British Titles of Nobility

An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage


Reading Georgian and Regency romances is a great deal of fun (especially those written by Georgette Heyer), but in these novels one encounters a complex set of social rules governing peerages (noble titles) in Great Britain -- usually unexplained. It can be a bit like reading a French or Latin phrase in a book which no one has bothered to translate for us plebians who don't speak the language! Although nearly everyone has heard the terms "baron" and "earl" and "duke," and has some vague notion that dukes are highly exalted and an earl sounds better than a baron, most people (outside Britain, anyway) know very little more on the subject. While one can read any of Georgette Heyer's Regencies without knowing much more, understanding the underlying framework can add greatly to one's enjoyment of not only Heyer's novels, but other English literature like Austen, the Brontės, Burney, Trollope, James, Doyle, Hardy, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, and of course, Sayers. This set of web pages attempts to explain the British peerage in coherent English for both the uninitiated and the Anglophile.

My purpose in creating these pages was to provide an authoritative reference work about the peerage on the Web (with an emphasis on Regency-era--and earlier--nobility). To that end I have included a bibliography and copious footnotes. One goal is to provide a citation for every fact asserted; otherwise, how would you know that what is presented here is correct? I have discovered, in the process of finding a source to back up every assertion, that my understanding (or perhaps just my memory) was sometimes wrong, and have amended the text accordingly. I welcome questions, suggestions, additions and especially corrections. If you dispute a fact from these pages, please contact me, and if you can, provide a contradicting source. These pages are a work in progress and I expect them to change in the future, although what I present today is as accurate as I can make it.

The origin of much of the text of these pages is the exchange of e-mail on the Georgette Heyer Mailing List, so some of the examples used are Heyer's characters. In many places I have borrowed and paraphrased extensively from sources, but in every case I have cited to the work in question, and used quotation marks where appropriate. The footnotes do not precisely follow an academic style appropriate to papers or books, but a modified one I think is more appropriate to web publishing: specifically, all footnote references are to book titles, with pages cited and a link to the book's entry in the bibliography, or, if the citation is to a website, a link to it.

Contributors to these pages include Arlene Sindelar, John Hopfner, and Leila Dooley, all of the Georgette Heyer Mailing List. Many thanks to them and to other members of the list whose questions started the snowball effect which resulted in these pages. Special thanks to Eileen Kendall for her patience both with me and with maintaining the list!

Laura A. Wallace
12 June 2004

Table of Contents

Links to other Sites


The British Monarchy: The Official Website. London: COI Publications, 1997.

Burke, Sir Bernard. A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire. London: Harrison, 1883.

Camelot International Website: The Peerage. 1996.

Crystal, David, ed. Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia: The Online Edition at Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cook, Chris and John Stevenson. British Historical Facts 1760-1830. London: MacMillan, 1980.

Debrett's Peerage, 1812 edition.

Debrett's Peerage, 1909 edition.

The English Peerage, or, a View of the Ancient and Present State of the English Nobility. London: 1790.

House of Lords Web Pages. London: The Stationary Office, 1997.

Kroenenberger, Louis. Marlborough's Duchess: A Study in Worldliness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

Leveson Gower, Sir George, and Iris Palmer, Eds.  Hary-O: The Letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish 1796-1809.  London:  John Murray, 1940.

Mavor, Elizabeth. The Virgin Mistress: A Study in Survival. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Mists of Antiquity Essays. Baronage Press.

Montague-Smith, Patrick. Debrett's Correct Form, rev. ed. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1992.

Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh. Blenheim Revisited: The Spencer-Churchills and their Palace. New York: Beaufort Books, 1985.

Murray, Venetia. Castle Howard: The Life and Times of a Stately Home. London: Viking, 1994.

Pearson, John. The Serpent and the Stag: The Saga of England's Powerful and Glamourous Cavendish Family from the Age of Henry the Eighth to the Present. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Peerage Database. Originally compiled by John Bloore, 1995. Enlarged, enhanced, and corrected by Laura Wallace, 1995-98.

The Present Peerage of the United Kingdom for the Year 1818, with the Arms of the Peers. To which are Prefixed, the Established Order of Precedency, and an English Translation of the Mottoes. Printed for William Stockdale, No. 181 Piccadilly. Printed by J. Brettell, Rupert Street, Haymarket, London, 1818.

Tillyard, Stella. Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832. New York: Noonday Press, 1994.

Titles and Forms of Address:  A Guide to Their Correct Use. London:   A. & C. Black Ltd., Third Edition, 1932.

Valentine, Alan. The British Establishment 1760-1784: An Eighteenth-Century Biographical Dictionary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Winchester, Simon. Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain. New York: Random House, 1982.