Today we’ll be talking about the lords, ladies, and forms of address for the peerage of England.

So, if you’re a fan of classic literature or period dramas, you’ve definitely been introduced to a world of lords and ladies. In Jane Austen’s works, for example, we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, Sir Bertam in Mansfield Park and the Vicountess Dalrymple in Persuasion. Many are familiar with the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.

But have you ever wondered, what is a lord or lady anyway? And why are there so many different ways to address them?

Those are great questions and we’ll be answering that for you here today on Dashie Notes.

So what is an English lord? Well, simply, “lord” is a common form of address for someone who is a peer in England.

A peer is someone who has either inherited or had the monarch bestow upon them one of the five titles of peerage. Those titles are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron. 

To better understand peerage titles and their use in classic literature and period dramas, let’s look closer at the following:

  1. Peers and Their Wives
  2. Peers’ Children 
  3. Baronets and Knights

Peers and Their Wives: What It Means To Be A Peer

Throughout history, the English monarch has bestowed peerages on men for various reasons.

Kings made some medieval landlords peers when they pledged their loyalty to him.

While other kings rewarded military heroes for their bravery. The first Duke of Wellington was royally bestowed that title because of his valiant campaign against Napoleon.

Most peerages in the past were hereditary, meaning that they passed along the male line.

A side note on dukes: there are royal and non-royal dukes.

Often, a monarch’s sons are given dukedoms when they come of age or marry. Those are known as royal dukes. You may be familiar with this from when Prince William married Kate Middleton and they became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

There are only 24 non-royal dukedoms in England currently.

Being a peer also carried certain privileges, including serving in the House of Lords in the English parliament. Also, peers had the right to be tried by the House of Lords if accused of felony offenses.

Order of Precedence

You may have noticed in period books and movies that people are very preoccupied with social standing. Even when walking from the drawing-room into the dining room, they line up according to social standing.

In fact, during that time period, the lady of the house was expected to have on hand a book that listed precedence. She also had to know the exact rank of her dinner guests so she could make sure they lined up perfectly.

When it comes to peers, dukes are the highest ranking, or the first to walk into the dining room. Followed by marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons. 

Wives of Peers

Wives of peers took on the honor and precedence of their husbands.

A Duke’s wife is called a Duchess, a Marquess’ wife a Marchioness, an Earl’s wife is called a countess.

Honestly, I think the earl plus countess combination is the most confusing because they sound nothing alike.

But thankfully, a viscount’s wife is a viscountess and a baron’s wife is a baroness.

Forms of Address

While their official titles are duke and duchess, earl and countess, so on and so forth, we rarely hear or read that in novels because in day to day life they are addressed differently.

Usually, a peer’s title refers to a geographical location instead of a family name. Henceforth, we have the Duke of Cambridge and the Earl of Kent. 

The everyday form of address for marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons, would be to combine the title “Lord”  with what they are the lord of, more than likely that geographical location. So, the Earl of Kent would be called Lord Kent in his everyday life. Baron Dormer would be called Lord Dormer. 

Marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses are likewise titled “Lady” plus geographical location. So the Countess of Kent would be called Lady Kent and Baroness Dormer would be Lady Dormer.

When addressed, especially by servants and those lower on the social ladder, they were called “my lord” and “my lady.”

Dukes and Duchesses, however, are entirely different. Other members of the nobility would address them as “Duke” or “Duchess.”

Lower-ranking members of society would address them as “your grace”. They would never be referred to as Lord or Lady.

Peers Children and Courtesy Titles

A peer and their wife’s titles legally belong to them. However, the titles given to their children and family members are more like social necessities accorded them because of their parent’s status. We call these courtesy titles.

For example, the daughters of a duke, marquess, and earl have the courtesy title “lady”. Only, their title is Lady then their First Name and Last Name, unlike their mothers who are Lady plus husband’s title name. This is why in Downton Abbey, Lord and Lady Grantham’s daughters are known as Lady Mary Crawley, Lady Edith Crawly and Lady Sybil Crawly. Likewise, the younger sons of dukes and marquess are Lord First Name Last Name. 

The daughters and younger sons of viscounts and barons, as well as the younger sons of earls, are simply referred to honorables. We see this in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when the daughter of a viscount is referred to as the Honorable Miss Carteret.

Now, you may have noticed that I left out the older sons of peers. Often, a peer does not hold just one title. For example, the Duke of Devonshire also has the titles Marquess of Hartington, Earl of Devonshire, Earl of Burlington, and a few more. Because a peer has so many titles, their oldest son and heir uses one of his father’s lesser titles as his courtesy title. Technically the title still belongs to his father, but he’s borrowing it. For example, the Duke of Devonshire’s oldest son usually uses the title Marquess of Hartington. Which means in everyday life, he would be referred to as Lord Hartington. Lord Hartington’s wife would be referred to as Lady Hartington.

Now, this may all get quite confusing when reading classic literature or watching period dramas. Especially because this means often members of the same family have very different ways of being addressed. Just the other day, I was watching Downton Abbey with my mother and she asked why Lady Mary Crawley had the same last name as her cousin Matthew Crawley but her parents Lord and Lady Grantham had a different last name.   

From what we’ve been talking about, can you answer that question?

The answer is that Grantham is not the family’s last name, but rather Crawley is. But because Robert and Cora Crawly hold the titles of Earl and Countess of Grantham, they’re referred to as Lord and Lady Grantham. While their daughter’s courtesy title of Lady simply combines with their first and last name, which makes Mary, Lady Mary Crawley. 

Baronets and Knights

So, we’ve covered what it means to be a peer and part of the true nobility of England. Let’s take a minute to understand a couple of other titles, baronet and knight.

Baronets and knights are not actually part the nobility. Instead, they are part of the upper-middle class. A knight is a life long title given to a man because he did something noteworthy for society. For example, Sir William Lukas in Pride and Prejudice served as mayor of a city and received a knighthood for that. While a knight’s wife may be called Lady, such as Lady Lukas is, none of the other family members receive titles and the knighthood cannot be passed on to any son.

Baronets, on the other hand, are heredity knighthoods, which means they do pass on from generation to generation. Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion and Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park are both baronets. Their wives are also referred to as Ladies, but the children do not receive courtesy titles.

Also, the correct form of address is to call a knight or baronet Sir plus First Name. Their wife is Lady plus last name. For example, in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Percy and Marguerite Blakeney become Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney. 

Conclusion

So what is an English lord? A man who holds a peerage title, such as a duke, marquess, earl, viscount or baron.

If you could have any noble title, which would you choose? Let me know in the comments below.