ENGLISH TITLES IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
This brief run-down of British titles is for use by fiction writers. It is by no means comprehensive, but covers the more common situations arising in novels set in the above periods.
The British peerage basically runs according to primogeniture, ie the eldest son gets everything. If a peer has no eldest son, the title and possessions that belong to it go to the next male heir, probably a brother or nephew.
There are a very few titles that can pass to a female if there is no direct heir, but they will revert to the male line when the lady bears a son. (Such as the monarchy.) Some titles can automatically pass through a female heir (when there is no male heir) and most can be revived by subsequent generations by petitioning to the Crown. (This is an area about which I am not at all confident, so that's all I can say here.)
The eldest son is called the heir apparent, since he is clearly the heir. If there is no such son, the heir is called the heir presumptive since, no matter how unlikely (the duke is actually an ancient Benedictine Monk on his death bed) the possibility of a closer heir being created is still there. Thus an heir presumptive does not hold an heir's title, if any. (See below about heir's titles.)
If a peer dies leaving a wife but no son, time must be allowed to be sure she is not pregnant before the heir presumptive assumes the title, etc.
An heir must be legitimate at birth. A peer may legitimize bastards and/or marry the mother later, but the child cannot be his legal heir.
Peers automatically have seats in the House of Lords. Note, however, that courtesy titles (those held by heirs) do not give seats.
Most peers do not use their surnames as their title. Thus, the usual pattern would be something like Arthur Bingham, Earl of Middleborough. He is Lord Middleborough, never Lord Bingham. (Or, for that matter, Lord Arthur.)
A) Leaving aside royalty, the highest rank is DUKE.
His wife is the DUCHESS. They will be duke and duchess of something, eg. Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Address is "your grace", though familiars may address them as Duke and Duchess eg "Fine weather for shooting, eh, Duke?" or may address the duke by title. "Care for more port, Manchester?"
NOTE that the duke will also have a family name, ie. surname (such as Cavendish) but will not use it in the normal course of events. The duchess does not use the surname at all. If Anne Pitt marries the Duke of Stone (whose family name is Cherry), she will be Duchess of Stone and will informally sign herself Anne Stone, not Anne Cherry.
The duke's eldest son is his heir and will have his father's second-best title as his courtesy title. Nearly all peers have a number of titles marking their climb up the ranks. The heir to a duke is often the next lowest ranking peer, a marquess (or marquis -- spelling is optional, but both are pronounced markwess.) The title could, however, be an earldom, or even a viscountcy.
NB, a courtesy title does not give the holder a seat in the House of Lords or other privileges of the peerage.
If the heir has a son before the heir becomes duke, that son will take the next lowest title as a courtesy title. If the heir dies before his father, his eldest son becomes the heir apparent and takes his father's title.
Apart from the heir, a duke's sons are given the courtesy title Lord with their Christian name, eg. Lord Richard Somerset. Lord Peter Wimsey. They are never Lord Somerset or Lord Wimsey.
All a duke's daughters are given the courtesy title Lady, first name, surname eg. Lady Mary Clarendon. (Never Lady Clarendon.) If they marry a commoner, they retain the title. If Lady Mary marries Mr. Sticklethwait, she becomes Lady Mary Sticklethwait. If she marries a peer, she adopts his title. If Lady Mary marries the Earl of Herrick, she becomes Countess of Herrick, ie. Lady Herrick. If she marries the holder of a courtesy title, then she may use his title or her birth title as she wishes.
PLEASE NOTE that in all cases, the titles Lord or Lady "first name" "surname" (eg Lady Anne Middleton) and Lord or Lady "last name" or "title" (Lady Middleton) are exclusive. No one can be both at the same time. Moreover, Lord or Lady "first name" is a title conferred at birth. It cannot be gained later in life except when the father accedes to a title and thus raises his family.
So, Lady Mary Smith is not Lady Smith and vice versa.
Lord John Brown in not Lord Brown and vice versa.
If Mary Smith marries Lord Brown she is Lady Brown, not Lady Mary.
(If she marries Lord John Brown, she becomes Lady John Brown.)
B) Next in rank is a MARQUESS (See above about spelling and pronunciation.)
He will be Marquess of something, eg Marquess of Queensbury. His wife is the MARCHIONESS. He is the Marquess of Queensbury, or Lord Queensbury, or Queensbury to his familiars, and his wife is the Marchioness of Queensbury or Lady Queensbury. She will sign herself "firstname" "title" eg. Marylou Queensbury.
His heir apparent takes his next highest title as a courtesy title. All other sons have the title Lord "firstname" "surname". All daughters have the title Lady "firstname" "surname". Details are as for duke.
C) Below marquess is EARL.
He will nearly always be earl of something. His wife is the COUNTESS. He is referred to as "the Earl of Cranthorpe" or "Lord Cranthorpe", or "Cranthorpe" to his familiars. Some earls do not use "of" as with Earl Spencer, but this is sufficiently unusual that I think it should be avoided unless it's a crucial plot point.
His wife is the Countess of Cranthorpe or Lady Cranthorpe, and she will sign herself Desdemona Cranthorpe.
As with a duke, the earl's heir will take the next lowest title as a courtesy title, and the heir's son, the next again.
All daughters of an earl are given the courtesy title Lady "firstname"; -- see dukes. All details are the same. Younger sons of an earl, however, are merely "the honorable" which is not used in casual speech.
D) Next is a VISCOUNT (pronounced vycount.)
His wife is a VISCOUNTESS. He is not "of". He will be, for example, Viscount Brummidge, usually known as Lord Brummidge, or just Brummidge. His wife will be known as Lady Brummidge and will sign herself Anne Brummidge.
His heir has no special title. All children are known as the honorable.
E) The lowest rank in the peerage is BARON.
His wife is a BARONESS. NOTE that the terms baron and baroness are only used in England in the most formal documents. General usage is simply to call them Lord and Lady. She will sign herself "firstname" "title". Children as for viscount.
F) Next in rank -- and not of the peerage -- is BARONET.
A baronet is called Sir, first name, surname. eg. Sir Richard Wellesley. His wife is called Lady "surname"; eg. Lady Wellesley. NOT Lady Mary Wellesley unless she is the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl. She will sign herself "firstname" "surname" such as Mary Wellesley.
His children have no special distinction. The title, however, is inheritable which distinguishes it from....
G) A knight,
who is the same as a baronet in usage, but is a title for life only. His wife will be Lady "surname"
When a titled lady is widowed she becomes a dowager, but the practice has generally been not to use that title until the heir takes a wife and there could be confusion as to who is the real Lady Middlethorpe.
Even if she has a daughter-in-law, in general usage she would still be referred to by the simple title unless there was likely to be confusion. So, if the Dowager Duchess of Teale was at a house party while her daughter-in-law was in London, people would not be constantly referring to her as the dowager duchess.
PEERESSES IN THEIR OWN RIGHT
There are a few, very few, titles that can pass to a daughter if there is no son -- the Royal Family, for example. In this case, the usage is the same as if they were the wife of a peer of that rank, but their husband gains no title from the marriage, just as the Duke of Edinburgh is not king.
A Peeress in her Own Right retains her title after marriage, and if her husband's rank is the superior one, she is designated by the two titles jointly, the inferior one last. Her hereditary claim to her title holds good in spite of any marriage, and will be passed on.
Since the husband gains no title from such a marriage, it's possible to have the Countess of Arbuthnot married to Mr. Smith.
Her eldest son will be her heir and take her next lowest title. If she has no son, her eldest daughter will be her heir, but until she becomes the peer she will hold only the title that comes from her birth -- eg. Lady Anne -- if any, because an eldest daughter is always an heir presumptive. There might still be a boy.
COMMON PROBLEMS SEEN IN NOVELS
I hope this helps, and though I'm pretty sure it's right it is open to debate and amendment.
(Copyright Jo Beverley 1994. This article may be freely reproduced and distributed, but only on the following conditions. That it is unaltered. That the copyright is in place. That no profit is made.)