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Royalty and Nobility
How They Ranked

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By Michael J. Cummings © 2003

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Since medieval times, members of the royalty and the nobility in England have inherited their titles, lands and privileges. In most of Shakespeare's plays—including Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, Macbeth, As You Like It,The Tempest, and Measure for Measure—it was the royals and nobles who were the central focus. Rarely were commoners more than supporting characters. However, the clergy—in particular, the Archbishop of Canterbury—did enjoy high social status regardless of ancestry.

Who outranked whom then and now? Following is a top-to-bottom ranking of the high-born in England before, during, and after Shakespeare's age: 

Royalty

1. King   2. Queen   3. Prince   4. Princess 

Clergy

5. Archbishop of Canterbury 

The archbishop was Roman Catholic until Parliament approved the Act of Supremacy in 1534, establishing the Church of England as a Protestant entity under King Henry VIII. Events leading to this action commenced in 1527. At that time, Henry embarked on a campaign to win papal annulment of his marriage to barren Catherine of Aragon, enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn and attempt to sire a male heir to the throne. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious politician and adviser to the king, managed the king’s campaign. But Pope Clement VII steadfastly refused to annul the marriage. On January 25, 1533, Henry married Anne in secret. On March 30, 1533, Thomas Cranmer, a priest who also was secretly married and who enjoyed the king’s favor, became the Archbishop of Canterbury, swearing an oath to the Pope even though he was a de facto Protestant who sympathized with Martin Luther’s revolt against Rome. In April, Cromwell won parliamentary approval of the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which outlawed matrimonial appeals to Rome and acknowledged England as a sovereign empire. In May, Cranmer approved the king’s annulment and, in June, Anne Boleyn was publicly recognized as the English queen. Finally, in 1534, the Act of Succession forced English citizens to acknowledge Henry’s marriage as legal and the Act of Supremacy sanctioned Henry as head of the Church of England. Cranmer, accepting this act as valid, thus became the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.

Nobility

Members of the nobility were often referred to collectively as "the peerage." An individual member of the peerage was called a "peer." 

6. Duke. The title of the wife of a duke was Duchess.
7. Marquess. The title of the wife of a marquess was Marchioness. The French and Scots used these spellings: Marquis and Marquise.
8. Earl. The title of the wife of an earl was Countess. (An earl is the equivalent of a count in other European countries.)
9. Viscount. The title of the wife of a viscount was Viscountess.
10. Baron. The title of the wife of a baron was Baroness.

Other Terms of Rank

Baronet: Commoner recognized for distinquished service. He was addressed as Sir, as in Sir John Smith.
Dowager: Widow of a person of high rank, such as a duke or an earl.
Knight (Medieval): Mounted warrior who served a member of the royalty or nobility in return for land, favors or money. A knight did not inherit his status and thus was not a member of the nobility, although he may have been of noble birth. He was addressed as Sir, as in Sir Lancelot.
Knight (Modern): One who has earned recognition from the king or queen after noteworthy accomplishments. Laurence Olivier, the actor, was knighted for his achievements on stage and in motion pictures. A modern knight is addressed as Sir, as in Sir George Appleby.

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