Andrea here, musing today about . . . dukes. It’s hard not to think about them, as these days, every Regency romance novel seems to have “duke” in the title. Which would logically lead one to imagine that in Britain, dukes are a farthing a dozen.
But not so! A cursory glance at Debrett’s, the bible of the British peerage, quickly corrects that fantasy. So I thought it would very fun—and very educational—to take quick look at the reality of dukes and dukedoms in order to have a more accurate idea picture of the past and the present. (Above: the 18th Duke of Norfolk at his estate.)
According to Debrett’s, there are 24 dukes in all of Great Britain (not counting royal dukes—we’ll get to them in a moment.) The title ‘duke’ derives from the Latin word dux, which means ‘leader,’ and it is the highest of the five peerage ranks. (The others being marquess, earl, viscount and baron.)
The first man who was not closely related to the royal family to receive a dukedom was Sir William de la Pole, who was made Duke of Suffolk in 1448. The premier duke and earl of England is the Duke of Norfolk. (Premier means the dukedom is the oldest one in the realm, and Norfolk’s is dated at 1397 through a complex explanation which I shall not attempt to explain here.) The premier peer of Scotland is the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, created in 1643. And the premier duke, marquess and earl of Ireland is the Duke of Leinster, a title created in 1766. (Above: Sir William de la Pole
Now onto royal dukes! A prince of royal blood (ie. The sons or grandsons of a monarch) is usually given a dukedom when he comes of age, or marries. Prince William was made the Duke of Cambridge when he married Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry was made the Duke of Sussex when he married Meghan Markle. (A nice story about Harry’s dukedom is that the title had had last been held by a son of King George III. The Regency Duke of Sussex was an ardent abolitionist, and publicly condemned slavery. One imagines Queen Elizabeth was aware of this when she chose the title for him.) (Above: the Duke of Sussex)
Another interesting aside that Prince Edward, the Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son went against tradition and merely requested an earldom. According to Debrett’s he will inherit Prince Philip’s title of Duke of Edinburgh, but only when the prince of wales becomes King. Other royal dukes include Queen Elizabeth’s second son, Prince Andrew, who is the Duke of York, and the Queen’s two cousins, the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester, who are both grandsons of King George V.
Some of the most famous dukedoms include the Duke of Marlborough (featured in the recent film The Favourite) which was came into existence in 1702, when Queen Anne created the title for John Churchill in reward for his victory at the battle of Blenheim. Sir Winston Churchill was a descendent (his father was a younger son of the 7th Duke of Marborough) and was born at Blenheim Palace, the magnificent sprawling residence built by the original duke. Legend has it that when the British government wanted to reward Churchill with a peerage for leading Britain through WWII, Churchill said the only peerage he would accept was the Duke of Marborough. Alas, his cousin wasn’t too keen to give up Blenheim and the other perks of being part of such an august lineage, so Churchill remain a mere Sir. (Above: the Duke of Marlborough)
The Dukedom of Devonshire is also a famous one, with a tumultuous history. The 5th Duke married Lady Georgiana Spencer and a had a notoriously stormy marriage. The eldest son and heir of the 10th earl, William Cavendish was a dashing WWII soldier who married JFK’s sister, much to the dismay of both sets of parents—she was Catholic and he was Anglican. He was killed in battle shortly after the marriage. (Right: William Cavendish)
The Dukes of Devonshire were also quite active in politics, including the 4th duke who was prime Minister from 1756-57, and the 9th duke, who served as Governor-General of Canada. The 8th duke is probably the most of his line—he served in government for over 40 years, and his posts included Secretary of State for India and Secretary of State for War. (Another interesting anecdote is that he married the widowed dowager Duchess of Manchester, who became known as the Double Duchess.)
I confess to having a fondness for the first Duke of Wellington. (Maybe because I’ve always loved the Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of him.) Having visited his townhouse at Number One London, I find him a fascinating man—a supreme warrior who cried when seeing the battlefield dead (one of the rooms had portraits honoring the general he fought against.) He also served as prime minister for Queen Victoria. (Above: the Duke of Wellington)
And on a personal note, I have actually met a duke, and played golf with him. The late 10th Duke of Roxburghe was an avid golfer who built a wonderful golf course on his Scottish estate near Kelso as a way to help support the vast estate financially. I was part of a group of journalists invited to play there, and then have lunch with him in the private wing of Floors Castle, his ancestral home, and get tour of the rooms filled with memorabilia. It was a truly amazing experience.
Okay, I know you're now thinking that I’ve ruined the fairytale Regency romance fun of a charming, handsome, wealthy, eligible duke . . . but wait! I’ve saved the best for last. (Above: the Duke of Roxburghe and me)
The last dukedom created (other than royal dukes) was the Duke of Westminster in 1874. Now, the current Duke of Westminster (All our women readers, prepare to join me in a collective fluttery sigh) is Hugh Grosvenor . . . who, at age 29 happens to be not only drop-dead gorgeous but the richest man in world under thirty. His wealth (the family trust basically owns half of London) is calculated in billions (yes, that’s plural.) And Hugh is single! (All those Regency heroines romping around out there—take note!) (Above: the Duke of Westminster)
So, what do you think of the “duke” trope in Regency romance? Given all the recent turmoil within the royal family in Britain, there are many who think the titled aristocracy is archaic. Do you enjoy reading about the real-life aristocracy and their pageantries—or could you care less?