British Nobility – Peering at the Peerage

“Be noble! And the nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping, but never dead, will rise in majesty to meet thine own.”

~James Russell Lowell

Do you know the difference between a baron and a lord? Is a marquis higher in rank than a duke? I’m here to give a look at British Nobility.

The nobility is called the peerage, the noblemen themselves known as peers. There are five ranks of peers.

The duke is the highest ranked nobleman below the King or Queen and royal children. The land they oversee is a duchy or Dukedom. It was originally a title for a military commander. The female equivalent or wife of a duke is usually a duchess, though there have been a few accounts of female dukes. Duchesses are referred to as “The Duchess” or “Her Grace”.

The next rank is marquess (British spelling) or marquis (N. American and French spelling). A woman is titled marchioness or marquise.

The third rank is earl or count. They were initially the governor of a county or shire. The wife or widow of an earl is a countess.

Viscount is the fourth tier, usually the eldest son of an earl, holding this title while their father is still alive. It can also refer to the person administering a district as the representative of an earl. The female equivalent is the viscountess.

Lowest on the list is baron, though in Great Britain they are addressed with Lord. During the Middle Ages, a baron held lands directly from the king. The woman is a baroness.

Lord comes from loaf-guardian (loaf-kneader for Lady), the land holder providing food for his followers. It is a term for anyone in power and authority, not a specific rank. Anyone below a duke can use the informal title “Lord X”.

In modern day Britain, these titles are mostly formality. They are not all landholders or military leaders.

Titles of wives and children of peers are technically courtesy titles, not held in his/her own right. Children of barons and viscounts are prefixed by “The Honourable”. Sons of dukes and marquesses may use the title Lord. You can tell the difference between a courtesy title and a peerage title by the way their name is introduced. Peerages don’t use first names. If the “Lord” comes before the first name, it is a courtesy title. If it comes before the surname, it is a peerage. An example of the latter is Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

A peerage is only inherited, and only when the previous holder dies. Courtesy titles, on the other hand, can be granted by birth or marriage.