Two British nobility questions

  1. What happens to a title when its possessor receives a higher title? E.g., suppose Edmund, Earl of Wherezit, becomes Duke of Elsewhere when his uncle dies. Does he:

a) retain the title of Earl of Wherezit?

b) pass the title on to his son or next heir?

c) forfeit it altogether, so that the monarch can create a new Earl of Wherezit if he or she is so inclined?

  1. Why is an earl’s wife called a countess?

Not an authority but always willing to confuse things.

  1. I believe they just accumulate. You can be Earl of This and Duke of That and Prince of Whatever all at once.

  2. An earl and a count are about the same thing, but earl is an English term and count is a European term. So the men got different titles but the ladies had to make do with one. Who would want to be an earless anyway? An earlene? An earlette?

“And comb London’s teeming millions for him? Had we but world enough and time.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
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I believe you can have multiple titles.

Actually, it may be that it was the men who didn’t like the title of “count,” since it is too similar to an obvious vulgarity. (Hint: omit a letter).

A little off-topic but the hereditary titles go, from least to greatest:

baron, viscount, earl (count), marquess (marquis), duke.

Anything higher is royalty. Knights and baronets are also honored but they are not nobility. Knighthood is not hereditary but the title of baronet is.

Female equivalents:

baroness, viscountess, countess, marchioness, duchess.

“And comb London’s teeming millions for him? Had we but world enough and time.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
Murder Must Advertise

Trivia: English “earl” comes from Norse jarl, which was the main noble title in England before the Norman conquest. The Normans imported a lot of titles with them from the continent, but “earl” was such an important concept in England, that they didn’t import the Continental equivalent - count. Viscount, of course, was perfectly acceptable because there was no “deputy earl” rank.

Marquess (and related spellings) were imported later … I suppose because some Francophonic King wanted to promote some Earls, but not create new Duchies?

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

Referring to OP question #1.

IIRC (going from memory here, and speaking only of the UK), what happens to a title can vary on inheritance/death. Some titles/peerages are for specific people in a family. For example if the oldest son of the Duke of Elsewhere has the title of Earl of Wherezit, and that’s the “rule” under which the peerage was created way back when, when the current Duke dies, the son (the former Earl) becomes the Duke and his son (if he has one) becomes the Earl. (Or the title goes dormant until he has a son.)

In present day when a new peerage is created, it can be a “life” peerage (meaning it exists only as long as the recipient is alive) or a hereditary one that gets “passed on”. Most modern peerages (except those greated for members of the royal family, like Andrew and Edward when they got married) are life peerages. This keeps the numbers down over time. Wouldn’t want to have too many of 'em running around, clogging up the House of Lords (already a problem).

The only person I know of who’s been given a hereditary (UK) peerage in recent years is Benjamin Britten, the composer. But everyone knew he was gay and not likely to have progeny, so that was a safe bet on the Queen’s part.

Is that how we get the Duke of Earl?

Not quite.

When someone has two titles (which could simply be because a nobleman – say, the Earl of Cassillis – received a higher title – say, the Marquess of Ailsa – as an honor), the heir to the title is entitled to be addressed by the lesser title. But he is not really the holder; it is a “courtesy title” only.

By the way, a couple of the words are tricky.

A nobleman of the third degree is called an “Earl” in the UK, but the English word for a foreign Earl is “Count”. In other languages, an Earl of the UK may be called by a special word translating “Earl”, or by the regular word translating “Count”.

A nobleman of the fourth degree is called an “Marquess” in the UK, but the English word a foreign Marquess is “Marquis”, pronounced “MAR-kwis” (but in French, the same spelling is pronounced “mar-KEE”, and that pronunciation is usually used in English when referring to a French nobleman).

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

A couple of things to note. The title Duke comes from the Latin “dux”, which literally means “leader” but was also a Roman military rank more-or-less equivalent to general.

Marquis is related to the word “march”, which used to mean a border region (the Anglo-Scots border is still called the Marches). The marquis would be a senior nobleman because you would want a top man in command of likely invasion routes.

Count comes from “comes”, a companion of the king. A Viscount is a “vice-count”.

Baron I really don’t remember.

Actually, having multiple titles for English nobility was a bright idea of William the Conqueror. You see, before he became King of England in 1066, he had been Duke of Normandy, and was officially a vassal of the King of France, but was in effect an independent ruler. He did not want any of his nobles raising an army and tossing him out. He reasoned that since the troops a nobleman raised would be from his own estates, if you spread out those estates, it would be difficult for the lord to assemble his troops in secret.

Also, letting the heir to a title use a subsidiary title had a practical purpose. When your eldest son was old enough, you sent him to the estate named in the title, and – under the guidance of a good seneschal – let him run it. Call it “on the job training”.

Is anyone interested in knowing where the various names for naval officers’ ranks comes from? I can post on it if you want.

By English law, only the guy who is created or inherits a peerage is a peer. This is important because it automatically grants him a seat in the House of Lords and bars him from the House of Commons.

The bit with the son of a Duke being an Earl, etc., is a matter of courtesy…since the son is going to be a Duke when his father conks off, he gets the second-down title used as a matter of courtesy. But he’s still a commoner legally. In fact, during the mid-1800’s, one Prime Minister was Lord John Russell, a member of the House of Commons, whose father was Earl Russell (and sat in the House of Lords).

Now, certainly the son of a peer can be created a peer in his own right. But he doesn’t get it automatically unless he’s the eldest son and his father dies. Sole exception: the eldest son of the reigning monarch is Duke of Cornwall by birth; it passes with the first-in-line-for-the-crown position.

Note: I am very carefully staying away from the abstruse rules on a woman inheriting a title of nobility, which make the above look simple by comparison.

Wireless! You slayed me with this one!

Did you not see the humour?

What is the protocol involved when one is addressing nobiliy? Are barons, viscounts, earls, marquis and dukes all called Lord So and So? Since they are members of the peerage and House of Lords, does that distinction take precedence over addressing them by their title? I have heard people in the media refer to Charles Spencer as Earl Spencer? If one was addressing him, how would they do it? Lord Spencer? Earl Spencer? Duke Whatever?

Aren’t dukes and duchesses addressed as “Your Grace”? And the others just as “milord”?


Siamese attack puppet – California

The short answer to the OP is that one individual can hold a number of titles, the highest title taking precedence. A quick glance at Who’s Who (1996 edition) reveals the following character:

[Known as “Angus” to his friends]

He sat in the House of Lords as the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, both titles being used because they were of equal rank.

The eldest sons of Dukes take a subsidiary title to their father’s by courtesy only; they do not actually hold the peerage. e.g. the Duke of Norfolk’s eldest son is Earl of Arundel and Surrey (Note: not the Earl of E & S). The younger sons are known as “Lord John Smith” but again are not actually peers. The Duke of H & B’s son (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) was actually sitting in the House of Commons in 1996, which peers are forbidden to do.

Melin is right about forms of address: a Duke or Duchess is “your Grace” and the others are “My Lord” or “Lord so-and-so”.

As for life peerages, they were only invented in the 1950s (Life Peerages Act 1958), so all new peers created before then were hereditaries and most of those created since then were life peers.

The first stage of the Government’s House of Lords reform took effect in November last year. The hereditary peers now elect from among their number 100 or so to sit in the House of Lords, but a hereditary peerage no longer carries the automatic right to sit in the House. The White Paper o n the subject, if anyone is interested, is here.

One speculation is for why “count” never displaced “earl” in England was that “count” sounded too much like an existing English word (formed by dropping the “o”). The similarity in pronunciation did not sit well with the nobles.

“East is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” – Marx

Read “Sundials” in the new issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction.

Hmm, I must have missed this thread first time around.

I thought the main noble title before the Norman conquest was Ealdorman, and Earl was a shortened version of that?

Yes, as far as I know, “Earl” is from “Ealdorman”, which also produced “Alderman”. But I dare say “Jarl” had some influence.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Why don’t you people look things up before pontificating as to source?

Earl, according to three dictionaries I have consulted comes from the OE eorl (nobleman), akin to Old Norse jarl.

Alderman comes from OE ealdorman(n), a man of high rank. This comes apparently from ealdor (parent, from eald old) plus man (man).

While the two have similar meanings, there is no indication in the etymologies given that eorl is related to ealdorman, nor would there seem to be any obvious relationship.

Not saying y’all are wrong, just asking for that rarest of commodities on this board, proof. :wink: