During their documentary about elite lifestyles, How the Other Half Lives, broadcasters Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford visit Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland. As the couple approach Belvoir Castle, the Duchess’s family seat in Leicestershire, an important question suddenly occurs to Ruth.
‘Actually, how do we address her when we first meet?’ she asks, looking increasingly nervous.
Eamonn thinks ‘Your Grace’ is the right way to address a duchess, but his wife isn’t convinced. ‘Are you sure about that? Have you looked that up?’ Ruth inquires.
Avoiding Embarrassment in Elite Society
Eamonn and Ruth’s conversation highlights the questions – and anxieties – many people have when encountering members of the peerage. Imagine being invited to a business lunch at which a viscount is the guest of honour or writing to a marchioness and asking her to become the patron of a charity you’re involved with, for example. In order to avoid embarrassment, you’d want to ensure you were addressing the aristocrat in question correctly.
With that in mind, we’ve created the following at-a-glance guide to addressing aristocrats in person and in writing.
Addressing Aristocrats in Person
Eamonn and Ruth decide to call the Duchess of Rutland ‘Your Grace’ despite Ruth’s doubts. Have they chosen the appropriate form of address?
To answer this question and offer insights into related issues, let’s explore how to address members of the five ranks of the peerage face to face.
- Dukes and Duchesses should be addressed as ‘Your Grace’ (so Eamonn and Ruth did indeed make the right choice). This highly deferential term reflects the fact that they’re the highest-ranking nobles in the peerage.
- Marquises and Marchionesses stand just below dukes and duchesses with regards to status. It’s appropriate to call a marquis ‘Your Lordship’ or ‘My Lord’. A marchioness can be addressed as ‘Your Ladyship’ or ‘My Lady’. Alternatively, refer to them as Lord/Lady followed by the place name associated with their title. For example, the Marquis of Winchester would be Lord Winchester.
- Earls and Countesses are on the third rung of this privileged ladder. They should also be addressed as ‘Your Lordship/Ladyship’, ‘My Lord/Lady’ or Lord/Lady followed by the relevant place name.
- Viscounts and Viscountesses form the fourth rank of the peerage. The proper modes of address when meeting a viscount or viscountess are the same as those for a marquis/earl or marchioness/countess.
- Barons and Baronesses occupy the most junior position in the peerage – but that’s still a wonderful place to be! You should address a baron or baroness in the same way as you would members of the other ranks of the peerage, except dukes and duchesses.
Normally, you’d only address an aristocrat in such a formal way at the start of your conversation. Eamonn and Ruth call the Duchess of Rutland ‘Your Grace’ once. The Duchess then puts them at ease by asking them to use her first name during the rest of their time together.
Addressing Aristocrats in Writing
Now let’s demystify the forms of address used when sending letters to members of the peerage.
(The abbreviation ‘Hon.’ appears several times below. It stands for ‘Honourable’.)
- Dukes and Duchesses – on the envelope, write His/Her Grace The Duke/Duchess of Place Name. Begin the letter with ‘My Lord Duke’ or ‘Madam’.
- Marquises and Marchionesses – The Most Hon. The Marquis/Marchioness of Place Name (envelope); ‘My Lord Marquis’ or ‘Madam’ (letter)
- Earls and Countesses – The Right Hon. The Earl/Countess of Place Name (envelope); ‘My Lord’ or ‘Madam’ (letter)
- Viscounts and Viscountesses – The Right Hon. The Viscount/Viscountess of Place Name (envelope); ‘My Lord’ or ‘Madam’ (letter)
- Barons and Baronesses – The Right Hon. The Lord/Lady Place Name (envelope); ‘My Lord’ or ‘Madam’ (letter)
‘Yours faithfully’ is an appropriate way to sign off.
The importance of getting details like this right can’t be overestimated. Addressing the bearers of elite titles in the proper manner, whether in person or in writing, demonstrates politeness, respect and an understanding of important customs and traditions. It therefore goes a long way towards ensuring you make a positive first impression on some of society’s most influential individuals.
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