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The peculiar world of noble titles

Thomas van Straubenzee and the now Lady Melissa van Straubenzee.

Thomas van Straubenzee and the now Lady Melissa van Straubenzee.

Today’s society wedding of Thomas van Straubenzee and Lady Melissa Percy raised some interesting questions on Twitter about how titles work in Britain.

Noble titles can be regarded as a quirk of the British Monarchy, deriving from people’s ancestors being rewarded for loyal service to crown and country. Because of the age of the peerage system, there are many irregularities in it which seem quaint and often counterintuitive.

The first one was to do with how females take their husband’s title, but males don’t takes their wives’. To put this simply, If Thomas van Straubenzee was the Earl van Straubenzee, for example (no such title exists) and his wife was a commoner, she’d become the Countess van Straubenzee; but because in reality she (as the daughter of a Duke) is Lady Melissa, Thomas doesn’t get any sort of title at all.

This is for the same reason that, when people marry, the woman usually takes the husband’s surname (E.g. Mr Smith marrying Miss Jones, would make her Mrs Smith), but not the other way round. It is also for the same reason that a King’s wife is a Queen but a Queen’s husband (like for our current Queen) is not a King.

The second irregularity is the use of the term ‘Lord’. Lord is in fact a general term that can refer to any titled male. A Baron, Viscount, Earl or Marquess can be referred to as Lord (for example, the Marquess of Bath is referred to as Lord Bath) – the only exception to this is Dukes, who are always referred to as the Duke of X.

In the case of Lady Melissa’s parents, they are the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland (as a side note, the correct way to address them would be ‘Your Grace’).

Finally, the question of which Lords and Ladies have surnames in their titles and which use first names. This one is very easy. Only a few titles have surnames in them, for example the Earl Spencer (the late Diana, Princess of Wales’s family hold the title of Earl Spencer) – sons of Dukes and Marquesses have the title of Lord in front of their first names, e.g. Lord John Smith (but not Lord Smith) and daughters of Earls, Marquesses and Dukes have the title of Lady (e.g. Lady Melissa Percy). As another side note, Lady Melissa will keep her title and just affix her husband’s surname now, becoming Lady Melissa van Straubenzee.

Photo credit: Jane Coltman

If you have any questions about how noble titles work or would like anything explained more simply, comment in the box below.

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