Charles Kidd gives a sharp little gasp as he absorbs this offense. “Oh dear,”
Kidd is the editor of Debrett’s, which is the genealogical guide to the living British aristocracy — every duke and marquess and earl and count and viscount and baronet (though baronets are not a part of the peerage but rather the baronetage, which is different). A print volume of Debrett’s costs about $500 and is approximately the size of a Cadillac. It is sort of like a very fancy Facebook.
We are T-minus one month to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. When he marries, if he follows the current royal tradition, William might acquire a brand new title. His grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, will give it to him. This is how, for example, Prince Andrew became the Duke of York when he married Fergie. And so, in preparation for this auspicious event, a crash course. A crash course called Understanding the British Titles, which is really about understanding the British, and our general sense of inferiority toward them.
“Well,” Kidd says efficiently. “Let’s begin with a quick rundown of who’s who, shall we? The queen is Her Majesty the Queen. Her eldest son is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. His eldest son is His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales. Her husband is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.”
But if you look up Prince Philip on the royal family’s official Web site, it appears that he is also Baron Greenwich and the Earl of Merioneth, only Merionethshire doesn’t appear to exist anymore, and —
Oh dear indeed.
Mr. Kidd, it appears that this is getting all too confusing. Perhaps it is necessary to begin with a more remedial lesson. Perhaps one must call someone who can break all this down into simple words.
Perhaps one must call . . . an American.
“Any time you see ‘peerage,’ it means nobility,” explains Washington-based Kitty Kelley, author of “The Royals.” “There are two kinds of peerage: the life peers, whose titles die with them, and the hereditary peers. Hereditary means you were born into the lucky sperm club.”
The royal family’s club is naturally the luckiest of lucky. Out of dozens of existing duchys, a few are typically reserved for royals.
The trouble is, most of those are already in use. The title of Duke of Gloucester belongs to Prince Richard, the queen’s first cousin, who inherited it from his father. Another cousin, Prince Edward, is the Duke of Kent, a title he also inherited from his father. The queen’s youngest son, also Prince Edward, is the Earl of Wessex, a title he inherited from — well, apparently from no place, because it hadn’t been in use for nearly a millennium. The London Telegraph reported that Edward was a fan of the film “Shakespeare in Love,” in which Colin Firth plays a fictional earl of Wessex.