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Noble Titles and Ranks in a Monarchy

Updated May 20, 2020 | Logan Chamberlain

Who's who in a monarchy? A look at the aristocratic pecking order

A monarchy is a government ruled by a king or queen, or their equivalent terms in other cultures. There are many more levels beyond king and queen, however. For people who do not live in monarchies, or who aren't familiar with historical titles, this can get a bit confusing. Infoplease is here to help you out.

Being an English language site, we're going to use examples from the United Kingdom, since the members of the royal family are pretty famous throughout the anglosphere. The terms we're going to look at, as a result, are a bit specific to European cultures. Feudal cultures elsewhere, like Japan, used different titles and ranks. 

Order of English Noble Titles

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Some Useful Terms to Start

Aside from the nobility titles we're about to discuss, there are a few other terms you should know to understand how a monarchy works. Someone with a noble title of legal importance is known as a peer. Peerages can be hereditary, meaning they're passed down, or they can last only for the peer's lifetime. Life peerages, as they're called, are usually honorary. Life peerages have only been around since the Life Peerages Act of 1958

No one today is made a hereditary peer who did not inherit it from a relative. 

In the United Kingdom, having a peerage in Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales (basically, being a member of the British nobility) makes you eligible to serve in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is one of the two houses of parliament. In the democracy of the UK, the House of Lords lacks powers given to the elected House of Commons. The Prime Minister comes from the House of Commons. The prime minister, or any other member of the Commons, can hold a peerage.

Emperor

Comes from the Latin, "imperator," which was originally a military title. Soldiers would salute the leader of a victorious army as "imperator." Augustus Caesar assumed the title and all subsequent Roman and Byzantine leaders. In Europe, Charlemagne became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800. Various countries, including Russia, China, Japan, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Ethiopia, and India, have used the title "emperor."

In 1804 Napoleon was named emperor in 1804. Except for the phrase "Emperor of India," which was added to the British Monarch's title in 1877 and used until India became independent, Britain has not used the term. 

King, Queen

The monarch outranks everyone else. A monarch inherits their title from the previous king or queen. England historically gave preference to male rulers, but the Queen still outranks her husband since she inherited the title. Queen Elizabeth II is married Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; having married into the royal family, he is known as Prince Consort, rather than king. A woman who marries a king would be known as queen consort (as opposed to a queen regnant, or a ruling queen). A monarch is generally addressed with the phrase "Your Majesty". 

Commoners who marry into a royal family, such as Antony Armstrong-Jones who married Princess Margaret, typically receive a courtesy title. A courtesy title has no legal importance. It is not necessarily a hereditary title. Armstrong-Jones was made the Earl of Snowdon. 

Prince, Princess

In England, a prince or princess are often children of the monarch, and therefore royalty, as opposed to nobility. But, those holding the title can vary in rank. In France, a duke, or "duc" outranks a prince. In Russia and Austria, the title archduke is an indication of royal blood, and is used instead of prince.  In the UK, the eldest son of the monarch is given the title Prince of Wales, as is currently held by Prince Charles. A prince or princess would typically be referred to as "your royal highness." 

Duke, Duchess

duke, from the Latin dux (another word for a military leader), is the ruler of a dukedom or duchy. If the dukedom is an independent country, its leader may be called a grand duke. Originally all English dukes were of royal blood. When sons of kings came of age they were typically given the title duke. Now a duke is the highest rank of English nobility. Ducal status is conferred by marriage, as in the case of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, or Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. A prince, as such, is typically a prince and a duke; Prince William and Prince Harry are Princes of the UK, while also being called the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex respectively. A duke would typically be addressed as "your grace," as would an archbishop. 

Other Noble Titles

Three titles hold a pretty similar stature, although they are somewhat different. An earl is at the head of a county. In most European countries this title is instead known as a count. Earl comes from an old English word, eorl, which had a similar meaning. A marquess effectively the earl of an important border county (also known as a march). Since securing the border was such an important job, the rank of marquess is often considered superior to earl or count. 

That leaves the two lowest ranks of the peerage, viscount, and baron. A viscount (from the phrase vice-count) is immediately below an earl. They were originally administrators and judges who ruled over specific regions of a county, hence the name. 

A baron is the lowest level. Barons were the basic building block of feudal land ownership; holding land in barony meant that they acted on the king's behalf to own a chunk of land. Barons are not actually called barons, but are rather called Lord or Lady. 

baronet is not included among the peerage, but the title can be inherited. Below a baronet, is a knight, which is a title of honor rather aristocracy.

 

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