Noble Titles (What Are The 5 British Titles Of Nobility)

Making Sense Of British Noble Titles

We previously wrote about the Scottish peerage and the Lords and Ladies of Ireland.

However, learning the hierarchy of the English peerage system is a bit more complicated. Many of us are familiar with terms such as king, queen, prince, and princess – the main established titles in Britain. Other more obscure titles such as duchess and viscount are not as understood, and we remain in the dark on how these titles affect social ranking and political power.

If you're planning a trip across the Atlantic in the coming weeks, perhaps a good "once-over" of established titles and descriptions is in order.

One wouldn't dream of having high tea with the Queen and her court without knowing a bit more about social rankings, responsibilities, and expectations that have served Britain well thus far. Read on to discover the true order of these titles, as well as the specific jobs and responsibilities that are associated with each.

Born Into Nobility

Membership in the noble class is usually hereditary, granted to a family by either a monarch or a government. While the entrance of commoners into the noble class is not common, it has happened in cases of marriage, acquisition of power, wealth, or even royal favor.

Privileges associated with the noble class vary from country to country, but they tend to be much more substantial than the rights and privileges of commoners. "Peerage" is used to refer to both an entire body of nobility as well as specific individuals carrying a title. In the UK, peerage is a legal system that is comprised of various noble ranks, forming the British honors system.

All titles of nobility are created by the Crown, taking effect as letters of authenticity are issued and notarized with the Great Seal of the Realm. New peerages of a hereditary nature are only granted to members of the Royal Family. In addition to hereditary rankings, the peerage system grants life titles, positions of honor given to those deemed worthy to sit and vote in the House of lords. Today the House of Lords is largely comprised of life peerage rankings, with only ten percent having hereditary titles.

Throughout history, various classes of British peerage have evolved into the 5 main titles that exist today. They are:

Duke Viscount Marquess Earl Baron

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Which one outshines all the others? Who's at the bottom of the pyramid? Let's explore the British titles and their specific rights and responsibilities as they are given by the Sovereign.

Duke

A Duke is the most important nobility ranking among all of the British peerages. The Latin word for duke is dux, meaning "leader". A female counterpart to a Duke would be a Duchess, a title that a woman holds independently as well as one who serves as the wife of a Duke. Traditionally, the role of Duke was one of high military stature, with one taking on that role in service to his or her country under the authority of military branches. There are 27 active Dukedoms in the British peerage system today, 9 of which are of royal lineage. Interestingly enough, Prince Charles of Wales holds three of these titles in addition to being the newly crowned King of England.

Marquess

Marquess is one step below the title of Duke, derived from the French title, Marquis. The word Marquess refers to the Marches or borders that run between England, Wales, and Scotland. Created relatively late in the game when compared to other titles, a Marquess is formally referred to as "The Most Honorable The Marquess Of.....", with a wife of a Marquess being titled a Marchioness. Historically, the primary duty of a Marquess was to defend and fortify land borders against hostile neighboring territories.

Earl

Next in line for noble ranking is the Earl, referring to the Old English eorl, meaning military leader, one of noble rank. An Earl functions as a royal governor, charged with collecting taxes over their particular regions. Earls were also largely responsible for leading the king's army during times of war. It was not uncommon for large groups of Earls to ban together and create an earldom to govern shires, or territories. Shortly after 1066, William the Conqueror did away with the traditional system of the earldom, moving the primary responsibility of tax and fee collection to larger government institutions.

Viscount

A Viscount is the fourth most significant rank in the British peerage hierarchy, directly below Earl and directly above a Baron. Recent statistics reveal the existence of 270 Viscountcies across the British nobility network. The word Viscount comes from the Latin vicecomes, with the wife of a Viscount being titled as a Viscountess. These lords and ladies were first recorded in the 1400s, when the first Viscount John Beaumont was titled by King Henry VI. While the first titles of Viscount originated and were given out by British royalty, subsequent titles of Viscount were passed down through hereditary lines. The duties of a Viscount were to administer justice in personal affairs and collect revenue and taxes from the common people.

Baron

Baron comes from the Old Germanic derivative, baro, meaning "free man". The Scottish equivalent for this peerage title is called a Lord Of Parliament; these dignitaries held feudal privileges and are recognized by the crown as noble. Shortly after its introduction in 1066, the rank of Baron was called upon to perform military service and attend matters of royal council as advisors to members of the court. Sadly, this ranking and its attached prestige have been short-lived. King Louis XIV of France diminished the title by making numerous men barons after taking the throne, reducing the status of such a title significantly.

Buying a Title

While it's possible to become a lord through the purchase of a title, only those with established titles are considered valid by British society. These honorary namesakes are used to refer to members of peerage with austere rankings, and their lord titles are used in reference to not only their rank, but their political prowess and social responsibilities as well.

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Consorting With High Ranking Officials

Knowing a bit more about each of these peerage titles as well as how to address them will yield you some social credibility when it comes to consorting with members of an aristocratic family. Being respectful of these long, culturally-significant associations will also provide you with a rich understanding of the history and function of each, and why they have become so highly-esteemed in British society.

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