Title troubles

Redesdale family
Lord and Lady Redesdale and their children. The Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford is at lower right.

The recent death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire got me to thinking about the genealogical treatment of titles. Titles can be tricky, and many American genealogists – confronted with medieval British or European titles in their ancestry – prefer to ignore them or, conversely, string them all together and hope that the result is acceptable.

The same is true of the American press. At present, The New York Times behaves as though someone with a title doesn’t use it. In the Duchess’s obituary, the headline called her Deborah Cavendish – true enough, but Cavendish is hardly the name (or the rank) by which she was best known. (I should add that in the body of the obituary, she is correctly identified as the Dowager Duchess, as well as one of the “eccentric Mitford sisters.”)

Using the Duchess as an example, let’s look at the various names and titles by which she was known. There were several:

  • As the youngest daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale, she was the Honourable (Hon.) Deborah Freeman-Mitford from birth. In social usage, her parents were Lord and Lady Redesdale. The courtesy title of Hon., accorded the younger sons of earls and the sons and daughters of viscounts and barons (and those sons’ spouses), does not entitle the bearer to any higher rank than Mr., Mrs., or Miss.
  • In 1940, she married Lord Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. By doing so, she became Lady Andrew Cavendish, and this is really the only period in which she was Deborah Cavendish. The younger sons of dukes and marquesses bear the courtesy title of Lord; their wives are called Lady, but Lady Andrew is correct where Lady Deborah would not be, as she was taking her rank from her husband.
  • In 1944, Lord Andrew’s older brother, the Marquess of Hartington, was killed in action, and Andrew succeeded him as their father’s heir. Andrew and Deborah became the Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington. Their son, the present Duke of Devonshire, was known by his own courtesy title (Earl of Burlington); their daughter now became Lady Emma Cavendish. Even though Lord and Lady Hartington held courtesy titles (Hartington and Burlington being subsidiary titles belonging to Andrew’s father, the Duke of Devonshire), they were treated in almost every way as peers in their own right; certainly this was the case socially, and in the way they were addressed.
  • Finally, in 1950, Andrew succeeded his father, and the Hartingtons became His Grace The Duke and Her Grace The Duchess of Devonshire. Lord Burlington became Lord Hartington, but Lady Emma – now the daughter of a duke – remained Lady Emma, with a higher rank but no title change, all daughters of dukes and marquesses being addressed as Lady. Emma’s husband would garner no title change by marrying her, husbands giving their wives rank but not (usually) the other way around.
  • At Andrew Devonshire’s death, Deborah became the Dowager Duchess. Sometimes, when peers divorce, their wives take the style (for example) of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, so that is also a correct way to address a peeress.

The British usage is complicated, but titles – with all the history they represent – can be fascinating and, all evidence to the contrary, they can fairly easily be understood.

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.

12 thoughts on “Title troubles

      1. This family’s story is fascinating. Thanks for the explanation.
        What was Kathleen Kennedy’s title after her husband was killed? Kathleen, Lady Hartington?

          1. Do you suppose the rest of the peers will ever get around to having the oldest child inherit the title whether male or female, as I understand the monarchy has? Although with the UK royal line being Charles-William-George it won’t be an issue for a while.

          2. Carol, I would say not, as the terms of the succession are laid out in the documents creating the peerage. In the case of feudal peerages, where the succession might be split among several females (or their male and female heirs), succession by heir of line is possible, but those peerages pre-date the modern period (and have their own logic).

            On the other hand, a number of feudal peerages were transformed by Parliamentary fiat — and a nod from the monarch — into hereditary peerages that traveled with the male line. I’m thinking of the feudal Earls of Arundel, whose heiress married the heir of the Dukes of Norfolk: today, the Earldom of Arundel travels with the Dukedom. It would otherwise have diverged from the Norfolk succession when the male heir in a junior line succeeded to the dukedom. Arundel should, by the rules of the feudal peerage, have passed to the senior heir, male or female, but because the grant of the peerage was altered in the seventeenth century, it is linked to the Norfolk title, which has more than once passed to a junior branch in the male line.

            So, a revision of terms is possible — but I would say unlikely, given the scale of the problem (hundreds of titles affected).

  1. Great article !
    As I dug back through RD500/600 and other links, the 3rd Duke xxx and the attending titles made me pull my hair out !
    I sure wish our resource material would do a string of ‘aka xxxx’ when naming them.
    Even a special section in the index would help keep them straight.
    So many of them held many titles and there is no wonder that researchers (specially in America) got confused.

  2. I believe that a title is only used by royal subjects therefore we in the US do not and would not recognize them here in the US. In my records I would include a title if they had one.

    1. I don’t think it’s a question of recognition: my point is that the hereditary title forms part of the name. Our present political structure should not make us forget that, pre-1776, we were a part of the British Empire, and many of us will find titled people in our ancestry as we research our way back through the medieval period and beyond. We shouldn’t apply our present-day republican standards to the lives of our ancestors.

  3. Good clarification of some of the intricacies of the usage of terms for English aristocracy and nobility. Doubt I’ll ever need to use them, though– at least researching my family’s history. I would be very surprised indeed to come across a title in any of my family lines. But if I were to, I would enter them by birth name, with any titles entered as AKAs and in life events, derivation of title in citations. Frankly, I hope not. I have to confess that I think hereditary titles are silly in this day and age. I understand that they are part of English and European history and heritage. Ok, fine. But I am an American; we don’t have titles, and all they mean to me is the history implicit in them, and an indication of something of the culture at the time the ancestor lived. Learning what I can about the lives of my apparently common-place ancestors is fascinating to me.

    1. Annie, I don’t think it’s an either/or equation: we probably all have high- and low-status ancestors in some form or another. As I said to James, we should not apply our republican views of titles and their utility to historical figures of the past, even if they are our ancestors!

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