The British title and social system

The British title and social system can be confusing to many. Actually it’s quite simple at the ‘top’ level. But, when you get into the detail of orders of precedence (who ranks you by birth or marriage or because of the established church, who sits where at table etc.) and modes of address or reference (i.e. on envelopes, as a salutation in a letter, when speaking to, when they are someone’s widow or themselves marry, for eldest and other sons and for daughters), as well as in combination with other honours, then it does become much more complicated and, like all ‘jargon’, there for those “in the know”.

We, perhaps, think of it as unchanging but it has evolved over the centuries. The British title and social system ranks are:

Summary of British titles
RankDate introduced
Duke or Duchess of ……1337
Marquess or Marquis or Marchioness of ……1387
Earl or Countess of ……From Saxon times
Viscount or Viscountess of ……1440
Baron or Baroness of ……After 1066

Making things just a little more complicated, there are different peerages:

  • Before 1707: Peers of England, Scotland, and Ireland
  • After 1707: Peers of Great Britain and Ireland
  • After 1801: Peers of the United Kingdom (and Ireland)

Within each rank, peers of England (created before 1707) precede peers of Scotland (created before 1707); together they precede peers of Great Britain (created between 1707 and 1801), who precede peers of Ireland (created before the Union of 1801), who precede peers of the United Kingdom (created after 1801), who precede peers of Ireland (created after the Union of 1801). The dates of creation further determine the order within each rank.

Below the titled peers as noted above are the gentry, a British social class of land owners who could live entirely from rental income. It was distinct from, and below the peerage, although some gentry were as wealthy as peers. They administered their own lands, became politicians or joined the army or navy.

Gentry included:

Baronet is an hereditary title, originally created in the 14th century and revived by King James I in 1611 as a means of raising funds. He gave 200 gentlemen of good birth with an income of at least £1,000 a year a Baronetage and in return they were required to pay for the upkeep of thirty soldiers for three years amounting to £1,095. In 1619 James I established the Baronetage of Ireland; Charles I in 1625 created the Baronetages of Scotland and Nova Scotia. From 1707 all new baronets were styled baronets of Great Britain and from 1801 were styled as baronets of the United Kingdom. It gives the holder the right to be addressed as Sir. Baronetesses in their own right use Dame, also before their first name, while wives of baronets use Lady followed by the husband’s (marital) surname only.

Knight was originally a military rank, but knighthood was increasingly awarded to civilians as a reward for service to the Crown. Knights are addressed as Sir like baronets but the title is not hereditary. Originally a knight was a mediaeval tenant giving military service as a mounted man-at-arms to a feudal landholder with payment in the form of land holdings and food from serfs. The modern equivalent for a woman who holds the title in her own right is Dame, this usage was devised in 1917 from the use up to the 17th century for the wife of a knight.

Esquires (Esq.) were originally men aspiring to knighthood and were the principal attendant to a knight being his shield or armour bearer. Use of the term evolved over time as the Lord of the Manor might be called a squire. After the Middle Ages the title of Esquire became an honour that could be conferred by the Crown, and, by custom, the holders of certain offices (Justices of the PeaceMembers of Parliamentbarristers, mayors, officers in the armed services) were deemed to be Esquires. Esquire were males, and ranked socially above a gentleman but below a knight.

Gentlemen were possessors of a social status recognised as a separate title by the Statute of Additions 1413 which attempted to standardize personal designations (or additions) in legal writs and appeals. Gentlemen were men of high birth or rank, good social standing and wealth who did not need to work for a living. They could get a coat of arms.

There were also ranks below the gentry.

Yeoman was an attendant in a noble household and in a military context yeoman was the rank of the third order of fighting men below knights and squires. From the 15th century it came to mean a commoner who who owned at least 100 acres of land – freehold, leasehold or copyhold.

Husbandman was a free tenant farmer or small landowner with social status below that of a yeoman.

Peasant was the owner or labourers on a small farms under the feudal system. It included Serfs who has to stay in one area and who work land, mines, forests and roads for the lord of the manor who owned that land. A villein was the most common serf, were generally able to hold their own property and had more rights and higher status but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen. A bordar or cottar ranked below a serf and held a cottage and garden between about 1 and 5 acres – just enough land to feed a family. Bordars and cottars did not own their draught oxen or horses. The lowest ranked serf was the slave who had the fewest rights and benefits from the manor. They owned no tenancy in land, worked for the lord exclusively and survived on donations from the landlord.

As well as the British title and social system there was, historically the question of the church and its hierarchy. This can get quite complicated as the Church of England has a somewhat different structure from the Roman Catholic church and non conformist churches. Below I have tried to give a brief overview of Church of England titles.

Primate is the most senior archbishop.
Archbishop is a bishop of the highest rank who is in charge of churches and other bishops in a particular large area.
Metropolitan bishop is a bishop empowered to oversee other bishops.
Diocesan bishop is head of a diocese or a district under the pastoral care of a bishop.
Coadjutor bishop is a bishop assisting a diocesan bishop who has the right of succession.
Suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to an Archbishop, Metropolitan bishop or Diocesan bishop.
Area or Regional bishop is a suffragan bishop given the responsibility for a geographical area within the diocese.
Archdeacon is a a priest to whom a bishop delegates certain responsibilities.
Dean is chief resident cleric of a cathedral or other collegiate church and the head of the chapter of canons.
Regional Dean is a priest who has some pastoral and administrative oversight of a small group of parishes or congregations.
Canon is a priest who is a member of a cathedral and derives from the fact that he is bound by the rules or canons of that cathedral.
Prebendary is an honorary canon.
Incumbent:
 – Parson has full possession of all the rights of an independent parochial church including all tithes etc.
 – Rector has the right to the greater tithe and glebe.
 – Vicar has the right to the lesser tithe.
 – Perpetual Curate was appointed by the patron of a Church on whose land the Church was, subject to the approval of the Bishop and, once licensed, they could not be removed by their patron.
Chaplain is a priest who conducts religious services for an institution, such as the armed forces, a prison or hospital.
Curate assists the priest in charge of a church or a group of churches.