How Do British Royals Get Their Titles?

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

The simple answer: You’re born with it, or Her Majesty gives it to you.

The noble titles of duke, duchess, earl, countess, and so on are relics of the peerage system, a hierarchy that conferred power to people in ye olde British political and landowning order. Members of the peerage system, called Peers, were the monarch’s vassals: They swore loyalty to the king or queen in exchange for money or land. In feudal times, these titles—and the jobs that came with them—were passed down to male heirs and their spouses.

Here’s how the system works:

At the top, of course, sits the king or queen. There are some special naming rules for the head of state. If a king sits on the throne, his wife is called the queen consort. However, if the queen is running the show—as is true at the present moment—her husband has no automatic right to a title. Prince Philip was a Prince of Greece, but renounced his title before marrying Elizabeth, so when Elizabeth became queen in 1952, he was properly referred to as the Duke of Edinburgh. Despite constant press references to him as “Prince Philip,” that title only became official in 1957, when Elizabeth II conferred “the style and titular dignity of a prince” on her husband. The sovereign is considered the “fount of honour” and has the exclusive right of conferring titles. All ranks must first meet his or her approval.

The highest peerage titles are duke and duchess. Traditionally, the duke was the sovereign ruler of a duchy or dukedom (a large swath of land) and the title is frequently, but not always, given to a member of the royal family. (That’s why you see royals flaunting territorial titles such as the “Duke of Cornwall” or “Duchess of Cambridge.”) Currently there are 30 dukes, and those titles will be passed down to their male heirs.

It’s expected that Queen Elizabeth II will give Prince Harry the title of Duke of Sussex after his wedding. And while Harry will remain a prince, his soon-to-be wife, Meghan Markle, will not inherit the title of princess—she will simply become a duchess. (If Harry isn't named a duke, Markle will likely be called "Princess Henry of Wales"—using Harry's real name—but never Princess Meghan.)

The step below duke is marquess or marchioness. The title was traditionally given to a duke-like noble who oversaw a Welsh or Scottish march, or border territory. Like a duke, a marquess held responsibility over a large mass of land. Unlike a duke, however, a marquess had the extra responsibility of defending this frontier from invaders. There are about 34 marquess positions, and the titles are generally inherited by the first-born son.

Under that is earl and countess. Originally, an earl was a do-it-all governor-judge-cop-taxman. He could be the administrator of a shire, province, or county. He might also be responsible for collecting taxes and fines and playing the part of judge or sheriff. He was often entitled to receive every “third penny”—that is, one third!—of all judicial revenues. The title is hereditary, though it's not unheard of for the reigning monarch to give a former prime minister an earldom.

One step below that is viscount and viscountess. Back in feudal days, the viscount was exactly what it sounds like: a “vice count,” a deputy or lieutenant who served the earl. The title is often given to the children of earls, however the rank may overlap with other titles: A handful of dukes and earls pull double-duty as viscounts. The title has also been awarded to outgoing Speakers at the House of Commons.

The lowest rank in the traditional peerage system is that of baron and baroness. The baron acted as the sovereign's "tenant-in-chief" and possessed a number of fiefs—basically a subdivision of a county. A baron’s rank, as well as his land, was usually passed down to an heir. (From 1876 to 2009, prominent lawyers and judges were eligible for the title of baron to create the equivalent of a Supreme Court, but that practice was repealed when a real Supreme Court began.) Today, there are more than 400 baronies.

Nowadays, it’s easy to wave off these fancy titles as antiquated symbols of a dead political system. But the truth is, hereditary peers still hold significant political power in England. For centuries, peers (all male until 1958)—called “Lords”—occupied the upper house of British Parliament: the aptly titled “House of Lords.” In 1999, a bill weakened their power considerably. Yet 92 hereditary peers still sit in the House of Lords, drafting and reviewing legislation.

If you’re not a noble, you still have a chance at earning one of their titles without having to go through the trouble of a royal wedding. In 1958, legislation introduced a new rung in the peerage ladder: life Peer. Heredity has nothing to do with these titles. This distinction, which is nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Crown, has been awarded to prominent doctors, professors, veterans, business owners, and farmers. And while you can’t pass your title down to your children, the position does land you a comfy seat in the House of Lords. So get cracking on building that resume!

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Does Washing Your Fruits and Vegetables Really Do Anything?

iStock
iStock

Washing produce is one of those habits that some people follow religiously and others shrug off altogether. If you're someone who struggles to find the motivation to cook in the first place, you might fall into the latter group. But cleaning your fruits and vegetables at home isn't just an outdated precaution: As Popular Mechanics reports, a thorough rinse could mean the difference between a meal that nourishes you and one that leaves you sick.

Produce is one common carrier of norovirus—a foodborne viral infection that triggers such symptoms as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There's no way to know whether your lettuce is contaminated with harmful bacteria before it hits your plate, but cleaning it with plain tap water does make it safer to eat. According to USA Today, rinsing produce is effective enough to remove 90 percent of the pathogens left on it by the growing, harvesting, and shipping process. Rinsing is also a good way to remove any of the visible matter you don't want eat, such as grit and soil.

Cleaning your fruits and vegetables is definitely an improvement over eating them straight from your crisper drawer, but be warned that this isn't a foolproof way to avoid food poisoning. Water won't remove all the microbes living on the surface of your food, and even an extremely thorough rinse isn't enough to make produce contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli safe to eat. But that doesn't mean the risk outweighs the benefits of including produce in your diet.

If you have a pile of veggies that need to be prepared for dinner, the best way to make them safer for consumption is to rinse them under cold water and rub them in a bowl of water, starting with the cleanest items and progressing to the produce that's more soiled. Give all the food a final rinse before moving it to the cutting board. Peeling the outside of your produce and cooking it when possible is another effective way to kill or remove stubborn bacteria.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

iStock
iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios