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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Courtesy Titles

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, was the Duke of Denver. All through the books, everyone called Gerald "Denver" and Peter "Wimsey". Their sister, Mary, was Lady Mary. Gerald's son and heir was 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.

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 previous post.) If the heir also has a son during his father's lifetime, the duke's or earl's or marquess's grandson 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".

"(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 the policeman, Mr. Charles Parker, her married name became Lady Mary Parker.

For the lower ranks, viscounts and barons, all the children are "(The) Honorable".

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,


LK Hunsaker said...

Ah, royalty titles are harder to learn than English grammar!

catslady said...

Too much for my brain I'm thinking lol.

Linda Banche said...

LOL, LK and catslady. You get used to it after a while. But then, I get around the issue by mainly having untitled heroes.

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, great post. I think it's like a language. The best way to learn a language or learn the titles is live in that particular culture.

As catslady said... too much for my brain!

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Savanna. But I think you'd do just fine!