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What is a Dowager Countess?

Updated on August 17, 2016
Austinstar profile image

L. Cargill, Medical Laboratory Scientist, ASCP. Retired Blood Banker and Laboratorian. Loves to write about a wide range of subjects. Enjoy!

The Current Queen of the United Kingdom

As of February 12, 2013 - Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.
As of February 12, 2013 - Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. | Source

Fascination With British Royals

Americans are interested in British royalty and their titles. It seems as if every genealogist for every Yank family wants to prove some distant royal blood. The British royal soap opera, Downton Abbey has caught on like wildfire in the colonies and we all want to know what those peerage titles actually mean.

Dame Maggie Smith, known to us for her portrayal of Minerva McGonagall, the Deputy Headmistress in the Harry Potter movies, has assumed the role of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. After watching the season and getting hooked on Downton Abbey, Americans will surely wonder, "What is a Dowager Countess"?

Dowager is simply another was to say 'widow'. Violet was once married to a Count. He died and she took on the title of Dowager. Ok, that solves that conundrum. But what about all those other titles on the show. Why is Violet's son the "Earl of Grantham" and not the Count or Viscount of Grantham?

British Nobility

British Nobility, better known as Peerage, is a complicated system of identifying classes of importance on the English scale. Most titles came with owning land or being rulers over the land. These guys were the masters of their townships, villages and communities. They functioned much like our American system of government, especially the States run branches. The peerage class would also include CEOs of big companies (as powerful people).

British titles are "Lordly", American titles are "Honorary". Still it never hurts to know the sequence or hierarchy of the regal titles of the British gentry. No one wants to make a faux pax when referring to the Lords and Ladies of our cousins across the pond.

Royal Titles

Royal titles are not quite the same as nobility titles. Royals are that super special group of monarchs that surely must descend from the angels. Everyone else has to actually govern, own land or inherit their peerage title.

The Royals are the 'face' of England and are right up there with God and the Flag. Everyone in the British Empire is a subject of the King and/or Queen and their lineage. The titled folks may or may not be blood related to the Royal family. Although the Royals no longer have any 'real' power, they do sway the members of the British government and can do so immensely.

Royal titles include (in descending order):

  • King
  • Queen
  • Prince
  • Princess

A Monarch is just another name for one of the above. Royals are addressed as Highness, Majesty, Grace and a few other titles (see side bar).

Do You Watch Downton Abbey?

Which Title would you like to have been born to?

See results

Nobility Titles

Nobility, or peerage, titles are only passed to male heirs. A married woman with a title by virtue of marriage, cannot pass on that title to children, nor can a dowager marrying a subsequent husband. This is true even for Royals. If a princess marries a non-titled gentleman, he may or may not accept the customary title of 'Earl'. This title would be conferred by the Royals.

The other nobility titles (in descending order of rank):

  • Duke / Duchess
  • Marquess / Marchioness
  • Earl / Countess
  • Viscount / Viscountess
  • Baron / Baroness

Dukes and Duchesses are titled by their land area. The Duke and Duchess are always called Duke/Duchess of Somewhere.

The others are called Lord of Somewhere, or Lord (insert last name). Their wives are called Lady instead of Lord, but the land area name can be used or the Lady's last name can be used.

If a titled Lady dies unmarried, by divorce or death, her title dies out. This is also true if there are no male heirs to the title.

The House of Lords

As of 1958, some titles have been created and bestowed as "life peers". Only the titles of Baron and Baroness may be bestowed as a life peer and the title dies when the owner dies.

The reason for this life peer title is to get them into the House of Lords which is part of British Parliament.

The House of Commons (common elected people with no titles), is the real governing body of Parliament. The House of Lords consists of appointed nobility only. The House of Lords is somewhat of a reviewing body only. They can delay the House of Commons, but cannot block something that the Commons really want to pass through.

Sir Paul McCartney

Sir Paul and left handed guitar!
Sir Paul and left handed guitar! | Source

The Knights

How do you do, Sir?

After being Knighted by a Royal, a man is called a Knight of the Realm. A Knight's wife is called Lady Someone.

If a woman is 'knighted', she is called a Dame, as in the real life character, Dame Maggie Smith.

Knighthood is honorary, but it is a noble title and certainly improves the amount of respect a commoner would normally receive.

Two famous Knights are:

  • Sir Paul McCartney
  • Sir Elton John

The Queen's Monarchy

England, UK

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New Zealand:
New Zealand

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The Bahamas

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Also, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenadines, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Jamaica, Barbados


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Papua New Guinea:
Papua New Guinea

get directions

Including the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu

Downton Abbey Characters

Which character or characters on Downton Abbey do you identify with the most?

See results

© 2013 Lela


Submit a Comment
  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 

    4 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    Leia, I never watched Downtown Abbey, but I've heard so much about it. Great hub on royal titles. Voted up for interesting!

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    I heard there was a dispute of some kind and she stormed off the set. That's mean.

  • Gypsy48 profile image


    6 years ago

    Interesting hub. I like all of the titles that the British use. I can't enough of Downton Abbey and I have watched all three seasons of the program numerous times. I love all of the characters and O'Brien will be missed next season.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    I already can't wait for the next season.

  • callyworden profile image

    Cally Worden 

    7 years ago from Madranges, France

    I'm busy watching season 3 and found this really interesting! Despite being a Brit I don't really know much about the ins and outs of the titles etc (my other half despairs, he loves history and all this stuff!). The monarchy does divide the country somewhat for sure - personally I love them, I think they are great and do a lot of good in the world and for Britain. And Downton is wicked! TV at its best!

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Well, in spite of their 'nobility', they are just human after all. Really, if you met the Queen at a Chili's or something and she wasn't dressed like a Queen, would you really know who it was?

    Downton Abbey seems to have more than their share of Dowagers though. Who will they kill off next?

  • SilentReed profile image


    7 years ago from Philippines

    Judging from the comments, some love the Royalty while others feel that the monarchy has become an anachronism. Much goodwill as well as respect is lost when the actions of some members of royalty find their way into scandal sheets and tabloids. Remember how the Royals conducted themselves during the death of princess Diana? The public outcry? Nobility is not only define as a privilege class holding hereditary titles. It also means the elevated quality of character and conduct.

  • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

    Claudia Mitchell 

    7 years ago

    Ha - I just watched the finale of season 3 over the weekend and every week I ask myself..what is a dowager countess. This is a great hub with loads of interesting info.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Why not try streaming it from Netflix? Do you have a slow connection? I'll check to see if it is on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

  • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

    Wesman Todd Shaw 

    7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

    Oh I'm going to. I've got a torrent for the entire first's ten gigabytes worth of stuff.

    It just might take several days for me to download the thing.

    I'd downloaded an episode before, but it was clearly not ....the start, and know, one needs to start at the start of something to "get it!"

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Shall we give in and watch it then?

  • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

    Wesman Todd Shaw 

    7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

    I try to greet the least impressive folks with "Sir," or "Ma'am."

    Oh Game of Thrones.....I've got people literally DEMANDING I start watching that!

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Everyone talks about Game of Thrones, I'll have to start watching that one.

    Hi Wes, don't we still judge people by rank today? I mean, when you greet your boss, it usually isn't the same way as when you greet the grocery person helping you out to the car, right?

    Maybe it is genetic, but I don't think so.

  • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

    Wesman Todd Shaw 

    7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

    I've never seen the show, but thanks for the good information!

    Oh how I loathe the notion of ...goodness being associated with bloodlines :/

  • RealHousewife profile image

    Kelly Umphenour 

    7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

    Dave and I just started watching the show and I love it! I am only on episode 6 of Season 1 but it's a great show.

    I also just started watching "Game of Thrones" - have you seen that yet? It is awesome too!!

    Sweet hub idea! Smart!

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Hi Christopher! I did not find this tidbit during my research. Thank you! I will change this right away. I do love the show. The characters are so intriguing.

  • christopheranton profile image

    Christopher Antony Meade 

    7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

    Thanks for this interesting article. I need to correct you on one small point however. A woman, who is knighted, becomes a Dame, such as Dame Maggie Smith or Dame Shirley Bassey. A Baronet is a hereditary knight. The last one to be created was Lady Thatcher's husband Dennis, who became Sir Dennis Thatcher. After he died his son became Sir Mark Thatcher.

    I'm glad that Downton Abbey has been such a success. It's a brilliant series.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Just as long as you don't wake up as a Dowager. Sleep tight.

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 

    7 years ago from south Florida

    Thank you, Lela, profusely for clearing up all the confusion over the various British titles. Now I know I shall sleep better each night knowing that a Duke ranks so much higher than a Baron. Who knew? :)

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    7 years ago from Washington

    Yes indeed, and if someone tries to take over, I really get nasty--off with his head~

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    All hail Queen Alpha Audrey of Kirchner! She speaks, but sometimes she growls and barks. Yip!

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    7 years ago from Washington

    Interesting indeed, Lela--I haven't watched this show but may have to~ I of course read period romance so I run into a lot of "royalty" in my readings and did wonder what the pecking order was so to speak.

    Now if only I could be Queen of Someplace...things would go a lot smoother in my humble opinion....I guess I will have to settle for being Queen of My Castle and leave it at that...or was that Queen Alpha? It must be so because when I speak, people (and dogs) listen....ha ha

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    I love Bates, but I really do think he killed his wifey!

  • tsadjatko profile image

    7 years ago from now on

    Thanks for defining dowager! I thought they were saying "dowitcher"... Dowitchers are medium-sized long-billed wading birds so I thought that was the British way of humorously calling her a big mouth skinny legged old bird...not all that different from the British calling a dude a "bloke" or saying "bloody awful" or "bugger off" ...etc. so not my fault I got it wrong :-) but thank you for setting me straight, I would never have known differently!

    I chose Anna and Mr. Bates but I really only relate to Mr. Bates.

  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Oooooh, touchy subject, I see. Had no idea the Monarchy was so beloved. And peerage so admired.

  • Peter Geekie profile image

    Peter Geekie 

    7 years ago from Sittingbourne


    Speak for yourself. The vast majority of people in the Uk have nothing but respect and love for Her Majesty who unites the country irrespective of colour, creed and politics. If you hate the Uk and its monarchic society so much perhaps you should stay in Mexico - or don't they want you either. As a final point you mention "Lord Haw Haw" who was despised and hated without exception by the British people. It should be pointed out he was born in the USA took Irish citizenship and worked as a traitor for the Nazis until he was hanged in the Tower of London. No connection with the Royal Family here then.


  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    Interesting to know, Bob. I wonder why we are all so fascinated with it? It just looks so prim and proper and I for one, love the part about having all those servants to bring the Ladies breakfast in bed every morning as if spending the night in the sack with "his lordship" is just so strenuous that they can't bother to come down and have breakfast with the rest of the hoity toityies!

    Have you watched the show? It's really quite well done.

  • diogenes profile image


    7 years ago from UK and Mexico

    Hi Star: Some of us over here despise royalty and all these lord Haw Haws of privilege. We see the royal family as little more than grasping pirates who have definitely exceeded their shelf life by a couple of hundred years!

    Most people over here have no idea what all the titles and hoopla means either

    Bob x


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