Enter Title Here

I am fed up of seeing British-set historical romances that mess up with aristocratic titles. This is fundamental, and while some errors are pretty obscure, others stamp COULDN’T BE BOTHERED across your book. (I’m looking at you, authors who refer to Sir Samuel Smith as ‘Sir Smith’.)

Granted this is intricate and fussy stuff but if you’re writing aristos, it matters. The people inside the system care about the system, therefore if you’re writing characters inside the system, you have to care for the duration of the book. You cannot write about a society if you don’t understand its rules; you can’t write a book about a heroine constrained by social stratification if you have no idea what the social strata even are; you can’t do a faux pas scene of the out-group heroine getting it wrong if none of the in-group are getting it right.

You wouldn’t write a book about the Army in which an officer was addressed as ‘General’ or ‘Sergeant’ depending on the mood of the person talking to them, would you? Or describe an Army officer as ‘Admiral’? Well, same difference. If you don’t get titles right, you’re not respecting the setting–the very historicalness of the historical romance–and that means you’re not respecting the reader.

Debretts, the etiquette guide, has an online breakdown of every shade of address. Use it.

A guide follows–this is by no means exhaustive, but it is exhausting, so I’ve kept it as brief as possible. I am using the characters from my Society of Gentlemen and Charm of Magpies series where possible because a) I don’t have to make up names and b) plug.

EDIT: There is a host of outstanding additional information in the comments (including Reverendtitled people in the military and Mr/Miss), so keep scrolling! And thank you so much to everyone who’s contributed.

Titles are ranked in order of importance. We’re going to work our way up from low to high. Also, this is English and some of the titles work differently in Scotland. And if anyone spots any errors in this, please do have at it in the comments and I’ll correct!

1) Knighthood

Mr. Dominic Frey receives a knighthood for his services to the Board of Taxes. He is now Sir Dominic Frey. He is addressed as Sir Dominic.

He is NEVER. EVER. EVER. EVER addressed as “Sir Frey”. This form DOES NOT EXIST. “Sir” only ever goes with the first name—Sir Dominic. I swear, I will hunt you down if you get this wrong.

In the unlikely event that Mr Dominic Frey married a theoretical Mrs Eleanor Frey, she would now be Lady Frey, or if there was another Lady Frey around with whom she might be confused, Eleanor, Lady Frey. She is not Lady Eleanor, as that indicates a title in her own right.

If Sir Dominic and Lady Frey had had children, they would not have titles, just Mr/Miss.

2) Baronet

Baronets are the lowest grade of hereditary title, and don’t count as peers. When Sir Dominic Frey is made a baronet for services to taxation, he remains Sir Dominic, married to Lady Frey, but now his eldest son John will inherit the baronetcy on his death to become Sir John Frey. None of his other children have titles.

3) Baron

The lowest rung of the peerage. When Dominic gets elevated to the peerage for his tireless work, he becomes Dominic Frey, The Baron Tarlton, and is addressed as Lord Tarlton. His wife is Lady Tarlton and his children are The Honourable John Frey and The Honourable Jane Frey (which will be written as “The Hon John/Jane Frey”). They are still addressed as Mr/Miss—nobody is called “The Hon/ourable” to their face. When Dom dies, The Hon John becomes Lord Tarlton. When The Hon Jane Frey marries Mr Smith, she becomes The Hon Jane Smith but he is still Mr Smith.

“The” takes a capital even in the middle of the sentence if it’s formally stating the title, eg on a legal document or an envelope/invitation. No need to use it in general narration/dialogue unless reading out a formal title.

4) Viscount

Ranks above baron, but works the same. Viscount Wellford is called Lord Wellford; his wife is a viscountess, addressed as Lady Wellford. Children are The Hon. So Mark Heaton, The Viscount Wellford, has kids The Hon Robert Heaton and The Hon Georgina Heaton.

An earl, marquess or duke may also be a viscount or baron, and may give the lesser title to his eldest son and heir apparent as a courtesy. (A duke may also be an earl, even. The Duke of Richmond’s heir apparent has the courtesy title of Earl of March.)

An heir apparent is the eldest son. If there are no sons, a brother or cousin may be next in line, but doesn’t get a courtesy title because he is only an heir presumptive, i.e. could be pushed out of the way by the birth of a son.

If a title is substantive (i.e. it’s yours, not your father’s gift) you are formally “The Viscount Fortunegate”. If it’s a courtesy title, you’re “Viscount Fortunegate”, no The.

Courtesy titles of this kind are not automatic upgrades, but are always in the gift of the substantive holder. It might well go without saying and be done at once, but it’s not a fait accompli all the same.

5) Earl

In third place in the peerage. The seventh holder of the Crane earldom is Peter Vaudrey, full honours The Right Honourable The Earl Crane and Viscount Fortunegate. In the case of this title he is plain Crane; more commonly earldoms are ‘of’ somewhere (e.g. the earl of Lychdale). He is addressed as Lord Crane. His wife is The Countess Crane (or The Countess of Lychdale if there’s an of), and addressed as Lady Crane.

Lord Crane has two sons. His elder son The Hon Hector Vaudrey is accorded the viscountcy as a courtesy title and becomes Viscount Fortunegate (not ‘The’). He is addressed as Lord Fortunegate, wife Lady Fortunegate. Lord Crane’s younger son is The Hon Lucien Vaudrey.

Earls’ daughters get the courtesy title Lady, so if Lord Crane had a daughter Mary, she would be Lady Mary Vaudrey, addressed as Lady Mary. Earls’ sons are The Hon, not ‘Lord’.

6) Marquess

Second from top. A marquess is married to a marchioness and possesses a marquessate. The Marquess of Cirencester is addressed as Lord Cirencester; his wife is Lady Cirencester. Marquesses may also miss out the ‘of’, more rarely.

As with earls, the heir apparent may use one of his father’s titles by courtesy, and the daughters are courtesy-styled Lady. Unlike earls, the younger sons of a duke or marquess have the courtesy style of Lord (e.g. Cirencester’s younger son Lord Richard Vane, called Lord Richard).  When one of these younger sons marries his wife is addressed as Lady by his, not her, first name. So Lord Richard Vane’s wife would be Lady Richard. No, seriously.

7) Duke

The highest rank below the royal family itself. ‘Duke’ is an immensely important title, with only a handful existing at any time, except in romantic fiction where they outnumber the servants. Dukes and duchesses may be addressed as ‘Your Grace’. In formal descriptions dukes are The Most Noble The Duke of Wellington. Dukes are always ‘of’.

You will be profoundly relieved to hear it’s the same as marquesses except (of course there’s an except) Dukes are the only rank of the peerage who may be addressed by rank. (As in, “Really, Duke?” or a letter: “Dear Duke, thank you for your flattering proposal.” )

For all the peerage except dukes, speakers should say Lord/Lady, and not the rank. Your debutante, unless vulgar/ignorant, would never address an English peer as ‘Countess’ or ‘Countess Mary’. (NB: a Scottish baron can be addressed as ‘Baron’; check your Scots separately.)

When speaking to a duke/duchess, you kick off with Your Grace and can then potentially switch to Duke/Duchess or Sir/Ma’am.

Royal dukes (siblings/children of the king/queen) are His/Your Royal Highness.

8) Widows

When the Marquess of Cirencester dies, his widow Eustacia remains Marchioness of Cirencester, addressed as Lady Cirencester, until the new marquess marries. At that point the widow becomes the Dowager Marchioness of Cirencester (description) or the Dowager Lady Cirencester (address), although in more recent times she might go by Eustacia, Marchioness of Cirencester (description)/Eustacia, Lady Cirencester (address).

Case study time!

Take a deep breath, we’re going in.

Let’s say we have two brothers in the Vane family, elder George and younger Gideon. George Vane is formally The Most Honourable The Marquess of Cirencester and Viscount Rodmarton, and is addressed as Lord Cirencester.

Gideon is Lord Gideon (courtesy title as marquess’s younger son). Lord Gideon’s wife Anne is called Lady Gideon. Lord and Lady Gideon have two sons, Mr Matthew Vane and Mr Alexander Vane, neither of whom gets so much as an Hon.

Until Lord Cirencester (George) has a son, Lord Gideon is the heir presumptive (next in line but can be displaced by a son). When Cirencester has a son, Lord Philip, he is the heir apparent, because nobody can precede him in the line of inheritance. If Philip died, his younger brother Richard would be heir apparent; if both brothers died, Gideon would be heir presumptive once more, but could again be displaced by a new son.

Lord Philip is given the courtesy title of Viscount Rodmarton (not ‘The’ because it’s courtesy) and thus is now called Lord Rodmarton. Rodmarton’s children are The Hon Eustace Vane, The Hon Hugh Vane and The Hon Abigail Vane. (In some families, the heir apparent of the heir apparent may also have a courtesy title, if the grandfather has one lying around–if this were the case here, Eustace would be e.g. a baron, Lord Cricklade. It needs to be of lower rank than his father’s title.)

When Lord Cirencester (George) dies, Lord Rodmarton (Philip) becomes Lord Cirencester. He is also The Viscount Rodmarton (now a substantive title); he is called Cirencester because you always use the highest title. His son Eustace becomes Lord Eustace immediately if he doesn’t already have a courtesy title, and Lord Rodmarton when his father confers the courtesy title on him. Abigail becomes Lady Abigail; younger son Hugh becomes Lord Hugh. And since Philip is already married, George’s widow immediately becomes the Dowager Lady Cirencester.

Lady Abigail marries commoner Simon Nichols, and becomes Lady Abigail Nichols, addressed as Lady Abigail. Her husband is plain Mr Nichols.  When the marquess’s younger son Lord Hugh Vane marries, his wife becomes—come on, you can do this—Lady Hugh. None of Lord Hugh or Lady Abigail’s children have titles or honorifics.

Lord Eustace/Lord Rodmarton’s kids are The Hon until Eustace becomes Cirencester in his turn, at which point they get an upgrade to Lord/Lady, and so it rolls on. See? Easy. /weeps/

Key facts reminder

  • ‘Sir’ is ALWAYS used with the forename, NEVER the surname.
  • Lord/Lady Firstname is used only for the daughters of an earl/marquess/duke or the younger sons of a marquess/duke.
  • Nobody is addressed as their rank except dukes. Other peers are my lord/your lordship/Lord Title.

And the big one for those at the back…

Forms of address are not interchangeable.

Either you are Lady Vane, or you are Lady Abigail. It only changes if your circumstances do, e.g. with a marriage or a promotion-by-relative’s-death. It is incredibly common in histrom and steampunk to see authors use ‘Lady Abigail’ when someone’s being friendly and then switch it to ‘Lady Vane’ to show displeasure. I trust readers will now understand why that’s wrong. (Obviously, it’s fine for a miffed intimate to switch from the friendly ‘Abigail’ to the formal ‘Lady X’ to make a point.)

Again: Forms of address are not interchangeable.

Philip Vane is Lord Cirencester, or the marquess of Cirencester, or Philip, or Cirencester, depending on who’s speaking to whom about whom. Those are the options. You cannot describe him in narration or dialogue as Marquess Philip Vane, Marquess Cirencester, Marquess Philip, Lord Philip, or Lord Vane. Those are all wrong. Not optional choices you can make for variety or to show levels of intimacy: wrong.

***

Decide what rank the character holds, and you can pin the correct form down very easily. You do have to be sure about this. If you want your hero Benedict Walton to be called Lord Benedict because you love the way it sounds, he has to be a younger son of a duke or marquess. If you want Benedict to be a duke, he can’t be addressed as Lord Benedict. You could, however, make him an earl or marquess (probably without the ‘of’ as Benedict doesn’t sound like a placename) and have Benedict be his title, so he’s Frederick Walton, The Earl Benedict, addressed as Lord Benedict. See?

(Or you can ignore all this, make up an alternate universe, and set your own rules. Go for it. But any form of titling serves two purposes: to indicate status, and to mark in-group and out-group via knowledge of pointless rules. So an aristocracy where specific titles don’t matter and have no rules is an aristocracy that, basically, wouldn’t exist in human society. That’s the nature of the beast.)

It’s not that hard. Make sure you know what your aristo characters are meant to be called, both title and form of address, stick it to the screen on a Post-It note as you type, and bask in the quiet glory of knowing you got it right.

I will happily clarify or check titles for you as best I can in the comments.

74 replies
  1. Anna Butler
    Anna Butler says:

    When I’m stressed, I read Jane Austen fanfiction. I have seen *every single one* of these rules transgressed, sometimes within the same story.

    Based on that experience, I’d add:
    (a) You can’t bequeath a title in your will. No, really. You can’t. Not ever. It’s not quite the same as your second best coat or that diamond necklace you leave to the handsome footman who, er, tickled your fancy. So, no, Lord A can’t disinherit his son and pass the title on to someone else. He can pass on all the unentailed property, but the title and the estates and property attached to it go to Lord A Junior, no matter how much you want him to leave the title to Mr Darcy. And while Lord B, as Elizabeth’s grandfather (!) might leave her estates and diamonds and dosh, he can’t leave her a title even if he has no surviving male descendant.

    (b) by all means have Elizabeth be the widow of William Cavendish, Fourth Earl of Saffron Walden but her title would NOT be Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. She isn’t the daughter of an earl, or marquess or duke. She would be Lady Saffron Walden.
    And even if William died childless (he was a cad so don’t feel sorry for him) Elizabeth **cannot inherit his title**. No. Never. Not in a billion years. Elizabeth would inherit whatever widow’s portion was agreed in the marriage settlements and she would retain her title – for the present, until the heir married. See below. The title and the estates would probably go to a remote cousin (they’d backtrack through the third Earl’s brothers and cousins etc before they’d give up, and if necessary go back another generation still) and if it proved that there was no-one at all to inherit, then the title and property goes back to the Crown. If there was an heir, however remote, and he is married then his wife becomes the Countess and would be addressed as Lady Saffron Walden. Elizabeth would be the Dowager Lady Saffron Walden.
    And when she marries Mr Darcy, she loses the title and becomes, simply, Mrs Darcy.

    (c) Yes, it is true that most noblemen have several titles. A Duke may also own a marquessate but will own an earldom or two and a viscountcy. The full panoply of these titles will be listed on all official documents (wills, for example). But no, you can’t arbitrarily call him or his wife by these lower titles – for one thing, his son will be using the next title down (as a courtesy). So please stop calling her the Duchess of X in one paragraph and Countess Y in the next when what you mean is the same woman. She’s the Duchess. Full stop.
    (but Mr Darcy is not a Duke in disguise. Just saying,)

    (d) Lady Lucas would sign her name as Lady Lucas, not as Lady Phyllis Lucas **unless** she is also the daughter of an earl, or marquess or duke as well as being wife to Sir William. But given that Sir William was a minor tradesman knighted for shop-keeping services, then she almost certainly wasn’t. And if she had been, Miss Austen would have told us. And she would be unlikely to sign herself as Lady Lucas, much less Lady Phyllis Lucas, in a letter to her daughter. The Regency period was formal, but not so formal that Charlotte can’t call her Mamma.

    Aaaaannnd breathe. Blimey. Maybe Austen fanfic isn’t such a good stress reliever after all!

    Reply
  2. Georgie Wickham
    Georgie Wickham says:

    That’s a useful summary – thanks. My only quibble relates to “Eleanor, Lady Frey”. My understanding was that Sir Dominic Frey’s wife will (while he lives) always be just “Lady Frey”. If there are other older model Lady Freys hanging around, it is they who will be distinguished as “Susan, Lady Frey”. On his death (and assuming their son is married), Eleanor will become either the Dowager Lady Frey, or Eleanor, Lady Frey.

    It’s probably also worth mentioning that the holders of subsidiary titles (i.e. sons of peers) are not peers themselves: they are technically commoners, and cannot sit in the House of Lords (but can be Members of Parliament).

    As an aside, I checked out something with Debretts a few months ago. If a Dukedom (or Earldom or Marquessate) is inherited by a remote heir – say, Mr Smith, a third or fourth cousin of the previous duke – he will, of course, become Duke of Somewhere. If he has brothers or sisters, the duke can apply to (I think) the Lord Chancellor for his siblings to use the courtesy titles Lord John Smith / Lady Mary Smith, but it doesn’t happen automatically. What he can’t do, though, is apply for a courtesy title for his mother. She doesn’t become a dowager duchess but will remain Mrs Smith, mother of the Duke of Somewhere.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Re Lady Frey, while it’s unlikely with that particular surname, there could be several unrelated knights/baronets with the same common surname. If Sir Roger Walton and wife Joan and Sir Peter Walton and wife Mary were both invited to a party, for example, the host might need to distinguish between Mary, Lady Walton and Joan, Lady Walton. But this would purely be practical, and they would both be addressed as simply Lady Walton.

      The widow would only be a dowager if Dominic had made it to baron, obv, as baronets aren’t peerage, so there would be no Dowager Lady Frey, only a Dowager Lady Tarlton, in this example..

      That’s interesting on the remote-cousin-inheritance, thanks! /makes note/

      Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          The rules and ramifications and quibbles are absolutely endless. I learned a lot writing this post!

          Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          Hang about, it looks like the source I was using was wrong about that, sorry! Debretts says a baronet’s wife can be a dowager. My apologies!

          Reply
  3. Amber Meadows
    Amber Meadows says:

    I cant tell you how amazing and informative this was, written in concise english. WRITE A “ON WRITING BREECHES RIPPERS” please.

    Reply
  4. Jackson MacKenzie
    Jackson MacKenzie says:

    Outstanding stuff.

    One quibble with your example: Lord Richard can’t be the heir presumptive while there’s also an heir apparent (Lord Philip) running around.

    Any chance you could go a little further into modes of address? Wondering particularly about my lord vs. your lordship. Also, into how the whole mess interacts with military titles? Here, wondering particularly about courtesy titles, and situations where using the first name is proper. I.e. if Lord Rodmarten holds a captain’s commission, how does his colonel address him? What about his younger brother, Lord Hugh?

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      You are quite right! Thanks, will amend.

      Oh God military titles, didn’t think of that. /cries in a corner/ I have to admit I’ve never looked into these properly, would have to look it up.

      Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      My lord / your lordship: I don’t think there’s a set rule here, or none that I’ve found. I think in most situations both are allowable and it’s a matter of what you want to convey–closeness, obsequiousness, etc. In my valet/lord romance, I had the valet call his master ‘my lord’ on good terms and ‘your lordship’ when in a strop, for example, while my Radical character could force himself to say ‘your lordship’ (with sarcasm) but never ‘my lord’.

      Reply
  5. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    So informative! I had vague notions about some of those but “Viscount Fortunegate” vs “The Viscount Fortunegate” is a revelation.
    Actually, while we’re at it, I think the late Lord Crane was Quentin, not Peter :)

    Now I’m trying to remember whether I called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as Sif+Last name once or twice. Though it was only in informal conversations, so no big harm done.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      dammit I knew he had a name and I was too lazy to check what it was! It was a lot of books ago.

      Reply
  6. LC
    LC says:

    That was very informative indeed! I’m pretty sure I’m never going to write a book where anyone has a peerage (or even a knighthood!) but in case I ever do, I am now forearmed. 😀 Thanks!

    Reply
  7. Rebecca Cohen
    Rebecca Cohen says:

    I now have Debretts as a shortcut. I admit I still find it confusing, especially with titles of children and when the military are involved.

    I admit I’ve got in wrong in the past (and am now very paranoid), and when I got a new editor who was more of an historical specialist we did the second editions to fix a number of things including a couple of title fubars.

    I love the research and and my favourite period but I know I’m not perfect – but I try my hardest.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      We all screw up, there’s no way around it. (I mean, unless anyone out there is like a Lady Someone.) All we can do is try again, fail again, fail better. :)

      Reply
  8. Jay Lewis Taylor
    Jay Lewis Taylor says:

    If you are the heir to an hereditary title, or holding same – can you abdicate? I seem to remember that Tony Benn (Anthony Wedgwood Benn, formerly Viscount Stansgate) did something of the sort. Who picks up the title? Son? Brother? Anyone?

    JLT

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      He disclaimed the title, but it took an act of parliament, dated 1963. Wiki tells me that the peerage is then vacant till his death at which point it descends to his heir as it would have done otherwise.

      Reply
  9. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Hey KJ, I love your posts! Yes, titles and peerage can be confusing but as a reader, and not-yet-pubbed historical author, this drives me up the wall, too.

    As to military ranks and titles…I wish I still had my reference to this very issue bookmarked. Alas I don’t, but IIRC a lord’s military rank would come first. So if Lord Richard Vane joined the military, he would be formally introduced as Colonel Lord Richard Vane. Hereafter he’d be addressed as Colonel by those who are not close acquaintances/friends. His military subordinates, of course, would address him by his military rank followed by his last name. As to Royal dukes being in the military? I would imagine it’d be the same. Again, I am going off memory, which is very menopausal these days, and may be missing the mark altogether.

    Reply
    • Georgie Wickham
      Georgie Wickham says:

      This is a link to Wellington’s letters immediately after Waterloo (http://www.wtj.com/archives/wellington/1815_06f.htm) in which he refers to a number of different officers with titles. Marshal Prince Blücher is referred to as MPB *and* as Marshal Blücher *and* as Prince Blücher, all in the same letter, so clearly some latitude was exhibited.

      Reply
  10. JaneB
    JaneB says:

    Am Americanism that annoys me is addressing a vicar as ‘Reverend Collins’. He’s Mr Collins to his face, and usually when referring to him (see ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example), although you’d use Revd William Collins when writing his address, then ‘Dear Mr Collins’ in the letter. (Can’t remember Mr Collins’ first name, so I’ve made it up.)

    I’m also pulled up by characters referred to as Baron Parfitt rather than Lord Parfitt; not something I’ve come across in real life. And I’d like to underline your comment that most earls are the Earl of Somewhere, not just Earl Somewhere, which has become endemic since Princess Diana’s funeral, featuring her brother, (the rare) Earl Spencer.

    Thank you for taking such care to get your worlds right; it adds immensely to my enjoyment of your stories. (Fellow editor/nit-picker here.)

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I think a lot of people are going for Earl Surname precisely to avoid the pesky complicated title thing, in the belief that it works like Mr and you just have ‘Earl Firstname Surname’. This post was triggered by a blurb doing exactly that. /side eye/

      Reply
    • Tree_and_Leaf
      Tree_and_Leaf says:

      Actually, to be strictly accurate, if you’re writing his address, it would be
      The Rev’d Mr W. Collins,
      The Rectory,
      Hunsford,
      Kent.

      It is not correct without the definite article. I regret to say that the habit of calling priests/ ministers “Rev Joe” or just addressing them as “Reverend” is becoming normal, but people didn’t do it until very recently.
      You might, particularly if you’re his parishioner or wish to be respectful, address Mr Collins as “Rector” (without any name attached) in conversation. (People don’t generally do this today unless they are very old-fashioned, but it was common until at least after WWII). Lady Catherine wouldn’t call Mr Collins anything other than Mr Collins, because she regards him as an inferior dependent.

      There is useful guidance on how to address the clergy on the Church of England home page, though note that if you are writing Regencies, or anything much before the 1890s, “Father” would never have been used as a form of address. (Roman Catholic priests were addressed as “Father” by Roman Catholics, but Protestants would almost certainly have just called them “Mr”).
      https://www.churchofengland.org/contact-us/addressingtheclergy.aspx

      Reply
  11. Susannah
    Susannah says:

    Yes, military (and academic) titles come before the nobility titles. For example, the Iron Duke’s formal title was Field Marshal His Grace The Duke of Wellington (Wikipedia has a useful list of how his titles changed over time as he progressed from being born as an earl’s younger son to his dukedom, and his military career progressed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arms,_titles,_honours_and_styles_of_Arthur_Wellesley,_1st_Duke_of_Wellington#Styles)

    The form for knights/baronets is Colonel Sir John Smith in full, and Colonel Smith in more general address; or Professor Sir James Brown / Professor Brown.

    Reply
    • Tibicina
      Tibicina says:

      See that #Styles at the very end of the address – that’s a section link which takes you to the section of the page in question, in this case ‘Styles’.

      Reply
  12. ULTRAGOTHA
    ULTRAGOTHA says:

    Lovely article! Thank you.

    Mr and Mrs are titles, too.
    Mr. John Smith and his wife, Mrs. John Smith.

    Which goes right along with Lord Richard Vane’s wife being Lady Richard.

    Also the eldest unmarried daughter is Miss Smith and her younger sister (who has made her debut) is Miss Susan Smith.

    Eldest sons are the same: Mr. Smith and Mr. Samuel Smith. Which makes it SO MUCH FUN writing for a group of people who include a father, eldest son, uncle and cousin who are all Mr. Smith!

    Reply
  13. Susannah
    Susannah says:

    Oops, my original post was missing something important – many, many, MANY thanks for this! If it prevents just one person I might read writing ‘Sir Smith’, it will be worth it.

    What’s your view on my other pet rant, historicals starring protagonists with names like Jayden and Kendra? That’s the other thing likely to result in a book/tablet-sized dent in my wall (although at least you can usually weed them out before you buy them).

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      My views on dukes called Dylan, Dean, Jayden, etc can be best expressed by one of those gifs showing everything exploding. GAAAH. That isn’t historical romance, that’s contemporary romance in a silly hat. I’d call it cosplay except cosplayers take history seriously. Go away, “Duke Jayden Smith” who works in a shop, and take your fellow improbabilities with you.

      Reply
  14. EJ Russell
    EJ Russell says:

    I remember my first WTH moment years ago when I read Busman’s Honeymoon and learned that Harriet Vane’s married name was Lady Peter Wimsey.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      None whatsoever, never looked into it! Sorry. :) I’d hope anyone writing a French aristo post Revolution would check its impact –if French titles would be used unaltered afterwards by those who wished to show support, if you’d be known as ci-devant or whatever. I imagine there’s plenty of meat there. But not my area at all.

      Reply
  15. Diana Belchase
    Diana Belchase says:

    Excellent post. Truly one of the best I’ve seen on this subject. Two questions though:

    1. I looked at the link with Wellington’s titles. What is the difference between Hon. and Rt.Hon.?

    2. How did you (or was it Susannah?) get the link to Wellington’s titles to go to the middle of the Wikipedia article — right to the pertinent part–instead of the generic beginning?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      1) The Hon is the courtesy style of the son of a baron, viscount or earl or the daughter of a baron or viscount (and includes The even though it’s courtesy ARGH). ‘The Right Hon’ is for the title holder, in writing (addresses, legal docs) from baron to earl inclusive and also members of parliament. Marquesses are The Most Honourable, and dukes are The Most Noble or His Grace

      2) Pass, wasn’t me!

      Reply
    • Susannah
      Susannah says:

      To get the link to go in the middle of the Wikipedia article, I right-clicked on the section heading in the table of contents at the top of a page, and chose ‘copy link’. You can use this technique to link directly to internal bookmarks/section headings in a web page.

      Reply
  16. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Great post. But I do have a point to put forward. While all of the above might be fine if correct usage is the object but, to paraphrase the estimable Mrs. Ogg “If there’s a gate needs opening and a shilling in the offing then something along the lines or ‘Your Excellencynesnes’ is perfectly appropriate.”

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It very much depends on the speaker, yes. Not all speakers will know or care about the rules, and that’s an extremely useful way to build character. But as with modern art, the creator has to know the rules in order to break them effectively.

      Reply
  17. Katy
    Katy says:

    It might not be relevant but I think Anne, Dowager Duchess of Wherever would be required if there was already a Dowager Duchess as well x

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      If the widowed grandmother and the widowed mother of the current Duke were both still alive, you mean? /head explodes/ You are probably right, and the older lady would be the “Anne, Dowager Duchess”.

      Reply
  18. Magix
    Magix says:

    Great article. I couldn’t stand reading many historicals where authors screwed up the aristocratic titles. Like referring an English earl as ‘Count’. Or a Duke’s wife being addressed as “Duchess Anne’ etc.

    Another pet peeve of mine is naming a character in totally modern names, like Lady ‘Tiffany’ Smith in a Georgian or Tudor historicals.

    I get the notion that when a Duke/Marquess/Earl’s daughter marries a man of lesser rank she takes on her husband’s last name. For example if Lady Anne Smith marries Mr. John Jones, she becomes Lady Anne Jones.

    But what happens if she marries a peer’s younger son who is the same rank as her? For example, if a Duke’s daughter(Lady Anne Smith) marries a Duke’s younger son(Lord John Jones), will she be known as: Lady Anne Jones, or rather, Lady John Jones?

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh wow, that is arcane. I *think* she’d take her husband’s style in that case and become Lady John Jones.

      Reply
    • HelenS
      HelenS says:

      Tiffany in fact goes back to the twelfth century at least, though it wouldn’t likely be common in either the Tudor or Georgian periods AFAIK.

      Reply
  19. Marthastoo
    Marthastoo says:

    Very informative article! Question – would the granddaughter of a marquess receive the courtesy title of “Lady?” Let’s assume her father is the heir and is known by the marquess’s subsidiary title, the Earl of So-and-so. I can’t find the answer to this question anywhere!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      An earl’s daughter is ‘Lady’ whether the title is courtesy or substantive. So yes, she would in this case.

      Reply
  20. Miranna
    Miranna says:

    Thank you for these. I can understand that historical romance authors want to focus more on the romance that on the historical aspects, but personaly if a story is badly in tune with the historical setting I’m left very cold. I utterly dislike characters that act as if they were just transposed from our current day society directly into the past (unless it’s plot related of course)

    However, as much as I like that you know and follow these rules, having read The Magpie Lord yesertday, I noticed some anachronisms, especially regarding the use of swearwords and the general behaviour of characters. I hope those were mistakes you later noticed and proceeded to ban from your writing style.

    I should add that appart from these mistakes I enjoyed it, it was above most of the other M/M romances I’ve read, so thank you; I like M/M with an actual plot.

    Reply
  21. TanwenCooper
    TanwenCooper says:

    Thank you so much for this! Was a really good primer to show me how I’ve been doing it wrong so I can go back at fix it! that said, I have some questions…

    1) When someone is say the fourth son of an Earl, by which point they have run out of courtesy titles, that man would be The Honourable Joe Bloggs, but they would be addressed as Mr Bloggs? And would they keep The Honourable even after their father died and the title passed onto the eldest brother?

    2) The honorifics only get passed down, by and large, through the first born children. The child of the Honourable Joe Bloggs from above wouldn’t get any form of title and would just be boring Mr/Miss Bloggs in name and address. Am I right in thinking that?

    3) A kind of tangential question but how up on these things would the average person be? I’m guessing factory worker Fred Smith would just go with m’lord and hope for the best, but would the middle classes know much better? I’m guessing this is where the social faux pas would come in.

    Anyway, sorry for quizzing you but this is all turning out to be far more complicated than I anticipated, especially as I have to worry about police ranks at the other end of the scale as well…

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      1) Yes, a non courtesy titled son of an earl is The Hon, addressed as Mr, and remains so for life.

      2) Yes, the Hon’s son is just Mr.

      3) Really depends! A lot of people would absorb this stuff by osmosis, but a lot wouldn’t–probably mostly dependent on exposure and how many society gazettes you read!. You can really flex this depending on needs and characterisation.

      Reply
  22. Katy
    Katy says:

    If this isn’t a historical thing, if it’s set now, how do titles work in relation to gay marriage? If the Earl Crane marries Stephen Day for instance?

    Reply
  23. Gurrier
    Gurrier says:

    I was thinking of buying The Magpie Lord, but this post assures it! Very few things make me nope out of a story as quickly as a Sir Smith.

    Reply
  24. Christy Nicholas
    Christy Nicholas says:

    So, any clues on resources for 12th century Irish titles? My current novel is set in 1177 in Gaelic Ireland, JUST (like in days) before the Norman conquest of that area. I’d love to have proper titles for the Bishop, the King of the Ulaid, his daughter, etc.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh goodness, I have no idea. I bet there’s an Irish heraldic society that would just love to tell you though.

      Reply
  25. Renee
    Renee says:

    A question. Given the propensity of men calling each other by their last names, would the second son of a Duke – ie no actual title, but Lord firstname lastname; then be called lastname by his friends, but Lord firstname in formal settings?

    Reply
    • Caitlin
      Caitlin says:

      Probably…My first thought when I read your post was of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Its only ever Holmes and Watson not Sherlock and John.

      (I know neither of them have titles but (well, Watson is a Captain) but you get the idea.)

      Reply
  26. Missy
    Missy says:

    Kj, thank you very much for writing ‘Historical Romance: learn or die’. I am just a reader who gets so annoyed when reading what is supposed to be a historical story and finds absolutely nothing to credit the story as such.

    A thing historical story/novel writers should keep in mind is this: it is utterly maddening when one gets no joy, no satisfaction, no connection because there is absolutely nothing historically credible to latch onto in a ‘historical story’; some of them even have 21st century slang/terms in them.

    Oh, the hissy fits and tantrums I’ve thrown because of ‘reading rages’ -I tell you, seriously, if the author/writer was anywhere near, we’d come to blows. My one question to the absent author during these moments have always been: have you not done any research?

    So KJ, I’m very appreciative of the time you took to give writers who would write historical stories a place to start.

    Happy writing y’all and happy reading to me!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! I feel the same, it just ruins my reading experience if I’ve signed up for historical and I get fancy dress. :/

      Reply
  27. Tsu Dho Nimh
    Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Question on Courtesy Titles and the permanency thereof …

    Michael, the 2nd son of Earl Seldane is given the courtesy title Viscount Alavert after the death of the previous Viscount, oldest son Valerian.

    Do Michael’s daughters automatically become The Honourable Allegra and the Honourable Claratina even though they were born as “Miss”? Or does he have to ask for some paperwork giving them the style and precedence? Are they even eligible for “The Honourable” with a courtesy title?

    And does Valerian’s daughter, the Honourable Tiffany, retain her “Honourable” and precedence over her cousins after her father’s death? If she had it?

    I guess what I’m saying is – once you have an Honorific, is it yours to keep even if the courtesy title that gave it to you goes away?

    *******************
    It’s a minor detail in a Regency I’m working on: Is the orphaned daughter going to be the Honorable Emily Telford or Miss Telford. Doesn’t change the plot either way.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      His children would probably be styled the Honourable at once by everyone as a matter of course, and would stay Honourable, I believe, even after their father’s death.

      Reply

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