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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Courtesy Titles

Is Viscount Lovely titled or heir apparent?

Painting of Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1701-51
Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1707-51, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Collection Trust

We often see heroes who are heirs rather than peers, yet they're sporting what sounds very much like a title of their own. Let's say the hero is heir to an earldom. His father is the Earl of Distinguished. One day, the hero will be the Earl of Distinguished, but for now he's Viscount Lovely. So, how does this work? Is the heir really a viscount? What of his younger brothers--do they have titles too?

The hero in the above example does not have a title, rather he is granted the privilege of using what's called a "courtesy title." Before we delve into the details, let's cut to the chase: Only "the son and heir apparent of a duke, marquess, or earl may use one of his father's peerage titles by courtesy providing it is of a lesser grade than that used by his father" ("Courtesy titles," Debrett's). This is a topic I've explored before within the larger framework of the roles and titles of nobility but not exclusively, so I'll take this opportunity to share a few points that might help satisfy curiosity and clarify confusion. Let's talk courtesy titles!

First, we'll step back to take a look at our exemplified hero's father, the Earl of Distinguished. Many peers (although not all) hold multiple titles, considered subsidiary titles. The higher the peer in the political hierarchy and the older the family name, the more subsidiary (or secondary) titles he will have. For instance, the Earl of Distinguished's great-great-great grandfather might have been Baron Handsome, but after serving the Crown as a war hero, he was granted an additional holding of Viscount Lovely (for what these titles mean and do, refer to the roles and titles of nobility, which details what is involved and what is included with each rank). When he passes, his heir (the great-great grandfather) inherits both holdings and goes by the more significant rank. Let's say he brought such prosperity to the Crown that he was ennobled another title, this time an earldom, the Earl of Distinguished. With the earldom being the most significant title, he goes by that while still keeping his secondary titles as inherited. When he passes, his heir (the great grandfather) inherits those. Perhaps he's good friends with the King, and so the King gifts him an additional earldom--because why not? While it's an earldom, just as he currently holds, it's a new line, so not considered as significant as the earldom he already has, so he'll continue to be styled as the Earl of Distinguished. He now is the holder of four titles, three of which are considered secondary or subsidiary titles. He'll then pass all four titles to his heir. Assuming his heir acquires yet another earldom, we're now up to five titles in possession with Earl of Distinguished still being the oldest and thus more significant.

A list of the noble ranks in order
Nobility Rankings

The most significant holding is determined by the highest and oldest rank, so if a peer holds three earldoms, he would be styled by the oldest of those three earldoms, such as being the 4th Earl of Distinguished, while having secondary titles of 2nd Earl of Sexy, and 1st Earl of Smolder. Secondary titles came to be by way of inheritance, be it direct inheritance or from different branches of the family tree (inheriting from a distant relation, for instance), by marriage to an heiress (a talking point for another research section!), and by way of accolades. Accolades could include: (a) a monarch awarding a new title for every act of extraordinary service, (b) a new monarch awarding additional accolades, such as the aging King awarding a loyal retainer with an earldom only to have the next King award the earl with another earldom for continued loyalty, (c) a monarch awarding simultaneous accolades (such as offering both a marquessate and a dukedom simultaneously). For the peer who has subsidiary titles (and only for those who have subsidiary titles), his heir apparent would be styled with the highest ranking of subsidiary titles, as long as that title was lesser than the one held by the father.

A list of noble titles with a brief description of each
Nobility Titles

Let's look at "heir apparent" since this is of the utmost importance in understanding courtesy titles. There are two types of heirs: heir apparent and heir presumptive.

Heir apparent is through direct line--primogeniture. This is the eldest son, but if the eldest son is dead, then the eldest son's eldest son (the grandson). If the the eldest son died without issue, then it would be the next eldest son (the "spare"). Heir apparent is direct line only and cannot be displaced in inheritance by the birth of another son.

Heir presumptive is a relative in line to inherit, such as a nephew or cousin, someone who is not of direct descent to the current peer (i.e. a son or grandson) and could potentially be displaced in inheritance by the birth of a son via direct line. Heir presumptive is someone who will inherit in the event the current peer does not produce an heir of his own before he dies. Unless of direct line, the heir will be presumptive, even if the current peer is 102, without wife or sons, and the heir is his nephew, because there is always a chance that at the ripe age of 102, the current peer could marry and produce an heir. Wonders never cease. The nephew, no matter how you shake this, would be heir presumptive (and ever hopeful that the current peer remained impotent).

Why is it important to know if the heir is heir apparent or presumptive? Only the heir apparent can be styled with a courtesy title. An heir presumptive cannot carry a courtesy title. Courtesy titles are for direct line only. In our example of the 102-year-old peer, even if he has seven subsidiary titles, the nephew would be styled Mr. Surname. No courtesy title for the poor nephew.

Example of Writ of Summons
Writ of Summons

A bit of interesting history on the creation of peerage. In the days of complete monarch rule, the Crown would create new peerage lines by sending a writ of summons for the person to be ennobled. This process was amended to include the letters patent in order to specify who would inherit the title (thus ensuring primogeniture when possible rather than leaving it open for greedy relatives and, well, women). For our storybook heroes to inherit, they would receive both the writ of summons to Counsel or Parliament, which calls them to take their place in the House of Lords and accept their inherited peerage, and the letters patent. The patent includes what's called a "remainder," which describes how a title may descend after the death of the ennobled peer. The most typical remainder, the one we're most familiar with, is limited to primogeniture--the male heirs of the body, legally begotten. There are some patents, however, that include "special remainders," which would allow the title to descend to another member of the family (daughter, brother, niece, etc). These are rare and special cases, such as creating a peerage with a special remainder for a war leader who has no male issues to inherit the title. This special remainder would ensure the peerage survives past the generation of the ennobled peer. (Are you thinking what I'm thinking? A plethora of plot ideas here where the heroine inherits by special remainder! But then, let's not forget the possibilities non-titled entailments offer, as well, such as fee tail specials, fee tail females, etc, just as we saw in this research section on entailments and as we saw in The Heir and The Enchantress.)

Example of Letters Patent
Letters Patent

Now, back to business. Let's explore the subsidiary title used by the heir apparent. The heir apparent can only hold as his courtesy title one of lesser degree than the current peer. So, going back to our original example, if Earl of Distinguished just so happened to have three earldoms, one viscount distinction, and one barony, his heir apparent cannot by styled with one of the earldoms since that would be equal to the current peer's most significant holding: Earl of Distinguished. The heir apparent would have to be styled by the subsidiary title of immediate lesser holding, in this case the viscount distinction: Viscount Lovely.

As added clarification, the bearing of Viscount Lovely would be a courtesy only. The heir apparent would not have any rights, property, or otherwise that come with the title. He would only have the courtesy of using the name to mark him as heir. No sitting in the House of Lords, no directing the steward and overseeing the home farm, nothing. Now, it would be the father's prerogative as to what responsibilities he allowed his son in preparing him to one day inherit, such as allowing him to live in the estate associated with the title (if there was one, as not all titles come with an estate), but that would be a parenting decision, as the heir would have no legal rights or responsibilities to anything until he legally inherited upon the father's death.

The only person who can bear a courtesy title is the heir apparent. In the example we have here, Earl of Distinguished carries five titles. Let's suppose he has five sons. This does not mean he can spread around the subsidiary titles with each son getting one. The only person to be styled with a courtesy title is the heir apparent. The eldest son will be Viscount Lovely, and all his younger siblings, including "the spare," will be styled Mr. Surname (or in the case of a duke's or marquess' younger sons, Lord Forename Surname. The only time you'll ever see "Lord" paired with a forename and surname rather than a title is with the younger sons of a duke and a marquess. All other peers' sons would be Mr. Surname).

Rachel Knowles of offers a wonderful collection of cheat sheets for each title from duke to baron. This is an example but definitely check out her page for the others:

Example Courtesy Titles for a Duke's Children
Courtesy Titles for a Duke's Children

A quick reference guide before we look at some examples:

  • the heir apparent (of duke, marquess, and earl only) can use a lesser title as a courtesy.

  • Younger sons of a duke and marquess can use the honorific "Lord" before their forename and surname but not use a courtesy title.

  • Younger sons of an earl (and all sons of a viscount and a baron, as well as daughters of a viscount and baron) are styled "The Honorable" or "The Hon" before their forename and surname, although we would only see that with formal addresses and introductions.

  • The daughters of a duke, marquess, and earl would have the use of "Lady" before their forename and surname (on first mention, and then on second mention, Lady Forename: Lady Mildred Smiles, then Lady Mildred, but never Lady Smiles).

Let's refer back to our example. Earl of Distinguished has the family name of Ben Smiles. Ben Smiles, Earl of Distinguished or Lord Distinguished. Good ol' Ben has five sons: Cecil Smiles, the heir apparent, Frank Smiles, Bob Smiles, Ted Smiles, and Bernard Smiles. As heir apparent, Cecil Smiles gets to sport a fancy courtesy title which does absolutely nothing except make him sound like a sexy hero on the lookout for a smart heroine. Cecil Smiles, Viscount Lovely, or Lord Lovely, cannot enter the House of Lords, as he does not hold a title of any kind. He is merely styled with a courtesy title to announce to the world that he's an heir apparent. Lucky dog. His younger brother, "the spare," Frank Smiles, goes by Mr. Smiles. Despite Frank's father having five titles, Frank can't have a courtesy title because he's not an heir apparent. He is, simply, Mr. Smiles. His brothers Bob, Ted, and Bernard? They're all Mr. Smiles, as well.

If Ben Smiles, Earl of Distinguished, were suddenly to be granted with a dukedom because the King thought him a great guy, then the names would alter just a hair. Ben Smiles, Duke of Fabulous. His Grace. Duke. (never Lord Distinguished for a duke) His heir apparent would now have the honor of sporting the courtesy title of Earl of Distinguished since it would be the next "lesser" rank to the dukedom title. Cecil Smiles, Earl of Distinguished. His younger brother Frank? Frank would still have to use the surname Smiles, but since his father is now a duke, he gets to go by Lord Frank Smiles. Isn't that nice? What about the other three brothers? All Lord Forename Smiles. This is, for further clarification, the only time we would ever see the honorific Lord before a forename and surname--a benefit of the younger children of a duke or marquess. With peers, "Lord" always accompanies the title (Lord Distinguished) and never the forename or surname. With younger sons of dukes and marquesses, we have Lord Forename Surname or Lord Forename (never Lord Surname), thus identifying the gentleman as a younger son of a duke or marquess. Everyone would know as soon as they heard Lord Frank Smiles or Lord Frank that he was a younger son of a duke or marquess, not a title holder or even an heir.

Not to leave anyone out, let's touch on adoption. If a child of peerage is adopted out of the family, they retain their rights to use courtesy titles and honorifics as befitting their parents' nobility. If a child is adopted into the family, they do not acquire rights of succession to a title, courtesy or otherwise. While this doesn't affect our heroes or heroines in historical romances, you might be interested to know that as of April 30, 2004, it was decreed that adopted children of peers should be styled with the honorifics, but still without the right of succession to the peerage (which means no courtesy title). Let's suppose Larry Smith, Marquess of Wealthy, with the subsidiary title of Viscount Cutie, adopted a son, that son would now be able to use the honorific of Lord Forename Smith, although he could not use the courtesy title of Viscount Cutie. Prior to 2004, the adopted son would have been Mr. Smith.

Drawing of Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride & Prejudice
Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Preferring Lady Catherine to Lady de Bourgh)

This final bit is just for fun because I can't resist adding it. It's not exactly to do with courtesy titles, but it does fall into the discussions of honorifics. If we refer back to the brief mention of the use of "Lady" as being an honorific for the daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls, we come across an interesting bit of potential snobbery. Let's use Mary as the example from The Colonel and The Enchantress. As the daughter of a duke, she has the honor of being styled Lady Mary (only Lady Mary Mowbrah or Lady Mary, never Lady Mowbrah since that is reserved for titles not surnames). Even after marrying, she still holds this honor. If she were to marry a commoner, say Mr. Starrett, then she could continue as Lady Mary to ensure the world knew she was the daughter of nobility even though her husband was a commoner. If her husband held an aristocratic title but still of lower rank than her father, say a barony by the name of Heroic, then while he would now be styled Lord Heroic, she could still go by Lady Mary to, again, ensure the world knew she was of noble lineage. If she wanted to snub her nose at her father's line and embrace her husband's, then she could go by Lady Heroic. The choice in preference would show a great deal about how she wanted to be perceived--as the wife of a baron or as the daughter of a duke. Deep thoughts, eh?

While there are other sources to fully understand the ins and outs of peerage, I recommend exploring Debrett's guide to the peerage. Another great source for courtesy titles is from Laura Wallace of (the same site that has the best Form of Address charts available), which I recommend looking into, especially for the "the" usage before titles vs before courtesy titles (i.e. "the" can be for an ennobled title but not for a courtesy title).


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