Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

Titles For Aristocratic Characters In Novels

historical image

As an ordinary ‘Ms’ I always find the nomenclature of those with hereditary titles confusing. This is hardly surprising when you consider how often I have to mix with titled folk – which is never. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a problem when you write about the aristocracy. Not that this is a habit of mine either. If you read my Lina Townend series, you will know that her father is Lord Elham, but he’s a pretty dog-eared specimen, who can’t even remember where he put his copy of Debrett’s.

On the other hand, the Rev Tobias Campion, the protagonist in my Regency series, is a younger son of a Duke, so he’s in fact Lord Tobias Campion. He chose his surname more or less at random from one of his family’s many titles: I fancy he liked the (spurious) connection with the composer, Thomas Campion. Tobias, fortunately for me, is far too concerned with improving the lot of his untitled parishioners to bother explaining his choice to anyone. In any case, again fortunately for me, he is estranged from his family, though Lady Hartland, his mother, is back on the scene. Which means he will be meeting a whole lot of dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts and barons, all Peers of the Realm, not to mention their female equivalents and, worst of all, their offspring. Yes, there’s a whole set of rules to obey, and if I don’t know them I promise you that there are others who do.

Outside the royal family, the highest rank is Duke or Duchess. You have to be Duke or Duchess of a place – such as Scunthorpe or Sandwell – which is where you have your seat or at least to which you have a historical connection. This is where I enter a minefield. You address a duke/duchess as Your Grace, and refer to him/her as His/Her Grace, the Duke/Duchess of Sandwell. I can manage that. What I get tangled up with is their offsprings’ titles. It could well be that the duke has several other titles – he could be the Marquis of Smethwick, Earl of Oldbury, Baron Cradley of Gornal. So his eldest son would probably get to call himself Marquis of Smethwick until his father dies and he inherits the title, Duke of Sandwell. Are you still with me? Now the younger sons, like Tobias, become Lord Tobias plus the family name, which Tobias has eschewed. His sister would be Lady X + family name.

Next in rank are Marquises and their wives, Marchionesses. Again, you are the Marquis of somewhere – Great Barr, say. You address them as Lord and Lady of Great Barr. Their children have the same nomenclature as a Duke’s children.