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 Reverend, titled 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.