On Peerage, Titles, and Names (In England)

OK, I watched half of the first episode of Fawlty Towers on Netflix (couldn’t get into it). In one scene, a guest tries to check in, and Fawlty keeps pressing him to fill out his paperwork with “both names.” Eventually it comes out that the man is one Lord Marberley, the high-class guest Fawlty had been hoping would come and class up the place. Anyway, Marberley patiently tries to explain to Fawlty that he doesn’t have two names. He’s just Marberley, Lord of Whatever.

I don’t get it. First of all, he was born at some point, and babies in England are given names, whether their parents are peers or not. Surely his mom or nanny addressed him at some point as “Fred” or “Hortentense” or “Yoshihiro” or whatever. He also went to school and got a driver’s license; surely his school records don’t list him simply as “Marberley,” and surely his driver’s license doesn’t just say “Marberley.”

Do you just give up your first name (Christian name, given name, whatever you want to call it) when you accept a peerage? How is this reflected in official documents, like your passport and driver’s license and all that?

No, you don’t. It’s merely convention that Lord Whatevs signs himself ‘Whatevs’.

Being Lord of Whatevs in days of yore essentially meant that you ‘owned’ the place that was called ‘Whatevs’. By signing simply as ‘Whatevs’, you were indicating that you were the Lord of that particular Manor/County.

Of course, that isn’t so mostly these days, but the convention remains. There is only ever One Lord Whatevs, and if you sign as simply ‘Whatevs’, then you are He.

Lady Whatevs will still call you by your first name, should she choose.

It happens in the opposite way for monarchs and princes - Charles and The Queen simply sign themselves ‘Charles’ and ‘Elizabeth R’.

The playfulness may be partly patterned after this alleged disregard of Christian names among some upper-class English.

The point was that he was the only one of his kind, so there would be no need to give his Christian name to distinguish himself from any other Marberly: and to call himself Lord Fred Marberly might actually be wrong, since that formulation would indicate a courtesy title for a son of someone with a higher rank, rather than a title in his own right.

If you are Mr Harris, Smith, etc. and get a (usually Life-only these days) peerage then you tend to append a territorial moniker as well. Distinguishing between Lord Harris of Greenwich, Lord Harris of High Cross, Lord Harris of Peckham and Lord Harris of Haringay would otherwise be difficult.

Until the 60’s, and later in some places, it was normal to be addressed by one’s surname. At school, we were not Bob, Fred or Montague; we were Smith, Jones and Cholmondeley Smythe. My wife was addressed in the same way when she worked as a nurse in the 60’s.

Insisting on using a single name; Marberly, Windsor or Psmith, was snobbery, pure and simple.

To anyone who didn’t get to the end of the show, it’s worth pointing out that the so-called Lord turns out to be a conman so isn’t likely to conform to the rules.

Well, firstly, “Lord Melbury” (not “Marberley”) is not a title in the English nobility. He would introduce himself as the Marquess, Earl, Viscount or Baron Melbury (whichever applied) any of whom would be entitled to be addressed as “Lord Melbury”, but that’s not how he would introduce himself.

Secondly, no matter how he was accustomed to sign hotel registers, he would of course have first name, and indeed a second, being at the very least “John Smith, Baron Melbury”.

Thirdly, “Lord Melbury” is, in fact, a con man, and not, in fact a peer of the realm.

Fourthly, you probably shouldn’t rely on 1970’s sitcoms for reliable information on the customs of other nations. Especially if you don’t watch the whole thing.


I may have to rethink my opinions about people from Barcelona.

Although in this respect it is correct. If John Smith is Baron Melbury or the Earl of Melbury or whatever, he will sign himself “Melbury” and in informal contexts his friends will refer to as, or call him, “John”, “John Melbury” or “Melbury”. His surname will barely be used at all.

No doubt. But no matter how he chose to sign, he would have first and second names to fill in the blanks on the card that Basil gave him, and he’d be very unlikely to address himself as “Lord Melbury”.

If he’s Baron Melbury, he quite possibly would refer to himself as “Lord Melbury”; either is correct, but the “Lord Melbury” form would be much more common in practice.

But, yes, if he had a form to fill out that called for forname and surname, he would fill in “John” and “Smith” in the relevant boxes. He would still sign “Melbury” at the bottom, though.