The British title and its order of precedence is the most baffling, yet simple concept on the planet. Children of nobility and those who wished to become a part of it had the following concepts drilled into their heads from birth. Since neither of us are lords or ladies, we generally have to muddle along in hope of getting it right. Below you’ll find the order of precedence directly from a book of heraldry published in 1910. Things have obviously changed since then, but this was the rule of thumb for harried hostesses throughout the 19th century.
- Duke: The highest rank and title in the British peerage, first introduced by Edward III in 1337 when he created the Black Prince the first English duke. A Duke is “Most Noble”; he is styled “My Lord Duke” and “Your Grace” and all his younger sons are “Lords” and all his daughters “Ladies” with the prefix “Right Honorable”. The coronet of a duke is a circlet, heightened with eight conventional strawberry leaves, and encloses a velvet cap.
- Marquess/Marquis: The second order of the British peerage, in rank next to that of the Duke. Introduced in 1387 by Richard II. A Marquess is “Most Honorable”; he is styled “My Lord Marquess” all his younger sons are “Lords” and his daughters “Ladies”; his eldest sons bears his father’s “second title”. The coronet is a golden circlet heightened by four strawberry leaves and as many pearls, arranged alternately.
- Earl: In Latin, “Comes” in French “Comte” or “Count.” Before 1337, the highest, and now the third degree of rank and dignity in the British peerage. An earl is “Right Honorable”; he is styled “My Lord”, the eldest son bears his father’s “second title,” generally that of Viscount; his other sons are “Honorable” but all his daughters are “Ladies.” The circlet of an Earl’s coronet has eight lofty rays of gold rising from the circlet, each of which supports a large pearl, while between each pair of these rays is a golden strawberry leaf.
- Viscount: The fourth degree of rank and dignity in the British peerage. Introduced by Henry VI in 1440. A Viscount is a “Right Honorable” and is styled “My Lord.” All his sons and daughters are “Honorable.” The coronet has a row of sixteen small pearls set on the circlet.
- Baron: The lowest rank in the British peerage. A Baron is “Right Honorable” and is styled “My Lord”. The coronet is a golden circlet topped by six large pearls. An Irish baron has no coronet. All children of a Baron are “Honorable.”
- Baronet: A hereditary rank, lower than the peerage, instituted in 1612 by James I, who fixed the precedence of baronets before all Knights, those of the Order of the Garter alone excepted.
ORDER OF PRECEDENCE
The Prince of Wales
The Younger sons of the Sovereign
The Grandsons of the Sovereign
The Brothers of the Sovereign
The Archbishop of Canterbury
The Lord Chancellor
The Archbishop of York
The Lord High Treasurer
The Lord President of the Council
The Lord Privy Seal
The following Great Officers of the State precede all Peers of their own Degree–that is, if Dukes, they precede all other Dukes; if Earls, all other Earls, etcetera.
The Lord Great Chamberlain
The High Constable
The Earl Marshal
The Lord High Admirable
The Lord Steward of the Royal Household
The Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household
The Master of the Horse
The Peers of each Degree take Precedence in their own Degree, according to their Patents of Creation.
Dukes (a) of England, (b) of Scotland, (c) of Great Britain, (d) of Ireland, (e) of the United Kingdom and, if created since the Union of Ireland.
Marquesses (vide Dukes)
Eldest sons of Dukes
Earls (vide Dukes)
Eldest sons of Marquesses
Younger sons of dukes
Viscounts (vide Dukes)
Eldest sons of earls
Younger sons of Marquesses
Bishops of (a) London, (b) Durham, and (c) Winchester
Bishops, according to Seniority of Consecration
Barons (vide Dukes)
The Speaker of the House of Commons
Commissioners of Great Seal
The (a) Treasurer and the (b) Comptroller of the Royal Household
Vice-Chamberlain of the Household
The Secretaries of States, when not Peers
Eldest sons of viscounts
Younger sons of earls
Eldest sons of barons
Knights of the Garter, Thistle and St. Patrick, not being Peers
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
The Lord Chief Justice
The Master of the Rolls
Lord Justices of Appeal and the President of Probate Court
Judges of High Court
Younger sons of Viscounts
Younger sons of Barons
Sons of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (Life Peers)
Knights of the Grand Cross of the Bath
Knights Grand Commanders of the Star of India
Knights Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George
Knights Grand Commanders of Indian Empire
Knights Grand Cross of Victorian Order
Knights Commanders of the various Orders (in the same order of progression)
Commanders of Victorian Order
County Court Judges
Masters in Lunacy
Companions of the various Orders
Members of Fourth Class of Victorian Order
Companions of Distinguished Service Order
Eldest sons of the Younger sons of Peers
Eldest sons of Baronets
Eldest sons of Knights
Members of Fifth Class of Victorian Order
Baronets’ Younger sons
Knights Younger sons
Esquires: Including the Eldest sons of the sons of Viscounts and Barons, the eldest sons of all the younger sons of Peers and their eldest sons in perpetual Succession, the younger sons of Baronets, the sons of knights, the eldest son of the eldest son of a Knight in perpetual succession, persons holding the King’s Commission, or who may be styled “Esquire” by the King in any Official Document
The precedence of women is determined, before marriage, by the Rank and Dignity, but not by the Office, of their father. All the unmarried sisters in any family have the same degree, which is the degree that their eldest Brother holds (or would hold) amongst men. Thus: Of the sons of an earl, the eldest alone has an honorary title of nobility and is styled “My Lord,” while all the Daughters of an Earl have a similar honorary Title and are styled “My Lady.”
By marriage, women share the dignities and precedence of their husbands, but the strictly official dignity of a husband is not imparted to a wife (except in India) in the case of the Archbishops and Bishops or holders of other offices. The dignities which ladies have by birth or by right of inheritance, are not imparted by marriage to their husbands, nor does marriage with an inferior in dignity in any way affect the precedence that a lady may enjoy by birth, inheritance or creation–both her own precedence and that of her husband may remain as before their marriage, unless the husband be a peer.
To whatever precedence she may be entitled by birth, the wife of a peer always takes her rank, and therefore takes her actual precedence from her husband. The widow of a peer, so long as she remains a widow, retains the rank she enjoyed whilst married, but should she contract a second marriage, her precedence then is determined either by the rank of her second husband, or by the rank that was her own by birth and which she enjoyed before her first marriage. The wife of the eldest son of any degree precedes all her husband’s sisters and also all other ladies having the same degree of rank with them.
A peeress by marriage who is also a peerage in her own right signs first her husband’s title, adding her own afterwards: The Countess of Yarborough is Marcia Yarborough, Cauconberg and Conyers.The daughter of a peer if married to another peer takes the precedence of her husband and relinquishes her own, but she retains it if she marries a commoner, and one of the anomalies of the English scale of precedence is to be found in the following circumstances: if the two elder daughters of a duke were to marry an Earl and a Baron respectively, whilst the youngest daughter were to run away with the footman, she would, nevertheless, rank as the daughter of a Duke above her sisters ranking as wives of an Earl and a Baron.