How Much Do You Know About the British Aristocracy?


By: Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: YouTube

About This Quiz

The British aristocracy is one of the longest-lasting institutions on the planet, and arguably one of the sillier ones; even its most high-falutin' members would struggle to argue that it's a logically justifiable system in an age of democracy and equal rights for all. Still, something that has endured so long will naturally collect all sorts of fascinating myths, stories, and factoids that are intriguing even to those who don't belong to the ranks of the nobility. 

Hit shows like "Downton Abbey," "The Tudors," and endless adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice," as well as whole magazines dedicated to the exploits of the aristocracy, show again and again that people are very curious to know all about this small and rather insular group.

The Lords mostly no longer hold actual governmental positions in the UK, although it did take until 1997 for the country to figure out that the idea of inheriting a vote in the upper chamber of Parliament is (to put it politely) not the most democratic notion ever to be considered. 

Even so, there are still dukes, earls, marquesses, viscounts, barons, knights, and more knocking around. Their survival is predicated on being just flexible enough to adapt to modernity without being so flexible that they disappear entirely - which they certainly still could. 

So let's see if you know much about this rare and strange species before it goes AWOL for good!

What is the highest non-royal rank?

A duke is the highest noble title besides a prince or princess. There are some royal dukes who are ranked higher than non-royal ones, though.


What is the correct form of address for a duke?

While "your Grace" has in the past been used for royalty, that has not been correct for some hundreds of years. The correct form of address for a prince or princess is "your Highness" while for the sovereign it is "your Majesty."


What is a courtesy title?

A courtesy title is a lesser title that an heir to a title may use. For example the Duke of Bedford's son goes by the title Earl of Tavistock.


What is a dame?

A dame is the counterpart of a knight, and is considered the exact equal. It is a title you get for exceptional service to queen and country in your field, or for exceptional philanthropy (and sometimes just for being a civil servant who sticks around long enough to sneak your own name onto a list someplace).


What are the two titles that carry the honorific "sir"?

A knight and a baronet are both called "sir." A knighthood is given for extraordinary services - making someone either Sir X or Dame X, depending on their sex. A baronetcy is inherited, though it never meant a seat in the Lords. It also means being called Sir X, though there are no lady baronets due to the historical patriarchal default settings of the aristocracy.


What is the family name of the Dukes of Wellington?

The first Duke of Wellington, the Iron Duke himself, was known as Lord Wellesley. Since he saved Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon, he has a title in pretty much every country, except France. His heirs also face the most remarkable logistical problem, due to courtesy titles: a great-grandson of a living duke could end up being born Viscount Wellesley, having to change his name to Earl of Mornington upon his great-grandfather's death, to Marquis of Douro upon his grandfather's death, and finally to Duke of Wellington upon inheriting that title. His wife, of course, would face an additional new set of ID cards in her life, and possibly both or either of them might need another batch if they become a doctor or achieve any military titles. It's a complicated life.


Which is the oldest dukedom not currently held by a member of the royal family?

The oldest title is Norfolk, currently held by 60-year-old Edward Fitzalan-Howard. He is the 18th Duke of Norfolk. And yes, the Howard in his name is from the same Howards as in Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of Henry VIII (second to have her head cut off). They've been around some time, you know.


Besides Meghan Markle (soon), are there any nonwhite members of the aristocracy?

Viscountess Weymouth (AKA Lady Weymouth, which is what you call a viscountess when you're just hanging out but not on a first name basis), has both Nigerian and British family. While her mother-in-law was grossly intolerant toward the idea of the future Marquis being biracial, fortunately the rest of the aristocracy really wasn't bothered. Emma Weymouth is married to the heir to the Marquis of Bath, Viscount Weymouth, whose famous house, Longleat, has a safari park in the grounds which you can (and totally should) go and visit.


Which dukedom belongs to the Percy family?

The Percy family has been the Dukes of Northumberland for hundreds of years. Their ancestral home is Alnwick Castle, which you may recognize as Downton Abbey's Brancaster Castle, and also as parts of Hogwarts. Like Longleat, it's worth a visit.


Which duke lives at Chatsworth?

Chatsworth is in Derbyshire, but it is the home of the Duke of Devonshire. This is because the family happened to get their mitts on an awful lot of land up north in Derbyshire, and when you have the option to stay in a house like Chatsworth, that's where you live!


What is an order of chivalry?

An order of chivalry is a little bit like a fraternity or a not-very-secret society. Members get the same insignia and certain outfits. The Order of the Garter is one, and the Order of the Thistle.


Which earldom does Princess Diana's family hold?

The Spencers have a house named Althorp, which is where notable Spencer family member - and sister of the current earl - Princess Diana is buried.


What nickname is given to Knight Commanders of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG)?

Yep, you read that right. If you're a KCMG, your nickname is Kindly Call Me God. CMG (Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) is called a Call Me God, and a GCMG (General Commander) is even better: it's called God Calls Me God.


What is the deal with the Order of the Garter?

The Order of the Garter, founded in 1345, supposedly gets its name from the Countess of Salisbury losing her garter while dancing and King Edward III assuring her dignity by associating it with the highest kind of knight.


What's notable about Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford?

The earl was so embarrassed for farting while bowing to the queen that he left the country! John Aubrey recorded that, "This Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let out a fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel seven years. On his return, the Queen welcomed him home, and said, 'My Lord, I had forgot the fart.'" Given that this happened 400 years before there was such a thing as social media, it's actually quite impressive that he is still remembered for it.


What color are the benches in the House of Lords?

The Lords sit on red seats to show how frightfully aristocratic and often quite royal they are.


What is a life peer?

A life peer can vote in the Lords but their heirs do not inherit their peerage. Notable life peers include Lord Lloyd Webber and Lord Sugar.


What is notable about the first Marquis of Pembroke?

Henry VIII may have been literally the worst guy ever to break up with, but when you were on his good side, he was super generous. He gave his mistress, Anne Boleyn, the title of Marchioness (a lady marquis) of Pembroke in her own right. This came with a great deal of land, which meant vast income. It's good to be the king's sidepiece!


Which dukedom is currently held by Henry Somerset?

In another bizarre naming episode, Henry Somerset is Duke of Beaufort. There is also a Duke of Somerset, whose name is John Seymour (as in Jane Seymour, who also married Henry VIII). There is tremendous potential for genealogical disaster if members of the two families were to start marrying one another and then living very historically significant lives.


How many hereditary peers sit in the House of Lords today?

Due to a failure to negotiate the second stage of Lords reform, 92 hereditary peers remained in the House of Lords and retained voting rights, meaning there are effectively hereditary senators in the UK. British people are less bothered about this than is often expected, which is generally held to be for three reasons: first, apathy; second, that there are 650 Lords, meaning most of them are appointees and the 92 aren't a majority; and third, that the example set by elected senators in foreign countries doesn't suggest much hope of an improvement if the system were to be altered a second time.


What is the main countryside estate of a lord typically called?

The family seat is a house like Castle Howard, seat of the Howard family, or Blenheim Palace, seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. It's usually the house owned by the family member who holds the family title, due to the tradition of primogeniture (leaving everything to the eldest son) keeping big estates together. While some estates have been sold off or lost, many are still in families who have been there for hundreds of years. They operate like family businesses, typically employing hundreds of local people.


What is the son or daughter of a baron or viscount called?

The son or daughter of a baron or viscount is called "the Honourable" (with that extra "u"). It doesn't confer any access to anything or guarantee that they inherit anything, and mostly is not used.


Which is the last hereditary peerage to be created?

Harold MacMillan was given this title upon leaving the prime minister's office. It is a custom to give a title to retiring ministers of a high rank so they can go off to the Lords and nap on the comfy red benches forever. Sometimes they even contribute their hard-earned expertise. The Lords is generally considered to be a relaxing environment after the hustle and bustle of the Commons, where loud shouting matches are frequent. Putting exiting politicians into the Lords is considered a good way of ensuring they don't become lobbyists, thus reducing corruption.


What do you call the wife of an earl?

The wife of an earl is called a countess. This is because the French counterpart of an earl is a count. Norman and Anglo-Saxon naming techniques blended following the Norman Conquest, and the earls' wives got titles.


What special hat do peers get to wear?

While most peers no longer put on their coronets, even for very special events like the State Opening of Parliament, they might have the image of the appropriate coronet monogrammed onto some of their property.


What is a peer's robe made of?

Peers all get robes with special markers on them to indicate rank too. These are often passed down from father to son, though if a son is much taller than his father, he may find that his is a little short and needs to get a new one.


How does a peer retire from the House of Lords?

Peers technically don't have to quit until they are dead. However, many peers sort of just stop showing up, or come less often. It's a remarkably cavalier system.


Could a peerage go through a female heir, back in the day?

Some titles can pass through the female line. This is usually because the rules were set up that way when the title was created, to allow for a family with no sons, or because the title was really for the wife's service and not the husband's, but convention required that it go to him first. Sometimes women were made peers in their own right, especially if they were the sole heir to a dead lord's estates and the crown would prefer those to be held by someone with a title.


What is the correct form of address for an earl?

While a duke goes by "your Grace," an earl only goes by "my Lord" or "your Lordship."


Which duke has the only private army in Europe?

The Duke of Atholl is legally allowed to have an army, the Atholl Highlanders, who mostly perform ceremonial duties at the family seat, Blair Atholl (another castle worth visiting). The duke was granted special permission to have his own army, so that he can defend the Pass of Killiecrankie. This is very important as it is the main route through the Highlands, historically an area where uprisings occurred. Nowadays, the A9 highway from Edinburgh to Inverness goes through the pass, and the duke's watchful eye ensures that no uprisings are permitted, as this could lead to terrible traffic jams on the back roads.


What is the honours list (with that "u") included?

The honours list comes out on the Queen's birthday and at the New Year. People are nominated by their communities or bosses or friends, and then all the nominees are assessed and the ones considered to have served queen and country the most honorably are given their award. People in receipt of an honor come to Buckingham Palace to get it personally from the Queen. You can get an honor for anything from military service to philanthropy to inventing something to artistic achievement.


If an American gets a knighthood, and they want to put it on their business card, how would they write it?

An American with an honorary knighthood would write KBE, or Knight of the British Empire, on their business card. They get a medal and go to the palace like everyone else. A notable American dame is Angelina Jolie, who didn't get her honor for her acting skills, but for her philanthropic work helping deprived children in developing countries.


Who is probably the most notable person to decline an honor?

Winston Churchill would have become a duke after World War II, had he not turned it down so that he could remain in the House of Commons and govern.


What's up with the title of Viscount Stansgate?

Tony Benn gave up his title so that he could sit in the House of Commons, where he was an elder statesman of the Labour Party.


What is a CBE?

A CBE is what you get if you haven't quite qualified for a knighthood, but you did a great job. A notable CBE is Alec Guinness, who received his award for services to the arts.


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