Where Sisters Have Priority
It is an odd fact that although, even in the case of honours which can be inherited by females, daughters give way all along the line to sons, even when younger than themselves, the reverse applies as between daughters and younger sons in the usage of courtesy styles. Thus while the daughters of a duke are born with the precedence of a marchioness, the younger sons rank only as earls. Similarly, the younger sons of a marquess are born with the precedence of a viscount, but all daughters with that of a countess; and the younger sons of an earl with the precedence of a baron, but all daughters with that of a viscountess.
This explains why an earl's daughters are "Ladies" while their brothers (except the eldest) are merely "the Honourable".
Distinctions of this kind in the precedence of children of viscounts and barons are not material to the argument, since all of them (except the elder sons of Scots peers), as I have previously noted, bear the style of "the Honourable".
The most probable explanation of this curious preferential treatment of daughters over younger sons lies in the old laws of inheritance of land. Sons succeeded to lands in order of seniority provided there was no issue from elder brothers. But where there were daughters only, their claims were co-equal and all ranked as heirs; therefore they were all accorded the rank and precedence of an eldest son.
If it be asked why the law of land inheritance should be applied to peerages, the answer is that in law a peerage is an incorporeal hereditament and is thus real property in the same sense that land is. For the origin of this, one must again go back to feudal times, when all such dignities were annexed to lands and the holders were tenants-in-chief to the King.
Thus far the rules are simple enough, but there may be complications on marriage. For instance, a duke's daughter, as has been pointed out, ranks higher than a duke's younger son. Thus, if Lady Arabella Vere, daughter of a duke, marries Lord John Bohun, younger son of a duke, her own style takes precedence, and she is known as Lady Arabellla Bohun, not as Lady John Bohun. But if she were the daughter of a marquess, then their styles would be of equal rank and she would have the option of taking either, though the usual practice in such cases is for the husband's to be adopted.
Variations on these lines can easily be worked out throughout the degrees of the peerage, remembering always that any peer's daughter ranks one degree higher than the younger sons of a peer of the same rank, though his eldest son and heir is her equal.
Should the aforesaid Lady Arabella, whether the daughter of a duke, marquess or an earl, marry anyone without the courtesy title of "Lord" - whether it be an "Honourable", a baronet, a knight or a commoner - she retains her own style of Lady Arabella, merely changing her surname.
Where she, however, to marry a peer she would take the regular feminine of his title, wholly irrespective of what style or rank she bore previously. Thus if a duke had four daughters (all, it should be remembered, born with the precedence of a marchioness) the eldest three of whom married respectively an earl, a viscount, and a baron, while the youngest married a commoner, the youngest is the only one who would retain her original precedence, while the others, though married to peers of the realm, would have descended one, two and three degrees respectively below her.
This difference in rank explains why one sometimes sees references to Viscount So-and-so, the holder of a courtesy peerage, while his wife is referred to as Lady Arabella So-and-so. The explanation is that his wife is the daughter of a duke or a marquess and had preferred to retain her own style.
Thus when the present Earl of Ilchester, as Lord Stavordale, heir to the earldom, married Lady Helen Vane-Tempest-Stewart, daughter of the Marquess of Londonderry, she was known as Lady Helen Stavordale, not as Lady Stavordale. And when the late Earl of Selborne, as Viscount Wolmer, married Lady Maud Cecil, daughter of the Marquess of Salisbury, she was known as Lady Maud Wolmer and not as Viscountess Wolmer.
There are other instances where the lady had chosen to sink her own style in order to stand exactly on a level with her husband. Thus when the eighth Earl Fitzwilliam married while still heir to the title, his wife could have elected to be known as Lady Maud Milton, being the daughter of a marquess. She preferred, however, to adopt her husband's style and was thus known as Viscountess Milton. Similarly, when the Earl of Pembroke, as Lord Herbert, married Lady Beatrix Paget, sister of the Marquess of Anglesey, who had been given the rank of a marquess's daughter, she elected to be known as Lady Herbert, instead of Lady Beatrix Herbert.
The same rules apply if this Arabella Vere who is so usefully providing us with examples were the daughter of a viscount or a baron and so had the style of "the Honourable". If she married in a rank higher than her own she would take her husband's style. If she married Sir John Bohun, baronet, or Sir John Bohun, knight, she would be known as the Hon. Lady Bohun. If she married Mr. John Bohun her style would be the Hon. Mrs. Bohun.
Note should be made of one other way in which the use of a courtesy title may be acquired. When a nephew, a cousin, or other relative not in the direct line succeeds to a peerage it is customary for the Sovereign to accord to the new peer's brothers and sisters the style which would have been theirs had their father held the title. Thus before the late Marquess of Lothian succeeded a cousin he was merely Mr. Philip Kerr. But shortly after his succession his three sisters were granted the style "of daughters of a marquess which would have been theirs had their father lived and succeeded to the title", and they thus became Lady Anne, Lady Margaret and Lady Gertrude.
There is no certainty about it; the matter is entirely one for the Royal pleasure, but, other things being equal, it is the practice generally adopted. The method to confer such rank is by the issue of a Royal Warrant.