Peering at the Peerage

Peers are entitled to wear crown-like coronets at the ceremony in which the monarch is crowned. A duke wears a coronet like this one, decorated with gold (well, gilded these days) strawberry leaves.

A few years ago I cringed to hear an American politician say in a BBC Radio 4 interview—in England, for a British audience—that “Washington has got to get to work to support middle class families”, in part by “lowering taxes on middle class households”.  So—I imagine American readers asking—what’s wrong with that?

The problem is that “middle class” means something different over here.

American families who pay for their kids to go to private schools, whose parties are written up in the society pages, who have swimming pools or ponies or both, who have domestic help and second homes, who collect expensive wines, designer clothes, and country club memberships, who wouldn’t be seen dead in an evening gown they’d worn before or a tuxedo they had to rent, are generally considered upper class.  Here, those people would be called middle class.

That’s because in British terms, the US doesn’t have an actual upper class.  The upper class here is the aristocracy, a group united by attributes such as titles (Baron, Viscount, etc.), family ties to those with titles, or at least ties to certain socially prominent families that go back several centuries.  They tend to have (or to once have had) large estates, run by large numbers of employees.  They speak with the right accent (accent is extremely important here; think of how the Queen speaks and you’ve got the top end of the aristocratic accent) and get the right sort of education, which is not about doing well in school, but about which school you go to. Being upper class has little to do with how much money the family has in this generation: fortunes may come or go, but whatever your bank balance you’re still either U (upper class) or non-U (the rest of us)—terms actually in use here, although considered somewhat old-fashioned.

The Royal Opera House, London

If you want to know who’s a part of the aristocracy you look in a book known as Debrett’s but officially titled Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage (because baronets, who occupy the lowest rung on the title ladder, technically aren’t peers).  Debrett’s will also, of course, tell you Who in the aristocracy Outranks Whom. Virginia Woolf wrote “Americans have swallowed their dinner by the time it takes us to decide whether the widow of a general takes precedence of the wife of a knight commander of the Star of India”.  These social distinctions must be made before anyone can go in to dinner, because of course you have to enter the dining room in the correct order.  That is, people of her class did so in Woolf’s day, and the top echelon still does so on, say, formal occasions when to do otherwise might cause a diplomatic incident.

Fortunately I’m not often called upon to make those sorts of judgment calls. But I do occasionally run across web sites that, when they ask users to register, offer a pull-down menu with not only Mr. and Mrs. and such, but lots of aristocratic titles.  Take for example the web site for the Royal Opera House, home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, where prospective supporters of the arts are offered over 200 choices.

The British versions of Mr and Mrs are slightly different—did you notice the missing periods (UK: full stops)?  The British distinguish between a contraction, in which the final letter of the word is retained, and an abbreviation, in which it isn’t.  (There is hierarchy, or at least protocol, even in the realm of punctuation.)  So Mr, Mrs, and Dr have no period, but Rev. does, although the Royal Opera House’s web site, rather than peppering their list with dots, seems to have skipped them entirely.  Often it seems that the higher up the scale you go, the more likely you’ll leave that full stop behind you, so The Hon.—that’s for Honourable, used for the younger sons of earls, among others—may have the period, but it’s unusual to see the little typographical specks after the letters in HRH—Her/His Royal Highness.

On an earl's coronet, the strawberry leaves alternate with gilded balls (known as pearls, but not made of pearl) set high on points.

(Ms doesn’t get a period either, and here they pronounce it muzz, which always sounds to me like a put down, as though they’re mocking people who use Ms.  The American pronunciation, mizz, sounds right to me, but then that’s how people where I come from pronounce Mrs. anyway.)

But once we get past those everyday honorifics—technically these are styles, by the way—for ordinary people, things start to get interesting.  The Royal Opera House’s list continues with Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Captain, Chancellor—on and on.  Lord Justice, Princess, Reverance.  Right Honourable Viscount brings up the rear of a group that includes Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, and Rt Hon The Earl. Are you a Sir, a Sister, or a Sultan, perhaps?  The only hierarchy that trumps that of social status is alphabetical order; only in a list like this would a Professor Dame precede a Queen.

The list includes military ranks, academic titles—both Prof and Professor, oddly, so perhaps one is for sticklers who want their positions noted in full—and various ambassadors.  In fact, there’s a special entry just for the French Ambassador, should he or she want to support the arts:  HE (His/Her Excellency) the French Ambassador M – for monsieur or madame.

And there are many religious ranks, mainly from the Church of England.  The church hierarchy is more important here than Americans might suppose, since all archbishops and some bishops sit in the House of Lords and help make laws—a strange idea to someone used to the separation of church and state.  Where I grew up, religious honorifics went no further than Brother, so clerical titles here seem exotic: Rev, Very Rev, Rev Dr, Very Rev Dr, Rev Canon, Rev Preb (Reverend Prebendary), Right Rev (for C of E bishops).  I won’t tax your patience with the whole list, but I’ve got to mention my favourite: The Venerable.  That’s for an archdeacon emeritus.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever met one of these; they must be shy creatures who rarely come out of their dens, something like badgers.

Bishops wear pointed headgear called mitres, rather than coronets. Mitre styles vary, but some of them look remarkably like tea cozies...

For titles in the Church of England, the reference book is Crockford’s Clerical Directory, rather than Debrett’s;  bishops and archbishops are not peers even if they do sit in the Lords, where they are known as the Lords Spiritual, as opposed to the peers, who are the Lords Temporal.  Of course, if a titled person becomes an archbishop, he (they might someday have female archbishops here, but that’s a loooong way off) would be a Lord both Temporal and Spiritual.  And some of these are members of the queen’s Privy Council (a set of political advisors), and so have titles added to reflect that status.

Mix secular and clerical titles, and you can come up with such lengthy and convoluted strands it feels like discovering a new kind of DNA, in which the sequence of chemical—or in this case social—building blocks combine in different ways to produce different kinds of creatures.  The highest-ranking priest in the Church of England is the Most Honourable and Right Reverend the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He’s also Primate of All England, a title that I always think invites thoughts of Darwin and—well, let’s not go there.

Among the Lords Temporal there are 5 ranks: baron/baroness, viscount/viscountess, earl/countess, marquis/marchioness, and duke/duchess.  From those 5 come any number of titles.  You might be not only the Duke of Someplace, but HRH the Duke of Someplace. Some people are the Earl So-and-so and others are the Earl *of * So-and-so, and the Royal Opera House caters for both.  (You cannot, however, be the Duke of Earl, unless you are Gene Chandler.)

Gene Chandler, "the Duke of Earl"

The longest title from the British peerage appearing on the Royal Opera House’s list, and the one that seemed the most improbable when I first saw that list, is the Dowager Marchioness of.  A dowager is a widow in possession of a title or property left to her by her husband; the word is related to dowry and endowment.  The marquess whose death added dowager to our arts-supporting marchioness’ title would ordinarily have left the bulk of his estate to the next holder of the title, usually his son, and in fact may have been legally compelled to do that by the terms under which he’d accepted his title and property in the first place.

And at the pinnacle of the social order sit royalty.  Kings, queens, princesses and princes, Royal Highnesses andSerene Highnesses, even HRH Sultan Shah—the Royal Opera House is ready for all of them to surf right in (tempting to make a pun on serfs, there).

In fact, this emphasis on titles risks reinforcing the impression that opera and ballet are the province of aristocrats, a view very much at odds with the Royal Opera House’s goal of making the arts available to everyone, from royalty to commoners.  (The life of Anna Nicole Smith provided the story for a recently premiered opera; it could be argued that you can’t get more common than that.)  The military ranks, for example, include the likes of Commodores and Major Generals; it might appear that enlisted personnel and NCOs do not fall into the Royal Opera House’s target market, although that’s not the case.

The coronet of a marquess has fewer leaves and fewer balls, and the balls are not raised onto points. These things are important, you know...

Royal Opera House staff confirmed that they’re planning a new web site, which will offer a few of the more often-used choices plus a fill-in-the-blank box for those who answer to titles beyond the run-of-the-mill.  The UK’s on-line passport application system uses that sort of mechanism, offering a choice of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss and Mstr (Master—for boys not old enough to be Misters), plus a box for write-ins.  In the case of passports, if you claim to be a Wing Commander (in the RAF), a Lord Justice (a certain type of judge), or a Baronetess (a woman who inherits a baronetcy in her own right, rather than being married to a baronet, though few baronetcies permit females to hold the title), you’d better be prepared to prove it.

Looking through the Royal Opera House’s list of titles I began to wonder whether it had just accrued over the years.  Why a Dowager Marchioness, but no other Dowagers?  Why list all those Reverends, but stop short of Most Reverend?  Why Professor Dame and not Professor Sir?  The friendly staffer I spoke to said the list reflects all the titles of those who have, over the many years the Royal Opera House has been keeping a database, expressed an interest. So the list is a slice of social history, even if it is a slice from the top and doesn’t reflect the overall proportions; after all, they could have 5000 Misters and one Sultan, but the list gives each title equal weight.

Alas, the viscount gets no strawberry leaves at all. Pity.

So that’s the Anglo-American Experience blog’s first look at titles, and a cursory look it is; I’m sure this will come up again.  But you can better understand now, I think, why the British would view our American “upper-class”—the country-clubbed, ponied, and swimming-pooled set—as middle class, and why I cringed to hear the politician talking about the US being run for the advantage of the middle class.  Working-class British people would hear that as a plea for more help for rich Americans—but then again, that’s what a lot of people over here think the US government is doing anyway, because not only do we have an upper class on top of the classes Americans have, we have a political left that is far to the left of what Americans have.  But that’s a topic for another day.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Peering at the Peerage

  1. Malcolm

    These distinctions have had a long, slow death. As a spotty student, six decades ago, I received letters addressing me as “Esq.” Some ended “Your most humble and obedient servant.” As a subaltern on two years’ compulsory military service I was taught that one’s card should display one’s address, the name(s) of one’s London club(s), but no academic qualifications. On leaving a posting, one should bend the corner of the card, write PPC upon it (Pour Prendre Congé) and leave it with the CO’s wife.

    One thing that should be added to your tour-de-force of an explanation of the inexplicable – especially for your American readers – is that the titles Lord and Lady are given to the sons and daughters of some peers even though they are, in fact, commoners (until they inherit in their own right). Hence their designation as ‘courtesy’ titles. For the record: Lady + first name and surname–all daughters of dukes, marquises, or earls. Lord + first name and surname–all the sons of dukes and marquises and only the eldest sons of earls. An heir may use his father’s subsidiary (earlier) title. Thus the Duke of Norfolk’s heir is Earl of Arundel and Surrey. Honourable–the younger sons of earls and all the children of viscounts and barons. How to remember the order of peerages: “Dull men eat very brown bread”–duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron, baronet.

    Bring on the revolution!

    An apocryphal footnote. It is said that a society hostess about to entertain the Aga Khan to a large formal dinner sought Debrett’s advice on where to seat him in the hierarchy. The alleged reply was: “The Aga Khan is revered by his followers, who consider him near immortal and the closest thing to God. He should be seated below an English earl.”

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, there’s a whole nother post in the communications I get from doctors, as I am reminded by that “humble and obedient servant” bit. I have had invoices headed “Mr So-and-so sends his compliments and begs leave to present his invoice for services” blah blah blah. (Looks at calendar to be sure this is 2011…)

  2. Darilyn

    That was very helpful. Thanks so much, and I think your right; mitres do look like tea cozies!

  3. sharonminsuk

    Missed this the first time around but came over here after seeing the link in your 7 Camels on Vie Hebdomadaires. I must say, Mary Ellen, you do amuse! Your insider/outsider perspective often gives me a chuckle, and an interesting peek into oddities I would never learn about anywhere else.

    Now what I must know is, how should the comments of the American politician with which you began this post, be properly rendered into UK English? How is our American “middle class” to be described? Or is such a status even recognized over there? Perhaps so far down the ladder, one commoner is the same as another, even among ourselves.

    • I think that in something of the same way that most Americans would call themselves middle class, most British people would call themselves working class. The working class here takes pride in being working class and labour unions tend to be strong — even jobs such as university professorships are unionized. I’ll check with some British friends and either get back to you — or spawn a new post, maybe —

    • And thinking more about it — you could argue that I should have thought more *before* replying — I think the line between middle class and working class here may be higher, but a household headed by adults with university educations and jobs in the professions would consider themselves as belonging to the professional class, a phrase you sometimes hear, but that this would indeed be part of the middle class here. But that’s a middle class that streeeeetches upward to include some really privileged wealth people who would be considered upper class in the US, so that while the middle class here might include some people who could really use tax breaks, etc., saying “we have to lower taxes for the middle class” here would *bring to mind* the pony-and-pool people, and the message would be heard as “tax breaks for the rich”.

      • sharonminsuk

        Then maybe the politician’s comment would be translated by not mentioning “class” in the first place. “Middle-income people”, or “those who are struggling under this economy”, etc.

        Interesting point about the working class. The recent emphasis on the middle class in American so-called-liberal politics sometimes makes me cringe. I understand that what we here call the middle class is in fact hurting these days, but framing the issue that way feels a little bit like throwing a bunch of other folks under the bus, and I wonder how it must sound to them. It’s a little uncomfortable to have the “middle class” as a rallying cry for something pretending to be left wing. Kind of a sad symbol of the success of the right wing in this country.

  4. Anthony Watkins

    last point first, some recent survey shows most americans think they are middle class, including folks making as little as 15k per yr and folks making 300k, so appealing to the middle class in america offends very few, because even those extremely poor tend to hope to be middle class and the extremely rich often like to pretend they are middle class.

    second point, which way does the dull men eat brown bread go? i think it goes down, as in dukes are highest and barons lowest.

    third point what does it take to be the ‘very’ something?

    fourth: i love that in america, a preacher who finished 2nd or third grade can open up a storefront ministry and call himself the very reverend right bishop apostle something and nobody will ever call him on it. of course if he adds dr. to the front of it he will be called out for being a fraud if he didnt pay a mail order divinity college for a diploma!

    I think i shall open an online book store/college and declare HRH the high holy prof lord dean of the ancient college of letters, though if i am gonna get bent about titles, i ought to at least begin to use caps and more than random punctuation.

    Your most humble servant,
    HRH, the High Lord Prof, Lord Dean of the Ancient College of Letters Anthony Uplandpoet Watkins

    • Yes, appealing to the middle class when your listeners are Americans would make sense; hearing this guy being interviewed on BBC Radio, for a British audience, and saying we need to protect the middle class, was cringe-worthy because my neighbors and friends here, many, many of whom already have a predisposition to think that Americans are all rich and look down on everyone else, would have their prejudices reinforced!

      That was my point — sorry if it didn’t come across! As for the rest of your points–some of which are questions, and so deserve answers!–I”ll get to them…later. (Sorry.)

      • I’ve added a parenthetical statement near the beginning, to make it clearer — I hope! — that the problem was that the politician was saying one thing and *a British audience* was hearing something rather far from what he intended. Hope that helps.

      • Third time lucky here — I’ll probably edit these three replies into one! — it’s no surprise to hear that most Americans consider themselves middle class; I remember being very indignant in junior high when we talked about classes and did a survey and my family turned out to be “upper lower class”, because *of course* we were middle class. But the icing on the cake is Ann Romney saying she doesn’t consider herself wealthy, when the family’s net worth has been estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars. In the US, where money is more of a marker of class than it is here, if you can have that kind of money and think you’re not wealthy, then anything is possible. Then again, she is of the party that was talking a few years about not about truth, but about statements that have “truthiness”…

      • Sharon Minsuk

        Agree that class is different here — more about money than about lineage. However, I’ve come to believe it’s not really about money either. I think it’s more about the kinds of expectations we carry through life, about our role in the world and what kind of experiences we can have. I had the realization that I will probably be “middle class” (U.S. version) for as long as I live, no matter how much money I have. I could get filthy rich; or I could lose all my money and be living on the street; and either way I would still be a middle-class person with middle-class expectations. And in the latter case I would be able to leverage a lot of resources to get out of that situation, fueled by those middle-class expectations. (Hopefully I ever get rich, those same expectations won’t sabotage me!)

        As to the wealthy feeling poor… I read that in fact the wealthy do feel poorer than the rest of us feel, because of the who they associate with. Hard to convey in words, but if you graph wealth vs. population (amount of wealth on the y axis, and the x axis goes from the poorest people on one end, to the richest at the other end), what you get as a sort of exponentially increasing curve which is mostly fairly shallow, then very steep on the right side. And people tend to hang out with people in similar circumstances to themselves. In other words, most people hang out with people who are only a little less or a little more wealthy than themselves. But rich people hang out with people who are a LOT wealthier than themselves, because at that end of the scale, the gulfs between people get pretty large! So this leads the wealthy to feel quite poor by comparison. (And of course, human nature is to compare ourselves to the people to our right on that graph, not the people to our left!)

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