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British Dukes, Earls, Duchesses &
Countesses—Explained

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eespecially for those of us who “aren’t good with names” (everyone?), mixing and mingling with the English nobility presents an added challenge. Let’s take Kate Middleton for example. Since marrying Prince William, isn’t she a Princess? Or is she a Duchess…of Cambridge? Why Cambridge? And when we run into her at Selfridges, what should we call her? Your majesty? Your grace? My lady?

All of these age-old naming conventions come to us courtesy of the UK’s system of “peerage,” the method by which Lords have inherited their domains and titles since the feudal era. We know this ever-evolving catalogue of hierarchical conventions and rules can be a lot to navigate, so we’ve broken it down just a bit. Whether you’re reading about the Royals or just watching Downton Abbey, here’s how to make sense of who’s who and what’s what.

 

Noble Beginnings
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The system of peerage began in the Middle Ages with the rise of feudalism. The original English Kings were professional warriors (often from Scandinavia) who conquered lands by force and demanded a tithe from all who lived there. They divided up their kingdoms into smaller collections of shires, appointing their closest knights to manage them. These men became the first Lords of any-given-area, and the system of peerage was born. From then on, it continued to shift and evolve as the all-powerful Monarchs made up new rankings and rules to suit their political needs.

The Ranks of Royal Peerage

King & Queen
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Majesty
queenThe highest of the high and the creators of all the rules, Kings and Queens have been changing up this system to suit their purposes since the Middle Ages through to the 2010s. In fact Queen Elizabeth II recently decreed that all children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales (Prince William) would get to be Prince and Princess—thus Kate Middleton’s royal babies, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Formerly the title only extended to grandsons of the Sovereign, but not granddaughters.

Prince & Princess
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Highness

queen-2When placed in front of a first name, these titles are exclusively for the direct sons and daughters of the Monarch…beyond that, it’s a bit more complicated. Grandchildren of the Monarch’s sons, such as Prince Charles, are also Prince and Princess, but the children of the Monarch’s daughters may be just regular joes and janes unless offered a special exception. Meanwhile, if a woman marries a Prince she does earn his princeship title—as in Diana, Princess of Wales—but if a man marries a Princess he does not become a Prince. He’d have to marry a Queen, like Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert.

Duke & Duchess
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Grace
queen-3After the King and Queen, Dukes are the highest ranking members of the British nobility—it’s the most esteemed title a Monarch can bestow. This is partly why Kate Middleton is called Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge rather than Princess of Wales (she’s not entitled to Princess Kate). When she and Prince William married in 2011, Her Majesty the Queen gifted the new royal couple the Duchy of Cambridge, and this became the duo’s highest ranking title (of many!). Prince Charles meanwhile, is most notably the Duke of Cornwall, a title that historically belongs to the Monarch’s eldest son.

Marquis & Marquoness
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Lordship / Ladyship
king-1Borrowed from France, the rank of Marquis finds itself just below Duke and above Earl. Current pop culture brings us no noteworthy Marquis to ponder, so let’s move forward to the Earls, shall we?

Earl / Count & Countess
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Lordship / Ladyship

king-2Here we have Downton Abbey’s reigning power couple, Robert, the Earl of Grantham and Cora, the Countess of Grantham. Earls and Counts are essentially one in the same (the latter is used everywhere else in Europe) but since Earless doesn’t sound so great, no Earl’s wife uses it, opting for Countess instead. Earldoms are often also held by Dukes and Princes, and bestowed on their sons as a courtesy title. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge also happens to be Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus. It’s common for peers of the realm to have several titles marking their climb up the ranks.

Viscount, Baron
Viscountess, & Baroness
FORM OF ADDRESS: His / Her / Your Lordship / Ladyship
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While Princes, Dukes, Earls and their wives are all Duke of Here, Countess of There, Viscounts and Barons are titles with no attachment to land. A key difference is that those who receive the landed rankings take the name of their land, and the others don’t. So for example, if Kanye West was granted the Duchy of Chicago (his home city), you’d refer to him as the Duke of Chicago, Lord Chicago, or Chicago. Kim would become the Countess of Chicago, or Lady Chicago. Now if he were bestowed the title of Baron, he’d just be Baron West or Lord West, and she’d be Baroness West or Lady West. In either case, their children could be called be called Lady North and Lord Saint. One day, Saint could become Baron West or the Duke of Chicago himself.

 
What about…

Lords & Ladies
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Doesn’t it seem like everyone is a Lord or a Lady at least some of the time? It’s true—they are. From Barons all the way up to Dukes, noblemen and women are often referred to as Lord Location, or Lady Lastname. Additionally Lady and Lord are given as courtesy titles to children of high-ranking men. This is differentiated from peers and their wives by using the woman’s first name, as in Lady Mary of Downton Abbey. Being the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, she inherits no title but has her nobility-by-birth called out in the name Lady Mary. Her mother meanwhile, would never be Lady Cora—only Lady Grantham.

Dowagers

lady-2You may have noticed the system of peerage is somewhat man-centric. Indeed, titles are ideally passed down to the eldest male heir and will be lost if there is none, unless the family petitions to revive it when a female heir bears a son, for example. Widows are allowed to maintain their titles, but things can get confusing when their sons marry. Take the Earl of Grantham’s mother on Downton Abbey. To not be confused with her son’s wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham, you may have heard her referred to as the Dowager Countess. Adding the word Dowager to any title simply indicates a widow.

Sirs & Dames
lady-3Knighthood is the only noble ranking still given out to commoners by the crown. Separate from the hereditary system of peerage, it belongs to a different order known as the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Fancy, right? Knighthoods cannot be inherited, but are awarded to notable UK citizens whose achievements reflect brilliantly on the British people. Take Sir Elton John and Sir Richard Branson—two modern-day knights who aren’t going to be jousting any time soon. For a female knight, the title is Dame, a la Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren.

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