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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When Was a Duke a Duke?

Shannon Donnally

We tend to think of dukes and viscounts as having always been around in the British nobility. In fact, these titles were created at specific dates, often as the result of the ruling monarch looking to reward a favorite person. English nobility grew as a result of the crown granting a “Patent” that stipulated the degree of the title and how it could devolve (go on to future generations). This leads to one of the fun things in fiction—creating your characters background.

It’s great fun to make up things—and inventing the background for a character’s title means going back in time. Perhaps you here has a recent creation—he’s only the first earl. Or perhaps, as in A Much Compromised Lady, the earldom dates back to Saxon times—meaning it’s a more important title than any newer dukedom. What all of this means is that you have to have some idea of when titles first came into use.

In England, King and queen are ancient titles. The Old Saxon was cyng or cing, and cwen.  For Saxons, the title designated an elected leader.  Then William came along in 1066 and made it something that’s inherited and brought along all his Normal feudal laws.
Prior to the Normans, the highest Saxons title was earl—in fact, William was called Wyllelm, earl of Normandize in a chronicle of 1066. But the Normans changed everything. Knights as a title start to show up after the conquest, in the 1000’s—it was a general term for any military leader. The Normans brought the titles of prince/princess with them in the 1200’s (but, until the early 1600’s, only the king’s eldest son could call himself a prince).

The Normans also tried to change the title of earl to count—which is why an earl’s wife is called a countess. However, count never stuck well with the Saxons, and so we’re left with an earl and his countess.

Duke and duchess remained a foreign title until 1338 when Edward III raised his son from Earl of Cornwall to Duke of Cornwall (there are 26 dukedoms, other than the royal dukedoms that go the sons of the ruling monarch).

 In 1385, Richard II made Robert de Vere the Marquess of Dublin, bringing this title into existence. The title came from the French, which shows the strong Normal roots still hanging around.
And from the late 1300’s we also get the title of baron.

In 1440, Henry VI made John, Baron Beaumont, into Viscount Beaumont. Henry made the title of viscount official, but the word had been around for almost a hundred years as a term for an earl’s assistant (specifically as a term to denote a high sheriff).

Rounding out the list, in 1611, James I needed cash to hang onto Ulster, which the Irish wanted back. James created the hereditary title of baronet, and the Red Hand of Ulster became their badge. However, baronets are not really members of the nobility—they hold no seats in the House of Lords and the title usually comes without lands.

So when you’re creating a character’s past titles, all this goes into the mix.

Perhaps your character has Norma roots in the family, and so there might be an old barony created in the 1300’s, given to a young knight ancestor. The family may not do anything for a few generations, but may end up with one of Henry VI’s viscount titles for services rendered the crown. And then, perhaps for services to Charles II’s restoration the famiy might come into a higher title, such as marquess. (Notice how titles are like a promotion—you always get the next one up.)
Very rarely, such as was the case with the Duke of Wellington, multiple honors may be awarded by the crown. Wellington was heaped with titles for his victories against Napoleon’s forces—and both lands and money came with these titles.

But what the crown gives, the crown can also take. Treason was one reason to remove a title from a man (and from his family)—and titles with no clear heir went into abeyance until an heir could be found or until the crown decided they wanted to give the title elsewhere.

Shannon Donnelly’s Regency noveallas are now available as from Cool Gus Publishing, as well as on Kindle, Nook, from Kobo and other ebook retailers. Her latest book Burn Baby Burn, is an Urban Fantasy, also out from Cool Gus Publishing, and she is now at work on another Regency romance.

Her writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her work has been on the top seller list of and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, of which Romantic Historical Lovers notes: “a story where in an actress meets an adventurer wouldn’t normally be at the top of my TBR pile; but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author and so I thought I’d give this one a go. I’m glad I did. I was hooked and pulled right into the world of the story from the very beginning…Highly recommended.”
She has also published young adult horror stories, is the author of several computer games, and now lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at,, and twitter/sdwriter.


Burun Estetiği said...

Good Article in pleasant atmosphere.Keep writing same as subject.
Burun Estetiği

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, Shannon. Thank you. I tweeted.

Cozy in Texas said...

This is very interesting. The English nobility has always baffled me.