Dukes, Earls and Lords, Oh My!
England in the Middle Ages appears overrun with nobles with lovely titles – the Duke of this, the Earl of that and Lord So and So.
And today of course, we’re all familiar with the Duke of Edinburgh (husband of the Queen), the Duke of Cambridge (grandson of the Queen) and the Dukes of Kent, York and Gloucester, (all related to the Queen).
But the title of Duke was not originally an English title. The Anglo-Saxons used the noble title of ‘Earl’. The noble title of Duke remained primarily a Continental form of address … until William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England.
But being a Duke was a French thing. The English preferred to stay with the old Anglo-Saxon Earl. William’s great grandson, Henry, was titled Duke of Normandy before becoming Henry II, but that was for his duchy in France, not England. And for owning these French duchies, the dukes were vassals of the French King, not the English King, which could make things rather dicey at times.
During their reigns, Williams I and II and Henry created no English dukes. Although Henry’s mother, Matilda, and her cousin Stephen created nine new earldoms during England’s civil war.
Fast forward a few hundred years until you get to Edward III. He decided that through his mother, Isabella of France, who had murdered his father, Edward II, in order to place her son on the throne of England that he was also the rightful King of France. When Isabella’s brother, Charles IV, died with no sons, Isabella claimed the throne of France for her son, Edward.
The French disagreed, citing a pesky law that women couldn’t become ruling monarchs and therefore Isabella couldn’t make her son King of France if she could never be their queen. Edward III disagreed and launched The Hundred Years War.
Around this time, Edward also thought that creating Royal Dukedoms for his sons had a whiff of Frenchness about it and could perhaps bolster his claim.
So, he created the noble title of Duke of Cornwall and gave it to his eldest son, Prince Edward. When the Prince died, the title went to his son Richard, who became Richard II on the death of his grandfather, Edward III. Historically, the dukedom of Cornwall is still given to the heir to the throne. Prince Charles holds that title today and that’s why his second wife, Camilla, is known as the Duchess of Cornwall.
Edward also created the title, Duke of Lancaster, and gave it to his great friend, Henry of Grosmont, who was already the 4th Earl of Lancaster. So now he was known as the 4th Earl of Lancaster and the 1st Duke of Lancaster. But Edward did not make the Duke of Lancaster title an hereditary title – meaning the title could not be passed on to a son of Henry’s. So when Henry died, the title reverts back to the crown. (This will most likely happen when the current Duke of York, Prince Andrew, dies.)
Fortunately for Edward, the new Duke only had two daughters and he made sure his third son, John, married one of them, Blanche. Edward bestowed the title Duke of Lancaster on John, a year after Henry’s death. Because the title of “Duke” had lapsed, it was regarded as a “new creation” when it was awarded to John. He, therefore, became the 5th Earl and 1st Duke of Lancaster. This time, the king made the title hereditary.
John’s son, Henry, became the 2nd Duke and 6th Earl of Lancaster. And when Henry deposed Richard II, once Duke of Cornwall, and became Henry IV, the Lancaster title and lands became crown possessions. Henry, in turn, granted the Lancastrian Dukedom to his son, Henry, who became the 7th Earl – but, once again, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, since this counted as another “new creation.” When son Henry became King Henry V, the title once again merged with the crown. It was never again granted away. Today, Queen Elizabeth II is the Duke of Lancaster.
When Edward III gave John the title Duke of Lancaster, he also created his second son, Lionel, the Duke of Clarence. Richard II made his uncles, Thomas and Edmund, the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of York respectively. (Uh oh – Yorks and Lancasters! That can only lead to trouble.)
Over the next 100 years, subsequent kings created nine more dukedoms. The Dukes of England rose to the highest in the pecking order of the peerages of the land. Even today, an English duke outranks a Scottish or Irish duke.
On the surface the “pecking order” seems relatively simple. At the very top of the hierarchy are the King and Queen, followed by their children who are Princes and Princesses. This is relatively straightforward. Now the fun begins!
Dukes were often Princes of the Royal blood. Royal dukes outranked non-royal dukes. Dukes in the Middle Ages were addressed as Your Grace or My Lord Duke. Their wives were known as Duchesses.
Next came Marquess. In the Middle Ages, he was usually the ruler of a border area, known as a march. Back then he was known as a Marcher Lord. The March lords usually bordered Wales or Scotland and were instructed by the king to protect the borders. Their wives were known as a Marchioness. Henry VIII created the title of Marquess of Pembroke and gave it to his mistress, Anne Boleyn. It was the first hereditary title given to a woman. Anne was the one and only Marquess of Pembroke. You may call them Lord and Lady.
Once the monarchs started creating English royal dukedoms, the earls fell down the pecking order. On the continent Earls are usually called Counts. While the Count title never took hold in England, the wives of English Earls are known as Countesses. It’s not usual for a royal prince to be given the title of Earl. But Prince Edward, youngest son of Queen Elizabeth requested the title Earl of Wessex. The last Earl of Wessex had been William FitzOsbern who was given the old Anglo-Saxon title in 1066 by his good friend, William, Duke of Normandy, aka, the Conqueror. The present Earl will become Duke of Edinburgh upon the death of his father. You would address an Earl and his wife as Lord and Lady, except Edward and Sophie, you would address the Earl and Countess of Wessex as Your Royal Highness. Confused yet?
Next in the pecking order is Viscount, which began as a purely honorific title for the “deputy” of an earl or in some cases for the heir of a marquess or earl. In the beginning, before the title became hereditary, Viscounts were the equivalent of Sheriffs and were appointed by the King. His wife was known as a Viscountess. You would also address them as Lord and Lady.
Next came Barons and Baroness – a title given by the King, usually for loyalty to the monarch. William the Conqueror introduced the title of Baron to England. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth named former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, a Baroness. Prince Charles is also the Baron of Renfrew. You would address a baron or baroness as Lord or Lady.
Finally, there are Knights, knighted by the Monarch. The knighthood is non-hereditary. They’re not really considered nobility. They’re called Sirs and their wives are Ladies. If a woman is knighted she is known as a Dame.
So if you’re at a fancy cocktail party and someone said, There’s Lord and Lady So and So, you’d have no idea if they were a Marquess, Earl, Viscount or Baron.
And one final note … For centuries, kings were often addressed as Your Grace or My Lord – just like a duke or other noble. That is until Henry VIII. He decided he didn’t want to have the same address as a duke. Something grander was needed. Your Majesty had a nice ring to it and he ordered that Majesty be the proper address for the sovereign of England. So like Henry, don’t you think?