Sunday, December 4, 2011

Naming the Nobility

Epic fantasy, in particular, often deals with royalty and nobility, and many authors use the traditional European hierachy and titles.  That isn’t necessary, of course.  You can make up your own titles, or base them on a different real-world tradition (Japanese, for instance) but some people either find it comfortable to make it familiar or want to give their story a semi-historical feel.  So they fall back on dukes, earls and the rest.

Which would be well and good, except that some of these writers (***coughEddingscough***) don’t seem to have much idea of how the system works.  So I thought it might be useful to give a brief outline of the various ranks, titles and ways of addressing the nobility.  I’m not saying, of course, that you need them in writing fantasy, but if you’re going to use them, use them right.

A few general points to start with.  The first is that all (or almost all) titles have a female equivalent, though for brevity I’ll mainly talk about the male title, since historically the vast majority of title-holders have been male.  The European custom is that the wife of a titled man will have the female equivalent as an courtesy title, but the husband of a titled woman doesn’t receive anything.  A duke’s wife is always a duchess, but the husband of a duchess in her own right won’t be a duke – unless, of course, he has his own title.

The second point is that different names are given in different countries to the same rank of nobility, and some writers make the mistake of using these as if they were different.  You can’t, for instance, have both earls and counts in the same country – though it would make perfect sense to have earls in one country and counts in another.

A third point is that the children of nobility don’t have the same, or equivalent, title as their parents, until they inherit it (this is something I’ve seen in fantasy novels).  They might, of course, be given an equivalent rank in their own right.  For instance, the future King Henry IV of England, who was son and heir of the Duke of Lancaster, was granted the title of Duke of Hereford while his father was still alive, but this wasn’t by right as being a duke’s son.

The only exception I can think of was in the Frankish kingdom, where every son of a king was automatically given the title of king at birth.  The succession worked on a last-man-standing basis.  That was an anomaly, though.

To start at the top, we have emperor/empress.  This is perhaps the least defined of them all.  It was originally a Roman military rank, and was traditionally applied to rulers who claimed continuity from either the Roman or Byzantine empires, but it’s been applied to other rulers, and has been used as a translation of titles such as Mikado.

In general, any single ruler of an empire can be styled an emperor.  He should rule a domain made up from multiple peoples, where one dominates the rest (if they’re equal, it would be a federation).  An emperor or empress is styled his/her/your Imperial Majesty and is officially e.g. Emperor John, i.e. without a surname.  Children will be princes or princesses, although the heir is sometimes styled Grand Duke.

King/queen is obvious enough: a single ruler of a fairly unified realm, usually chosen for life by right of descent, although systems of election have sometimes been used (though not democratic election).  A king will be styled his/her/your Majesty, though in a mediaeval setting, “my liege” is a better form of address, and will be e.g. King John (though many Polish kings, for some reason, are referred to by first name and surname).  The ubiquitous “my king”, “my queen” etc. is incorrect.

A king’s children will have the courtesy title of prince/princess, though any other title they’re given in their own right (e.g. duke) will normally outrank that.

Prince/princess can either be an courtesy title, as mentioned above, for the children of a king or queen, or the ruler of a self-contained region who owes personal allegiance to a king or emperor.  The best-known example of this is Prince of Wales, the title held by the eldest son of the English king since the 13th century, and other European monarchies have an equivalent – in Spain, for instance, it’s Prince of Asturias.

Occasionally, a principality will achieve complete independence, and the prince will become, in effect, a king.  Present-day examples of this in Europe are Monaco and Liechtenstein.

In imperial Russia, prince was a rank of the nobility, rather than being connected with the royal family.

A prince/princess is styled his/her/your Highness (or Royal Highness, or Imperial Highness if the son or daughter of an emperor) and a prince’s children (though not normally a princess’s, unless she rules a principality in her own right) will have the same title.  A prince is Prince John, except for the Russian princes mentioned above, who would be Prince John Smith.

Grand Duke/Grand Duchess is a title that evolved gradually during the mediaeval period referring to semi-autonomous rulers of large provinces, too big and powerful to be styled duchies.  Many, as with the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century, were self-conferred, but the title became more common in post-mediaeval times, especially in Germany and Russia.

The only grand duchy in Europe now is Luxembourg, and the autonomous grand duke is in the same position as the autonomous princes.  The correct form of address is “Royal Highness” or “Grand Ducal Highness”.

The heirs to the Austrian and Russian emperors were usually granted the title of grand duke.

Duke/Duchess (spellings vary, e.g. French duc, but the title doesn’t vary greatly) is normally the highest rank that qualifies as nobility rather than royalty, although many dukes have tended to be members of the royal family.  A duke/duchess is styled his/her/your Grace, and their children have the courtesy title lord/lady (always with the first name – Lord John or Lord John Smith, not Lord Smith) although they may be given specific titles of Marquess or Earl that are in the family’s gift.

A duke will always be the Duke of Somewhere – he might be referred to as Duke John, but that isn’t strictly correct.  Occasionally, a woman holding the title in her own right will be styled duke, rather than duchess.  Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, technically holds the title Duke of Normandy and of Lancaster, not Duchess (it’s as Duke of Normandy that she reigns over the Channel Islands).

There are two kinds of dukes – those that hold a dukedom and those that hold a duchy.  A dukedom is simply the state of being a duke, but a duchy is, like the semi-autonomous principalities, a state ruled by a duke who’s the personal vassal of a monarch.  The only two duchies in England are Lancaster and Cornwall, and, in a feudal sense, inhabitants of those are subjects of the duke, who’s a subject of the queen.  This is academic, firstly because citizenship laws outrank feudal ones, secondly because the Duke of Lancaster is always the monarch and the Duke of Cornwall the heir.  In a mediaeval-style setting, though, this distinction would be very important.

Marquess/Marchioness (French Marquis/Marquise, German Margrave/Margravine) was originally an earl/count/graf who had extra powers and rights in return for holding the marches (i.e. border-country).  Many marquesses are the eldest sons of dukes, waiting to inherit the main title, but some hold the title in their own right – the Marquess of Bath, for instance.

A marquess/marchioness is styled his lordship/her ladyship/my lord/my lady, and can be properly addressed or referred to as e.g. Lord Bath (this is also true of an earl, viscount or baron, but not a duke).

Earl/Countess (general European Count, French Comte/Comtesse, German Graf/Gräfin) is, along with baron, the most common rank of nobility, and can be either the Earl of Somewhere, Earl John or Earl Smith (though the two former are probably safer for fantasy, and certainly for a mediaeval setting).  The correct style and address are the same as for a marquess.

Earl was the Anglo-Saxon title, while count was used in the Frankish domains.  William of Normandy tried to rename the English earls as counts, but that didn’t last.  However, the wife of an earl had no specific title, other than the all-purpose Lady, so the female form stuck.  That’s why the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, is properly Lady Godgifu (or Godiva) but is referred to in the Domesday Book as the Countess Godiva.

A count could be the ruler of a “county” (not really the same as a modern county) in the same way a duke was of a duchy, but might be either the direct vassal of the king, or vassal to the local duke.

The sons of an earl have the courtesy title “the Honourable” (shortened to “the Hon.”) before their names, while daughters are “Lady” (like Lady Diana Spencer).  An earldom may also be given as a courtesy title to the son of a duke or marquess.

Viscount/Viscountess (French Vicomte/Vicomtesse) is literally a “vice-count”, and therefore one step down from an earl/count.  The rank is often given to the heir of an earl, but can be held in its own right.  The style and address is the same as above, and the title is either Viscount of Somewhere, Viscount Smith, or Viscount Smith of Somewhere.

Baron/Baroness is the lowest rank of nobility.  Under the feudal system, a baron held a large stretch of land either directly from the king or from a duke or count, and individual knights would hold their manors from the baron.  A baron isn’t “of” anywhere (although modern life-peers are usually “Baron Smith of Cleethorpes” or whatever).  They would normally be Lord John in a mediaeval context, or Lord Smith later.  The correct style is as above.

The children of a baron have the courtesy title “the Honourable”.

Knight (French Chevalier, German Ritter, many others you can easily look up) counts as gentry (i.e. a gentleman) rather than nobility.  A knight was specifically a military rank, so traditionally there was no female equivalent – if you want a female knight in your world, she’ll just have to be a knight.  I’m not aware of any historical cases, but several appeared in the mediaeval romances.  A knight’s wife would simply be styled Lady, or Dame in French, and the latter is used as the female equivalent in modern times.

A knight may be styled either Sir John or Sir John Smith.  He should never, ever, under any circumstances, be styled Sir Smith.  His wife would be Lady Mary.

Baronet is, essentially, a hereditary knight – Sir Winston Churchill was a baronet.  The title is post-mediaeval, and is in all other ways the same as knight.

This isn't by any means a complete explanation of the subject: for that, you'd need Burke's or Debrett's, which you might find in a large reference library, although they're probably online by now.  I hope, though, it's given enough idea of the nobility's overall structure to be useful in writing fantasy.


  1. Hi Nyki,

    Great post. I may copy it to my hard-drive so I've got it when I need it.

    Thanks for putting that together.

  2. Good post, Nyki.

    Both Debretts and Burke's are online, but I think you have to pay to get access to it.

  3. Good resource, Nyki. I have to suggest, though, that the Russian lord will properly by Lord Ivan Smithkovitch, a name that will need a minimum of four variations over the course of a novel, at least one of which will have no obvious connection to either Ivan or Smith, to English readers... And each of those variations, of course, will be significant indications of how the other characters think of this lord. ;)

  4. Thanks. Yes, Russian names are notoriously complex (I made a brief reference to that in a previous post). I was really just making the point that the first-name-only rule doesn't apply in that case.