Next to the royal family, the most distinguished and highest ranking title in England is the Duke. They are usually in possession of great wealth and power, owning vast amounts of lands, tenants, and other properties. However, the title itself is fairly recent in England’s history.
Originally from the French word Duc, the duke was first used only as a title of power and responsibility for the sons of the king. Being a mere prince suggested he was something of a wastrel who had no responsibility or power. A duke, or royal duke, meant the king trusted this son to rule on a more local level and enjoyed a higher level independence.
During the Medieval, earls and barons owned and managed their land in a feudal system. They were knights who answered the call to aid the king in war. But unlike other mere knights, these lords had vast lands and responsibilities. They provided the land that the tenants or serfs farmed, and they collected rent. They offered (ideally) protection in times of need to the serfs who fled to safety of the castle walls when enemies attacked. Local sheriffs had the charge of keeping law and order but sometimes the ruling lord took on that duty as well.
During Medieval England, earls and barons were the highest ranking lords–behind the royal dukes, of course. Later the monarchy created other titles which included marquis (a word that by Regency had the odd pronunciation of mar-kwiss). The spelling of marquis eventually changed to marquess to sound more English but for many years, both spellings were considered correct. Marquess ranked just below duke and above earl. Another newly added title was that of viscount (vi-count) which ranked below earl and above baron.
According to Debrett’s, the first British subject to receive the rank of duke who was not a member of the royal family, nor one nearly related, was Sir William de la Pole, Marquess of Suffolk, who was made Duke of Suffolk in the fifteenth century. I am mystified as to why his name was Sir William, suggesting he bore the rank and title of knight (not to be confused with being a knight who wears armor and jousts), when he was, in fact, a marquess, a much higher rank. According to my research, he would have been called Lord William in that era which signified he was more than a mere knight. But I digress. Anyway, the title of duke was originally awarded only for exemplary loyalty and valor to the crown, so no more than 40 dukes ever existed, the last being created during Queen Victoria’s reign. The first time that happened under her rule was when the earl of Fife Married the eldest daughter of the Prince of Wales in 1889; the second when no male heir was born to that line, the title jumped to the male heir of Fife’s daughter—not a common practice.
When a peer failed to have a son, the practice of a title going to a female heir’s husband or son occurred anciently, but by the Regency, the title either went to the closest, eldest male relative, or it reverted to the crown. At that point, it either went extinct or (in theory but not usually in practice) the monarch had the power to bestow it upon someone else.
Therefore, the need for a male heir was of supreme importance. Many wives of peers, and even wives of untitled landowners, often gave their lives in the attempt to produce a son to guarantee continuation of the line and succession of a direct descendant. If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you will remember Mr. Bennett’s wife and daughters’ anxiety over the land and house all going to a distant cousin, and what that would mean to the family.
A duchess’s primary role was to bear at least one son, an “heir and a spare” as was the common phrase. In addition, she, at the top of the social ladder next to the royal family, had other demands. Just as we today idolize and follow celebrities, professional athletes, and the very rich and powerful who often find themselves in the news, the British adored and scrutinized the aristocracy and nobility, and even the gentry. Let’s face it, they were the beautiful people. They set the standards for dress and behavior and everyone wanted to emulate them. The Prince of Wales, the Regent who later became King George IV, was notorious for hedonistic ways which paved the way for the party lifestyle for his subjects, many of whom followed his lead. “Prinny’s” friend, Beau Brummell’ revolutionized men’s clothing as everyone hurried to adopt style of the prince’s favorite.
As a duchess is so high in rank, she, too, was constantly in the limelight either for good or ill, whether or not she wanted to be. A duchess, or any wife of a peer, was expected to throw lavish balls, dinner parties, house parties as well as support charitable organizations and sponsor musicians. And heaven help her if she wore the same gown in public or failed to have the best, most tasteful gowns, shoes, jewels, gloves, hats! Demands on her time, appearance, and favor probably led to a great deal of stress as she strove to uphold the ideal. The higher the rank, the higher the expectations, and the more subject she was to criticism from the bitter and jealous.
During that era, as today, public opinion delighted at faulting the very people the idolized. If a person of great importance slipped up, tabloids and social columns in the newspapers, as well as word-of-mouth gossips delighted in spreading the titillating news.
I can only imagine the pressure.
It is this standard of excellence, and all the burdens that go with it, that creates one of the stumbling blocks for my heroine to overcome in “Unmasking the Duke” part of Autumn Masquerade, the newest Timeless Romance Anthology, Regency Collection. This is one of three Regency romances included in this anthology.
Birthdays were overrated. People really ought to stop celebrating them after the age of sixteen. Snuggled into the featherbed of her sister’s country estate, Hannah Palmer toyed with a croissant. This evening she might very well die of humiliation. Or worse, embarrass her sister and brother-in-law, the Earl and Countess of Tarrington.
Alicia practically bounced into the room. “Happy birthday, Sis!”
Hannah smiled wryly. “I think you’re happier about it than I am.”
At odds with her rank as a countess, Alicia grinned and climbed into bed with Hannah, holding her tightly. “I am happy about it. How often does a girl get to wish her favorite sister happy eighteenth birthday?”
Hannah gave her a wry smile. “I’m so relieved to learn I’m your favorite, since I have no competition.”
Alicia laughed. “It would be sad if I claimed another for that auspicious honor.” She wound a strand of Hannah’s blond hair around her finger.
“You’re more energetic than usual today.”
“Little Nicholas actually slept all night long.” A maternal tenderness crept into Alicia’s expression as it always did when she spoke of her infant son.
When the time came—if it came—Hannah planned to keep her baby in her room, rather than follow the convention of letting a nursemaid care for her child during the night hours. She vowed to be the devoted, loving mother her sister had already proved to be. Of course, she might never realize the sweet dream of motherhood.
Alicia twisted around in bed and fixed her amber gaze on Hannah. “And I’m so happy that you’re finally letting me throw a ball in your honor.”
Hannah winced. “Yes, I just love big parties filled with rooms of people I don’t know.”
“I know how you feel about it, dearest,” Alicia said soothingly. “But this will be a good practice for you before you go to London next Season. When I’m finished with you, society will toast you as the New Incomparable.”
“I’ll be a clumsy, tongue-tied idiot, just like always.”
“You’re only clumsy when you’re nervous. More practice at social events will help you not be nervous.”
Not be nervous in public? Hardly likely.
Alicia tapped her on the nose. “You are a beautiful and accomplished daughter of a respected gentleman, and the sister of a countess. No need to fear.”
“I hear blonds aren’t fashionable at present.”
“The only ones who say blond hair isn’t in fashion are those who are jealous. Just keep your head high and smile as if you know an embarrassing secret about everyone.”
Hannah stared into the flames writhing in the hearth. “It’s not that simple.”
“It is that simple.” Alicia squeezed her. “If you say next to nothing, everyone will think you are mysterious and will be all the more fascinated with you. Besides, you’ll wear a mask tonight. Surely anonymity will lend you courage.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Spending the evening alone with Alicia and her charming husband, Cole, would be preferable to a room full of strangers. But perhaps Alicia was right; a costume mask might help Hannah find some courage buried deep inside.
Hannah put a large spoonful of lumpy brown sugar into her chocolate, followed by a dash of cream. While Alicia rhapsodized about the ball, Hannah stirred absently before wrapping her hands around the china to warm her fingers.
Alicia ended on a sigh. “Maybe you’ll meet him tonight.”
“Him?” Hannah sipped the chocolate and snuggled into her pillows to drink the hot liquid turned decadent by the addition of the sugar and cream. Why most people chose to drink chocolate in its bitter form remained a mystery.
“Him,” Alicia repeated. “The man of your dreams. Your future husband.”
Hannah said dryly enough to be impertinent had she been speaking to a lady of rank who was not her sister, “Yes, meeting him at a ball would be convenient. I am persuaded that one must have a bit of cliché in one’s life to obtain a measure of happiness.”
And yes, in case you are wondering, Hannah is younger sister of Alicia Palmer in The Stranger She Married. I thought she needed her own story, too.
My special thanks to Joyce Dipastena, author of sweet Medieval romances, for helping me with some of the early history of Dukes.
You can read more about dukes and duchesses at:
What are you doing still here? Go Pre-order the book! “Unmasking the Duke” is in Timeless Romance Anthology, Regency Collection AUTUMN MASQUERADE.