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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


Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Linda - very interesting and useful post - thanks for sharing!

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Hi Linda,
What I know about these titles would fill the head of a pin. I found it interesting and helps me sort out many of my questions of who should bow to whom.

Unknown said...

Very helpful! Thank you!

Loreen Augeri said...

Thanks for the info, Linda. I was never sure whether I should use Marquess or Marquis. Now I know what to use and when.

Karen Erickson said...

I swear every time I read an article about titles I learn something new (i.e. the Marquess spelling not used until the Victorian age).

Wonderful blog post - very informative. :)

Unknown said...

LINDA--I never knew! This is one of many reasons I can't write Regencies--so many titles. This is the first time I've ever seen the titles in an order--I thought an earl was the biggie. Very interesting--thanks for enlightening me.

catslady said...

I especially liked the pronounciations but i also needed to know the order. I can never remember military order either lol.

Linda Banche said...

You're quire welcome, Lindsay.

LOL, Rebecca. But titles are confusing. It took me a while to figure this stuff out, too.

You're welcome, Robinbird, and thanks for coming over.

Thank you, Loreen and Karen. I didn't find out about the difference between "Marquis" and "Marquess" until recently, too.

Hi Celia, glad to help clear up the confusion. You do have to get used to this stuff.

Hi Catslady. Some of the pronunciations are not obvious, especially if the word comes from another language. Ain't English grand?

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Linda, interesting! I have to think it made much more sense to award titles to land owners than only through heredity. Most anyone can spawn a child. Owning land at least shows he has some kind of work ethics and ability. ;-)

Aridawn said...

Oh my god...were you checking out my browsing history? I've been trying to find a useful guideline for this whole freaking subject. I'd prefer to have my heroes be untitled, like Darcy and Rochester, but it seems like you'd still have to have a grasp of the peers because they are still hobnobbing with them. I hate doing research...I just like spending time with my characters...but research is necessary to create a believable backdrop.

Linda Banche said...

Hi LK. Well I'm not so sure about the work ethic. Most of the big landowners were friends of the king, and he rewarded them with land. Or, the current owner defeated the previous owner in one of the myriad of wars that were forever happening during medieval times. Politics and force. Then, they made the titles hereditary and tied the land to them so they didn't lose what's they'd gained.

Hi Ariana, I'm with you on preferring untitled heroes. But we do need to make everything fit in and it takes a lot of time to find this stuff. Glad I could help.

Lee Rowan said...

Finally--how to pronounce "Marquis" in English!

Thank you!

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, thanks for the clarification. It's not only helpful for Regencies, but when you're world building for a fantasy, this would help because it gives a guideline for how to create your world.

It's weird how humans are so attached to titles. It's even more rampant in this day and age, especially in recent times.

Obtw ~ did you know the Sheriff is the most powerful position in the US and can legally throw out the president and any federal officer?

Sandra Cox said...

Great blog!

Linda Banche said...

LOL, Lee. Sometimes it's hard to figure out the pronunciation.

You're welcome, Savanna. Titles fascinate people. But,then, as now, titles are both privileges and obligations, and some people take only the privileges and shirk the obligations.

And I never heard of the Sheriff. Wow, what a position.

Thank you, Sandra. I appreciate it.