Friday, March 30, 2012

Sir What's His Name

Nothing says "lack of research" faster than getting the titles wrong in a historical set in England. When a hero is referred to as Lord John Smythe one minute and as Lord Smythe the next, or he's Sir John Smythe sometimes and Sir Smythe at other times, or the heroine is Lady Jane Reynolds at one time and Lady Reynolds at another -- well, the only thing certain is that the writer didn't check her facts, and that always makes me wonder what else she got wrong, too.

If you're trying to figure out the aristocracy, reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers makes a good start, and it's a fun pastime as well. I'll use her fictional family, the Denvers, as an example in talking about the families and titles held by dukes. (We'll take up earls, marquesses, viscounts, and barons some other day.)

Dukes are the highest and most exclusive aristocratic rank, and are outclassed only by royalty. Sons and brothers of the monarch were -- and are -- often named as royal dukes.

Sayers' duke is the Duke of Denver; his wife is the Duchess of Denver. Though the family name is Wimsey, the duke and duchess seldom, if ever, use it.

The oldest son of a duke -- his heir presumptive -- uses one of his father's secondary titles. The Duke of Denver's son is Viscount St. George. But that title gives him no power; it's a courtesy only, setting the heir apart from the younger children.

The duke's younger sons are known as Lord Firstname Lastname. Again, this is a courtesy title and there's no power -- no seat in the House of Lords, for instance -- to go with it. This is why Sayers' detective, who's a brother to the Duke of Denver, is Lord Peter Wimsey. As the son of the previous duke, he uses the family name as a part of his honorary title. But he's not Lord Wimsey; he can be referred to as Lord Peter. When he marries, his wife isn't Lady Wimsey -- she's Lady Peter Wimsey.

The daughters of a duke are Lady Firstname Lastname (Lady Mary Wimsey is the duke's younger sister). When she marries she keeps her title, even if she assumes her husband's name -- so when Lady Mary marries a detective who has no title at all, she becomes Lady Mary Parker (but never Lady Parker).

To go back to the original examples, Lord John Smythe would be the son of a titled gentleman but not a lord in his own right. He has essentially no powers; it's an honorary title only -- while Lord Smythe's title is entirely his own. Sir John Smythe would be a baronet (more about them later) but Sir Smythe doesn't exist at all. And the only way Lady Jane Reynolds and Lady Reynolds can be the same person is if she's Lady Jane because her father had a high title and Lady Reynolds because she married Lord Reynolds -- and even then she's apt to prefer one title or the other.

Next time we'll take up Earls!

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