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A Guide to the British Aristocracy

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Have you ever wondered whether an earl outranks a baron? Me neither. However for some people the distinctions are of vital importance.

There's a volume in existence called Whitaker's Peerage that tells us “The rules which govern the arrangements of the Peerage are marked by so many complications that even an expert may occasionally be perplexed.”

What follows is a valiant, if misguided and inexpert, attempt to unravel a complex system of privileges.

The British Royal Family; nobody takes precedence over its members..

The British Royal Family; nobody takes precedence over its members..

The Top of the Aristocratic Food Chain

The pinnacle of the British aristocracy is the Royal Family. The only way to be a royal is to be born one, there are no short cuts or elections.

Marrying a royal does not confer royalty upon the non-royal spouse. If the royal intending to marry has picked someone not of noble blood the monarch's approval must be given. No approval—no marriage.

In the past, divorced people and Roman Catholics were shut out of marrying a member of the Royal Family. But, the monarchy, an institution that does not much like change, has relaxed that rule somewhat. So, Megan Markle, a divorcee, was allowed to marry Prince Harry.

The husband of a British queen cannot be designated a king, the best he can hope for is the title prince. However, the wife of a king becomes the Queen Consort.

No doubt, committees are struck to decide such matters.

In addressing a royal personage formality is required. The Queen must be called “Your Royal Highness” or “Your Majesty” on first contact. After that “Ma'am” is deemed sufficient. Anybody who fails to follow the protocol will be treated to a withering and frosty stare, and unspoken regrets that in years past such a transgression might have warranted a trip to the Tower of London.

Dukes and Duchesses

Next in the aristocratic food chain come dukes and duchesses. Some dukes and duchesses are royal and some are not, although the dukedoms of Cornwall and Rothesay can only be held by the monarch's oldest son.

Dukes are rulers of certain territories known as duchies, such as counties, but, these days, their function is purely ceremonial—they can no longer order troublesome peasants off their land and into the pillory. (Does one hear soft mutterings of “pity”?)

There is a limited number of dukedoms and most were created long ago when someone did a favour for a monarch. Edward III got the ducal ball rolling in 1337 by making his eldest son the Duke of Cornwall. The title is currently held by Prince Charles, the 24th Duke of Cornwall. King Charles II did rather debase the prestige of the whole thing when he bestowed the title of duke on several of his illegitimate sons.

The title is exclusively the gift of the sovereign and cannot be acquired any other way. It is now bestowed on the children of the monarch upon their marriages, so they can add it to the prince and princess trophies on their mantelshelf, along with the snow globe from Niagara Falls, perhaps.

There are about 26 non-royal dukes who get their titles through heredity; such an inherited title rarely goes to a woman. If there is no qualified heir when the holder of the title dies then it becomes the property of the sovereign and may be handed out or not as he or she sees fit.

Dukes and duchesses get to wear nifty hats, called coronets, smaller versions of the massive crowns that monarchs wear, but only during coronations. Dukes are not permitted to add jewels to their headgear. Presumably, this is to avoid an unseemly competition with nobles sticking honking big diamonds, sapphires, and rubies on their titfers; that would be very déclassé, lowering the whole tone of the upper crust.

Dukes are not always of the highest quality. The 4th Duke of Hamilton (pictured) was described as “perpetually drunk, selfish, arrogant, a disaster, and a wastrel.” He was killed in a duel.

Dukes are not always of the highest quality. The 4th Duke of Hamilton (pictured) was described as “perpetually drunk, selfish, arrogant, a disaster, and a wastrel.” He was killed in a duel.

Lesser Nobles

The next noble titles are, in order of preference, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron, and for women it's Marchioness, Countess, Viscountess, and Baroness. Such titles may be conferred on royals, but can also be held by non-royals and are all referred to as peers. All other people are known as commoners.

“The Most Honourable” precedes the marquesses' title, no matter whether he is honourable or not; the Marquis de Sade being a particularly obnoxious example of the breed. Again, it's a gift of the Crown and the last such gong was handed out in 1936, so they don't seem to be making marquesses anymore.

Earls rank next and their spouses, this being the English language are not called earlesses, they are countesses. Of course they are. Prince Edward, the Queen's youngest child, was made the Earl of Wessex when he married, rather than a duke like his older brothers. However, he will become the Duke of Edinburgh when both his parents are dead.

Where are we now? Ah yes, viscounts who are quite often the child of an earl. There are about 270 viscountcies in the United Kingdom, but in most cases they are secondary titles being attached to a title higher up the pecking order.

On the bottom rung are barons, but they are still considered nobility. Some inherit their titles and some are appointed, usually for some outstanding service to the community.

All of these four levels are entitled to be referred to as “Your Lordship” or “Your Ladyship,” and they all get to wear those fancy bonnets but, again, only when a new monarch is crowned.

Dukes, viscounts, and other peers turn out in their finery for the state opening of Parliament that takes place in the unelected House of Lords.

Dukes, viscounts, and other peers turn out in their finery for the state opening of Parliament that takes place in the unelected House of Lords.

Burke's Peerage

Keeping track of the relationships among the aristocrats is the job of Burke's Peerage and a few other publications. Burke's first appeared in 1826 and has been updated from time to time ever since.

The book relies, to some extent, on genealogies provided by the families, and these may not always be accurate. The fact that the 4th Marquess of Wealth and Privilege believed himself to be a cannibal shrew is likely to be left out of the narrative. However, entries carry much needed information such as coats of arms and family mottoes, but especially lineages.

In a fanciful mood let's make a pretend visit to the estates of the Duke of Much Money. Here comes, Jocasta, gambolling into the breakfast room to announce, “Mummy, Daddy, I met this spiffing young man at the hunt ball last night.”

So, the family heads to the library to get its copy of Burke's Peerage to check on the blood lines of Percival Smythe-Marspether to see if he's a suitable match for precious Jocasta. It's sort of like investigating the pedigree of a stallion before presenting him to a brood mare.

Oscar Wilde liked to satirize Britain's upper classes and he did so in his 1893 play A Woman of No Importance. He has Lord Illingworth advising his son, Gerald Arbuthnot, “You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly, and it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The heir to the British throne has a formidable collection of titles: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Renfrew, Baron Greenwich, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, KG, KT, GCB, OM, AK, QSO, CC, PC, ADC.
  • Prince William's wife is frequently, and incorrectly, referred to as Princess Kate. She could only use that title if she was born a princess and she wasn't. Her correct title is Princess William of Wales but usually goes by the less formal, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.
  • Numerous products in the United Kingdom carry the Royal Coat of Arms and the statement “By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen.” This royal warrant is much sought after as the monarchical stamp of approval will likely increase sales. Here's Florrie in the supermarket “Eee by gum, if them pickled onions is good enough for our Lizzy then they're good enough for me and Bert.” Does money change hands in the granting of a warrant? It might, but it's unseemly to talk of money in the royal presence.

Sources

  • “9 Things You Didn't Know About Marrying a British Royal.” Morgan Evans, Redbook, April 11, 2017
  • “Where Do Dukes Come from?” twonerdyhistorygirls, July 21, 2014.
  • “A Rare Species: Britain's Non-Royal Dukedoms.” Jane Dismore, History Today, October 28, 2014.
  • “British Nobility Titles Explained: What to Know About the U.K. Peerage System.” jamie-sanham, Huffpost, October 1, 2020.
  • Burke's Peerage.
  • “Royal Titles: Duke, Duchess, Earl, Countess and Viscount – A Guide to British Royal Titles.” dianalegacy.com. December 29, 2019.
  • “Four of the Most Eccentric Scottish Dukes of Hamilton.” Ilana Barnet, History Is now Magazine, undated.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 19, 2021:

Although I was brought up in England to revere the aristocracy and the royal in particular, I just can't take them seriously. They are an anachronism.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 19, 2021:

Wow, my head is spinning, Rupert! Talk about TMI! Ha ha.

This is quite entertaining. I love the humor you added to the subject. We are all subjects in the eyes of the Royals, right?

Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on October 18, 2021:

Entertaining and informative. Thanks!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 17, 2021:

What an interesting and humorous read, Rupert. Everything, we didn’t really need to know about British aristocracy. Surely some of them would have trouble remembering all their titles, and are they usually only referred to by their highest standing, or does it depend where they are officiating at the time?

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 17, 2021:

Rupert, the 3 class-royalty, nobles, and commoners can't be seen in any other country? But in my part of the world, right in Nigeria Delta or the Niger Delta is the Wakirike kindom, that catture this royalty class. But a commoner who has wealth above the first and second can become royal. Even a slave boy become a king in this Niger Delta.

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