What or Who is a Viscount?

Anyone growing up in the U.K. would likely know the answer, but our American cousins might be unfamiliar with the term. As explained in my talk, The Cornish Chronicle, British peerage had a series of heriditary titles in masculine and feminine form, of which Viscount was one, as shown here:

Duke Duchess
Marquess Marchioness
Earl Countess
Viscount Viscountess
Baron Baroness

The peerage hierarchy of aristocracy actually predated the Norman Conquest of 1066. Simply stated, it was a system that described the ranks of nobles owing fealty to the king.  In return for swearing loyalty and promising troops when required, the barons received land (manors) and privileges from the king. Over time the roles have become more ceremonial and less hereditary. But the privileges were much sought after and the wealthy would trade cash for “honours”. Today Life Peers are created with the right to sit in the House of Lords without being able to pass on their titles to their heirs.

My fictional villain Sir James Trenance inherited upon the death of his father the barony that the family had previously purchased. Not content with this he also purchased an Irish Viscountcy, but got into trouble with the king when he was slow in paying for it.

In Chapter 32, you will find this exchange when Sir James informs his wife that he has come into a Viscountcy: 

 “You have been raised to a viscountcy? How did that come about? Will a place come with it? Will there be emoluments?”

“More likely more damn expense,” he replied. “All I have to do is support the king’s friends in the election, make sure they’re elected in some of these boroughs as well as the county. Made me a viscount. Cost me a pretty penny though, ten thousand pounds. Need new robes too, and the old coronet won’t do, need one with eighteen silver balls. Suppose you’ll need one too, now that you’re a viscountess. Worth it, though, should show these Cornish gentry how to make real money.”  

The English aristocracy were sticklers for pomp and circumstance, ritual and costume – which they valued as markers of rank and importance. Peers enjoyed the privilege of attending the coronation of a new monarch, when ceremonial robes and coronets would be worn. Shown here is a typical viscount coronet, featuring the desired 18 silver balls.

3 thoughts on “What or Who is a Viscount?

  1. The British aristocracy has a lingering appeal among Americans, most of whom would reject out of hand such a system in the U.S. Dramas such as “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” owe much of their appeal to the social interplay between the landed gentry and heriditary aristocrats, on the one hand, and thr common folk down in the galley kitchens or out in the stable.

    This relationship is developed perfectly in The Miner and the Viscount, where barons and viscounts kept an uneasy and sometimes confrontational relationship with tin and copper miners, ther families, and the impoverished but proud Cornwall men and women.

  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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