are talking about him informally in the third person. What would he be? Assume his parents are John and Jane Smith and John Smith is the Viscount Something-or-other (making them Lord John Smith, Viscount Something-or-other and Lady Something-or-other *I think*). Would my main character call him "John Smith" or "Lord John Smith" or "John, Lord Smith?"

The children of a Viscount are all "The Honorable Jane or John Smith" (But only very formally or in writing.) As are the younger sons of an Earl and the children of Barons.

Your side character would be called "Mr. Smith" by acquaintances, "Smith" by his friends and "John" by his family. Never "The Honorable" unless he's being announced in Court or something.
His eldest unmarried sister would be called "Miss Smith". His younger sisters who are out in society would be called "Miss Firstname Smith".



3) ... I'm worried that using three or four forms of address for each character will get very confusing very quickly!

Yes, it is! But those of us who know the rules will very much appreciate it!

Oh, this site (http://www.debretts.com/people/essential-guide-to-the-peerage/courtesy-titles.aspx) might help.

shaldna
05-26-2013, 10:04 AM
If I remember correctly it's Sir Firstname and Lord Surname.

Ladies can go either way depending on the actual title.

ULTRAGOTHA
05-26-2013, 10:31 AM
If I remember correctly it's Sir Firstname and Lord Surname.

Ladies can go either way depending on the actual title.

It's Sir Firstname for Knights and Baronetts only.

It's Lord Surname for Barons (usually). Not for Earls or Viscounts.

Ladies are Lady Firstname for daughters of Dukes or Earls.

They are Lady Surname for wives of Knights and Baronetts and Barons.

They are Lady Title for wives of most other Peers.

They are Lady Husbandsfirstname if they marry a Lord Firstname (Lady Peter Wimsey for example).

Rules get a bit more complicated for Peresses in their own right and Lady Firstnames who marry Peers.

wendymarlowe
05-26-2013, 11:50 AM
Thanks so much :-) The story is actually set in 1870 in a steampunk-esque version of Victorian England. Which is to say, I've added some steampunk elements (and one paranormal element), but other than that I've tried to stay true to what Victorian society was at that time. (And where I deviate from historical accuracy, it's in logical relation to the steampunk/paranormal elements.) The earl is not actually the hero in this book (he'll get his own next!), but the plot does revolve around his family so he does play a major role.

Tanydwr
05-26-2013, 08:32 PM
There are a few other online resources such as http://www.chinet.com/~laura/html/titles12.html and this one - http://www.heraldica.org/topics/odegard/titlefaq.htm - which has information about various European titles, just in case you should need those.

On a side note, some nobles would have several titles - the Duke of Winchester might also be the Marquess of Helmsbury, Earl of Lancaster, and Baron Winslop. In this case, his eldest son would take his second highest title by courtesy - in this case, he would be the Marquess of Helmsbury, or Lord Helmsbury. All other sons of a Duke are Lord Firtsname Surname. (Only the eldest sons of a duke, marquess or earl hold courtesy titles - I don't know about grandsons.)

Technically, the only people who are peers are those holding the title - their wives, sons and daughters all hold their titles by courtesy. This is why the Queen Mother was considered a 'commoner' - because she was not a peer in her own right.

A side note on dowagers - technically you are only the dowager if you are the widow of the last peer, and the mother, stepmother or grandmother of the new one. In no other cases is she a dowager. Useful link here: http://www.chinet.com/~laura/html/titles09.html.

Hope that helps as well.

ULTRAGOTHA
05-26-2013, 09:31 PM
Thanks so much :-) The story is actually set in 1870 in a steampunk-esque version of Victorian England.

You're more than welcome. I love this stuff!

Tanydwr's links look very helpful, too.

I don't think the Victorians were less formal than the Georgians so confining "Alex" to the most intimate friends and family ought to be correct for your time period also.

Have fun!

Cranky1
05-26-2013, 11:13 PM
Ultragotha, I absolutely love you! I do. You would not imagine how many regency based romance novels do not properly know how to use titles. I once read a regency novel (by a fairly popular author) who had the daughter of a baronet being called "Lady Anne".

ULTRAGOTHA
05-27-2013, 04:10 AM
Ultragotha, I absolutely love you! I do. You would not imagine how many regency based romance novels do not properly know how to use titles. I once read a regency novel (by a fairly popular author) who had the daughter of a baronet being called "Lady Anne".


Awww, shucks. :o

Though I must point out I am in a monogamous marriage. ;)

I love all the picky rules regarding titles, which means I am often disappointed when reading period stories with aristocrats. I just finished re-reading Sorcery and Cecelia, which is a wonderful book and the beginning of the Fantasy of Manners genre I so adore. But they didn't get their titles right, either. Though not too badly.

It is complicated and organic and grew over time. And like so many British mores, seems custom-designed to confuse the tourists.

My WIP is also an alternate history, though it's Napoleonic-era Fantasy of Manners, not Steampunk. Here I know all about British title use and I'm not going to use all that much of it. Tre Ironic. No Dukes, Marquises, Viscounts or Barons in my WIP.

Tanydwr
05-27-2013, 02:20 PM
My WIP is also an alternate history, though it's Napoleonic-era Fantasy of Manners, not Steampunk. Here I know all about British title use and I'm not going to use all that much of it. Tre Ironic. No Dukes, Marquises, Viscounts or Barons in my WIP.

Does that mean there are earl and marchlords instead?

ULTRAGOTHA
05-27-2013, 05:26 PM
Jarls and Thengs and maybe Counts. I haven't decided about Counts yet. I do have a Grande Duchesse, but it's a foreign title (hence the foreign spelling).

Also, the King is a Highness. I've decided the English didn't go along with the hubris of the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France in 1519, and did not start using 'majesty'.

I've changed courtesy titles, too. Right now the eldest son of a Jarl is Lord Surname, but only after he's been confirmed as heir. Until then he's Lord Firstname just like his younger siblings. I'm not sure if I'm going to keep that, though. I may give them a courtesy title that isn't the surname.

The eldest son of the King is the Prince Apparent and called Prince Firstname until he's been confirmed, after which he's Prince Bretwald (the line name of the current line of Kings). That's all backstory as the king doesn't have a son yet.

It's been fun working it all out. And then trying to explain it without info dumps!

Lizzybelle
04-25-2016, 03:20 AM
You see to be an expert on the use of the titles, perhaps you can clarify one more items for me? I write Austen-inspired fiction. When I am referring to a character such as Colonel Fitzwilliam or the Earl of Matlock with only Colonel or Earl, would the words be capitalized or not? It is a specific person rather than a generic title. I know "Several earls are meeting at the club." it is not someone specific. However, "said the earl/colonel" refers to someone specific.

Please help me understand the rule for this!




The Dowager Countess of Penholm is called Lady Penholm, and "my lady". She's only a dowager, though, if the Earl is married. If he's not yet married because he's busy courting your FMC, his mother is not a dowager, she's still the only Countess.



He's not "Lord" Alexander Cortenay, Earl of Penholm. He's Alexander Courtenay the Earl of Penholm and is addressed as Lord Penholm or "my lord". He hasn't been Lord Alexander* since his father died. (His brothers are not Lord anyone, they're all The Honorable Mr. Courtenay. His sisters are all Lady Firstname.)

*He might not have been Lord Alexander even then. If his father had a lesser title such as Viscount Fauntleroy then his father would have allowed his eldest son to use that title and Alexander would have been Lord Fauntleroy. If he was born when his grandfather was still the Earl, he would have gone from being Alexander Courtenay to being Lord Fauntleroy (when his grandfather died) to being Lord Penholm (when his father died).

If your story is set in the Regency, then he's "Penholm" most of the time even to his family. Intimately--in other words only around the intimate family and very intimate friends--would he be Alex. But around anyone who is not very, very close they'd call him and refer to him as "Penholm".

ETA: If he's gone off to Eton or Harrow or Oxbridge he may have picked up a nick name that his school and university friends call him in all sorts of circumstances. Just to add to the name confusion! ;)





No, the mother (and wife) of the Earl of Penholm are Lady Penholm. Not Lady Courtenay. Courtenay is the surname, Penholm is the title.




The children of a Viscount are all "The Honorable Jane or John Smith" (But only very formally or in writing.) As are the younger sons of an Earl and the children of Barons.

Your side character would be called "Mr. Smith" by acquaintances, "Smith" by his friends and "John" by his family. Never "The Honorable" unless he's being announced in Court or something.
His eldest unmarried sister would be called "Miss Smith". His younger sisters who are out in society would be called "Miss Firstname Smith".




Yes, it is! But those of us who know the rules will very much appreciate it!

Oh, this site (http://www.debretts.com/people/essential-guide-to-the-peerage/courtesy-titles.aspx) might help.

ULTRAGOTHA
04-25-2016, 03:41 AM
With capitals.

But whether a character refers to your Earl as "Earl" is complex and uncommon. It depends on the relationship of the person to the Earl and also how public the setting is. Title is more common.

"His Lordship said I was to bring his horse around." Groom referring to his employer.
"My Lord, Mr Smith is here to see you." Butler to his employer.
"His Lordship inquired after our little Billy." Person in the village referring to the Earl.
"Matlock dropped a thousand pounds at the club last night." Acquaintence of the Earl's to a friend.

"Have you met Colonel Fitzwilliam? He's home on leave from the Peninsula." Mutual friend offering introduction.
"Fitzwilliam is the best horseman I've ever seen." Friend referring to the Colonel.