Sunday, August 11, 2013
This post is the first in my series on English titles. The three posts are Regency Titles, Courtesy Titles and Common Title Errors.
Titles are everywhere in Regency romances. In these stories, the characters can't walk down the street without brushing shoulders with the titled nobility, although most titles, especially the highest, are rare.
Just what are titles? All titles are honors granted by the British monarch. They originated in the feudal 1100's and 1200's when the monarch granted wealthy people the right or "title" (which the holder could view as a burden or a privilege) to sit in parliament. The degree of the honor depended on the amount of land its holder controlled, with the largest landowners acquiring the highest titles. Title holders comprise the peerage. By the 1300's these titles had become hereditary.
The five titles of the British hereditary peerage are, in descending order of rank and numbers: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron. The French Normans created all the honors except "earl". The highest titles are not necessarily the oldest. The oldest are "earl", dating from Saxon times, and "baron", from 1066.
At the top, below a prince, are Duke and Duchess (created 1337) from the French Duc and Duchesse.
Then come the Marquess and Marchioness(1385) from the French Marquis and Marquise. "Marquess" was not used until Victorian times. In the Regency, the French spelling, "Marquis", was still used, with the English pronunciation (MAR-kwis). The marquis's wife's title was the English marchioness.
Next down the line are Earl and Countess (French Comte and Comtesse). Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, England had one title, the Saxon "earl" (from eorl), created circa 800-1000 AD. The earl was the ruler of a shire. The Normans decided a shire corresponded to a French county, which a comte ruled. They kept the original English title, although they renamed shires counties. However, they used the French form for the earl's wife, who became the countess.
Next come Viscount and Viscountess (1440), pronounced VI-count (Old French Visconte and Viscontesse). First recorded in England in 1387, the French title "viscount" replaced the existing Saxon title of "shire-reeve" (sheriff), assistant to the earl. At first non-hereditary and non-noble, the title became part of the peerage in 1440.
At the lowest order of the British peerage are the Baron and Baroness. William the Conqueror introduced "baron" in 1066 to reward the men who had pledged their loyalty to him and his Normans and not to the Saxon earls.
One more hereditary title, baronet, occupies the rung beneath baron. A baronet is not a peer, but Regency romances frequently use it. James I of England created it in 1611 as a means of raising money. In novels, you may see "Baronet" abbreviated as "Bart.", although the modern abbreviation is "Bt.". The title is equivalent to hereditary knighthoods in Europe.
Knight is another title frequently used in Regency romances. The title is non-hereditary and non-aristocratic, and ranks below baronet.
Most peers held multiple titles. The peer used the highest title, and often bestowed lesser titles as courtesies onto his heirs. Next time, Courtesy Titles.
Thank you all,
Pictured at the top is the ducal coronet