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How to Be a British Peer (or at least talk to one)

May 3, 2011

With the Royal Wedding behind us, I noticed on the blogosphere and from talking to my own family and friends that there was some confusion as to how all this royalty and title business works across the pond.  It’s understandable that it would be difficult for some Americans to grasp this outdated social class, but as an avid Anglophile and reader of all things classic lit, here’s a little quick guide to help those folks out who need to know why a being Duke is better than being a Baron…

HOW TO GET A TITLE:

There are two types of peerages: life and hereditary.  A life peerage expires with, you guessed it, its owner’s life.  It is a one-time only deal.  A hereditary peerage passes down through the family, usually through the male line.   

Unless you are one already, or are related to one that dies without an heir apparent and you are next on the list, the only way to get a British title is to marry someone who has one, or to have the Queen bestow one upon you.  Since this RARELY happens to anyone outside the royal family, good luck with that.  There are always exceptions, however.  For example, Margaret Thatcher, for her service as Prime Minister was created Baroness Thatcher.  Still, her title is not hereditary,but for life, meaning it dies with her and cannot be inherited.

Men are always known by their title of the highest rank (for example, if a guy is the Duke of Blah and the Baron of Duh, he would be known as the Duke of Blah first and foremost and addressed as such –  “His Grace, the Duke of Blah”).

Women are traditionally known by their husband or father’s highest rank, which is why the queen will occasionally grant a former commoner a title so that a relative of the queen can have a husband who is also a peer.  For example, when Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones, he was created Earl of Snowdon, making Margaret still HRH,  and a princess, but also Countess Snowdon.

If you aren’t a royal, and are the daughter of, say the Duke of Blah, you are addressed with the courtesy title (for life) of “Lady Blah”.  You don’t lose your courtesy of  “Lady” if you marry out of the peerage, since you are acknowledged as a Duke’s daughter.  So, if “Lady Blah” marries plain old Mr. Smith, she keeps the “Lady” courtesy title, but is now not considered a “Blah”.  She  is now “Lady Smith”, but her children do NOT inherit her title or form of address.  They would just be Bob and Carol Smith.  Her husband would also simply be Mr. Smith.

If she marries Baron Blech, however, she would become “Lady Blech”, Baroness of Blech, and no longer be known as “Lady Blah”.


CURRENT BRITISH TITLES IN RANK FROM HIGHEST to LOWEST:

King/Queen:

This is the reigning sovereign.  Today that is Queen Elizabeth II, but ONLY because she had no elder brothers.  The order of succession still legally goes through the male line.  Her husband is Prince Phillip (who is the consort and NOT a King in his own right), who is more commonly known as the Duke of Edinburgh.

How to address the queen:  Gents bow, ladies curtsy, but it is becoming acceptable to shake hands instead.  The first time you speak to her (but she ALWAYS speaks first!), you say “Your Majesty”.  After that, you address her as “ma’am” –  but NOT “Mum”!

Prince/Princess (in order of succession):

Usually, these are the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the reigning monarch, but there are exceptions.  Several cousins of the queen, as grandchildren of a FORMER reigning monarch, are also princes and princesses.

HRH Princess Beatrice, daughter of the Duke of York

For example:

HRH (His Royal Highness) Prince Charles, Prince of Wales

HRH Princes William and Harry (sons of Charles)

HRH Prince Andrew, who is also Duke of York

HRH Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (daughters of Andrew and Sarah Ferguson)

HRH Prince Edward,  who is also Earl of Wessex

HRH (Her Royal Highness) Princess Anne (only daughter of Elizabeth II), who is also “Princess Royal” (which basically is a courtesy title)

HRH  Prince Richard, The 2nd Duke of Gloucester (cousin of Queen Elizabeth and has the title as a grandchild of a former reigning sovereign, George V)

HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (another cousin of the queen, another grandson of George V)

HRH Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (cousin of the queen and his wife, but excluded from the succession because he…drumroll please…married a Catholic)

HRH Princess Alexandra, the Honourable Lady Ogilvy (another cousin of the queen, but when she married, went by her husband’s title – Lady Ogilvy.  Her husband is now deceased).

NOTE:  Kate Windsor (formerly Kate Middleton) is NOT a princess until her husband becomes Prince of Wales, which could be when Charles kicks off…

How to address a prince/princess:  Simply address them as “Your Royal Highness” the first time, then sir or ma’am.

Duke/Duchess:

The highest title a “non-royal” can hope to achieve (unless you marry your way in).   All those holding titles below King/Queen and prince/princess are considered to be part of the “peerage”.  These are the gents who hold seats in the House of Lords.  There are only 11 Dukes in England who are not also members of the royal family.

Many members of the royal family have lesser titles (Prince Charles is also Duke of Rothesay, for example) and are Dukes and Duchesses.

Dukes and Duchesses include:

The Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla, Charles’ wife), who although she is an HRH and technically Princess of Wales, chooses to be known by the lesser title of Duchess in order to honor the memory of the late Princess Diana (and not to be confused with her title).

The Duke of York (Prince Andrew)

The Dukes of Kent, Gloucester

HRH Phillip, The Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Elizabeth’s husband

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (HRH Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge)

Addressing a Duke/Duchess:  “Your Grace” for commoners or “Duke” or “Duchess” for peers and social equals

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Marquis and Marchioness:

The wife of a Marquis is a marchioness.   The British pronunciation is ” MAR KWISS”, rather than the French “MAR KEE”.   There is only one active Marquis in England:

The Marquis of Winchester

Addressing a Marquis:  “Lord”  or “Lady” followed by his/her title.  In this case, “Lord Winchester”.

Earl/Countess:


There are quite a few Earls in the British peerage (over 20), and not enough room to list them all.  

In the Royal Family, the most notable Earls/Countesses are:

HRH Edward and Sophie,  Earl and Countess of Wessex (Elizabeth II’s youngest son and his wife)

Anthony Armstrong Jones, Earl of Snowdon (former husband of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister)

Addressing an Earl/Countess:  “Lord” or “Lady” and then his/her title.  After that, “my lord” or “my lady”.  Social equals call them by their title, for example:  “Snowdon”.

Earl and Countess of Snowdon

Viscount/Viscountess:


There are only three Viscounts in the English peerage that are not members of the royal family.  The current Viscounts in the royal family are:

James, Viscount Severn (son of Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex)

David Armstrong Jones, Viscount Linley (son of  the queen’s sister Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones, Earl of Snowdon)

Addressing a Viscount:  “Lord” and then their title.  After that, “my lord”.  Social equals address them by their title, for example: “Linley”.

Viscount Linley


Baron/Baroness: 

Barons are the most common peerage in England.  There are over 30 of them.  Several members of the royal family have a minor title that is a barony.  

For example:

HRH Prince William,  Baron Carrickfergus 

Addressing a Baron:  Simply say “Lord” then his/her title.  For example, “Lord Byron”.  After that, “my lord”.  Social equals say, “Byron”.

Knights and Baronets:

Knights and Baronets are not considered to be part of the peerage, although they are members of the aristocracy.  Both can be hereditary titles, but are more commonly bestowed today for service to the Crown and are life honors.  You must be a British citizen to be knighted, but foreigners can have an ‘honorary’ knighthood, or OBE (Order of the British Empire) (for example, Bob Geldof and Bono are both Honorary Knights).  

Addressing a Knight: You address a Knight as “Sir” and then his/her first name, or their whole name.  For example,  “Sir Patrick Stewart”, or “Sir Patrick”.  Female Knights are addressed as “Dame”.  For example, “Dame Helen Mirren”.

Dame Helen Mirren

 ORDER OF SUCCESSION (who gets the crown?):

Here is the current order of British Succession – i.e., who is first and so on in line for the throne (the list goes on, but I’ve given the top 20):

1. HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales (b. 1948)
2. HRH Prince William of Wales (b. 1982)
3. HRH Prince Henry of Wales (b. 1984)
4. HRH Prince Andrew, The Duke of York (b. 1960)
5. HRH Princess Beatrice of York (b. 1988)
6. HRH Princess Eugenie of York (b. 1990)
7. HRH Prince Edward (b. 1964)
8. James, Viscount Severn (b. 2007)
9. Lady Louise Windsor (b. 2003)
10. HRH Princess Anne, Princess Royal (b. 1950)
11. Peter Phillips (b. 1977)
12. Daughter of Peter and Autumn Phillips (b. 29 Dec 2010)
13. Zara Phillips (b. 1981)
14. David Armstrong-Jones, Viscount Linley (b. 1961)
15. Hon. Charles Armstrong Jones (b. 1999)
16. Margarita Armstrong-Jones (b. 2002)
17. Lady Sarah Chatto (b. 1964)
18. Samuel Chatto (b. 1996)
19. Arthur David Nathaniel Chatto (b. 1999)
20. HRH Prince Richard, The 2nd Duke of Gloucester (b. 1944)

If The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) have sons, those children will jump ahead of Harry in the succession, and be 3rd, 4th, so on down the line (as long as they are male).

An EXAMPLE FROM CLASSIC LIT:

It’s no wonder this can all be confusing.  Let’s take the two sisters in BBC miniseries adaptation of The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton.  They are both Americans marrying into the British peerage, but into very different situations.  The American sisters have the cash, but the boys from across the pond have the flashy titles.  So, Nan and Virginia St. George must learn the ways of the British peerage and navigate who is who and how to address them.  The titles and peerages in The Buccaneers, by the way, are fictional, but based on real-life counterparts.

Sister #1:  Virginia St. George

Virginia marries Lord Seadown (pronounced “SEA-DUN”), who is the eldest son of the Marquis of Brightlingsea (pronounced “BRITTLE SEE”).   Seadown (as he is called by his social equals and friends)  uses his father’s next most important title until he inherits.   For most of the book, Virginia is Lady Seadown.   Her mother-in-law, Lady Brightlingsea, is in charge of the household.

In the final chapters, the Marquis of Brightlingsea dies, and Seadown inherits, becoming the Marquis of Brightlingsea.   From that point on, Virginia becomes the Marchioness of Brightlingsea.

So, Virginia goes from being “Miss St. George” to “Lady Seadown” and finally, “Lady Brightlingsea”.  She is addressed as “My lady” by servants/commoners and as “Lady Brightlingsea” by social equals (but probably Virginia by close friends and family).

Sister #2: Nan St. George

Nan trumps her sister by marrying a Duke, the highest peerage title you can get without being royalty.  She marries Julius Folyat, the Duke of Trevenick (Duke of Tintagel in the novel).   Julius’s father is dead, therefore, Nan’s position is different from her sister’s.  When she marries Julius, she becomes the head of the family’s wife, displacing Julius’s mother, who then becomes the Dowager Duchess (widow of the former Duke).   Nan then becomes “Her Grace, the Duchess of Trevenick”

So, Nan goes from being “Miss St. George” to “Her Grace, the Duchess of Trevenick”.  She is addressed as “Your Grace” by servants and commoners, and “Duchess”  or “Duchess Trevenick” by her social equals (Nan in private).  

She eventually leaves the Duke to run away with Guy Thwaite (Thwarte in the book), her true love,  who is the son of a baronet, Sir Helmsley Thwaite.   A baronet is not a member of the peerage, although they are usually landed gentry and members of the aristocracy.  It is assumed at the end of the novel that Nan divorces the Duke and marries Guy Thwaite.    Her right to be a duchess ends with her divorce, so she would be simply Mrs. Thwaite.  When the baronet dies and if his title is hereditary (which isn’t clear in the novel), Guy would become a baronet and would be addressed as Sir Guy.  Nan would then be “Lady Thwaite”.  But, considering all they go through in the novel, it is assumed that both run off to other parts of the world to live away from the stuffy Brits (and the resulting scandal of their affair) altogether.  


There you have it.  And yes, I know it is crazy complicated and I am quite glad I don’t have to worry about how to talk to Duke What’s His Pants or Lady Blech and Blah or who should go first into the dining room.   Those crazy aristocratic Brits can deal with all of that just fine, thank you! 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thelma Schoen permalink
    May 26, 2011 2:05 am

    Bravo! Well done.

    I appreciate the information. It’s a lot to take in, but now I have a reference that I can consult if ever needed.

    I for one, love the pomp and ceremony. It’s so out-of-the-ordinary that it makes one’s imagination reel, and I can’t get enough of it.

  2. peter Bicknell permalink
    March 28, 2014 6:48 pm

    My favourite title (not mentioned here) is that of the wife of a Duke’s brother, say Lord John Blah, who would be known as Lady John – not Lady Blah.

  3. October 19, 2014 9:19 pm

    This page certainly has all the info I wanted about this subject
    and didn’t know who to ask.

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