The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

It is usual today in England to confer titles which are not heritable, e. g. there are many “life peers’’ who have done outstanding public work and are given the title. For example C.P. Snow* became Lord Snow, as a life peer. Life peeresses, with the title “Lady’’, are also created. Also, since peers cannot sit in the House of Commons, it has now been made possible for persons who have inherited, for example, the rank of “Lord’’, toresign that rank for their own lifetime.

The correct use of titles on formal occasions is often found puzzling by foreigners.

Peers or noblemen, all members of the House of Lords, are of five ranks: in ascending order — baron, viscount, earl, marquess, and duke. Their wives are baroness, viscountess, countess, marchioness, and duchess. Titles in these five ranks are inherited by the eldest son, unlike the custom in many European countries where all sons acquire the title. If there is no male heir the title usually becomes extinct.

Confusion arises because the children of peers have courtesy titles. The children of a duke or marquess put “Lord’’ or “Lady’’ as a prefix in front of their first name and family name. Thus at the end of last century one of the sons of the Duke of Marlborough was Lord Randolph Churchill, but as he was not the eldest son he did not succeed to the dukedom, and his son was plain Mr Winston Churchill (until, after the last war, he was knighted and became Sir Winston Churchill). Persons with courtesy titles are not counted as peers, and may sit in the House of Commons until they inherit a peerage.

The only heritable honour apart from a peerage is a baronetcy. Baronets have the title “Sir’’ in front of their first name and family name, and usually add “Baronet’’or “Bart’’ or “Bt.’’ after it.

Knights, of whom there are many, are also known as “Sir’’ but this title is not inherited. The peculiarity about knights and baronets is that the title “Sir’ is used with the first name, and never with the family name alone. Sir John Falstaff is “Sir John’’ if one does not use his full name. The same applies to the title “Dame’’ which was invented during this century to give distinguished women the equivalent of a knighthood in their own right. Thus the actress Edith Evans is Dame Edith .Evans or “Dame Edith’’; “Dame Evans’’ is impossible.

The wives of knights and baronets, however, put “Lady’’ in front of their surnames.

But the same rule about first names applies also to courtesy titles, e. g. “Lord Randolph’’, not “Lord Churchill’’. It applies to the prefix “The Honourable’’ which may be used (though it is often ignored) by the children of barons, viscounts, and earls; and also to the prefix “The Reverend’’ which is usually put instead of “Mr’’ before the names of ministers of any religion, e. g. “The Rev. John Smith’’, never “The Rev. Smith’.

The prefix “The Right Honourable’ (used only in formal contexts) means that the person so titled is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council,* a body older than Parliament, which performs certain formal functions. The title is not hereditary.

Finally there remains in regular use, though less common than formerly, the suffix “Esq.’’, meaning ‘Esquire’, whose formal uses are now understood by very few. It can be written after the name of any adult male who has no title, e.g. “John Smith, Esq.’’. But if you put “Esq.’’ you must not put “Mr’’ in front of the name.

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