Courtesy titles: a primer

Westminster Hall coronation of George IV 1821
The coronation of King George IV in Westminster Hall, 1821.

Given that the British peerage system developed over time, its labyrinthine rules and unfamiliar nomenclature are not all that surprising. As feudal peerages – a somewhat amorphous class bound by land tenure and military service – gave way to peerages granted by the monarch, the rules governing titles and their inheritance evolved into what we have today.

Several readers of my previous post on the subject were perplexed by courtesy titles. The peerage system in the United Kingdom affords peerage holders and their immediate relatives a variety of titles signifying rank, some hereditary and bound to one holder at a time, others “by courtesy” and held by some or all members of a particular generation.

The Dukes of Devonshire can provide examples. The peerage holder is the present Duke; his wife is the Duchess. The Duke’s mother, who died in September, was the Dowager Duchess, as the widow of the previous holder of the title.

Now things get trickier. The Duke of Devonshire’s forebears amassed a number of hereditary titles. The Duke’s other titles include Marquess of Hartington, Earl of Burlington, and Lord Cavendish. “By courtesy,” his son and heir is called the Marquess of (or Lord) Hartington, as the marquessate is the second highest-ranking of the Duke’s titles. Lord Hartington’s son is the Earl of Burlington, as an earl is junior to a marquess. If Lord Burlington has a son – the great-grandson of the present Duke – that son is Lord Cavendish, as a baron is junior to an earl.

The Duke has the title; those family members with courtesy titles connected to the peerage do not. His heirs for three generations have courtesy titles, but so, too, do the brothers and sisters of the Duke’s son, grandson, and great-grandson. The younger sons and the daughters of a duke or marquess are, by courtesy, termed Lord X or Lady Y Smith. The wife of Lord X Smith is called Lady X Smith, as in the case of Lady Andrew Cavendish.

The younger sons of an earl are The Honourable (Hon.); the earl’s daughters are Ladies. The Hon. as a courtesy title does not correspond to the more familiar usage (to Americans) of The Hon. in front of the name of a member of Congress, an Ambassador, or some other dignitary. In the United Kingdom, social use of The Hon. denotes that that person is

  • the younger son of an earl,
  • a son or a daughter of a viscount ­– the peerage level between earl and baron – or a baron, or
  • a woman married to the younger son of an earl or any son of a viscount or baron.

The husbands of the daughters of dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons do not take any rank from their wives; the wives of the younger sons of dukes and marquesses are styled as above (e.g., Lady Andrew Cavendish); and the wives of the younger sons of earls and the sons of viscounts and barons are The Hon. Mrs. X Smith, as they do take their rank from their husbands.

In effect, courtesy titles signal membership in the clan gathered around the peerage holder as well as the larger British aristocracy. To review, a duke > a marquess > an earl > a viscount > a baron, and the siblings and descendants of the title holder rank in the same way: the son of a duke outranks, and takes precedence of, the son of a baron.


N.B. To further confuse matters in this example, the present Lord Hartington is known professionally as William Burlington; he uses the earldom while his son is known as Lord Cavendish!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

38 thoughts on “Courtesy titles: a primer

  1. I’m still confused by your 4th paragraph (“Now things get trickier…” Indeed!).

    It tells me that the Duke of Devonshire has four titles: Duke of Devonshire, Marquess of Hartington, Earl of Burlington, and Lord Cavendish. Then you write that “his son and heir is called the Marquess of (or Lord) Hartington,”

    Question: Are both the Duke and his son then called the Marquess of Hartington? Or does the Duke give up that title to his son?

    Then you write: “Lord Hartington’s son is the Earl of Burlington.” Similar question: If this Lord Hartington is the Duke’s son, does this Earl Of Burlington (the Duke’s grandson) share the Earl title with his grandfather? Or does the Duke give it up to his grandson?

    The next generation presents an analogous question: “If Lord Burlington has a son – the great-grandson of the present Duke – that son is Lord Cavendish.” Does the Duke retain or give away this “Lord” title? And it appears that the “Lord” title covers both the Marquess and the two-generations lower, unadorned “Lord” titles (but not the intervening “Earl” title). Is that skip-generation assignment correct?

    Best wishes,

    — Mike

    1. Mike, the Duke’s titles are used by his progeny, so while the Duke of Devonshire’s entry in Burke’s Peerage will list all his titles, from duke to baron, in practice the duke’s heir is Lord Hartington, Lord Hartington’s heir is Lord Burlington, and Lord Burlington’s heir is Lord Cavendish. The subsidiary titles line up by seniority, from duke to marquess to earl to baron. As you say, the peerage holder cedes (for practical purposes) the usage of his subsidiary titles to his heirs.

      The usage of Lord or Lady is also complex. All peerage titles other than duke may substitute Lord or Lady for the title of rank. The Marquess of Hartington is Lord Hartington; one can refer to the title holder in either way. By the same token, courtesy titles for younger sons and the daughters of peers may include Lord (for the son of a duke or marquess) or Lady (for the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl).

  2. Good summary, but you omitted one wrinkle. As you note, a woman born with a courtesy title may keep her courtesy title after marriage. This holds true when she marries someone with a courtesy title. So, if Lady X marries Lord Andrew Smith, she would be Lady X Smith rather than Lady Andrew Smith. After marriage to someone with a higher-ranking title, she might be styled Lady X, (Baroness/Marquessa/whatever) of Someplace or Baroness X of Someplace. Just another way of sorting out commoners.

    1. Dee, yes, that is a further wrinkle. A peer’s daughter marrying the son of a peer will either keep her rank, if it is higher than her husband’s, or take his, if his rank is higher than hers. So Lady Jane Jones, daughter of an earl, marries the Hon. Robert Smith, the son of a viscount: she is Lady Jane Smith. A Lady Jane Jones who marries Lord Robert Robertson, younger son of a duke, becomes Lady Robert.

  3. I have a question regarding what I suspect may be a courtesy title from the seventeenth century. I am researching Lodovic Stuart, the Duke of Lennox and Richmond (d. 1624) and his properties in London, and the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Jas. I, 1619-1623, notes that “Lady Hatton sells her house in Holborn to the Duke of Lenox, for 12,000l. The Earl of Lenox gives Newhall and the lieutenancy of Sussex to Buckingham for 22,000l.” In one sentence, we have a note about the Duke of Lenox, and in the very next sentence, we hear about the Earl of Lenox. How is it possible to have both a Duke and an Earl of Lenox at precisely the same time? The only thing I can think of is that the title of Earl was a courtesy title, perhaps to Esme Stuart, the Duke’s brother? Or possibly one of Esme’s sons? I’m so confused!

    1. Rebecca, I suspect that the transcriber was interrupted, and meant to list “the Earl of …” — perhaps another one of James I’s favorites — but instead wrote Lennox. I think the entry marks a lapse in attention!

      1. Yes, indeed – a double lapse in attention, in fact! I believe I just found the answer. I tried to research it from the Sussex/Newhall angle, but the Lennox earls/dukes were never in possession of that property, nor were they ever Lord Lieutenants of Sussex. However, Sir Richard Weston, 1st Earl of Portland, was, and he did, in fact, sell Newhall (aka Beaulieu) to Buckingham. So the transcriber meant the Earl of Portland, not the “Earl of Lenox,” and lieutenancy of Essex, not Sussex. Weston was one of the Lords Lieutenant of Essex. Mystery solved! Thank you so much for your help.

  4. Can you explain how the courtesy titles evolve after the incumbent Duke dies and is replaced by his eldest son? In particular, do the other children of the Duke (who have the courtesy title Lord or Lady) retain this after the Dukedom passes to their brother?

    My impression was that, once the Dukedom passes to their brother, the other children lose the right to their courtesy title. Is this correct? I ask because I have come across someone recently who continues to style himself Lord X despite his father (a Duke) passing and the Dukedom going to his elder brother.

    1. Dear Alex, No, all the courtesy titles are for the bearer’s lifetime — the children of the late Duke, and of the current Duke, bear them at the same time. So Lady Randolph Churchill, widow of the younger son of the late Duke of Marlborough, continued to be Lady Randolph through two subsequent marriages and the succession of her brother-in-law and nephew as Dukes.

      1. This is confusing to me. A widow who remarries loses any title or precedence gained by her previous marriage. So it is evident that a widowed Viscountess upon marriage to Mr Smith would become Mrs Smith and no longer be a Viscountess nor use the title “Lady” if she did not hold it before marriage to the Viscount.

        Does the same not hold true for courtesy titles received through marriage?

        1. That’s right. While there are certainly examples of social usage after remarriage (particularly of higher-ranking titles), the general rule is that the courtesy title ends upon a subsequent marriage. “The Double Duchess” was so called because as the Dowager Duchess of Manchester she married the Duke of Devonshire, but in fact she was only one or the other. Lady Randolph Churchill (again!) was Mrs. George Cornwallis-West and Mrs. Montagu Porch … but after 1874 she was only ever Lady Randolph Churchill in her public life, the rules be damned.

    1. If your example is only ever going to be the holder of a courtesy title, then I would say the elastic term of “nobility” is correct. “Peerage” is also pretty elastic, though, so the scion of a peer could also be placed in the peerage, generally. Both terms can mean what you want them to mean…!

  5. May the ggggrand daughter of multiple prior kings (England, France, Spain, etc.) use a courtesy title of Lady? I was curious if there was any courtesy extended to the descendants of royalty.

  6. I’m afraid not. Titles come from the monarch; courtesy titles come with a relationship to the title holder. This is why the Princess Royal’s daughter is Mrs. Zara Tindall, and why Princess Margaret’s children are the Earl of Snowdon and Lady Sarah Chatto — in the first case, Mrs. Tindall’s father is a commoner, while in the second Antony Armstrong-Jones was given a peerage, which passed to his son (David Linley) and which provides the former Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones with a courtesy title.

    More remote links to a title holder, or to a monarch, do not provide courtesy titles — always excepting when a commoner succeeds to a title from a cousin or another collateral: often the siblings of the new peerage holder receive courtesy titles reflecting their relationship to, say, the new Earl.

  7. This is really interesting…I have a question about Downton Abbey then. I know it’s fictional, but I’m under the impression that the same rules hold. Lady Mary Crawley is the daughter of the Earl of Grantham and she married the heir presumptive, Mr. Matthew Crawley, her distant cousin (and nearest male relation through the line). Was he not titled though he was the presumed heir as a lord because he was not the SON of the Earl? Would he not have been given even a courtesy title before Lord Grantham dies? And then when Lady Mary and Matthew had their son, George…the boy is always referred to as “Master George” rather than “Lord George”, even though he is the heir to the earldom after his father’s death (and his grandfather is the current earl, though through his mother). Is that working correctly within the rules?

    1. Titles of this kind are held by one person, who then may — depending on the rank involved — give his/her relatives courtesy titles. Lady Mary is the daughter of Lord Grantham; Matthew Crawley, the heir presumptive, is simply a gentleman who might one day succeed his cousin and father-in-law. Master George, ditto, as the son and heir in the male line (the female line doesn’t help here) of the heir presumptive to the earldom. Lord Grantham might still have a son, who would be the heir apparent — and there is no mechanism to prospectively favor the heir (who is not, in Matthew or George’s case, Lord Grantham’s son) with a courtesy title which might have to be withdrawn, depending on unknown further events: Lord Grantham’s child by a second wife, Matthew’s death, etc.

  8. The Duke’s younger sons are styled Lords, but is that title passed down indefinitely, to the 4th, 5th,8th, 10th generation? Same question about the title “honorable” for younger sons, is it passed down? Thanks

    1. No, courtesy titles operate in relation to the peerage holder. Lord X Smith, or the Hon. X Smith, is the son (or daughter, grandchild, great-grandchild, for this example) of a peer. His or her courtesy title signals membership in the family, as the offspring (child, grandchild, great-grandchild) of a peerage holder. The children of Lord X or the Hon. X, absent another source for another title — say Lord X marries a peeress in her own right: their children will get their titles/courtesy titles from the mother — are simply Master or Miss X.

  9. What if a peer dies and leaves behind a widow but no male heir? Does the widow retain her title, ie Countess? Can she still be called dowager or does she receive some other courtesy title?

  10. Very informative! Definitely helps clarify a rather convoluted system.

    I do have one question about a (probably very unusual) situation. Is the legitimate son of a Duke still called Lord X if he is completely removed from the line of succession?

    1. I’m not sure how your example works. The succession to the peerage is set by the terms under which it was granted — the son of your Duke is, or is not, in the succession to the title. Are you thinking of King Edward VIII/the Duke of Windsor, who did find himself in that situation? He was HRH The Prince Edward, as the son of the late King George V (while his wife was Her Grace The Duchess of Windsor, for spite).

      1. No, I didn’t have a particular historical example in mind, and to be fair I’m not sure there’s even a precedent. I know it’s nearly impossible to oust someone from their inheritance outside of death or treason (which usually results in death).

        I came across this issue in a fictional setting with rules that otherwise conform to British standards. In this case, the Crown can remove someone from the line of succession under certain circumstances. Just curious whether the disinherited lad would get to keep calling himself a lord if such a situation were to arise.

  11. Very, very late question: Would the great great grandchild of a now deceased duke, whose great great uncle is now the duke, retain their previous courtesy title of lady/lord?

    1. It’s hard to see how, Amelia. How one gets to the present-day individual matters — if the modern person is the child or grandchild of a previous duke, then those rules apply. If the modern person is simply a collateral relation of the current peer, remotely descended from a deceased peer, then, no — no title travels via membership in a ducal family (unless, as noted above, the tie is immediate: offspring or grandchild of a title holder whose offspring bear courtesy titles).

  12. I am hoping you can help me out with a question. I cannot seem to find any information on the ranking of children of peers. Lady Jane, daughter of an earl, is ranked above or below…? And does it make a difference in the ranking if the daughter of the earl becomes a sister of an earl?

    1. Daughters of earls yield precedence, or rank below, daughters of dukes and marquesses. (All three rank below members of the royal family.) Earl’s daughters, or sisters, rank above daughters and sisters of viscounts and barons — in the same way that dukes precede marquesses precede earls precede… Peers of England, Scotland, or Ireland take precedence of peers of Great Britain and then the United Kingdom. So, rank of peerage and date (and venue) of creation are the guides.

      1. Scott, thank you for the answer, it has helped some. I am also wondering, can a female outrank a male peer? I recognize a married female would take equivalent to her husband’s rank, but could an unmarried female outrank a male? Ie, a female daughter of an earl outrank a male viscount?

        1. These ranks exist on parallel tracks — there is a table of precedence for women and for men. Precedence really counts in coronation queues — the order one lines up — but Lady X Smith, daughter of an earl, is not going to “outrank” or be subordinate to Viscount Y — they are on different tracks. What will matter is who takes who into dinner — the highest ranking male takes the highest ranking female (at grand dinners, etc.).

          1. Thank you so much! I greatly appreciate your explanation. I understand much better now.

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