Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Titles are everywhere in Regency romances. In these stories, you can't walk down the street without brushing shoulders with the titled nobility, although most titles, especially the highest, are rare.
Just what are titles? All titles are honors granted by the monarch. They originated in the feudal 1100's and 1200's when the monarch granted wealthy people the right or "title" (which the holder could view as a burden or a privilege) to sit in parliament. The degree of the honor depended on the amount of land its holder controlled, with the largest landowners acquiring the highest titles. Title holders comprise the peerage. By the 1300's these titles had become hereditary.
The five titles of the British hereditary peerage are, in descending order of rank and numbers: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron. The French Normans created all the honors except "earl". The highest titles are not necessarily the oldest. The oldest are "earl", dating from Saxon times, and "baron", from 1066.
At the top, below a prince, were Duke and Duchess (created 1337) from the French Duc and Duchesse.
Then come the Marquess and Marchioness(1385) from the French Marquis and Marquise. "Marquess" was not used until Victorian times. In the Regency, the French spelling, "Marquis", was still used, with the English pronunciation (MAR-kwis). The marquis's wife's title was the English marchioness.
Next down the line are Earl and Countess (French Comte and Comtesse). Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, England had one title, the Saxon "earl", created circa 800-1000 AD. The earl was the ruler of a shire. The Normans decided a shire corresponded to a French county, which a comte ruled. They kept the original title, although they renamed shires counties. However, they used the French form for the earl's wife, who became the countess.
Next come Viscount and Viscountess (1440), pronounced VI-count (Old French Visconte and Viscontesse). First recorded in England in 1387, the French title "viscount" replaced the existing Saxon title of "shire-reeve" (sheriff), assistant to the earl. At first non-hereditary and non-noble, the title became part of the peerage in 1440.
At the lowest order of the British peerage are the Baron and Baroness. William the Conqueror introduced "baron" in 1066 to distinguish the men who had pledged their loyalty to him and his Normans and not to the Saxon earls.
One more hereditary title, baronet, occupies the rung beneath baron. A baronet is not a peer, but Regency romances frequently use it. James I of England created it in 1611 as a means of raising money. In novels, you may see "Baronet" abbreviated as "Bart", although the modern abbreviation is "Bt". The title is equivalent to hereditary knighthoods in Europe.
Most peers held multiple titles. They used the highest title, and often bestowed lesser titles as courtesies onto their heirs. Next time, Courtesy Titles.
Thank you all,
Enter My World of Historical Hilarity
Pictured at the top is the ducal coronet