Understanding the British peerage system: WTAF?

I have got myself into something of a muddle trying to get to the bottom of why Caroline Norton was so miffed that some other Mrs Norton had the temerity to call herself ‘the Honourable Mrs Norton’ in an article written for Bentley’s Miscellany. And I think, what it boils down to, is that I guess I kind of find it all slightly ridiculous. The idea that someone gets to have the title of ‘honourable’ just because they happen to be the child of a peer (or, in Mrs Norton’s case, married to the child of a peer) is actually quite perverse. My grandfather was one of the most honourable men I ever had the privilege to know, and no one gave him the appendage of honourable. But I guess that is what happens when you are a just a miner from a small village in the North of England, and not born into wealth and privilege.

There is no doubt that the system of peerage can be bewildering, especially for anyone who has not grown up within a stately ancestral house or on a television diet rich in Downton Abbey. But, trying to piece it all together, this is what I have come up with.

By Peter Tillemans – Royal Collection, Public Domain,

Stripping it back to the basics, the following hereditary titles, ranked in order of seniority after the monarch and her immediate family are as follows:

Duke/Duchess: The highest rank of peerage below the Sovereign. Dukes are referred to as ‘my lord Duke’, or ‘the most Noble’, ‘his Grace’, or for a Duchess ‘her Grace’ or in person ‘your Grace’. The sons of Dukes are referred to as ‘right honourable’ Lords, and their daughters ‘right honourable’ Ladies.

Marquis (Marquess)/Marchioness: Below a Duke in rank, but higher than an Earl. Referred to as ‘the most honourable’ or in person ‘my lord Marquess/my lady’. The oldest son of a Marquis usually bears his father’s second title, while the younger sons are all referred to as ‘lords’. All daughters are styled with the title of ‘lady’.

Earl/Countess: The third degree of rank and dignity within the British peerage. Referred to as ‘the most/right honourable’ or in person ‘my lord/my lady’. The oldest son of an Earl also usually bears his father’s second title (usually that of Viscount), while the younger sons are all referred to as ‘Honourable’. All daughters are styled with the title of ‘lady’.

Viscount/Viscountess: The fourth degree of rank and peerage. Referred to as ‘the right/most honourable’ or in person ‘my lord/my lady’. All children of a Viscount are referred to as ‘Honourable’.

Baron: The lowest in rank and dignity of the British peerage. A Baron is ‘Right Honourable’ and is referred to as ‘my Lord’. All children of a Baron are referred to as “honourable.”

Baronet: A hereditary rank, but lower than the peerage.

Life Peers: Created pursuant to the Life Peerage Act of 1958, their title is not capable of being inherited.

Are you still with me? There are, of course, all sorts of other strange rules that seem to affect who gets what title, and the more you look into it, the more nonsensical it all seems. It is also pretty unfair in this modern day and age that only the firstborn gets a shot at the title, thanks to the rules of primogeniture, let alone the sexism/misogyny surrounding the exclusion of females.

But what it comes down to, is that the difference between an ‘honourable’ or a nobody (otherwise known as a Commoner) comes down to a question of birth. That cannot be right or continue to be supported by any society that purports to be one that honours ambition and achievement rather than blind, dumb genetic luck.

But there it is, the peerage system, a system that has survived for hundreds of years… I guess this Commoner will continue to be bemused. Oh, and if my reading is correct, Caroline Norton’s husband really shouldn’t have been using the ‘courtesy’ of Honourable at all while married to Caroline so I have just been down one of those research rabbit holes. You know, the ones that are a complete and utter waste of time. Back to the PhD research it is.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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