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Titles of nobility source of confusion

Wed., March 6, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Why, upon marriage, were Camilla Parker Bowles and Catherine Middleton styled the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge, rather than “Princess Camilla” or “Princess Catherine”?

GENTLE READER: You would have to ask the British queen, who bestowed those titles. The general belief is that the public would have resented a new Princess of Wales after the death of the previous one. And perhaps it would not have been politic to give the latest member of the family a higher title than that lady’s stepmother-in-law.

But under no circumstances would they have been “Princess Camilla” or “Princess Catherine.” And although the late Princess of Wales was widely referred to as “Princess Diana,” that was incorrect; correctly, she was Diana, Princess of Wales.

This is because the British system makes a distinction between birth and marriage as a way of acquiring titles. With the exception of a queen consort, the title precedes the given name only when inherited. Thus, the late Princess of Wales was, before her marriage, Lady Diana, as her father was an earl. But of course that is a title of nobility, not royalty, and a courtesy title at that. Under the primogeniture system, the children of a living noble have only courtesy titles because they are commoners.

Got that? Glad you live in a republic, so you don’t have to know these things?

Oh, wait, Miss Manners realizes that you probably do, because you’ve been watching “Downton Abbey.”

The mother in that series, born an American, is Cora, Countess of Grantham, or Cora Crawley, the family surname, or Lady Grantham, but never “Lady Cora.” Her daughters, however, all have “Lady” before their first names because their father is an earl. But remember: That is a courtesy title, and they are commoners. So they could, if the series lasts long enough, stand for election to the House of Commons.

No, that is not a spoiler. Miss Manners has no idea what is happening to these characters. She tuned out when she saw them wearing their gloves to dinner in their own house.


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