12 Days of Downton: A Guide to Forms of Address and Other Social Minefields in Downton Abbey

For those of us who’ve grown up on this side of the Pond, another potentially confusing bit of Downton Abbey is the complicated system of proper forms of address used among the all the British upper classes. (Also known as the “Who are these people?” or “Who are they talking about, again?” effect.)

For example, though I used “Lord Robert” repeatedly in my post about Downton and the entail problem for the sake of clarity, this is actually a huge faux pas, as he would never be called that by anyone he interacted with, be they servants, family members or peers. But, why? What are we supposed to call him instead? (Answer: it often depends on who is doing the talking.)

But, click right on through to the rest of this post, and I’ll try give a few examples of the occasionally bizarre rules of the British peerage and the forms of address that would be used by the characters who inhabit the world of Downton.  (And please, British scholars out there, jump on in if you’ve got more in-depth reasoning for some of these rules or if you can add some clarity!)

One of the reasons that Downton Abbey is such watchable television is that it focuses on the stories of all the residents of the Edwardian house – whether it’s the well-to-do Crawley family or the working class servants and maids that keep the house running. However, the time period that these characters inhabit means that there are some stringent rules that govern everyone’s behavior and interactions with one another, whether they live upstairs or downstairs. There are definite rules to follow, pitfalls to avoid, and titles that command more attention than others.

Who are all these people? To start us off, this is a quick and basic guide to British Titles, with a little help from Burke’s Peerage. (If you have a good five hours to waste, this is an absolutely amazing site – Burke's Peerage actually used to be a book, I think, is it all digital now? – where you can dig all through the current British nobility. But use caution – it’s quite addicting.)

  • There are five grades of the Peerage: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. These titles can ONLY be inherited – generally by an eldest son – or bestowed by the state. You cannot buy any of them. A Duke outranks everyone except a member of the Royal Family. 
  • There is something called a Life Peerage, which can be bestowed in one of the five grades listed above. These have been issued since 1958 and cannot be passed down. As the title implies, the peerage dies with its owner.
  • Baronets and Knighthoods are not members of the Peerage and rank below all five “grades". However, they do get the right to be addressed with the prefix “Sir” in front of their given name (never with only the surname though!). A baronetcy is hereditary only, and cannot be bought. Knighthoods also cannot be bought, but they are only awarded by the state and cannot be passed down. Neither baronetcies nor knighthoods can get you a seat in the House of Lords though.
  • But what if I want to get myself a British title? You can actually buy yourself a Scottish Feudal Barony or a Lord of the Manor title. Though as always, you should be careful about how much money you’re willing to spend for something random on the internet.

And what is the peerage, anyway? The Peerage is the collective body of noble titles in the UK, though the term can also be used to refer to a specific title (i.e. “The monarch has bestowed a peerage on him”). A peer of the realm is someone who holds one (or more, maybe) of five possible titles of nobility bestowed directly upon him or his direct ancestor by the Monarch. In modern practice, no new hereditary peerages are created, except for members of the Royal Family. Only new life peerages are created (which generally do carry the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords). If an individual hereditary peerage has no male heirs, that peerage (the individual Dukedom/Earldom/etc) would become extinct.

So, how does this work on Downton Abbey? In our story, the Earl of Grantham is a peer and the present head of his family and the Downton estate. He’s got a wife, three daughters, a mother, and various other secondary relations who are mentioned. So, let's try a run through of our major players.

Robert, the Earl of Grantham. Robert would generally be addressed as “Lord Grantham.” Servants address him as “my lord” and refer to him as “his lordship.” And no one would ever call him “Lord Robert,” as occasionally pressed for time Americans might be wont to do. (Cough cough.) He would sign his letters either “Grantham” (if writing to friends) or “Robert Grantham” (if not). The family surname is Crawley, but this is not used by either the earl or his wife.

Cora, the Countess of Grantham. As the earl's wife, Cora would generally be addressed as “Lady Grantham” and forms of address specific to her would mirror those of her husband, but in a feminine form. Thus it would be, “my lady,” “her ladyship,” “Cora Grantham” in correspondence, etc. Never would she be referred to as “Lady Cora” either. Sidebar: I can’t imagine what kind of work it must of taken for her to learn all these rules of address and etiquette, coming into the family as an American. Whew.

Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet is Robert’s widowed mother. Technically, she is still “Lady Grantham,” the same as the current countess, but for ease of reference would probably be called “The Dowager Lady Grantham,” or just “The Dowager” to set the two of them apart. She would be referred to as “The Dowager Countess” in more formal situations.  However, her daughter-in-law appears to refer to her as “Lady Grantham.” The servants call her “my lady” and “her ladyship,” also occasionally “The Dowager Countess”.

Lady Mary Crawley, Lady Edith Crawley, and Lady Sybil Crawley. All three daughters of the earl would use a basic Lady + Their Given Name style, and none would be addressed as “Lady Crawley.” Nor would they use “Grantham” in their names, as their parents do. All three would be referred to as “my lady” by the servants or, more informally by “Lady Mary/Edith/Sybil”, as we’ve seen on the series between the girls and those servants they are particularly close to, such as Anna or Mr. Carson. Matthew and his mother call the girls Cousin [Insert Name Here], because only immediate family or extremely close friends would be allowed to call them by their first names alone. As the girls are, well, girls, none of them get a courtesy title. And there could be some changes in how they are addressed if/when they marry, as there are fairly complicated rules to follow depending on whether they marry the son of a peer, if that peer is of a higher or lower grade than their own, and where the son falls in the birth order of his family. Some of this may sound a bit familiar – after all, even in the modern era Kate Middleton doesn’t get to be a princess in her own right though she did marry the heir to the throne. She’ll be Princess William of Wales until the two of them are crowned. (But she’s still Duchess of Cambridge, so don’t feel bad for her!)

Mr. Matthew Crawley. Matthew is the earl’s third cousin, once removed, and heir presumptive to the earldom. He is descended from a previous earl, but is not a peer himself; therefore, up to and until the point which he actually inherits Downton, he remains simply “Mr. Crawley.” Most of the earl’s family calls him “Cousin Matthew” and the servants address him as “sir”.  I imagine if he were the heir apparent - instead of presumed - there would be some changes to these rules of address, but since technically he could still be displaced should the earl and his wife have a son, nothing needs to be altered for him as yet.

Mrs. Isobel Crawley. Matthew’s widowed mother is simply “Mrs. Crawley” to most people and “ma’am” or “madam” to the servants. However, excepting the Dowager Countess, the earl’s family calls her “Cousin Isobel.” 

A non-family example: The Hon. Evelyn Napier. This suitor of Mary’s and friend of the doomed Mr. Pamuk is the son and heir of a Viscount.  Since a Viscount is lower down the food chain than a duke, a marquess or an earl, their heirs do not get courtesy titles, and this poor fellow will have to settle for just being “Mr. Napier” to the public at large. This is because the title “The Hon” isn’t used in speech, but rather on calling cards and that sort of thing.  (I included Mr. Napier as an example of other kinds of odd forms of address rules in Downton, and he was the first to come to mind. If anyone can think of any other characters that are examples of other strange rules, let me know!)

Whew. And that’s only how we talk to – and about – the major players at Downton, which barely scratches the surface of the seemingly endless intricate etiquette rules of the time period. For example – dinner is also another potential social minefield, as guests are supposed to be seated according to rank. It’s no wonder that any Americans getting OBEs or knighthoods or somesuch from the Crown get invited to a rehearsal first.