Umming and ermine – how to avoid getting in a right royal mess

Thank you, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for the pic

If today’s little wedding in London is sending your head awhirl with thoughts of court and nobility, you might like to know how to get your royals right

First of all, there’s a general hierarchy. Emperor beats king; king beats viceroy; viceroy beats archduke; archduke beats grand duke, who beats duke, then prince, marquess, count, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, hereditary knight, knight and dame. Of course, we don’t have all of those in England. And plenty of other countries have their very own courtlies such as csars. More about royal hierarchy here, plus how long those titles have been in use for all you historical fans.

Then there’s how you address them. If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’, as though you were addressing John Wayne. Marquesses and their wives are Lord and Lady with their place name – Lord Bath. But you don’t use the place name when addressing dukes and duchesses, unless you had several dukes in earshot at once. Clear?

In Scotland there are chiefs who are called Macdonald of Macdonald, or use The as their forename (The Chisholm).

If all that’s getting you in a royal flush, drop a knee at Debrett’s.

The wife of an earl is a countess but if you’re addressing her in person you call her Lady Wherever, not Countess. Unless she’s Countess of Wessex. Most earls are earls of Somewhere, although a significant number do not use the ‘of’ – like Earl Spencer. Most of the noble ranks should be addressed as lord or lady. Their children are too, except if they’re The Honourable, although that’s only used in correspondence and formal documents, and never on visiting cards or invitations even though you might think those are correspondence. And if the Hon is female she’s ‘The Hon Jane Smith’ but if she gets married she’s ‘The Hon Mrs Newsurname’ with no forename. Honestly, only Debretts can save you.

And if you’re writing about the royal household of the British monarchy, we have a few colourful roles such as a Lady in Waiting (when they’ve waited for long enough they might qualify and actually become a lady). But did you know there’s also an Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales, an Apothecary to the Household, and the Clerk of the Green Cloth? Bustle over to here.

Fascinating as these details are, what’s most interesting is what they’re like as characters. So if you’re writing about people with extraordinary positions, remember their lives are not like those of others and neither are their personalities. This post of mine might help you – how to write presidents, kings, queens and superstars.

Carry on, and don’t lose your head.

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  1. #1 by Dave Morris on April 29, 2011 - 12:36 am

    And of course we have the Order of the Garter in Britain, and that dates back to Sir Gawain – supposedly.

    • #2 by rozmorris on April 29, 2011 - 12:41 am

      The Garter is Edward III, apparently. Not nearly as far back as Gawain… But I forgot to mention Ks, and Gs…

  2. #3 by Victoria Mixon on April 29, 2011 - 12:58 am

    Why would you want to name your ancestors after someone’s underwear?

    • #4 by rozmorris on April 29, 2011 - 8:44 am

      As legend has it, one day at court a lady was much embarrassed when her garter slithered to the floor. everyone sniggered, but the king picked it up, said ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ and tied it to his leg to shut them up.
      There are various other theories, but none of them make such good scenes.

  3. #5 by Dom Camus on April 29, 2011 - 11:07 am

    If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’

    Are you trying to get us into trouble?😉

    • #6 by rozmorris on April 29, 2011 - 11:38 am

      First catch your duke. There are plenty in London today.

  4. #7 by Dave Morris on April 29, 2011 - 11:42 am

    If you duke it out with an earl, make sure to put him out for the count.

  5. #10 by Paul Greci on April 29, 2011 - 1:54 pm

    Holy moly, up here in Alaska the only title we have is Sourdough, and that refers to someone who has been here a while–how long a while is is kind of relative. I’ve been here twenty years but don’t consider myself a Sourdough🙂🙂

    • #11 by rozmorris on April 29, 2011 - 8:22 pm

      Sourdough… it wasn’t so long ago that few people in the UK knew what that was. American names are so full of substance.

  6. #12 by Dave Morris on April 29, 2011 - 7:28 pm

    It’s just like that in rural England, Paul. In some parts of Somerset you can be a second generation newcomer.

    Incidentally I realized that Kate Middleton’s official title now is Princess William. Honest, it is. I hope for her sake nobody calls her that.

  7. #13 by Amanda Hoving on May 3, 2011 - 12:44 pm

    I think I’ll just stick with “Sir.” For the women, too.😉

  8. #15 by jonathan moore on May 3, 2011 - 1:20 pm

    Hi Roz,

    In olden days did they still use ‘your highness’ or is that a more recent thing? I’ve got a princess in my story (the daughter of an emperor rather than king, if that makes a difference) and wouldn’t want to be anachronistic.

    • #16 by rozmorris on May 3, 2011 - 10:41 pm

      Hmmm, Jonathan… not 100% sure, but this link is probably a good starting point – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_and_noble_ranks. I think it used to be Your Highness all the time, but now the correct form is Your Highness first of all and then ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ as often as you possibly can shoehorn it in. Better to say Your Highness than be headless, I’d say

      • #17 by jonathan moore on May 5, 2011 - 11:46 am

        From my cursory reading (I was reading and cursing) it looks like historically a princess was actually titled Lady Whatsername, and only started being called Princess Lahdedah in the time of Charles II. So maybe my characters would call my princess M’Lady? Not sure about that.

  9. #18 by dirtywhitecandy on May 5, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    So long as THEY don’t curse I think you’ll be okay.

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