A Downton Abbey Etiquette Primer: How to Greet the Earl of Grantham and other British Forms of Address

Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley and Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey (2010)

Image of commoner Isobel Crawley greeting peer Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey

Having grown up on the wrong side of the pond, proper forms of address in British royalty and the peerage have always baffled me. I am constantly being corrected by my readers *blush*, and crave a simple explanation (if it exists). Janeite and etiquette maven Laura Wallace to the rescue. She offers this excellent primer in relation to the characters in Downton Abbey, and those in Jane Austen’s novels who are above the landed gentry who dominate her novels. Enjoy!

Welcome Laura: 

Laurel Ann (a lovely name:  mine is “Laura Ann”) asked me to contribute an article about the titles and forms of address used in “Downton Abbey,” the new period drama currently being broadcast on Masterpiece Classic.

“Downton Abbey” is, as others have noted, a beautifully written (and acted, and filmed) drama series bearing several similarities to Pride and Prejudice, but with, shall we say, upgrades.  It is set almost exactly one hundred years later, a last moment of elegance before great changes, just as P&P described a world as yet unaltered by the industrial revolution.  It is also, like Austen’s novels, focused on a house and a family at the center of village life.  But where Austen’s novels are about the landed gentry, with a very few titles sprinkled about, Fellowes’s story is about an aristocratic family of great wealth and long lineage, and the difficulties of keeping an estate together for the future in twentieth century England.

The key to understanding the driving force underlying the estate owner’s determination to pass his patrimony to his successor intact are the relationships of the people involved, in some cases dead people who are mentioned in passing, or not at all.  But this also has to be discussed in the context of who the estate owner is and his position in his world.

I will give each character, their titles and forms of address, and try to explain how they fit into the general scheme of the British honours system, and also any Austen characters of a similar rank.

The British peerage system is divided into five main ranks:  Duke, Marquess (sometimes spelled “Marquis”), Earl, Viscount, and Baron.  Above dukes are the members of the royal family, with the sovereign at the top.  Below barons are two ranks of non-peers:  Baronets and Knights.  Not being peers,  they do not hold a seat in the House of Lords (a privilege which ended with the twentieth century).  These two ranks both use the title “Sir” with the given name (never with only the surname), and a baronetcy is passed down through the family like a hereditary peerage.  A knighthood, on the other hand, is for life only.

Image from Persuasion (2007): Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head) and his three daughters in Persuasion (2007)

Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head), Baronet with his three daughters in Persuasion (2007)

Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion is the baronet who will be most familiar to Austen readers.  He is yet another man stricken with only daughters and no sons to pass his titles and estates to, so that they will go to a cousin, leaving his daughters comparatively impoverished.

At Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham is a peer, the present head of his family and estate, with a wife, three daughters, and various relations and visitors:

The Earl of Grantham:  Robert, addressed as “Lord Grantham.”  Servants address him as “my lord” (notice that Bates corrects himself from “sir”—which is how he had addressed him as an officer when he was his batman— to “my lord”) and refer to him as “his lordship.”  His surname, Crawley, is not ordinarily used, nor is “Lord” ever paired with “Robert.”  Peers use their title as if it were a surname:  he would sign his letters “Grantham” (to his friends and family) or “Robert Grantham;” close family and friends might refer to him that way.  His wife calls him “Robert” (referring to him as “Lord Grantham” to others), and his daughters call him “Papa” (ditto).  These forms of address are the same for marquesses, viscounts, and barons, but not for dukes.

The Countess of Grantham:  Cora, addressed as “Lady Grantham.”  All other usage as for her husband (except for “Grantham” alone), but in feminine form:  “my lady,” “her ladyship,” “Cora Grantham,” never “Lady Cora.”  Her husband and mother in law call her “Cora” and refer to her in conversation with each other as “Cora”— but presumably would not in conversation with anyone else. (The same for marchionesses, viscountesses, and baronesses, but not duchesses.)

Lady Mary Crawley:  as a daughter of an earl, she uses the “Lady Given name” style, but never “Lady Crawley.”  She does not use “Grantham.”  Servants address her as “Lady Mary” or “my lady,” and refer to her as “Lady Mary” or “her ladyship.”  Her sisters, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, follow the same usage.  If they marry any peer, or the son of a marquess or duke, they will take their married title from him.   If they marry anyone else ranking below the younger son of a marquess, they will keep their “Lady Given name” style, merely changing their surname, with two exceptions:  if they marry the eldest son of an earl, they take his courtesy title as if he were a peer;  and if they marry the son of a viscount, they may choose whether to keep their “Lady Given name” style or take their husband’s style.  When Lady Mary meets her distant cousin Matthew, she asks him and his mother to call her “Cousin Mary,” and her sisters presumably follow suit with them.  (Compare Mr. Collins’s use of “Cousin” as a title in P&P, where the Bennet sisters do not reciprocate.)  Her immediate family members call her “Mary,” but no one else except her very closest friends (and eventual husband) would leave out the “Lady.”

Lady Rosamund Painswick:  the earl’s sister.  As the daughter of an earl, when she married an untitled gentleman, she kept her “Lady Given name” style but changed her surname.

In Austen, and perhaps the most famous daughter of an earl in all literature, there is  Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  She married Sir Lewis de Bourgh, who, whether he was a baronet or a knight, ranked lower than an earl’s heir, so she keeps her “Lady Catherine” style after marriage, as did her sister, Lady Anne Darcy.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham:  Violet, the earl’s (widowed) mother, who lives nearby in her Dower House.  She is addressed as “Lady Grantham,” just as the current countess is, but is usually referred to as “The Dowager” or “The Dowager Lady Grantham” (or even more formally as “The Dowager Countess”) to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law.  Her son calls her “Mama” and her granddaughters “Granny.”  Her daughter-in-law apparently calls her “Lady Grantham.”  The servants address her as “my lady” and refer to her as “her ladyship,” “The Dowager,” or “The Dowager Countess.”

It’s odd that Mrs. Crawley, when introduced to the dowager, offers her hand and says, “what shall we call each other?”  Mrs. Crawley otherwise seems to have good instincts and well-bred manners, but this appears to be a poor judgment on her part.  First, since Lady Grantham outranks her so significantly, it is for her to offer her hand to Mrs. Crawley if she chooses, not the other way around.  And second, I can’t imagine what Mrs. Crawley expects:  does she think she’ll be asked to call the dowager “Granny?”  The only way this vignette makes any sense to me is if there is some dialogue immediately preceding that’s been cut where Cora and/or Robert invite her to address them as “Cousin” (which seems likely, since Lord Grantham refers to her later as “Cousin Isobel”).  Regardless of the reasons, this opening shot in Lady Grantham’s campaign against the usurper is as funny as it is rude.  No one knows better than an elderly aristocratic lady how to be really rude!  (And given her razor-sharp tongue, I’m not convinced that her “what is a week end?” query isn’t a quip rather than an innocent question.  I wouldn’t put it past her to say it just to put the despised interloper in his place.)

If the earl had a son, he would bear a courtesy title of one of his father’s subsidiary titles, usually a viscount.  We don’t know what Lord Grantham’s actual subsidiary titles are, though.  Heirs who are not eldest sons (or grandsons) of the present earl do not get this courtesy title.

If the earl had had more than one son, the younger ones would have the title of “The Hon.” prefixed before their given and surnames, but would be addressed simply as “Mr. Crawley” because “The Hon.” is not used in speech.  They would be referred to and addressed as “Mr. Given name” (or “Master Given name” while children) by and to the servants.  Although their sisters get to use “Lady,” they would not get to use “Lord.”  That is reserved for the younger sons of marquesses and dukes (whose daughters also are “Lady”).  “The Hon.,” however, is used by younger sons of earls and by all children of viscounts and barons.

Mr. James Crawley:  the earl’s first cousin and heir presumptive, since the earl has no sons.  He was the son of the earl’s uncle, a younger brother of his father, who would have been “The Hon. Given name Crawley” as the younger son of an earl (the current earl’s grandfather).   Since he was the heir, we know that the earl had no surviving brothers, or deceased brothers who fathered sons (because if any had survived, he would be the heir).  The household staff, who knew Mr. James from his childhood, called him “Master James” as a child, then “Mr. James.”  He would have been addressed and referred to as “Mr. Crawley” by most people.

Mr. Patrick Crawley:  James’s only son, the next in line for the earldom after James.  Likewise called “Master Patrick” by servants in his youth, he would have been addressed and referred to as “Mr. Crawley” by most people, or “Mr. Patrick” to distinguish him from his father.  He was privately betrothed to Lady Mary (his second cousin), thus allowing the present earl’s (future) grandson to eventually inherit.

Image from Downton Abbey Seasin1: Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE

The heir to Downton, third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)

Mr. Matthew Crawley:  the earl’s third cousin, once removed, and after the deaths of James and Patrick, the heir presumptive to the earldom.  He is descended from a previous earl:  the great-great-grandfather of the present earl, who would be Matthew’s 3rd great grandfather (the extra generation being the “once removed”).  Since he is the heir, we know that the earl had no surviving paternal uncles or great-uncles, or deceased ones who fathered sons (and so forth).  He is now being considered as a match for Lady Mary (his fourth cousin), and has been brought to live on the estate so that he can learn about his patrimony.  He is addressed by most people as “Mr. Crawley” (or, less formally, “Crawley”), and the family address him as “Cousin Matthew,” while Lord Grantham calls him just “Matthew” in a paternal way.  The servants address him as “sir.”

Mrs. Crawley:  Matthew Crawley’s (widowed) mother, Isobel.  Matthew calls her “Mother,” the servants call her “madam” or “ma’am,” and Lord Grantham and Lady Edith call her “Cousin Isobel:”  presumably other members of the family do as well (except for Granny, of course).  Everyone else calls her “Mrs. Crawley.”

The Duke of Crowborough:  a suitor of Lady Mary’s, he is addressed by members of society as “Your Grace” upon first introduction, and thereafter as “Duke” (or, less formally, “Crowborough”) and as “Your Grace” by everyone else, and referred to as “the Duke.”  We never even learn his given name.

Sir Anthony Strallan:  a neighbor, and a baronet or knight.  We haven’t met him yet, so I’m not sure of his exact rank.  He would be addressed as “Sir Anthony” by everyone, or, less formally, “Strallan” by friends and family.

The Hon. Evelyn Napier:  The son and heir of Viscount Branksome (a peer whom we have not met), and a suitor of Lady Mary’s.  He is “The Hon.” because he is the son of a Viscount (but does not get a “courtesy peerage” title, which is only for the heirs of earls, marquesses, and dukes).  He is addressed as “Mr. Napier,” because “The Hon.” is never used in speech, and less formally by friends and family as just “Napier.”  (In Austen, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter The Hon. Miss Carteret are featured to set off Sir Walter’s snobbishness, and the text demonstrates that “The Hon.” is used in the newspaper and on calling cards, but never at any other time.  We never learn Miss Carteret’s given name.)

Mr. Kemal Pamuk:  an attaché at the Turkish Embassy, who apparently has no English-equivalent rank other than “Mr.”

I haven’t found any obvious errors in the styles and usages of names and titles in this production, which is unusual, to say the least.  I haven’t noticed any of those modern usages that tend to creep into Austen adaptations, like male acquaintances addressing each other by their first names rather than surnames in Persuasion and Mr. Darcy’s mother being referred to as “Mrs. Darcy” by Mrs. Reynolds in the 1995 P&P during Lizzy’s tour of Pemberley.  I am happy, gentle reader (or viewer, as the case may be).

Laura A. Wallace is a musician, attorney, and writer living in Southeast Texas.  She is a devotee of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and is the author of British Titles of Nobility:  An Introduction and Primer to the Peerage (1998).

Image of Highclere Castle, Hampshire, England © PBS

Images courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited © 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text © 2011 Laura A. Wallace, Austenprose.com

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