It is custom and tradition that the wives of knights are called ladies. It is an honorary title: if your husband is a Sir, then you can be called a lady. And if your husband has a peerage – whether or not it is a hereditary or a life peerage – then you should be called a lady – nothing honorary about that; it is part of the common law.
There has, over the years, been some slight rumblings that the same isn’t true in reverse. If the title belongs to the wife rather than the husband; then the man can’t claim the same title. Equality legislation hasn’t caught up in this area.
Presumably because of the (wrongly held) view that you can’t have equality on the one hand and lords and ladies on the other.
However, now we have same-sex marriage there is the possibility that tomorrow’s New Year’s Honours’ list will include husbands with husbands. How will the law apply to couples in same-sex marriages?
If the wife of a knight or lord takes the title lady; what about the male spouse of a knight or lord?
Well, constitutionalists need not get their knickers in a twist wondering what will happen. The snappily titled Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014 specifically excludes knights, peers and selected other categories from the equality provisions within the law that made same-sex marriage equal.
Specifically, section 2 of part 1 of schedule 2 to the Order – a UK statutory instrument – states that “Section 11(1) and (2) of the Act” (which states that “In the law of England and Wales, marriage has the same effect in relation to same sex couples as it has in relation to opposite sex couples”) “does not apply to the common law concerning the acquisition of a right to, or interest in, a peerage, and all titles, rights, offices, privileges and precedence attaching to it, by a person who marries or who is married to a peer holding that peerage.”
The Order also contains provisions regarding same-sex marriages involving the Royal Family. Section 1 of part 1 of schedule 2 states that “Section 11(1) and (2) of the Act does not apply to the common law concerning the right of a person (a) who marries, or who is married to, the King Regnant, to the title of Queen, or (b) who marries, or who is married to, the Prince of Wales, to the title of Princess of Wales.”
Queen Elizabeth is Queen Regnant – she is Queen in her own right. Her husband is not entitled to be called King. But when Prince Charles succeeds to the throne, he will be King Regnant and his wife will, ordinarily, be entitled to be called Queen (notwithstanding the public statements made at the time that the current Duke and Duchess of Cornwall made when their engagement was announced).
Likewise, the title Princess of Wales – the title given to the wife of the sovereign’s eldest male son – will not apply to a same-sex spouse of any future Prince of Wales.
All of this has no significance at the moment. The Prince of Wales is married and so is his eldest son. When Prince Charles becomes King, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge will take the title Prince and Princess of Wales. The first person that this provision could possibly apply to would be Prince George – and that is quite some time in the future. He would not become Prince of Wales until Prince William becomes King.
So you would think that now would be a good time to make any change needed to equalise the provision; at a time when any debate around it doesn’t relate to any specific identifiable individual and their personal circumstances.
But the Government are not minded to make any change – not least in the provision of courtesy and common-law titles to the husbands of ladies or dames.
The Lib Dem Peer and Government Whip Lord Wallace of Saltaire, answering questions on the subject in the House of Lords earlier this year, said that “The coalition Government and, I am sure, all parties are much concerned about the weakness of social mobility in Britain. I am not sure that we should spend too much time concerning ourselves with the subtle finesse of social stratification.”
In the short debate that followed, the cross-bench hereditary peer, the Countess of Mar, wittily retorted that there was a precedent for husbands of ladies to be given titles. “In 1392 and 1408, when there were two Countesses of Mar in their own right,” she said, “their husbands were made Earls for their lifetime on the basis that the women could not go to war or sit in Parliament.
“However, I have asked my husband and he said that he does not want to be Earl of Mar because he neither wants to go to war nor to sit in Parliament.”
We will have just a little longer to see if any new knights are in a same-sex marriage. But we already know that if there are, then their spouses will continue to be just plain old “Mister”. Unless, of course, they have their own title.