The British aristocracy and social etiquette rules can be confusing. This article looks at how to address a duke and duchess correctly.
Address a Duke or Duchess as "Your Grace"
If you ever meet a British duke (from the Latin word dux) or duchess the ancient and uncompromising etiquette dictates that they must be addressed as "Your grace(s)" and when referred to they should be "his or her Grace". The only exception is if you are a duke or duchess of the equivalent rank (was that a no?) then you can call them "Duke" or "Duchess."
A huge social gaffe is to address a duke and duchess as Lord and Lady. There's every chance that you'll forfeit your petite cucumber sandwiches and champers and witness a display of aristocratic pique.
It is frowned upon to repeatedly address a duke and duchess as "Your Grace(s), the Duke/Duchess of Westminster/Hamilton and Brandon/Buccleuch and Queensberry.." in conversation. You'll be there for hours!
If you write to a duke or duchess then the letter is addressed to "My Lord Duke/My Lady Duchess" when being formal. The more informal style is "Dear Duke/Duchess (of Wherever)."
The Dukedom Heirarchy
There is an order of precedence for dukedoms:
- Dukes created by an English monarch.
- Dukes created by a King of Scotland.
- Dukes of Great Britain with titles created 1707 – 1801.
- Dukes of Ireland (in 1801 the United Kingdom peerage included Ireland.)
- Dukes of the United Kingdom.
The year of the creation of the dukedom can also be used to determine precedence. (The order that they're let into events for example).
The 18th Duke of Norfolk is the premier duke and earl in England.
The premier duke in Scotland is the 14th Duke of Hamilton and Brandon.
In Ireland, the 9th Duke of Leinster (who resides in England) is the premier duke, marquess and earl.
In 1520 a decree by the Lord Chamberlain stated that a “Duke of the Blood Royal” was to receive precedence over a peer not related to the sovereign. This is not automatically offered to minor royals including the Dukes and Duchesses of Gloucester and Kent but it is done as a courtesy.
When meeting a royal duke or duchess they have their royal status to trump their aristocratic role so they are addressed as "Your Royal Highness" and they won't take kindly to being addressed as "Your Grace." An example of the difference between royal and peerage protocols was H.R.H. Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII (r.1936). His wife Wallis (Simpson) did not have an H.R.H. title so she was always addressed as "your grace." He was never "your grace."
Case Study: Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Arundel and Baron Maltravers
The eldest son of a duke and duchess normally takes one of his father’s subsidiary or lesser titles.
Edward Fitzalan-Howard is the 18th Duke of Norfolk. He is also the hereditary Earl Marshal, one of the eight great officers of State in the United Kingdom.
His eldest son and heir to the dukedom is Henry Miles Fitzalan-Howard. He uses one of his father's titles, the earldom of Arundel and Surrey as a courtesy title. Henry is obviously still a Fitzalan-Howard but he is known as Henry Arundel, a reference to his title and the family seat Arundel Castle. His wife is the Countess of Arundel but in conversation with an earl and countess you should only call them Lord or Lady.
The only countess in the land who is never referred to or called Lady is Sophie, Countess of Wessex, H.R.H. Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex's wife. This is an acknowledgement of her royal associations.
When Henry Fitzalan-Howard's father was Earl of Arundel and heir to the dukedom then held by his grandfather Henry used the title Baron Maltravers, another of the duke's subsidiary titles. Henry has two daughters, Lady Flora and Lady Eliza at the time of writing.
His younger siblings use Fitzalan-Howard as a surname and they are The Lady Rachel, The Lord Thomas, The Lady Isabel and The Lord Philip. The "the" before the name is antiquated but still de rigeur.
Dukes and Duchesses Have Rank-Specific Coronets and Robes
Dukes and duchesses have a specific design for their coronets for official occasions including coronations. The crowns are silver-gilt and they bear eight strawberry leaves, five of which are shown in illustrations and on the family coat of arms. Their robes have five ermine or miniver tails. A duchess has four tails on their ceremonial robe to denote their rank.
A baron or baroness at the lower end of the aristocratic pile is only allowed two tails of ermine or miniver and their coronet has no strawberry leaves. It features six pearls instead. Another clue about rank is the edging on a robe worn by a duchess. It is always greater than on lower ranking peers robe.
Avoid a Social Faux Pas
If you do ever manage to bump into the Duke of Northumberland, the Duke of Wellington or the Duchess of Rutland at least now you know how not to make a social faux pas.
A cautionary note: If you stalk the aristocracy at Charles III's 2023 coronation aiming to see how many tails of ermine they are wearing, how many strawberry leaves are on their coronet or the width of the edging on their coronation robe, you can expect to have spectacularly failed the etiquette test and perhaps you'll be arrested. Just so you know.
- Courtesy Titles
- A Guide to British Noble Titles | Merriam-Webster
- British Titles, Correct Form and Etiquette from Debretts
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle