So, you’re reading a classic regency novel and wondering why the slimy cousin is due to inherit the estate. Or you’re writing an imitation regency-romance and are wondering how the plucky, impoverished heroine ought to address the darkly handsome, yet trouble count (hint: if he’s a an English peer, he isn’t a count).
Or you’re like me and just find the subject interesting in its own right.
The point is, I’ve been doing some (long overdue) research into the structure of the English Peerage system, and today I’m offering a few quick points that I’ve gleaned.
First a few points to get clear:
The name of the peerage is different from the family name (usually: there are some cases among the lower levels where they are the same).
Inheritance: Generally, peerage passes from father to son. If he dies with no son, then the next-eldest surviving son of his father inherits, or failing that, his eldest son. If there are no other male lines, go back another generation to the peer’s grandfather and follow his next-eldest line through the eldest sons, etc.
Mr. Bennet, therefore, was the eldest son of his father (probably the younger branch of some family or other) and has no sons of his own. When he dies, therefore, his brother’s eldest son, Mr. Collins, inherits his estate.
There are three types of peerages: by writ – the oldest, which was a direct summons by the Monarch to attend parliament and only became hereditary by custom – by letters patent – which institutionalized the writ allowed the summons to pass to the peer’s successors – and by tenure – which is no longer used.
Peerages by writ are almost all baronies (being the oldest ranks), and they pass to ‘heirs general’, not ‘heirs male’. Meaning that, if a baron-by-writ dies without male issue, but with a surviving daughter, she may inherit the title.
A few peerages by letters patent include a ‘special remainder’ designating other potential inheritors, and in such cases it’s possible for daughters or sisters to inherit.
Finally, keep in mind is this all only for English nobility: it works differently in other countries (including Scotland and Ireland).
Okay, onto the ranks:
At the top is the Monarch, the King or the Queen Regent. The King’s wife is the Queen Consort, the Queen’s husband is Prince Consort (there’s been some debate on the latter in the past).
The male heir is the Heir Apparent: that is, if he survives the reigning monarch, he will inherit no matter what. The female heir is the Heir Presumptive: she will inherit provided a male heir is not produced in the meantime (sorry, Mary; little Jimmy Three just came into the world).
The Heir Apparent is the Prince of Wales (not the Prince of Whales, that’s an entirely different position), the Heir Presumptive is (usually) the Princess Royal.
Prince and Princess is mostly just a title with no lands or income associated with it. That is why the Royal Family members are also Dukes and Duchesses. A prince of the royal blood is usually created a duke either upon coming of age or his marriage.
Dukes and Duchesses are the highest level of peerage (from the Latin ‘dux’ or ‘leader’, and originally a term denoting sovereignty). A Duke is addressed as “Your Grace” or “His Grace” (as in “His Grace the Duke of Denver”). His wife is “Her Grace”. His eldest son is “The Most Honorable” (as in “The Most Honorable Gerald Whimsey”) or ‘Lord’ in direct address. His daughter (of any age) is “Lady” (as in “Lady Mary Whimsey”). The younger son of a Duke is “Lord Firstname Lastname” (as in “Lord Peter Whimsey”). The younger son’s wife is “Lady” (as in “Lady Peter Whimsey”).
By the way, ‘Lord’ is not a position, but only a form of address. All peers below Duke and above Baronets are addressed as “Lord so-and-so”.
Below the level of Duke is that of Marquess (pronounced ‘mar-kwiss’) / Marchioness, who were not originally part of the system but were imported as a concept from the Empire by Richard II in 1385. They’re in charge of Shires / Counties that stand on the borders – that is, in German, the Marches or Marks – of the kingdom: Wales and Scotland, in this case. That’s where the term ‘Ridder Mark’ in The Lord of the Rings among the Rohirrim comes from; Rohan guards the northern border or ‘mark’ of Gondor.
The Marquess is ‘Lord Titlename’ (or, informally, Titlename) and for formal addresses “The Right Honorable the Marquess of Titlename. The family name would be used by the children until one of them inherits (I think. Again, this gets complicated).
From what I can tell, the same rules of address follow for the remaining ranks, except for a few degrees in the children.
Earls are a level below the Marquis, and are the oldest branch of the nobility, ruling the provinces that were originally called ‘shires’ (Cheshire, Wiltshire, the Shire, etc.), but following the conquest were renamed to the French ‘Counties’, which on the continent were ruled by Counts. In England, the term ‘Earl’ was adopted for the male line (either from Anglo Saxon or Norse for ‘Leader’), though an Earl’s wife is still a Countess. ‘Sheriff’, meanwhile, came to refer to a lower deputy of the Earl (if I’m not mistaken).
At present, all English earldoms descent on heirs male, though a few Scottish earldoms can still be inherited through the female line.
An Earl’s younger son is ‘Mister Surname’ and not ‘Lord’, though his daughter is still ‘Lady’.
Below the Earl is the Viscount and Viscountess. Literally ‘Vice-Count’, only unlike Vice President, it isn’t a dead-end job that sometimes results in being thrust into the realms of power. It originated simply as the office of deputy to the count (also known as ‘sheriff’), but eventually became hereditary, first in the Empire before spreading to the other nations. It was originally used by the British during the Hundred Years War as part of an effort to consolidate the titles of the two countries.
All of a viscount’s children are Mr. and Miss (though formally addressed as “The Honorable”, as in “The Honorable Freddy Arbuthnot”).
Below Viscount is the Baron and Baroness
Again, because most Baronies predate the use of letters patent, they defer upon ‘heirs general’ rather than ‘heirs male’, meaning that they can descend in the female line.
And the same rules as the viscount apply to a baron’s children, as far as I can see.
Then we have Baronets, who are not peers, since they do not sit in the House of Lords (or didn’t; they’ve changed the rules on that now), but are a hereditary title (they have their own particular dignity). They’re addressed as “Sir First Name” and his wife, “Lady Surname”.
For more info, check out these two absolute gold mines:
(the standard for research into the British Aristocracy, though be warned that some articles are locked behind a paywall. But there’s still a lot of great free content!)
(this seems to be part of a mostly-defunct and very old private site, but it has an enormous amount of very useful information laid out in an easy-to-ready manner)