Thursday, April 21, 2011

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys: Courtesy Titles, Part 1

Both of the protagonists of my little series on titles and forms of address are younger sons--Lord Peter is the second son of a duke, Wellington the third son of an earl. And younger sons make useful protagonists for fiction. Eldest sons of peers, destined to assume their father's titles, have careers in estate management and the House of Lords marked out for them by accident of birth. While an aristocrat's younger son is backed by his family's influence and support, he has a wider range of professions open to him, a certain freedom the head of his family lacks.

So they're great to write about. But the rules for what to call them (and their sisters) can be a little tricky. You must learn the ways of the courtesy title.

A courtesy title is given to certain close relatives of a peer. They remain legally commoners, lacking such perks as a seat in the House of Lords, but they're addressed as lord or guessed a courtesy. We'll hold off on the special courtesy titles given to eldest living sons of peers for the time being, revisiting them when we meet Lord Peter's nephew and Wellington acquires a peerage and a son. Today we'll concentrate on daughters and younger sons.

All daughters and younger sons of dukes or marquesses (the two highest ranks of the peerage) are addressed as Lord or Lady Firstname. Therefore, as the second son of the Duke of Denver, Peter Wimsey is Lord Peter or Lord Peter Wimsey. He is NEVER Lord Wimsey. The "Lord" goes by the first name. Also, any man who is NOT the younger son of a duke or marquess is NEVER Lord Firstname. That's probably the most common error I see in fiction, calling John Biscuit, the Earl of Pastry, Lord John instead of Lord Pastry. That's wrong. WRONG. Don't do it. Daughters follow the same pattern, so Lord Peter's sister is Lady Mary Wimsey. (NOT Lady Wimsey.)

So, in a way, you're always on a first name basis with daughters and younger sons of dukes. You show that someone is intimate with your character by dropping the Lord or Lady. There's a nice bit in Dorothy Sayers' wonderful Gaudy Night where Harriet Vane, Lord Peter's eventual wife, calls him Lord Peter in front of others as they're solving a mystery together even though she's called him, and thought of him, as just Peter for ages. Ever polite, he matches her by calling her Miss Vane throughout the scene.

Earls' children are tricky. The daughters bear the courtesy title of Lady, just like dukes' and marquesses' daughters, but the younger sons do not bear the title of Lord. So Wellington, as a younger son of the Earl of Mornington, was NOT addressed as Lord Arthur before he started accumulating titles of his own. His sister, however, WAS Lady Anne. I don't know how this quirk got into the system, but that's the rule. In everyday speech younger sons of earls are just plain Misters, but they too have a courtesy title of sorts--"the Honorable." So, should you find yourself flung back in time and needing to talk to Wellington as a very young man, before he became an officer, call him Mr. Wesley (NOT Wellesley--the family changed their name around the time he started his rise in the world, and I'll discuss how easy it was to change your name in a future post), or Mr. Arthur Wesley if you need to distinguish him from his brothers. The Honorable only comes into play if you need to address a letter or otherwise make formal written reference to him. Then he's The Honorable Arthur Wesley (often abbreviated to Hon.).

Got that? Good. If your characters are the children of the two lower ranks of the peerage (viscounts and barons), sons and daughters are both Honorables. Simple. It's just earls who are confusing.

Stay tuned next week for what to call these younger sons and daughters and their spouses after marriage. Then we'll start to trace Wellington's rise with a post about knighthoods, and maybe I'll fit in that digression about name changes. Beyond that, we still have plenty of ground to cover.

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