The Nobility and Aristocracy of Downton Abbey

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Downtown Abbey: The estate of the Earls of Grantham and their family through generations. But has seen hard times since the Earl only has daughters and his closest two heirs had gone down with the RMS Titanic. Luckily the new heir is a handsome young lawyer who has a shine to his oldest daughter.

Though Americans may adore Downton Abbey, there are plenty of viewers on my side of the Atlantic Ocean may be somewhat confused about the British Title System within its centuries old aristocracy which traces its origins to the Middle Ages and the feudal system. Yes, there are kings and queens as well as princes and princesses. However, there are other kinds of nobles as well and there’s even a hierarchy of peerage. As Americans might see them, these are incredibly rich nobles who live in some castle or big fancy house. Nevertheless, getting titles and styles correct for someone who’s not “to the manner born,” which of course, is the point. In fact, the complexities of the honor system served to weed out posers, fraudsters, and plain old liars. Of course, as you see on Downton Abbey, you tend to see broke aristocrats as well as rich and successful commoners. And some of these incredibly rich commoners can get titles, too. But they’re usually knighted, but they can receive higher honors, especially if they do something of incredible significance. So the title system can get very complicated to say the least in the United Kingdom. However, I’ll try my best to explain the kinds of nobles you see on Downton Abbey as simply as I could. It may not be as exact because there’s so much to discuss. But it’ll just be the basics. But before we go on, I’ll give you a heads up on some of the types first:

Royalty: A class and law unto themselves. Even now there are those who consider everyone not born into it (like dukes, duchesses, the Queen Mother, and Princess Kate) little better than commoners.

Nobility: Peers of the realm, each of whom passes on his title –or as often, package of titles-to his oldest son (if he has one). Originally the whole business had to do with ownership of land, discharge of feudal obligations, and the wielding of actual power rather than with mere wealth and privilege. However, in the last few centuries, though, it’s only that such hereditary peers (who come in 5 strengths), together with few “life” peers (who come in only one and whose titles ae not bequeathable) and Church of England bigwigs, sit together in the House of Lords and continue, with their wives and children, to provide England with her lords and ladies-and her much-debated class system. Note: Most of the female counterparts here are more often the wives. However, if the woman is the oldest daughter in the family with no male heirs, she becomes a titled noble in her own right (so Lady Mary could’ve become Countess of Grantham, if it weren’t for Matthew being in the picture). Wives of male peers can share their husband’s social rank like the Countess of Grantham but husbands of female peers do not (mostly because they didn’t want their husbands to be mistaken for being their wives’ subordinates instead of their lords and masters. Clearly, no red-blooded man in those days would tolerate that. However, this wasn’t the case prior to the Tudor era since husbands of female peers could assume titles through marriage and exercise their wives’ authority. Because in the Middle Ages, marrying a peeress was a ticket to living in a castle and becoming lord of the manor so they absolutely didn’t give as shit). However, until 1963, women who held a peerage in their own right couldn’t sit on the House of Lords. By the way the hierarchy of peerage from highest to lowest consists of duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baron.

Lesser Nobility: Depending on your point of view, titled commoners. Come in 2 sizes: baronet and knight. Don’t look for either in the House of Lords. One title is hereditary, the other is not.

The Gentry: They can be of birth as high and breeding and fine as the nobility. In fact, many of them are the descendants of that nobility’s younger sons and daughters (like Matthew Crawley who had a direct ancestor as the Earl of Grantham along somewhere). But as intimidating as their manners and as awesome as their fortunes may be, what they lack is in titles. As the people of Burke’s Peerage point out, the English gentry are the only untitled aristocracy in the world.

So now that’s cleared up, I give you a list of the British upper crust to help you sort some questions out when you’re watching Downton Abbey.

  1. King

Female Counterpart: Queen. A reigning king’s wife is referred to as Queen Consort (or Princess Consort as Camilla will be when Prince Charles becomes king). A reigning queen’s husband is referred to as Prince Consort (as with Prince Philip though it’s not official with him and he’s technically the royal Duke of Edenborough. However, it was with Prince Albert, but not until he was married to Victoria for 17 years and he was only called that by the British Elite because of their barely concealed xenophobia and that he had no other British title, so as a backhanded compliment in the sense of, “okay, you’re a prince who happens to be married to a queen so we’ll call you that.”).

Type: Royalty

Description: The reigning sovereign monarch. Mostly inaccessible, but easy to distinguish. Usually inherited by the oldest surviving child of the predecessor (normally the oldest son but there’s a way of succession if one shouldn’t be available. Then it would go to that heir’s children {if they exist} and then to monarch’s other children and their kids. Queen Victoria ascension is an example to this since she became queen after her uncle King William IV died {who was the 3rd son of King George III and succeeded his brother King George IV}. Her father was the 4th son of King George III. And 3 of his sons were still alive at the time. However, before Victoria was born, King George III had only one legitimate heir named Princess Charlotte, daughter of the future King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick {who hated each other so her conception was a miracle}. At 21, Charlotte died after giving birth to a stillborn son which set off tremendous morning among the British as well as kicked off a major succession crisis. This led to King George III’s younger unmarried sons to ditch their mistresses, marry, and procreate. Edward, Duke of Kent would be the first one to do so successfully 18 months later with Victoria’s birth).

Way of Address: Upon meeting the monarch, bow or curtsy-depending on your gender- and say “your majesty.” Say “sir” or “ma’am” thereafter.

On Downton Abbey this is: Why King George V and his wife Queen Consort Mary of Teck. However, Prince Edward of Wales and Prince Albert Duke of York would both become Kings Edward VIII and George VI respectively. King George was seen as a stolid, conservative, and reliable monarch. Queen Mary was an icy cold bitch who compulsively stole jewelry. Both carried an image of dignity and were highly popular.

 

  1. Prince
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Prince of Wales: The heir apparent to the English throne who everyone’s dreading the day he becomes king. Likes to party and have affairs with married women. Seems polite and courteous who is willing to dance with a debutante whose family helped recover some incriminating love letters. However, they basically helped covering up an affair that almost everyone in Britain knows about as well as the fact he’s a royal pain in the ass. Destined to give up the throne in favor of his stammering little brother within the next decade.

Female Counterpart: Princess, either as consort or in her own right.

Type: Royalty

Description: This one is a bit complicated. They’re usually the offspring of the reigning monarch or their predecessors. They could also be the grandchildren of the sovereign through a sovereign’s or their predecessor’s sons. This might also apply to the grandchildren of the heir presumptive as well in the case of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Also, a reigning queen’s husband is technically a prince, too like Prince Albert or Prince Philip (though the latter doesn’t seem to mind as much as the former did). On the continent of Europe, the title of prince doesn’t necessarily pertain to royalty. In France, princes usually rank below dukes. Russian princes are usually not direct members of the royal family either. Czarist children were known as Grand Dukes or Grand Duchesses.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, bow or curtsy and say “your royal highness.” Refer to them as “sir” or ma’am” thereafter.

On Downton Abbey this is: Prince Edward of Wales and Prince Albert, Duke of York. Still, while Prince Edward is seen as rather courteous and polite on the show, keep in mind that in real life he was an insufferable, selfish, and absolute jerk who liked to party and chase skirts. His tryst with Freda Dudley Ward was public knowledge as well as his relationship with Wallis Simpson later on. Even his family thought he was a royal pain in the ass that his old man hoped he’d never have kids so Bertie and the future Elizabeth II could take the throne after him. The public couldn’t care less for him either as if “that guy is going to succeed King George.” Oh, and he thought Hitler was awesome. Let’s just say abdicating the throne in favor of his little brother with a speech impediment was the best thing he ever did for his country.

 

  1. Duke
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Duke: An aristocrat of the highest peerage grade who comes to Downton looking for a rich heiress to marry. Knowing the estate an entail of significant assets, he’s willing to flirt with the oldest daughter. But renounces her after her daddy told her he has no intention to contest the entail. Also serves to show that the designated bad boy of the staff bats for the other team (but views him as a disposable play-thing).

Female Counterpart: Duchess, either as a consort or in her own right.

Type: Nobility

Description: Highest degree of British peerage. First English dukedom was created in 1337, and are usually a rare and much deferred to breed so they have a couple dozen in number. While the monarch’s sons can be referred to as dukes, but they’re “royal dukes” and relatives to the sovereign, but it’s more of a title such as the Duke of York. Also serves as a reward for military such as the Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) or Wellington (for defeating Napoleon). In Europe, dukes controlled vast areas like Bavaria and Normandy and pretty much called their own shots. Hell, in countries like France (and sometimes Russia), they could’ve even outranked princes. In some areas, they even ruled domains to their own like monarchs called duchies (such as in Luxembourg today). By the way, in England, royal dukedoms become non-royal after the second generation.

Way of Address: Upon meeting, say “your grace.” Same goes for his wife.

On Downton Abbey this is: There’s a few such as the Duke of Crowborough and the Duchess of Yeovil.

 

  1. Marquess
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Marquess: An aristocrat of the second highest British peerage grade, who is a cousin by marriage to the Earl of Grantham who serves as a reliable government contact whenever they’re in need of someone to pull strings. Hosted a great event at his Scottish Duneagle castle in which he announces that he’s broke, is planning to sell up, and is taking a job. Leaves his bratty teenage daughter for the Earl and his family to babysit in the meantime. Wife is a real bitch to everyone and he’s planning to divorce her by Season 5.

Female Counterpart: Marchioness, either as consort or in her own right.

Type: Nobility

Description: Second highest British peerage, which is the least familiar to Americans (though we’re familiar with the French “marquis” but that’s because of Puss and Boots). Also, it’s pronounced “MAR-kwiss” and “MAR-shuness” and it comes from the old word “march” meaning border territory. Of course, it helps to explain that the first marquesses who were lords granted lands along the borders of Scotland and Wales. And they were considered important because they were guarding the realm from dangerous foreigners. It wasn’t well received at first since the first two honorees complained but eventually, with Tudor persistence, it gained acceptance. Was used as a reward to viceroys of India upon their return home, and in 1917, a compensation for George V’s relatives when he made them give up their obviously inappropriate German titles. There are almost as few marquesses around as dukes.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: The Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire (also known as the MacClares).

 

  1. Earl
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Earl: An aristocrat of the Middle British Peerage grade who’s the lord and master of Downton Abbey. Is a likeable man as well as a wonderful boss, husband, father, and benefactor but has his moments of noble douchery whenever those close to him reject the good old ways he always he takes pride in. That and whenever they try to challenge his power to save the estate. Is a complete idiot when it comes to economics and financial management. Don’t be rude to diss the aristocracy or try to get in his wife’s pants. Also, don’t mess with his mom who’s a real force to be reckoned with.

Female Counterpart: Countess, either as consort or in her own right.

Type: Nobility

Description: Third rung of the peerage system. As the marquess title is the English equivalent of a marquis, the earl is the English equivalent to a count. This is a very old and uniquely English title that has been around since Saxon times when it was the English equivalent to a European duke. Tough William the Conqueror tried to replace it with “count” the English people wouldn’t buy it mostly because to them at the time, the word had the aural similarity to a certain word for an undignified part of the body. Besides, it was the only hereditary title around at the time and it very damn well should have a native flavor (though lack of female equivalent led to women having to accept the title “countess.”)Comes from the Old English word “eorl” meaning “man of position.” Today there are 200 earldoms. Can be a reward for particularly effective prime ministers when they retire like Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, and Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: Why, the Earl of Grantham of course. You also have the Countess and Dowager Countess of Grantham as well. The Lord Chamberlain of the Household (his name was

Rowland Thomas Baring 2nd Earl of Cromer. He was also a diplomat. Served as a subaltern of the Grenadier Guards in WWI).

 

  1. Viscount
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Viscount: An aristocrat of the second lowest grade of the British Peerage, who dumps his fiancee when a girl he’s had a crush on when he was young suddenly becomes available. Yet, after they spend a sex-filled weekend together, he becomes a real entitled jerk when she decides to dump his ass. Valet is a known serial rapist who gets his ultimate comeuppance. But not without causing a major inconvenience on some of Downton’s staff.

Female Counterpart: Viscountess, either as consort or in her own right.

Type: Nobility

Description: Second lowest on the British title system. Pronounced “VYE-count” and “VYE-countess.” Originally designated as the guy who stood in for the count or in England, the earl (think of the “vis-“ in “viscount” being like “vice” in “vice president” and you’ll see what I mean.” The most recent of the 5 grades of peerage which was in 1440. An accepted way to say thank you to a good speaker to the House of Commons.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: Viscount Gillingham. You know, the guy who Mary had sex with in Season 5 before she dumped him and he became a real dick to her. Also, had a valet whose a serial rapist and brutally raped Anna during that recital by Dame Nellie Melba.

 

  1. Baron
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Baron: An aristocrat at the lowest grade of peerage, who romances a middle class widow after her son tragically died in a tragic accident with his sports car. A sweet, genial man with an interest in medicine, he’s a perfect gentlemen. Unfortunately for him, his two sons are absolute pricks.

Female Counterpart: Baroness, either as consort or in her own right.

Type: Nobility

Description: Lowest rank on the peerage totem pole. Originally took in Englishmen whose ancestors had fought during the Middle Ages in Wales, Scotland, or France, and more recently a number of industrialists and trade union leaders (who are generally given this title only for life). As demonstration for their lack of precedence, barons are never referred to by their title, merely as Lord So-and-So. His wife is always Lady So-and-So, never the baroness. Sometimes a given name sneaks in as with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the Middle Ages, they were the King’s tenants in chief and giving the owner, whether by inheritance or by acquisition, a bundle of land, minerals, and other rights including those of public justice and privilege. In the 13th century, some were among the first Parliamentarians. Then there are life barons, given by writ that might you a seat in the House of Lords but can’t be inherited. Before recent times, a lot of these life peerages were granted to women, such as the ennobled mistresses of King Charles II.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “my lord.” Address his wife as, “madam.”

On Downton Abbey this is: There’s a bunch like Baron Hepworth, Baron and Baroness Sinderby, Baron Merton, and Baron Aysgarth.

 

  1. Baronet
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Baronet: A lesser nobleman who’s friends with the earl and strikes a romance with his middle daughter who’s 30 years younger. After his war injury, it becomes abundantly clear that he’d rather dump the poor girl at the altar than rob the cradle.

Female Counterpart: Baronetess, either as a consort or in her own right (though there have only been 4 of them and they’re usually addressed as “Dame”).

Type: Lesser nobility

Description: Title means, “little baron.” It’s said that in 1611, King James I, needing capital, instigated, “a new designate between barons and knights,” open to anyone whose paternal grandfather bore arms, who possessed an annual income of at least £1,000, and who was willing to make a £1,095 down payment. While these guys were not, under any circumstances, to see themselves as noble, they were encouraged to adopt the style of Sir Joe Schmo, Bt., and they could pass on to their oldest son.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “Sir” and his first name. Address his wife as “Lady” and her last name.

On Downton Abbey this is: Sir Anthony Strallan, one of Lord Robert’s friends as well as the guy who left Edith at the altar. Another is Sir John Bullock who’s a drunken upper class twit.

 

  1. Knight
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Knight: A lesser noble who an Earl’s daughter hooks up with whenever her one true love is unavailable and doesn’t want the public know about how she lost her virginity. A ruthless newspaperman with a vicious streak a mile wide and a network of informants to give him scoops. Is willing to use blackmail when he notices that the earl’s daughter clearly interested in her one true love. Gets a wonderful thrashing at the end of Season 2.

Female Counterpart: Dame, but only in their own right. A knight’s consort is always addressed as, “Lady.” A dame’s consort gets no special distinction whatsoever. Same goes for male spouses of knights (like husbands of Sir Elton John, Sir Ian McKellen, and Sir Derek Jacobi).

Type: Lesser, nobility

Description: In the Middle Ages, the knight was the most significant figure in the feudal system, a mounted horseman who fought for his liege and lord (but more often for himself) and defended the honor of his lady (well, a noble lady who he’s supposed to be with, anyway). For some time, it’s been the most frequently conferred “dignity” in England by far for a male recipient. Guaranteed for one lifetime and one lifetime only.

Way of Address: Upon meeting one, say “Sir.” Address his wife as “Lady.” As for dames, just address her as, “Dame” and her first name.

On Downton Abbey this is: Sir Richard Carlisle and Sir Philip Tapsell. Neither of them are nice guys. For the dames, we have Dame Nellie Melba (Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell) who was the first successfully Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. Off-screen, there’s Dame Maggie Smith who portrays the Dowager Countess.

 

  1. Esquire
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Esquire: The designation you give to a Manchester lawyer who’s just become Downton Abbey’s new heir as well as the destined love interest for the Earl of Grantham’s oldest daughter, thanks to a couple of guys dying on the Titanic. Despite ups and downs as well as belligerent sexual tension, they eventually manage to get married and produce a kid. And in the meantime, he also helps save Downton with his professional savvy in finance law and his inheritance from his ex-fiancee’s dad. Can recover from paralysis in record time. Fated to be crushed by his own fancy sports car after seeing the birth of his son at the end of Season 3.

Female Counterpart: Not sure if there is one, since this is usually reserved for regular guys in line to nobility on the show.

Type: Gentry

Description: In the Middle Ages, the esquire (or squire) attended the knight and carried his gear. Once the Middle Ages were over, it was later used to apply to, “the sons of peers, the sons of baronets, the sons of knights, the eldest sons of the younger sons of peers, the eldest son of the eldest son of a knight, his sons in perpetuity, the king of arms, the herald of a knight, officers of the Army or Navy of the rank of captain and upward, sheriffs of counties for life, J.P’s of counties whilst in commission, serjeant-at-arms, Queen’s counsel…” well, you get the picture. It’s basically a catchall with connotations of both rank and real estate, and a way of appeasing any number of people who would otherwise risk seeming, in the eyes of the world, no better than their neighbors. It didn’t really work out. Because when the Victorians reserved “esquire” for the landed gentry and withheld it from commercial and industrial types, the word had lost-through careless usage-almost all of its distinction. Today the entire male population of Britain and Ireland can regularly be addressed as “Esq.” (after their name taking the place of “Mr.” before it, of course) by mail-order houses and book clubs. As for squires who were the big country landowners who exercised authority and financial leverage over their districts and villages, spoke in provincial dialect, and rode hounds, they were extinguished by the 19th century by the increasing taxes and creeping urbanism of the industrial revolution. Besides, it wasn’t much of an honor or even a slot in the hierarchy as a way of life, anyway. Good luck finding those guys at Downton Abbey.

Way of Address: There’s no official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: Matthew Crawley and Charles Blake. George Crawley counts as well since his dad was smashed by his sports car during a collision.

 

  1. Gentleman

Female Counterpart: Uh, gentlewoman?

Type: Gentry

Description: Historically, being of “gentle” birth, entitled to bear arms, owning at least 300 acres of land, but lacking the larger distinction of being an esquire, let alone a knight or better. For more than a century now the word has almost no agreed-upon meaning at all. However, in Jane Austen’s day, it was still something to keep in mind. For instance, Mr. Collins would qualify as a gentlemen and an appropriate suitor for Elizabeth Bennett despite being a fool, a clergyman, and her cousin. Not only that, but her best friend Charlotte Lucas who’s a knight’s daughter no less, was happy to land him. Then again, she was 27 and probably looking for a guy to settle down with. Seriously, I’m sure Mr. Collins wasn’t her first choice.

Way of Address: There’s no official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: Matthew Crawley and Charles Blake might qualify at another time. But you’ll have a better time finding one in Austen.

 

  1. Yeoman

Female Counterpart: Uh, yeowoman?

Type: Rural Middle Class

Description: These are small, independent farmers who like squires, would be forced out of existence by the pressurized ways of 19th century life. Yet, until their demise, they had a reputation for being sturdy, hardworking, sometimes even educated, and possessed the kind of integrity that England is always tapping on your shoulder to tell you it has. Respectable, landowning, and can even vote. However, in the world of Austen, these guys aren’t as marriageable to women of good means.

Way of Address: No official way to address them.

On Downton Abbey this is: These guys were gone before the show even started. Most of the farmers you see on there are tenants on some aristocrat’s land.

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Noble Daughter: While lovely in her own way due to a lifetime of privilege and fancy clothes, is basically as an inheritor to her daddy’s estate due to being born without a penile appendage. Oldest is usually used to set up with male heirs who are most likely her cousins. Fortunately, there’s an attractive attorney from Manchester set to inherit the estate. And he’s taken a shine to Lady Mary. Nevertheless, each girl tends to stir up trouble and cause scandal in their own way whether through wearing dungarees and running off with a politically radical chauffeur, losing her virginity to a Turkish envoy who suddenly died in her bed, or falling pregnant out of wedlock to a married newspaperman who ends up killed by Nazis.

As for the nobleman’s kids: In general, only the oldest son comes out on top, but not until the old man croaks. In the meantime, when Daddy is still the duke, marquess, or earl, the son is awarded a “courtesy title.” For instance, had Matthew Crawley managed to outlive his father-in-law and distant cousin, the Earl of Grantham, then his son George would’ve been addressed as “Viscount Downton” until the major title came free. But since Matthew got smashed in a collision with a truck, then George just be regular “Mr. George Crawley” until his granddaddy joins the choir invisible. As for eldest sons of barons and viscounts: well, they’ll just have to wait. They, and everyone else in the second generation, make do-most of them for life-with what’s called a courtesy style. If you’re lucky (supposing daddy is a duke or marquess), you’re “Lord” or “Lady” like Lady Rose MacClare or Lord Joe So-and-So.  Also, if you’re a daughter of an earl, you get “Lady” put before your name, too like Lady Mary Crawley. If you’re not so lucky, you get a simple, “The Hon.” (read: “The Honourable”) to put before your name. Think Lord Merton’s asshole kids like the The Hon. Larry Grey as well as The Hon. Madeleine Allsop. If the Earl of Grantham had boys, then his sons would be referred to as “the Honourable,” too, save for the eldest who’d naturally be “Viscount of Downton” and be referred to as “Lord” (so it probably was better that Lord Grantham only had girls). As for the grandchildren, unless they belong to the oldest son, they’re on their own. A key example would be Winston Churchill who despite being of noble birth and the oldest son, had to make it on his own because his dad Lord Randolph Churchill was the 3rd son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As for any illegitimate noble spawn, well, little T. E. Lawrence is certainly not going to inherit his daddy Sir John Chapman’s baronetcy since he’s was the second oldest son of the guy and his daughters’ governess. Oh, and the guy was married to another woman at the time.

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One response to “The Nobility and Aristocracy of Downton Abbey

  1. Wow- lots of information here- about titles and Downton Abbey! I guess everyone has their issues- even the rich and noble born!

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