Monday, 18 May 2009

Lord John Marbury

This is another thing which gets on my wick - Hollywood getting the British peerage all wrong.

Take, for example, the character in "The West Wing" who is the British ambassador. He's called "Lord John Marbury" and in one episode explains that his full handle is "John Marbury, Earl of Croy, Earl of Sherborne, Marquess of Needham and Dalby, Baronet of Brycey". It's hard to know where to begin with the list of errors and solecisms that contains but I'll try:-

1. Anyone called "Lord Christian name - surname" (as in "Lord John Marbury") is not a "lord" at all. This is the form of address of the younger son of a duke or a marquess. The most famous example is Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, a younger son of the Duke of Queensberry.

2. If Lord JM really were the Earl of Croy etc., then he would have listed his titles in order of rank - i.e. Marquess of Needham and Dalby, Earl of Croy, Earl of Sherborne. (The titles in the British peerage are, in descending order of rank, duke, marquess (in some cases spelt marquis), earl, viscount and baron.)

3. There is no such thing as being "Baronet of Brycey" (or anywhere else). A baronetcy is, in effect, a hereditary knighthood with no territorial connection. It would have been entirely possible for John Marbury to have been a baronet in which case he would have been Sir John Marbury, Marquess of Needham and Dalby etc. etc. But a baronetcy is not a peerage.

4. If you don't know the geezer well enough to call him plain John, you would call him "Lord Needham" after his highest ranking title. (Even the British aristocracy accepts that it's not necessary to call him "Lord Needham and Dalby"). Thus, if you're Mrs Landingham, you would say "Good morning Lord Needham, the President will be with you shortly ..." (I feel Mrs L would have known that or at least taken the trouble to find out.)

5. Calling a peer Lord X for short doesn't work if he's a duke. If you don't know a duke well enough to call him by his first name, there's no alternative but to call him "Your Grace". (Some say it's OK to call them plain "Duke" (as in "Good morning Duke") but I'm not sure. The only duke I ever dealt with, I studiously avoided trying to call him anything.)

6. As well as referring to peers other than dukes as Lord X, you can refer to them as "christian name-title" - e.g. John Needham. In practice, this is how an aristocratic ambassador to the USA would have styled himself: being a gentleman, he would understand that our colonial cousins would get confused over the niceties so would make it easy for them. Back in the real world, the British politician Michael Ancram was actually Michael Kerr, Earl of Ancram.

7. The eldest son and heir of a peer bears the second most senior title of his father while the latter is still alive. This was the case with Michael Ancram whose father was the Marquess of Lothian. However, having made his political reputation as "Michael Ancram" he continues to call himself that even after his father died and he became the Marquess of Lothian and thereby "Michael Lothian".

The main privilege of being a peer of any rank was the right to sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber (the Senate, if you will) of the British parliament. But that right was removed in 1999 and now only 92 representatives elected from amongst the hereditary peers have the right to sit in the HoL. The remaining members are all "life peers" (senators, in effect), worthies appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Life peers have the rank of baron. If Her Majesty were gracious enough to condescend to appoint me a life peer, I would be Baron King of Flores. You can call me Lord King.

I trust that's all quite clear now. It's perfectly simple really.

EDIT - I should make it clear that there are lots more serious things that get on my wick aside from the esoterica of the peerage - the abominable acting of Phil Mitchell in Eastenders when he's supposed to be drunk is one of them.

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