Sunday, September 1, 2013

Courtesy Titles

This post is the second in my series on English titles.  The three posts are Regency Titles, Courtesy Titles and Common Title Errors.

I first came across English courtesy titles, not that I knew what they were, when I read Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Lord Peter's older brother, Gerald, is the Duke of Denver. All through the books, everyone calls Gerald "Denver" and Peter "Wimsey". Their sister, Mary, is Lady Mary. Gerald's son and heir is The Viscount St. George. Why did they all have different names?

Many years later, I discovered what was going on. A courtesy title is a title granted to some of the children of peers. Gerald was born Gerald Wimsey. As the heir to the Duke of Denver, he held the courtesy title of Viscount St. George, one of his father's lesser honors. At that time, Gerald was also a commoner. When he became Duke of Denver, he ascended to the peerage and became known as Gerald Denver. "Lord" for Peter and "Lady" for Mary are also courtesy titles given to the younger sons and the daughters of a duke. All title holders except the peer and his wife are commoners. In the rare cases where a woman holds a title (is a peer) in her own right, her husband is not a peer, unless he holds a title of his own.

There are further wrinkles. The heir of a duke, marquess or earl holds as a courtesy title the highest of his father's lesser titles. (Note, here I use the Victorian "marquess" for the nobleman next lower than a duke. "Marquis" was the title in Regency times. (See Regency Titles.) If the heir also has a son during his father's lifetime, this boy would bear his grandfather's second highest title.

The courtesy title for the younger sons of marquesses is "Lord", the same as for a duke's younger sons. The younger sons of an earl are "(The) Honorable", and addressed as "Mister".

"(The) Lady" is a courtesy title granted to the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls, such as Lady Mary Wimsey. They retain the "Lady" even after they marry. When Lady Mary Wimsey married police inspector Mr. Charles Parker, her married name became Lady Mary Parker.

For the lower ranks, viscounts and barons, all the children are "(The) Honorable", and addressed as "Mister" or "Miss".

The wives of the holders of courtesy titles bear the corresponding female title. For example, if Viscount St. George had a wife (he was unmarried in the Lord Peter books) his wife would be the viscountess.

And to confuse you even further, when Peter married Harriet Vane, Harriet's married name was Lady Peter Wimsey.

These two links explain courtesy titles in more detail:

Correct title usage is confusing and errors abound in Regency romances. Next time, Common Title Errors.

Thank you all,


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a helpful post on a confusing subject. I think it must be confusing even for the Brits, who grew up with it, because in BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON Lord Peter comments to Harriet that Miss Twitterton had some refinement, as "she got your title right first shot, which is rare."
I certainly never would have guessed "Lady Peter." ;-D

Doreen Knight said...

Now if only you could persuade people how to adress knights properly ...

Linda Banche said...

You're welcome, dmacsf. The subject is a bit esoteric, and the person on the street can go on quite well without knowing any of this stuff, British or not. And, I agree, I never would have thought "Lady Peter", either.

How about this one? Kate Middleton, as the wife of Price William, is also "Princess William"!

Doreen, in my next post, I talk about title errors and how to fix them, including how to address titleholders. Thanks for coming over!