An “Honorable” Solution
Let’s Solve a 20 Year (plus) Long Annoying Problem
It is spring, and I have recently received a Grant of Arms, and thus like all men my fancies must turn to what the hell you call someone who has a Grant of Arms. This is one of those amusing SCA articles that really doesn’t make any sense to a reader of this website who is here for politics or law, so if that is you feel free to go to another article (may I suggest ‘Never Relieved of That Oath’, my most controversial article?); I promise I won’t be mad.
For those of you sticking around, however, let us dig down in to this problem that has vexed the SCA for at least the last twenty years: What do we do with those fine and worthy individuals who have a Grant of Arms but no other titles, styles, or modes of address? Should they have something to distinguish them? (Yes). What’s the problem with The Honorable Lord/Lady or Lordship/Ladyship? (They aren’t titles). What should we use? (What we have been, but modified).
1. An Important Note
This article talks about awards, and does so in a very frank nature. It assumes throughout the article that people like getting them, and goes in depth in that in Section II. It is not done to imply that any person in the Society is working hard and doing cool things only for awards, nor should it be read to imply that the only reason someone should be in the SCA is to get awards. But given the Grant of Arms is an award and we are talking about titles and styles of address, the article assumes everyone is broadly on board with these things mattering. If that’s too un-chivalrous or inside baseball-y for you that’s fine, but in order to discuss titles we have to broadly assume they are things worth discussing.
For those of you unaware (either your Kingdom doesn’t use them, or you’re new, or quite blissfully uninvolved in awards politics), the SCA broadly speaking has four levels of awards that it can give out. Those are:
- Non-Armigerous (awards which are cool and often highly respected, but carry no rank or precedent).
- Award of Arms level (Both the Award of Arms [AoA] itself, and those awards carrying precedence similar but often slightly above an AoA itself)
- Grant of Arms level (Both the Grant of Arms [GoA] itself, and those awards carrying precedence similar but often slightly above the GoA itself)
- Patent of Arms level (What we refer to, anachronistically, as the Peerage. There is no such thing as a basic or naked Patent, no matter what the West thinks—Patents of Arms come exclusively with Bestowed Peerages, and in many Kingdoms Royal Peerages).
The Grant of Arms dates to the same event as the Award of Arms (West Kingdom 12th Night, A.S. 3 – 1969)[i], but its use was more limited. It was “first created to recognize Kingdom Officers for the work that they had done for the Kingdom,[ii]” and expanded in to a fully realized award level after the others. As such it has always struggled as kind of the ‘middle child’ of the award structure, with uncertain and uneven implementation of privileges and titles
Outside of the Grant of Arms, each rank in the SCA award structure conveys new title and precedence. By long convention an un-awarded member is referred to as m’lord and m’lady, an Award of Arms turns them in to Lord or Lady, and a Patent of Arms (with a Peerage) turns them in to a Knight/Master/Mistress (depending on the order, and preference; the title Dame also pops up).
For a long time following its creation, there was not any sense of a separate title or style of address for holders of a Grant of Arms. They were, like when they had held an AoA, a Lord or Lady and there was no way (besides the use of post-nominals, which itself is far more Victorian than it is Elizabethan) to distinguish them.
A Laurel ruling in the 1980s gave Grants of Arms holders the title of Honorable Lord/Honorable Lady or Lordship/Ladyship, but this is often disputed[iii] (see the endnotes for discussion). Even ignoring the disputes over the continuing provenance of this proclamation, there are legitimate grievances raised with the form. These arguments come down to the fact that:
- Neither of these titles exist as titles in period; and
- Neither of these titles are in fact titles, they are honorifics or styles or a weird fusion of both.
The first point stands fairly well on its own. Despite all research to the contrary, I have not in fact been able to find Honorable Lord or Lady used as a title itself. It appears to have been a wholly SCA creation. This is a sticking point for many arrayed against it, as it is somewhat distinct in that it is wholly made up while the other titles of the SCA are actual period titles used wholly incorrectly.
The second form deserves a bit of definition for the newcomer to titular pedantry. A title is what you call yourselves, and honorifics and styles are how other people address or refer to yourself. Thus Elizabeth II[iv] refers to herself as Queen, and other people refer to her as Your Majesty or Ma’am; she would never refer to herself as Her Majesty. Similarly a nobleman would never have referred to himself as “Lordship” or “Honorable Lord”.
Honorable Lord, as the more common form[v], receives special criticism because it combines a style (Honorable) with a title (Lord) and thus ends up with something that is not quite either one. It also specifically bothers some to have GoA holders proclaiming themselves Honorable, as it either seems dishonorable to do so (my lady doth protest too much) or to imply that other people are less than honorable. The argument frequently offered is that it should be an award without a title—that a GoA holder is a Lord or Lady as they were when they had their AoA, just a higher ranked Lord or Lady.
3. Does it Matter?
Reading through all of that might make your eyes cross, and even though I love this kind of thing it does occasionally make me want to go have a nap as well. So the question might have occurred to you of ‘Gosh, does it really matter?’ And that question can apply to both sides—does it really matter if GoAs have a title, or does it really matter if they use one that isn’t period? Regardless of which side you fall down on, it’s not uncommon to want to make this whole thing go away because it is annoying.
But of course it matters, for a couple of reasons. It matters because there is a large section of the SCA that holds these awards, and how they are referred to may change depending on what Kingdom they move to—the only award with such a disparity of address. It also matters to them because it can be very dispiriting to use a title and get told off (or yelled at), whether in person or online, because the title you were told you can use is ‘wrong’ and ‘not period’, even if the person telling you that is using a title which in period would mean they were outranked by the youngest scion of the nobility[vi].
It also matters because the hierarchical nature of the SCA matters, for a whole bunch of reasons. As discussed in the introductory note this article assumes this point, but it is worth laying out. One of the major differences between the SCA and other historical groups is our hierarchical nature. While not a universal positive, as it does create a pecking order and the instinct in some people toward arrogance or ‘lording’ it over others (as period as that may be), there can be little doubt that it has contributed both to the unique culture of the SCA and to the frisson that exists in the SCA that doesn’t in many of the more purely non-hierarchical or egalitarian reenactment groups.
Advancement in the SCA means something because it is not based on just making a nicer kit, but on earning it—often through competition; and advancement means something because it comes with an increased prestige and rights, not just the ability to call yourself something different or standing in a different place in line so you can be a Saxon losing the Battle of Hastings again.
It is kind of icky in the SCA to discuss awards being desirous, and it can also be uncomfortably inside baseball-y. I do understand all of this—we don’t want to encourage people to play only for the awards, and nothing in this article should be read as doing so. And at the end of the day awards are just nice pieces of metal or cloth, baubles as it were—but it was Napoleon who pointed out, upon founding the Legion of Honor, that it is with such baubles men are led. No one who has seen a proto-peer cry while being told they will be made a Knight, Laurel, or Pelican, can say there is nothing important in our awards.
The hierarchical nature of the SCA provides both accomplishment, and pride; the internal sense of accomplishment that brings emotion to someone when they look at a scroll for an award even ten or fifteen years later. That is part of what made the expansion of the Grant of Arms level beneficial to the Society—it provided another sign post along the path, in what would otherwise be a very long stretch between the Award of Arms and the possibility of Peerage. It also provides the SCA with a way of recognizing a stage of leadership and management greater than at an AoA level while less than at the Peerage level—Grants of Arms should be a strong backbone of service and support, providing lessons learned greater than at the lower level while still learning the lessons necessary to be a good Peer.
This is why, for example, nearly all martial arts schools have moved away from a more period ranking system to the more modern and familiar colored belt system. In more period martial arts the ranks were simply ‘not a black belt’ and then ‘black belt’, with the black belt (dan) ranks carrying some gradation (such as permission to teach independently). In the modern system there are colored belts (kyu) leading up to the black belt ranks, so that a student has goals and milestones and a sense of continuing accomplishment before reaching the milestone of shodan (first rank black belt)[vii]. Kyu ranked students gain knowledge and increase in rank before testing for black belt—as well as the pride of having earned a higher ranked belt, while the sensei and the senior students in the dan ranks know roughly where a student is in their development and are able to assess more easily what they need to learn to advance.
That is why it matters. If we undermine the grant by making it feel like less of an award, superfluous or vestigial, we undermine that intermediate leadership level—and the Kingdoms suffer as a result. If we treat the Grant of Arms as less of an achievement and more of this bastard thing no one is sure what to do with—as is fairly frequently the result of the long, haranguing arguments about why they should just be Lord or Lady—then the people who have worked hard and earned them suffer because their achievements feel more meaningless.
Clearly, these things matter—and clearly a solution is needed. Just as the kyu system allowed for progress, pride, and development in the martial arts, the Grant of Arms does for the SCA. It should have some signifier of that progress (although not a colored belt, we have lots of those taken in the SCA) that furthers the goals of the Society and allows for pride of the person.
So what is it?
4. An Honorable Solution
The answer, in my opinion, lies in what we’ve already been doing—but with a greater understanding and purposefulness behind it.
The style of ‘Honourable’ existed in period—as did the style of Right Honourable. In A Genealogical and Historical Account of the Ancient and Honourable House of Stanley: From the Conquest to This Present Year 1741 (published, predictably, in 1741), John Seacome quotes (according to him verbatim) the Thanksgiving given in the funeral service of Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby, who died in 1572:
“All Honour, Laud, and Priase, to Almighty God, who thro’ his Divine Goodness hath taken out of this transitory World to his eternal Joy and Bliss, the Right Honourable Edward, Earl of Derby, Lord Stanley and Strange, and Lord of Man and the Illes, Chamberlain of Chester, one of the Lords of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council, and Knight Companion of the most Noble Order of the Garter.”[viii]
While that book itself is out of period, it is providing the funeral service from someone who died in period—unless there is some evidence that this is a post-period creation or a myth (and it would be a strange thing to make up), we can likely take it as something of a given. This is also backed up by other sources:
“As a courtesy designation, Baronets, upon the erection of the degree, and until the end of the eighteenth century, were styled ‘The Honourable.’ This was only natural, having regard to the hereditary character of what was called in King James’s[ix] time ‘the honourable degree and dignitie of Baronet.’ A duke being styled ‘Most Noble,’ a Marquess ‘Most Honourable,’ Earls, Viscounts, and Barons ‘Right Honourable,’ it followed that the style of ‘Honourable’ should be prefixed by the courtesy of society at large to the newly created hereditary degree.
Instances of this courtesy style are numerous throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, some being on tombs, others in deeds, letters, and other writings. Some Baronets were so addressed by Oliver Cromwell[x].”[xi]
We can therefore reliably say that at least in the early SCA gray period[xii] there were gentles (for a Baronet was not a nobleman, but the highest form of Gentry) that were entitled to the style of Honourable, and that prior to that there were nobles entitled to the style of Right Honourable—because that is the form the Baronet copied.
The form that the SCA has been using to address holders of Grants of Arms is therefore achingly close to being a thoroughly proper period form—it just needs to be modified slightly. John the Smith, upon being given a GoA, would currently be called The Honorable Lord John the Smith—which, as noted, is neither period nor an actual title. But if he was called in to court as ‘The Honorable, Lord John Smith’ he would be addressed in a period style and using a period title, while also allowing him to have some method of being addressed that differentiates him from having an AoA.
Therefore the most elegant solution (to the author) is to give to GoA holders the style of ‘The Honorable’ (without the U, save in those countries who spell it with a U[xiii]) while maintaining the title of ‘Lord/Lady’. We are already used to addressing people by styles—calling in to court, for example, Her Grace, Duchess Joan of Exampleshire. The SCA also already has examples of someone going up in rank but retaining a form of address, albeit in reverse of the proposed AoA to GoA transition—a Baron who becomes a Count changes their title, but not the style of ‘Excellency’.
The only functional difference would be that an individual would not address themselves as The Honorable, only as Lord or Lady. It would rely somewhat on a third party to address them as such, but that does not seem a particularly onerous burden; it also relieves the issue some have expressed of a person calling themselves Honorable and seeming presumptuous. They would address themselves only with the armigerous title, but would be called in to court using the Honorable style—thus neatly and Solomonically dividing the issue and giving something to everyone.
5. Other Solutions, and Conclusion
The divorcing of Honorable from Lord/Lady and its use as a style is, to the author of this article, the most simple and elegant solution as it provides a period practice that is almost completely in line with current SCA practice. But it is by no means the only proposed solution, and it is worth considering some of the other proposed solutions before closing.
One of the proposed solutions is to give Grants a new and different title and/or style, which is admirable. Proposals that have been floated include the titles Baronet and Marquess—and there may be other titles which have been considered that have not reached the attention of the author here. The problem with these is that each of them ‘solves’ the problem that is alleged to exist with the use of The Honorable Lord or The Honorable Lady by expanding the problem that definitively exists with the SCA award structure—namely the use of period titles in a flagrantly and deliberately non-period manner.
Briefly, the SCA’s award structure is farkakte[xiv] when compared to period. In the SCA a Pelican outranks a lord, and a Knight outranks a Baron—who isn’t even a peer. In the real system upon which the SCA is based a Lord, someone who was a member of the aristocracy by virtue of their own title or marriage to/being the offspring of someone with a title, outranked everyone who wasn’t a peer; and a Baron is a peer who would outrank any Knight who had ever earned their spurs but wasn’t also an aristocrat. And a Laurel or Pelican, in period, would have been an artisan or servant more than likely, or a member of the gentry or aristocracy doing a job for which they might eventually get a knighthood (which wouldn’t change their precedence) or a peerage (which would).
We have taken the middle rung of the gentry, the Knight (who ranked above other Gentleman, but below a Baronet) and put it near the top of our system, while also inventing equally high ranking titles for jobs (like cooking, or tailoring) that wouldn’t have merited nobility at all. We’ve completely ignored the rank of Marquis and in many places the rank of Viscount, and decided that the most broad and basic level of the peerage[xv] isn’t actually a peer.
The sane solution to this is not adding more fuel to the fire. While learned gentles whom the author respects greatly have suggested these titles as the solution, it cannot possibly be that the answer to a broken title in an already broken system is to break the overall system further. It is somewhat baffling that someone arguing that The Honorable Lord used as a title neologistically is more offensive than plucking more period titles out of history and using them entirely incorrectly.
A Marquess is, in the English/U.K. peerage system, someone who ranks above a Count and below a Duke; the title is imported from other languages[xvi], and as a result has not ever been as common in England as Earls or even Dukes. To put them above a Lord and Baron but below a Knight or Viscount is a ridiculousness as great as anything else considered in the SCA. The use of Baronet would be slightly less maddening, as that title is at least not a peerage title but the highest title in the gentry, but it would still represent a perversion of period practice by placing them beneath Knights instead of above them—and brings its own problem, as the only correct method of addressing a Baronet in period or modernly is ‘Sir’. Additionally Baronets in their current form really date from out of period, coming after Elizabeth II when the Crown needed money and utilized the title of Baronet and style of Sir to reward people who were willing to put up hard cash for the King.
The solution to a problematic system cannot be to create more problems; the remedy for an already broken awards structure is not to find more cracks and shove shims of misused period titles in to them. If the objections to The Honorable Lord/Lady are based on period-ness, than we cannot solve it with further out of period titles and never in period structures. The only reasonable solution going forward is to embrace the pattern that has already worked and been widely prevalent, and to modify it slightly to fit both period practice and satisfy titular pedantry. The style of Honorable with the title of Lord allows for most people to do what they were already doing, while using an undoubtedly historical style in a way that is almost what it would have actually been used for.
It is, in other words, the most honorable solution to the problem of the Honorable Lords and Ladies in the SCA.
[iii] See, e.g., Grant of Arms, The East Kingdom Wiki, https://wiki.eastkingdom.org/index.php?title=Grant_of_Arms. (“Very many of the pronouncements and precedents of this era have been superseded, discredited, or just fallen into disuse. This one especially, was never codified in SCA law or policy beyond this statement, so it may be considered “custom” at best and is not official SCA policy. The strictly official SCA title for the holder of a Grant of Arms is simply “Lord” or “Lady”, the same as for holders of Awards of Arms.”) Getting in to discursiveness, of course the SCA Letters of Acceptance and Return announcing changes are themselves a statement of SCA Policy. The Regalia associated with the Peerages, for example, is “only” protected by Laurel—the word ‘chain’, for example, appears once in Corpora and refers to the chain of command not the knight’s chain. How valid the argument is that Laurel King of Arms can protect regalia but not titles is left to the reader.
[iv] By the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Fidei Defensor. A.k.a. Lizzie Duece, to her Roller Derby friends, and “WHY WON’T YOU LET ME BE KING, MUMMY” to a certain son of hers.
[v] In the author’s experience.
[vi] Master, Mistress, and Sir were, of course, not noble titles in period. A knight would outrank a member of the gentry, but the lowest ranked noble has precedence over the highest ranked (otherwise non-noble or royal) Knight—both in period and today.
[vii] Discussions on whether this has elevated shodan from what it was supposed to be—i.e. the overall knowledge level needed to get in to the advance work—to more of an end-goal are appropriate for other venues, and will not be explored here.
[viii] John Seacome, A Genealogical and Historical Account of the Ancient and Honourable House of Stanley: From the Conquest to This Present Year 1741, page 55. Available at https://books.google.com/books?id=jHBbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA44&lpg=PA44&dq=historical+title+honourable&source=bl&ots=OSAu6BsITy&sig=3fDHWzN5nfgwH7L_sKSHYkJ2IZI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiAuazo-eLTAhUl4YMKHZeqDMAQ6AEIPDAG#v=onepage&q=historical%20title%20honourable&f=false.
[ix] King of the united English and Scottish Crowns in 1603 until his death in 1625.
[x] Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653-1658.
[xi] Francis W. Pixley, A History of the Baronetage 211 (1900). Available at https://books.google.com/books?id=EvWaCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA211&lpg=PA211&dq=honourable+style+history&source=bl&ots=hwRBKifqVW&sig=Lig_T261mOI18CYCBEv7lv7fHpI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjb8LermuPTAhXDylQKHaH8CSAQ6AEIWDAJ#v=onepage&q=honourable%20style%20history&f=false
[xii] 1600-1650 is defined as the “gray period” for heraldic purposes, on the theory that few things would have been invented out of whole cloth and if it existed in 1601 it probably existed in 1599.
[xiii] I’m looking at you, Canada and Drachenwald.
[xiv] “Lousy, messed up, ridiculous”. http://www.jewish-languages.org/jewish-english-lexicon/words/162
[xv] The reason the conflict that led to the Magna Carta is called the Baron’s War is because all peers were barons in the original sense of the word—aristocratic mandate holding lands from the King in return for military service. Many of the warring Barons were, in fact, possessed of higher titles.
[xvi] Being a cognate of Margrave or March-graff