A Note on British Titles of Rank with Special Reference to the Works of Evelyn Waugh

By Greene, Donald | Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Note on British Titles of Rank with Special Reference to the Works of Evelyn Waugh


Greene, Donald, Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies


Most Americans and nowadays some Britons are vague about the use of British titles. Since an untitled man may be referred to as either "Mr. Smith" or "Mr. John Smith," and his wife as "Mrs. Smith," "Mrs. John Smith," or "Mrs. Mary Smith," it is assumed that "Lord" and "Lady" may be used in the same indiscriminate way. This is not so: their use is clearly defined. "Lord Smith" may be anything from a marquess to a baron; "Lord John Smith" can only be the younger son of a duke or marquess. "Lady Smith" may be anything from a marchioness to the wife of a knight; "Lady Mary Smith" is the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl; "Lady John Smith" is the wife of a younger son of a duke or marquess. Waugh, like other English novelists before him--Fielding, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope--is perfectly familiar with these usages and never makes a mistake with them; they provide useful clues to the social position of his characters. He would have been shocked by references in recent criticism and biography to "Lady Teresa Marchmain" and "Lady Diana Mosley," designations which those ladies could never have borne. A recent biography promotes Waugh's mother-in-law, the Honourable Mrs. Aubrey Herbert, to "Lady Herbert," and demotes Waugh's schoolfellow, Lord Molson, to "Lord Hugh Molson," thus depriving him of his seat in the House of Lords; as the younger son of a duke or marquess, "Lord Hugh" could only have been a commoner.

It is true that these matters of nomenclature can be complex. Yet after centuries of use, it is not likely that they will be abandoned in Britain. Serious readers of Waugh may find the following notes useful. A study of the relevant pages in the annual Whitaker's Almanack, listing the current holders of peerages, baronetcies, and knighthoods, would be useful, as would Simon Winchester's Their Noble Lordships (London: Faber & Faber, 1981; New York: Random House, 1982) and Cyril Hankinson, My Forty Years with Debrett (London: Robert Hale, 1963).

1.) All peerages are created by the sovereign (nowadays on advice of the prime minister). There are five grades of peers: in descending order of rank, duke, marquess (the spelling now preferred to the French "marquis"), earl, viscount, baron. Historically, there are five different peerages: those of England and of Scotland, creations before the union of those two kingdoms by the Act of Union of 1707, after which Englishmen and Scots raised to the peerage were peers of Great Britain; peers of Ireland, created before Ireland was united with Great Britain by the Act of Union of 1801. After that date, most new creations were peers of the United Kingdom, though a few creations of peers of Ireland still took place.

2.) Dukes and duchesses are "of" some territorial designation; viscounts and barons are not. Marquesses and earls may or may not be "of"; if the "of" is not used, the family name may be taken as the title of the peerage, though by no means always; similarly, viscounts and barons often choose their family names as their peerage title. If a title is already in use, an "of" with some other designation may be added to it. The numbering of holders of a hereditary peerage begins anew each time a peerage is created. Thus after the Earldom of Oxford became extinct in 1703 with the death of the twentieth earl of the De Vere family, the title was revived in 1711 for Robert Harley, who became the first Earl of Oxford of the second creation. Likewise, after the title became extinct in the Harley family in the nineteenth century, Herbert Henry Asquith was created, in 1925, first Earl of Oxford of the third creation. The "of" does not necessarily indicate important possessions or influence in the region indicated. It was said that the Dukes of Devonshire, whose most important seat, Chatsworth, is in Derbyshire, owned property in every county of England but Devonshire. Conversely, the principal seat and sphere of influence of the Earls of Derby is in Lancashire. …

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