Written by: Caitlin
Published: 5th September 2021, last updated: 3rd October 2022
The definition of nobility is ‘a social class found in some societies which have a formal aristocracy’, and it’s normally ranked immediately below royalty. It’s different from royalty, but it can be confusing as royalty – especially the extended royal family – are often also members of the aristocracy, and have noble titles.
Royalty includes the ruling monarch and their immediate family, while the nobility is much wider. British nobility ranks include dukes, earls and counts. Let’s take a look at what the nobility is in more detail, including a breakdown of British nobility ranks.
Who is part of the nobility?
Membership to the nobility is normally hereditary, whereby it has been granted upon the family by a monarch or government. The ascent of commoners into nobility is not a common thing but has historically happened due to an acquisition of sufficient power, wealth, military prowess, or royal favour.
Any privileges associated with being a part of the nobility varies from country to country, and have changed from era to era, sometimes they are substantial over those that are non-noble, but sometimes they are largely just honorary.
The term peerage can be used both collectively to refer to the entire body of nobles, as well as individually to refer to a specific noble title. Peerage in the United Kingdom is a legal system comprising both hereditary and lifetime titles, composed of various noble ranks, and forming a constituent part of the British honours system.
All modern British honours, including peerage dignities, are created directly by the Crown and take effect when letters patent are issued, affixed with the Great Seal of the Realm. The Sovereign is considered to be the fount of honour and, as “the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself”, cannot hold a British peerage.
Titles of Nobility
Throughout the centuries the British peerage has evolved into the 5 ranks that exist today. These are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. It can be tricky to know which has the superior ranking as well as how you should formally address persons with one of these titles, so we’ve tried to summarise for you as simply as possible.
The highest and most important nobility rank in all four peerages of the British Isles is Duke, the name of which comes from the Latin dux, meaning leader. The female equivalent is Duchess, a title bestowed on a woman who holds the title in her own right, as well as one who is the wife of a Duke. If the woman is the title holder, her husband would not receive any title.
In total there have been less than 300 dukes since its inception in the 14th century. The correct way to formally address a duke or duchess is ‘Your Grace’. The eldest son of a duke will use one of the duke’s subsidiary titles, whilst other children will use the honorary title ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ in front of their Christian names.
In 1337 Edward III created the first duke when he made his eldest son Duke of Cornwall, a title held today by the heir to the throne, Prince William.
Currently there are 24 non-royal dukedoms in the British peerage, and 7 royal dukedoms, which is a duke who is a member of the British royal family, entitled to the style of “His Royal Highness”. The current royal dukedoms are:
- Duke of Sussex, held by Prince Harry
- Duke of York, held by Prince Andrew
- Duke of Gloucester, held by Prince Richard
- Duke of Kent, held by Prince Edward
- Duke of Cornwall, held by Prince William
- Duke of Rothesay, held by Prince William
- Duke of Cambridge, held by Prince William
You can find a complete list of all the dukedoms in the United Kingdom here.
The next title of nobility in order of precedence is Marquess, which comes from the French marquis, meaning march. This is a reference to the Marches (borders) between Wales, England and Scotland. An English or British marquess is formally styled “The Most Honourable The Marquess of [X]”, and less formally styled as as ‘Lord So-and-So’. The wife of a marquess is a marchioness (known as ‘Lady So-and-So’), and the children’s titles are the same as those of a duke’s children.
The first marquess in the British Isles was created in 1385, which was a relatively late introduction to the British peerage. There are currently 34 marquessates.
The theoretical distinction between a marquess and other titles has, since the Middle Ages, faded into obscurity. In times past, the distinction between a count and a marquess was that the land of a marquess, called a march, was on the border of the country, while a count’s land, called a county, often was not. As a result of this, a marquess was trusted to defend and fortify against potentially hostile neighbours and was thus more important and ranked higher than a count.
The only woman to have been created a marchioness in her own right was Anne Boleyn, who was created Marchioness of Pembroke just before her marriage to Henry VIII.
Picture above: Anne Boleyn
You can find a list of the 34 present marquesses in the peerages of Britain and Ireland here.
Next in order of precedence for titles of nobility is Earl, which comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon eorl, which means military leader, or man of noble birth or rank. The correct form of address is ‘Lord So-and-So’. A feminine form of Earl has never developed, therefore the wife of an earl is know as countess and the eldest son will use one of the earl’s subsidiary titles. All other sons are ‘Honourable’. Daughters take the honorary title ‘Lady’ in front of their Christian name.
Earls originally functioned essentially as royal governors, in charge of collecting taxes and with authority over their own regions or shires, often grouped together into earldoms. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror modified the traditional system to his own liking and earldoms disappeared. The power and regional jurisdiction of Earls was limited to that of the Norman counts. Earls no longer aided in tax collection or made decisions in country courts, and their numbers were small.
The English kings had found it dangerous to give additional power to an already powerful aristocracy, so gradually sheriffs assumed the governing role. By the 13th century earls had a social rank just below the king and princes, but were not necessarily more powerful or wealthier than other noblemen. The only way to become an earl was to inherit the title or to marry into one. The connection between an earl and a shire disappeared, so that in the present day a number of earldoms take their names from towns, mountains, or simply surnames
What is a viscount? A viscount is the fourth rank in the British peerage system, standing directly below an earl and above a baron. There are approximately 111 viscountcies currently extant in the peerages of the British Isles, though most are secondary titles. The word Viscount comes from the Latin vicecomes, and the wife of a viscount is a viscountess. A viscount or viscountess is addressed as ‘Lord So-and-So’ or ‘Lady So-and-So’. Again, the eldest son will use one of the viscount’s subsidiary titles (if any) whilst all other children are ‘Honorables’.
As a rank in British peerage, it was first recorded in 1440, when John Beaumont was created Viscount Beaumont by King Henry VI. The word viscount corresponds in the UK to the Anglo-Saxon shire reeve (root of the non-nobiliary, royal-appointed office of sheriff). Thus early viscounts were originally normally given their titles by the monarch, not hereditarily; but soon they too tended to establish hereditary principalities in the wider sense.
The term Baron comes from the Old Germanic baro, meaning ‘freeman’. The rank was created in 1066. In the Peerage of Scotland alone, a holder of the fifth rank is not called a ‘Baron’ but rather a ‘Lord of Parliament’. Barons in Scotland were traditionally holders of feudal dignities, not peers, but they are considered minor barons and are recognised by the crown as noble.
The title of Baron is the only possible rank of a life peerage, a life peerage being a considerably lesser honour than a hereditary peerage. This concept was introduced in Britain in the 20th century. Life peers are appointed members of the peerage whose titles cannot be inherited, in contrast to the traditional hereditary peers. Always referred to and addressed as ‘Lord’; Baron is rarely used. The wife of a baron is a baroness and all children are ‘Honorables’.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the term of nobility “baron” was introduced, although initially not as a title or rank, but the “barons of the King” were the men of the king. They were bound to perform a stipulated annual military service, and obliged to attend his council. Later on, the king started to create new baronies via a writ of summons, which directed his chosen man to attend Parliament. This meant that baronies no longer related directly to land-holding, and thus no more feudal baronies needed to be created.
Members of the gentry are those descendants in the male line of peers as well as the children of women who are peeresses in their own right. This also includes baronets, knights, dames and certain other persons who bear no peerage titles. They are deemed members of the non-peerage nobility below whom they rank. The largest portion of the British aristocracy has historically been the landed gentry, made up of baronets and the non-titled landowners whose families hailed from the medieval feudal class. most commonly now simply referred to as gentlemen.
Can you buy a title of nobility?
The technically correct answer would be no, but the well publicised ‘cash for honours’ scandal might suggest otherwise.
Hereditary titles and “titles of nobility” are either inherited or bestowed upon an individual by the monarch and come with legal privileges that money can’t unfortunately just can’t buy.
Can you buy a lordship?
Yes, but these are extremely rare and you should only ever consider spending thousands of pounds after consulting a solicitor.
Alternatively, you could purchase a plot of land from Highland Titles and adopt your chosen courtesy title.
A Lord (Laird) is a member of the gentry in Scotland and ranks below a Baron and above an Esquire. The designation of Laird is based on an inheritable property that has an explicit tie to the physical land. The title cannot be bought and sold without selling the physical land. The title also does not entitle the owner to sit in the House of Lords and is the Scottish equivalent to an English squire in that it is not a noble title, more a courtesy title meaning landowner with no other rights assigned to it.
As above, it is important to emphasise that this is a courtesy title. You will not be a lord or lady in the hereditary sense but you can legally change your name and we provide the certificate and the deed. We cannot sell you a title, but we are simply acknowledging your right to use the title of Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe, which is trademarked by Highland Titles. Find out more HERE.
What is the daughter of a lord called?
It would depend on the rank of nobility of the lord. The children of a knight, baron, or viscount have no titles at all other than Master and Mistress, but all of an earl’s daughters are styled lady, as are the daughters of a duke or marquess.
What is the wife of an Earl called?
A wife of an Earl is styled Countess.
What is the daughter of a Duke called?
The daughters of a duke, marquess or earl have the courtesy title of “Lady” before their forename and surname.
Is a noble higher than a Lord?
Being a noble is not separate to being a Lord. Lord is used as a generic term to denote members of the peerage. Dukes and duchesses are addressed with their actual title, but all other ranks of nobility have the appellation Lord or Lady.
What was the role of the nobility in medieval times?
The nobles’ place in society was essentially to function as middle-men between the peasants and the royal family. Nobles provided work, land, and protection to the peasants while providing funding, supplies, and military service to the king.
What are the ranks of British nobility?
The five ranks that exist today, in descending order, are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.
How do nobles address each other?
Someone with a noble status would still be expecting to use the correct address when speaking to a noble of higher ranking than themselves. However if you are a noble of equal or higher status, then you reserve the right to address nobles of equal or lesser ranks as “My Lord/Lady”.
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