Americans in particular can find the British status system and titles of nobility confusing, and they were much more important in the days of Sherlock Holmes. So let’s take a quick look at British titles, precedence, and correct forms of address.
Immediately below the royal family came the peerage (aka the nobility), who, with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, composed the House of Lords. They were dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons, in descending order of rank. In the case of two peers with the same title, the one whose title was older took precedence.
When someone referred to a “lord,” they always meant a peer or one of his children. Apart from social precedence, huge wealth, and giant estates, their only significant legal privilege was the right, if charged with a felony, to be tried by the House of Lords rather than by a court. Since the Canon never follows cases beyond the arrest of the perpetrator, Watson had no opportunity to report on such a trial.
For extremely formal ceremonial occasions, such as a coronation, peers would wear coronets (whether or not they were ornamented with beryls). Each rank of the peerage had a distinctive coronet.
Titles were always hereditary, except for a very few “life peerages” created in the late 1800s, which died with those receiving the honor. (Today, no new hereditary peerages are created; those honored with titles, such as Baroness Thatcher, receive only life peerages.) The title generally passed to the peer’s eldest son, or, if he was no longer living, to his heir, then to a brother, then to another male direct descendant of the original title-holder, no matter how distant. In most cases, whoever inherited the title also inherited the manor. The complete lack of any qualified male heir would usually mean the end of that peerage.
Note that in each generation, only one child, the heir, was ennobled; the others were legally commoners, though generally given the courtesy title Lord or Lady (a famous recent example was Lady Diana Spencer). These relatives of peers ranked below the titled nobility, though they had higher status than other commoners.
A lady marrying a peer acquired his noble status. The well-known phenomenon of a lord marrying an heiress with no title—perhaps even an American—arose because most estates were “entailed,” meaning that the peer was unable to sell any of the land to raise funds, whether to pay the not insignificant costs attached to maintaining the estate or the expenses of keeping up social appearances.
While some titles were very old, a great many peerages were not. They were frequently awarded for service to the political party in power. (While titles were and are officially bestowed by the monarch, he or she often did so at the behest of the Prime Minister.) In addition, very wealthy lawyers, lord chancellors, and—oddly—brewers became peers, as did military heroes like the Duke of Wellington. Brand-new peerages were considered tacky; in the 1880s, a lord chancellor requested that the title be granted to his father so that he himself would be the second Lord whatever.
Peers could receive promotions, with previous titles trailing after the current one. A character in “The Priory School,” for example, was the Duke of Holdernesse, Earl of Carston, Baron Beverley.
Significantly below the peerage were baronets and knights. (Then came gentlemen and lesser folk, whom we’ll discuss another time.) Holders of these titles were not peers and had much less influence in society, though they might be prominent in their local area, as was Sir Charles Baskerville, a baronet. Like a peerage, a baronetcy was hereditary, but baronets didn’t sit in the House of Lords; they were considered the upper reaches of the gentry (whom, along with lesser folk, we’ll discuss another time). Knighthoods were not hereditary, and thus much less prestigious. While distinguished doctors or lawyers might be made baronets, knighthoods might be bestowed even on people who were—horrors!—“in trade.”
Titles and Forms of Address
|Rank||Rank OF Wife||Referred to as||Direct ADDRESS|
|duke||duchess||the Duke/Duchess of Holdernesse||Duke/Duchess, if you’re in the nobility or gentry; Your Grace, otherwise|
|marchioness||the Marquess/Marchioness of Montalva||Lord/Lady Montalva; my Lord/Lady|
|earl||countess2||the Earl/Countess of Blackwater OR Earl/Countess d’Albert3||Lord/Lady Blackwater; my Lord/Lady|
|viscount||viscountess||Viscount/Viscountess Greystoke||Lord/Lady Greystoke; my Lord/Lady|
|baron||baroness||Baron/Baroness Gruner4||Lord/Lady Gruner; my Lord/Lady|
|baronet||lady5||Sir Eustace Brackenstall, Sir Eustace/Lady Brackenstall||Sir Eustace/Lady Brackenstall|
|knight||lady5||Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur/Lady Doyle||Sir Arthur/Lady Doyle|
2The title earl derives from Anglo-Saxon and is equivalent to the European title count.
3Depending on whether the title included a geographic location or simply a name.
4A baron was almost never spoken of or addressed as Baron; a famous example is the poet Lord Tennyson, who was created a baron.
5The female peerage found the use of the title lady by the lower ranks annoying; some apparently wished the wives of knights would resume their old title of dame.
The widow of a peer retained her title until the heir to the peerage married and his wife assumed his rank; after that, the previous peer’s widow would be referred to as either the Dowager Viscountess Greystoke or the more modern Jane, Viscountess Greystoke, with the first name differentiating her from the current Viscount’s wife. A peer who wished to distinguish himself from previous holders of the title would use the similar form Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
All children of peers were commoners, including the eldest son, until inheriting the title or being granted a peerage himself. They (and, if male, their wives) were given courtesy titles to distinguish them socially.
- The eldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl was called, e.g., Lord St Simon, and his wife would be Lady Robert St Simon, addressed as Lady Robert. In some cases the eldest son would use an inferior title of his father’s—e.g., the son of the Duke of Holdernesse might be the Earl of Carston—but this was still a courtesy title, and he remained a commoner.
- A younger son of a duke or marquess was called Lord, and any daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl was called Lady; in both cases, the courtesy title would be followed by the first and last name, as in Lady Frances Carfax.
- The younger sons of earls and all children of viscounts and barons were called the Honourable; e.g., the second son of the Earl of Maynooth was the Honourable Ronald Adair.
When addressing royalty, the monarch was Your Majesty, and the monarch’s spouse, children, and siblings were Your Royal Highness. Nephews, nieces, and cousins of the monarch were Your Highness.
Helpfully, given this disorganized mess of titles, the overly ostentatious use of formal titles was frowned on. The Queen herself was often addressed as Ma’am. Only servants were expected to frequently use My Lord and My Lady. A contemporary etiquette book noted:
It is, however, well to show that you remember the station of your interlocutor, by now and then introducing some such phrases as, “I think your Grace was observing,” or, “I believe, madam, I was pointing out to you —”
Among themselves, or with relatives and close friends, the nobility would even drop the Lord; for example, friends would call Lord Blackwater simply “Blackwater.” This did not, of course, apply to servants, tradespeople, and other lower orders.
This writer is personally extremely glad that Americans may not bear titles of nobility. It makes etiquette much simpler.
Thanks to Daniel Pool for his useful reference, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.