Viscount

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A viscount (Listeni/ˈvknt/ VY-kownt, for male) or viscountess (for female)[1] is a member of the European nobility whose comital title ranks usually, as in the British peerage, below an earl or a count (the earl's continental equivalent) and above a baron (in the United Kingdom).

Etymology[edit]

The word viscount, known to be used in English since 1387, comes from Old French visconte (modern French: vicomte), itself from Medieval Latin vicecomitem, accusative of vicecomes, from Late Latin vice- "deputy" + Latin comes (originally "companion"; later Roman imperial courtier or trusted appointee, ultimately count).

As a rank in British peerage, it was first recorded in 1440, when John Beaumont was created Viscount Beaumont by King Henry VI. The word viscount corresponds in the UK to the Anglo-Saxon shire reeve (root of the non-nobiliary, royal-appointed office of sheriff). Thus early viscounts were originally normally given their titles by the monarch, not hereditarily; but soon they too tended to establish hereditary principalities lato sensu (in the wider sense).

Viscounts in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth[edit]

A viscount is said to hold a "viscountship" or "viscounty", or (more as the area of his jurisdiction) a "viscountcy". The female equivalent of a viscount is a viscountess. There are approximately 270 viscountships currently extant in the peerages of the British Isles, though most are secondary titles. They were a relatively late introduction to the British peerage, and on the evening of the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne explained to her why (from her journals):

I spoke to Ld M. about the numbers of Peers present at the Coronation, & he said it was quite unprecedented. I observed that there were very few Viscounts, to which he replied "There are very few Viscounts," that they were an old sort of title & not really English; that they came from Vice-Comites; that Dukes & Barons were the only real English titles;—that Marquises were likewise not English, & that people were mere made Marquises, when it was not wished that they should be made Dukes.[2]

A British viscount is addressed in speech as Lord [X], while his wife is Lady [X], and he is formally styled "The Viscount [X]". The children of a viscount are known as The Honourable [Forename] [Surname].

A more recent example of the above is with the Earl of Wessex's son, James, who is styled Viscount Severn.

Coronet[edit]

Coronet of a British viscount.

A viscount's coronet of rank bears 16 silver balls around the rim. Like all heraldic coronets, it is mostly worn at the coronation of a sovereign, but a viscount has the right to bear his coronet of rank on his coat of arms, above the shield.

Continental forms of the title[edit]

Correct form of address[edit]

There are rules on how one should address a viscount.[3] Debrett's, the UK's leading authority on etiquette, suggests that in conversation a viscount should be referred to as Lord X rather than the Viscount X. Ecclesiastical, ambassadorial and military ranks precede a viscount's rank in correspondence. For example, Major-General the Viscount X. The wife of a viscount is a viscountess and is known as Lady X. Use of the title viscountess in speech is socially incorrect.

Equivalent western titles[edit]

There are non-etymological equivalents to the title of viscount (i.e., 'vice-count') in several languages including German.

However, in such case titles of the etymological Burgrave family (not in countries with a viscount-form, such as Italian burgravio alongside visconte) bearers of the title could establish themselves at the same gap, thus at generally the same level. Consequentally a Freiherr (or Baron) ranks not immediately below a Graf, but below a Burggraf.

Thus in Dutch, Burggraaf is the rank above Baron, below Graaf (i.e., Count) in the kingdoms of the Netherlands and of Belgium (by Belgian law, its equivalents in the other official languages are Burggraf in German and vicomte in French). In Welsh the title is rendered as Isiarll.

Non-western counterparts[edit]

Like other major Western noble titles, Viscount is sometimes used to render certain titles in non-western languages with their own traditions, even though they are as a rule historically unrelated and thus hard to compare which are considered 'equivalent' in relative rank.

This is the case with:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ Alan S C Ross. How To Pronounce It. 
  2. ^ Queen Victoria's Journals, Thursday 28th June 1838, Buckingham Palace, Princess Beatrice's copies, Volume:4 (1st June 1838 – 1st October 1838) p. 84, online, accessed May 25, 2013
  3. ^ Debrett's Forms of Address
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