Because it’s not always about the writing — an etymology of titles

This article first appeared in the Beau Monde’s newsletter, The Regency Reader, and since it sort of came up again, and since sometimes the writing is more about the research, here’s the information posted.

An Etymology of Titles
We tend to think of dukes and viscounts as having always been in the British nobility. In fact, these titles came into creation at specific dates, often as the result of royals looking to reward a favorite. English nobility grew as a result of the crown granting a “Patent” which stipulated the degree of the title and how it could devolve upon the title-holder’s descendant.

Knowing when a title was created can help understand its precedent. Two factors go into creating precedent: the rank of title, and the age of the title. The older a title, the more clout it carries. Therefore, a fourteenth marquess takes precedent over a fifth marquess, but not over any duke. For simplicity, let’s start at the crown and work our way through the English peerage by rank.

King (pre-conquest): In Old English the word was cyng or cing. The Saxon tribes who invaded Briton used this word for their leaders. In Saxon days, this did not denote a hereditary title, merely someone of high status and noble birth who could be elected to power. After 1066, when William of Normandy brought over his feudal notions of inherited power, King became an inherited title for the ruling monarch.

Queen (pre-conquest): The Old English equivalent to cyng is cwen. Again, we have a matching ancient Saxon title for a female ruler, or the consort of a king. England differs from much of the continent in that women can inherit the throne. This began in 1135, when Stephen inherited the throne through his mother, Adela, the daughter of William of Normandy.

Prince/Princess (1200’s): The Normans brought the Latin and French; from them, in the early 1200’s, comes this title. Until James I (1603-1625), only the king’s eldest son could call himself a prince. After James, all sons and daughters of the King or Queen became a prince/princess. Victoria (1837-1901) went on to extended the titles prince/princess to all children of the sons of the ruling monarch (all grandchildren of the monarch through the male line). The Windsors are now moving away from this tradition, opting for lesser titles for the queen’s grandchildren.

Prince of Wales (1338): Edward I conquered Wales in 1283, and his son Edward II, was born in Wales at Caernavon a year later, the first English ‘Prince of Wales.’ In 1338, Edward III made his son Duke of Cornwall, and would later confirm him Prince of Wales—a title that continues to this day.

Duke/Duchess (1338): This is an ancient title in European countries, coming from the Latin, dux, for leader. William of Normandy, the Conqueror, is often called William, Duke of Normandy. But, an Old English chronicle of 1066, gives him an older Saxon title, Wyllelm, earl of Normandize. In England, ‘Duke’ remained a foreign title until 1338 when Edward raised his son from Earl of Cornwall to Duke of Cornwall. Despite traditions of romantic fictions, duke remains a rare title.

Royal Dukes are those sons born to the ruling monarch. George IV’s brothers included the Royal Dukes: York (Frederick), Clarence (William), Kent (Edward), Sussex (Augustus), Cambridge (Adolphus), Cumberland (Ernest). The Prince Regent’s sister Mary also married William, Duke of Gloucester, who had inherited the royal title from his father, the younger brother of George III.

Other than the Royal Dukedoms, there are 26 noble dukedoms, including: Argyll, Atholl, Beaufort, Bucclench, Buckingham, Devonshire, Grafton, Hamilton, Leinster, Manchester, Marlborough, Montrose, Newcastle, Norfolk, Northumberland, Portland, Portsmouth, Queensbury, Richmond, Roxburghe, Rutland, St. Alhans, Somerset, Wellington. At birth, a duke’s eldest son takes on one of his father’s secondary title as a courtesy title. And a grandson then takes one of the third, lesser titles as a courtesy.

Marquess/Marchioness (1385): In 1385, Richard II created Robert de Vere–the Earl of Oxford–the Marquess of Dublin, thereby bringing the title into existence as a degree between Duke and Earl. The term comes from the Old French, marchis, for warden of the marches. The title wasn’t adopted into the Scottish peerage until the 15th century. As with a duke, the eldest son of a marquess takes on one of his father’s secondary, lesser title (if one exists) as a courtesy. Other sons and daughters are called Lord and Lady. This is a courtesy title, and so the title is attached to their given and family name.

Earl/Countess (pre-conquest): The Old English for someone of property is eon. This is as opposed to ceonl, someone without property. Earldoms are perhaps the oldest English title, dating back several hundred years before the conquest. After William came along with his conquest, earl became equal to the Norman “count.” William tried to force the title “count” on the Saxons, but the word caught on only with the earl’s wife, who still bears the title countess. As with duke and marquess, an earl’s eldest son takes on one of his father’s lesser titles as a courtesy title. Daughters are style Lady—such as Lady Elizabeth Dabney—and retain that title if they marry beneath them. Younger sons are mere Honorables (but that title is never mentioned in any verbal address).

Viscount/Vicountess (1440): In Old French the word is viconte, or in Latin vice comes–the deputy of a count. In 1440, Henry VI first granted the title to make John, Baron Beaumont, into Viscount Beaumont. However, the word had already been in use for almost a hundred years for an assistant to an earl—specifically for high sheriffs. There are no courtesy titles for any rank below earl, therefore the children of Viscounts are only known as “Honorables” (a style used only in writing and never in speech). And eldest sons of Scottish Viscounts are sometimes called The Master of (place name).

Baron/Baroness (late 1300’s): The word comes from the Latin for baro, meaning a man. Specifically, this meant a man who was not a vassal or servant. From the time of Henry III (1216 – 1272), the King’s barons were summoned to the Great Council. These were men who “were summoned by a writ to Parliament” or men of important, and often military, standing. (It was the ‘Great Barons’ who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215– primarily to make sure they kept their own rights.) Richard II (1377- 1400) started to created Barons by patent.

Baronet/Lady (1611): From the Latin for lesser baron. Historically, the term was applied to gentlemen summoned by Edward III (1327 – 1377) to the House of Lords (barons by writ, not by tenure). It also has been used to indicate barons of small holdings. The original term was Knight Baronet. The title did not come into formal existence until 1611. At that time, James I needed cash to hang onto Ulster, which the Irish wanted back. So James created a hereditary title, baronet, and The Red Hand of Ulster became their badge. Baronets of Scotland were created from 1625 until 1707, and Irish baronets were created until 1801, when acts of union passed respectively. A baronet is really not a member of nobility. He styles himself ‘Sir’ (no my lords here), and he does not hold a seat in the House of Lord. His wife is known as Lady (instead of Mrs.).

Knight/Dame (1000’s): Knight comes to us from the Old English cnihht or in Old French cnihta. It’s original meaning is for a boy military servant or follower. After the conquest, the word shows up to denote a man, usually of gentle birth, who has earned the title by serving at court and training for the right to bear military arms (and therefore earn higher rank by fighting for the crown). By 1386, we have Chaucer’s “verray parfit gentil knyght.” And by the sixteenth century, the title began to be awarded for personal merit or services to the country. Knights are not members of nobility. And the title cannot be inherited. The title is given to an individual. A knight is known as “Sir” and his wife is usually “Lady” or “Dame.” A woman can be granted this honor and is then named “Dame” in her own right, but her husbands remains a mere mister.

Listed by precedence, the British Orders of Knighthood include:
— Knights of the Order of the Garter (1349)
— Knights of the Thistle (1678) – exclusive to Scottish nobles
— Knights of St. Patrick (1788) – exclusive to Irish nobles
— Knights of the Bath (1399, revived in 1715)- first order conferred on commoners
— Knights of the Star of India (1861
— Knights of St. Michael and St. George (1818)
— Knights of the Indian Empire (1877)
— Knights of the Royal Victorian Order (1896)
— Knights of the British Empire (1917-1918)
— Knights Bachelor – a knight who is not a member of any particular knighthood

Edward III founded the “Poor Knights of the Order of the Garter.” It was a set group of 26 veterans of military service. Since Charles I the number has been fixed at 13 for the Royal Foundation and 5 for the Lower (now abolished), and a Governor. These men are military officers who are given, along with their title, apartments in Windsor Castle and small pensions. They are therefore known as Knights of Windsor. From 1797 to 1892, these Knights of Windsor could included naval officers. William IV officially made their title, Military Knights of Windsor.

A FINAL NOTE: For those Americans confused by the inconsistent “of” that is sometimes included in a title, this preposition indicates a title that takes its name from a territory. The Duke of Kent is a title associated with Kent, the land. The preposition is omitted in titles that originated with the family name, such as for Baron Beaumont. All existing dukedoms are territorial titles. And the preposition “of” is never used for viscounts.

The caveat to everything said here is that there are exceptions to almost everything. These are frequent enough to confuse, but rare enough to slip past the notice of most. Remember the notion of a monarch’s whim when creating titles—almost anything goes, but tradition is tradition because it is the most common method of doing anything. And you need good reasons to break that tradition. Particularly some of the traditions of nobility date back to before the conquest.

Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition, Oxford University Press, 1971
Titles and Forms of Address, Black Ltd., 1929 ed.
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Wordsworth Reference. 1970


8 thoughts on “Because it’s not always about the writing — an etymology of titles

  1. There are no ‘Lords’ and ‘Ladies appointed as “one-offs.”

    A knight is a “sir” and his title is only with him — as noted, his wife is a ‘lady’. That knighthood is an honor that dies with him.

    As to the House of Lords, you must be carry a title given to you/your family by the crown. You also must be called before Parliament to be confirmed as “Lord YourTitle” and then you can take your seat in the House of Lords.

    The eldest son of a nobleman may be address as Lord, but will not be allowed to sit in the House of Lords until he comes into the full title (inherits and is called to Parliament and confirmed).

    And there are only lords in the House of Lords — no ladies there.

  2. Lady Thatcher. What’s her rank? Also aren’t Life Peers one-offs? And women (ladies) are in the Lords. Oh well, I’ll just Google. Thanks anyhow. Richard

    • A baronet — or as in Thatcher’s case, a baroness (the female version of that honorary title) — is a title defined as ” a British hereditary title of honor reserved for commoners, ranking immediately below the barons and above all orders of knighthood except the Garter.” It’s about the lowest of the peerage. This does not mean it is a one-off since the title can be established to be inherited (so that you can have a second, third, fourth…etc, baronet or baroness). Part of the ability to inherit a title is set in the letters patent, which are set up at the time the title is granted by the Crown.

      Now, there is such a thing as the Crown being able to grant a title that cannot be inherited — a life peer (the Crown can do whatever it likes with the titles, since the Crown holds them and grants them or takes them away). But these are not common — and should not be confused with the American notion of buying a title of “Lord or Lady of the Mannor”. It is the custom to give any past PM such a title as an honor.

      Typically, a life peer is created by Parliament — the Crown’s ability to grant titles is really held these days more by Parliament (the Crown approves the honors list drafted by Parliament and presented to the Queen by the PM these days). A life peer is more a title to honor someone’s service, they are not created by “a writ of summons” (i.e., they’re not called before the Crown for their honors). They don’t really sit in the House of Lords, but can serve there to hear appeals. So they’re not appointed as one-offs to the House of Lords.

      And if you want to read up more, try

  3. Lady Thatcher is the wife (now widow) of a Baronet (Sir Denis Thatcher)but is also a life peeress in her own right. She is titled ‘The Baroness Thatcher’ and as such may style herslef ‘Lady’, followed by her titular distinction i.e. ‘Thatcher’. As the wife of a baronet she is styled ‘Lady’ again but this time followed by her husband’s surname. Thus she is ‘Lady Thatcher’ twice, once in right of marriage and again in her own right.

    Life peers are created constantly and have been for many decades now; the crown has always had the right to create them. It is the primary means by which the government of the day ensures that the House of Lords has members (Tony Blair filled the house to the brim!). The Law Lords, life peers who were senior judges of appeal, always sat in the House until the UK supreme court came into being in 2009 (prior to that the House of Lords was the highest court in the land) and the most senior bishops of the church of England sit there as the ‘Lords Spiritual’, though they are never enobled. All members have the right to sit their whenever they like once it is established that their title entitles them to a seat, they can listen to debates and vote. There is no limits on how often hey can attend.

    The power of the crown to grant honours really does rest with the Queen alone, she really can refuse to grant them if she wants but the British ‘constitution’ is a very ‘polite’ affair and she is highly unlikely to ever refuse (although if she did it would be in private discussion with the Prime Minister anyway, in which case, depending on how upset he/she is, we may never hear of it). Any grant is made ‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’ but in UK legal theory ‘advice’ in this case is precisely that and there is no legal mechanism to force the Queen to grant a title if she chooses not to do so. It would take an act of parliament to bring such a forceful measure into law.

    • The transfer of power to grant titles from the crown to Parliament started a few hundred years back. Since Queen Victoria’s era, more of the rights to grant titles has move away from the crown. None of this is reflected in my article, which really focuses on the early roots of titles and where they came from.

  4. I know this is an older post, and you probably had to leave a lot out, but I found it VERY helpful. No matter how much I think I’ve learned about the peerage and proper address and precedence, I’ve barely scratched the surface. This filled in a few of the endless blanks yet remaining. Thanks!

    • It is confusing. Like all systems that have evolved over hundreds of years, there are so many oddities and so many exceptions, and so many little details to get right.


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