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Article: A Guide to British Titles and Precedence

Titles and Precedence -

A Guide to British Titles and Precedence

An Explanation of English Titles

Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King during his mayoralty. Pride and Prejudice

Titles of the British Royal Family and Peerage can be confusing to figure out. Add to that the fact that each station whether Princess, Duchess or Viscountess, Daughter of a Baron or Mother of the Earl has its own place in the social hierarchy,and you have a tngle no hostess wants to tackle. Consider being introduced in a Regency Drawingroom. Upon hearing your name everyone in the room knows who you are, who your father was, how much you are worth and what your social prospects are. Thanks to Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage, a must read for any socially aspiring maiden, you could find out the history of anyone's title, along with all of their family members. At last you could discover if Lord Ravenshaw was the younger son of an Earl or a penniless Baron. This was especially important, not only to avoid embarrassing yourself in distinguished company but also in winnowing down potential marriage prospects.



Obviously, the King and his wife were at the top of the Social Stratum. Their Children are Princes and Princesses-- but when it comes to grandchildren, it gets tricky. If the father of the children is a Prince in his own right (born to it), the children will be Princes and Princesses following the pattern of the King’s children. If only the mother is a Princess then there is no special title appointed to the children, except what is theirs through their father’s line, (i.e. Miss Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips) Prince Philip, born a Prince of Greece and Denmark renounced his title when he became a British Citizen in 1947, becoming simply Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. However, George V made him the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich with the style of His Royal Highness and appointed him a Knight of the Garter before his marriage to then Princess Elizabeth. It is this styling that allows him to be called Prince Phillip (though Elizabeth could have appealed to make him King, or at the least, as Queen Victoria did, Prince Consort, upon her ascendancy to the throne) and his children to be Princes and Princesses. It is unclear whether they would be allowed these titles without this styling, though one would think that children of the monarch, regardless of sex, would retain the title of Prince or Princess.

*HRH is a title reserved for all members of the Royal Family. Other titles (Prince of Wales, Dukedoms, etc.) bestowed by the parents at will. There were all referred to in conversation as Prince/Princess or Your Royal Highness.

Male Members of the Peerage (and now Female) were allowed a seat in the House of Lords. The titles below are listed in order of precedence.

When two persons held the same title, the one with the oldest charter was held to be first. Because the titles were normally bestowed (though not always) in ascending order, One could be “William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Marquess of Hartington, Earl of Devonshire, Earl of Burlington, Baron Cavendish of Hardwick and Baron Cavendish of Keighley”. In this case, William Cavendish, would go by his highest title, the Duke of Devonshire and be known as The Duke or Your Grace. His oldest son would be allowed to use his next highest title and would be known as The Marquis of Hartington and go by Lord Hartington or My Lord Hartington (or just My Lord). His (the Marquis’) oldest son would be allowed the next title, Earl of Devonshire and be known as Lord Devonshire, and so on. The Duke’s other sons (hypothetically) would also be Lord Devonshire and be known as Lord Devonshire(the second eldest), Lord Edward (Devonshire), Lord Charles (Devonshire), etc. These titles were called “Courtesy Titles” since the only titled member of the family was the Duke- everyone else received theirs because of their relation to him.

A title held “In their Own Right” was a title taken due to bestowal or direct inheritance. Upon the death of the Duke, the Marquis would become Duke, the Earl, the Marquis, etc. The Duke’s other children would retain their titles. In the event that the Marquis had no male heirs the title could pass to his daughters (if provided in the charter), or more likely his next youngest brother or male heir going down the line through nephews and then cousins. If the title passed out of the direct family line, only the highest title remained, sans Marquess, Earl, etc. That is why, when the 6th Duke of Devonshire (William George Spencer Cavendish , Marquis of Hartington) died in 1858, his cousin, Mr. William Cavendish (before his appointment) inherited. His son later inherited the Dukedom, but only as Duke. His name before ascending was Lord (Spencer) Devonshire, and when he died, his nephew, Mr. Victor Cavendish became the 9th Duke. The 5th Duke’s wife was Lady Georgiana Spencer, daughter of the 1st Earl Spencer (and so styled Lady Spencer). Upon her marriage to the Duke, she became Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and called Duchess or Your Grace—Never Lady Georgiana or Lady Devonshire.

If her husband had predeceased her, and her son, grandson or stepson had inherited the title Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana could have retained her title as Duchess of Devonshire, or, if the heir was married and his wife became the new Duchess, she would be named “Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.”

If, however, the Cavendish’s had no direct heirs and the Dukedom passed to a nephew, Georgiana would retain the title Duchess of Devonshire. If the new Duke was married, she would become Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and his wife would be *The* Duchess of Devonshire, though sometimes they were simply known as the Older and Younger Duchesses. The situation could become extremely confusing if in fact, a Dowager Duchess was already living when the current Duke died and the new Duke took over. In cases like this, it was common for the new widow to announce the title by which she would be called. The way someone was presented told you a lot about the person. For Example, *Lord* Peter Whimsey has a courtesy title as the son of a Peer, while Alfred, *Lord* Tennyson was created Baron in 1884 and therefore holds the title in his own right.

When two sisters were introduced, as in the cast of the Bennets, the eldest would be styled “Miss Bennet” while the next oldest would be “Miss Elizabeth Bennet” or simply “Miss Elizabeth” and so on. When only one sister was present, she would be called Miss Bennet. The same holds true for the children of Peers. The Duchess’s two daughters were called, Lady (Georgiana) Devonshire and Lady Harriet (Devonshire). When Lady Devonshire married the Earl of Carlisle’s eldest son, Viscount Morpeth, she became known as Lady Georgiana Morpeth. Although a Viscountess, it was only through marriage (not by birth) and therefore only required in official address. She could choose to be called Lady Morpeth or Viscountess Morpeth if she chose, but it must not be assumed. When the Earl died, Lady Georgiana became known as Georgiana, Countess of Carlisle, though she was Lady Georgiana Carlisle (or My Lady/Your Ladyship) in private conversation.

Daughters of Dukes take precedence over all other ladies present, excepting the Queen, Princesses, Duchesses and Marchionesses. As such, the Duke’s daughters were allowed to retain their position in precedence unless they married a Peer. In that case, his rank (once ascended) replaced hers. As long as Viscount Morpeth had not yet become the Earl, Lady Georgiana would precede her sister as the oldest daughter of the Duke. When, however, she became the official Countess of Carlisle, Lady Harriet took precedence as the Duke’s daughter over a Countess, regardless of the fact that she was married to Mr. Levenson-Gower, MP, but not titled. Because Col. Fitzwilliam is the *second* son of an Earl, he receives no such title as Lord, but rather The Honorable ------- Fitzwilliam, though his sisters would be the Ladies Fitzwilliam. A Viscount’s children are all “The Honorable…” as in the case of “The Honorable Miss Carteret” in Persuasion, as are the children of all lesser Peers.

The Gentry

Knights and Baronets are not Peers. Though in some cases the title may pass from generation to generation, it is a title bestowed without the privileges of Peerage or a seat in the House of Lords. They could, however, be elected to the House of Commons. There were two rankings of Knight, one above that of Baronet (i.e. Knight of the Garter, etc.) and one below (bestowed for service—Sir William Lucas). Neither type of Knighthood was passed on to the next generation. Children of Knights were generally not called anything other than Mr. and Miss. A Knight’s wife, however, enjoyed the courtesy title of Lady (Lady Lucas). A Baronet, on the other hand, received a title from the King which was passed on to succeeding generations through a direct Male heir, and was known as Sir (Sir Walter Elliot). Though his son might succeed him as Baronet, his children received no special designation (thus Miss Elliot, Miss Anne Elliot, etc.) His wife would be styled Lady ------, using the family surname instead of a place designation, as there was none. Lower than Knight and Baron came Esquire/Squire (i.e. Squire Musgrove).

These families usually had medieval ties as a Squire was at one point an assistant to a Knight, though it later came to be the son of a Knight or the Lord of a Manor, though it could be bestowed on those with judiciary ties. This is why rural villagers often went the local Squire in legal matters. When Elizabeth Bennet states that Mr. Darcy is a Gentleman and she is a Gentleman’s Daughter, she is not referring to their character. Though Gentlemen made up the majority of the burgeoning Regency Middle Class and often mixed on an even level with the Upper Class, they were untitled families who were at some point all armigers (bearers of coats of arms). Eventually the termcame to mean more than just the right to bear arms. Persons of certain rank or position, as well as those who held military posts were often allowed the title. Gentleman also referred to a style of living-- a Yoeman (working class) could be wealthier than a Gentleman, he did not live in the same style (consider Robert Martin’s Family), though he might aspire to it. A Gentleman received the title Mr. ----- going by the family Surname. His wife and daughters were known as Mrs ----- and Miss -----. His sons would also be Mr. ------.

Gentlemen were often owners of large Estates and were often the highest ranking individuals in the neighborhood. Lower than Gentlemen in precedence were the members of the Clergy, Barristers and Naval/Army Officers. Beneath them were the Burgess (free citizens- merchants, etc.), the Yeomen (typically farmers) and then the poor. Clergymen and Doctors were in an interesting position. Necessary to everyone’s daily life, they were welcomed to some extent, socially, by all classes. Younger sons, whether of Gentlemen or higher, were in the unenviable position of having to earn their keep. Since most estates and fortunes were legally entailed to their oldest brother, they were forced to find an occupation. This was most often a career in the Church or the military. As Edward Ferrars sums it up, when he states, in Sense and Sensibility:

"It has been, and is, and probably will always be, a heavy misfortune to me, that I have had no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment, or afford me any thing like independence.But unfortunately my own nicety, and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being. We never could agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough: many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it; and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be most advantageous and honourable, and a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing. I was therefore entered at Oxford, and have been properly idle ever since.”


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Wouldnt’t a daugter of an earl be styled Lady [first name], instead of Lady [Family name]? You write in the article “Because Col. Fitzwilliam is the second son of an Earl, he receives no such title as Lord, but rather The Honorable ——- Fitzwilliam, though his sisters would be the Ladies Fitzwilliam.” While in fact Lady Cathrine de Bourgh and Lady Anne Darcy both were married to commoners and stille were styled “Lady [First name]” – since their father was Earl of Something-or-other. The Duchess of Devonshire was also styled Lady Georgiana after her father became Earl Spencer (he was a plain Mr. John Spencer when she was born).


Absolutely! I think where the author of this article went wrong was to lump all peers into one bucket. Only the sons of dukes and marquesses are knows as Lord First Name. For daughters that is Earl and upwards. But also, no son or daughter is ever known as Lord or Lady Last Name. The idea that the 2nd son of a duke is Lord Title is new to me. Of course, they also aren’t Lord First Name Devonshire. Devonshire is the title, the family name is Cavendish.
Lord Last name always means it’s their title (or courtesy title for the eldest son), Lady Last Name means it’s her husband’s title.
What’s also wrong is saying that a duke’s daughter took precedence “unless she married a peer”. That should read “unless she married.” A wife always took her status from the husband.
What I always found interesting is that Lady Catherine de Bourgh wasn’t Lady de Bourgh (her husband was Sir Lewis and I assume that was only a knighthood as there seemed to be no male heir to throw them out of Rosings. If it had been the unusual case of a baronetcy that can be inherited by the daughter, Anne de Bourgh would have been a baroness.) Lady Catherine of course shouts to everybody that she’s more than just a knight’s wife.


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