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A viscount (pronounced /ˈvaɪkaʊnt/ vye-count) is a member of the European nobility whose comital title ranks usually, as in the British peerage, above a baron, below an earl (in Britain) or a count (the earl's continental equivalent).

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Etymology

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 Britain 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 hereditary; but soon they too tended to establish hereditary principalities lato sensu (in the wider sense).

Viscounts in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Peerages and baronetages
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of the British Isles
Extant All
Dukes Dukedoms
Marquesses Marquessates
Earls Earldoms
Viscounts Viscountcies
Barons Baronies
Baronets Baronetcies

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.

  • In British practice, the title of a viscount may be either a place name, or a surname, or sometimes, a combination thereof. In any event, the style of a viscount is "The Viscount [X]", or "The Viscount [X] of [Y]". He is addressed as "My Lord". Examples include The Viscount Falmouth (place name); The Viscount Hardinge (surname); The Viscount Gage of Castle Island (surname of place name); and The Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore (placename of placename). An exception exists for Viscounts in the peerage of Scotland, who were traditionally styled "The Viscount of [X]", as in: The Viscount of Arbuthnott (surname)—very few maintain this style, instead using the more common version "The Viscount [X]".

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].

British Viscount Coronet
  • A specifically British custom is the use of viscount as a courtesy title for the heir of an earl or marquess. The peer's heir apparent will sometimes be referred to as a viscount, if the second most senior title held by the head of the family is a viscountcy. For example, the eldest son of the Earl Howe is Viscount Curzon, because this is the second most senior title held by the Earl.
A more recent example of the above is with the Earl of Wessex' son, James, who is styled Viscount Severn.
  • The son of a marquess or an earl can be referred to as a viscount when the title of viscount is not the second most senior if those above it share their name with the substantive title. For example, the second most senior title of the Marquess of Salisbury is the Earl of Salisbury. The eldest son of the Marquess does not use the title Earl of Salisbury, but rather the next most senior title, Viscount Cranborne. This is because peers sign their name with the name of their title only (e.g., "Salisbury") thus to prevent confusion the heir would not use the title Earl of Salisbury.
  • Sometimes the son of a peer can be referred to as a viscount even when he could use a more senior courtesy title which differs in name from the substantive title. Family tradition plays a role in this. For example, the eldest son of the Marquess of Londonderry is Viscount Castlereagh, even though the Marquess is also the Earl Vane.
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Coronet

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

  • The title of viscount is less common in Italy ("visconte"), though the noble Visconti family, once rulers of Milan, offers an outstanding example. In Italy, a younger member of a conte (count)'s family, assigned a fortified rocca on the outskirts of the territory, would be more likely to be "X, dei conti di Y" ("X, of the counts of Y") than Viscount.
  • In the former kingdom of Portugal a visconde ranks above a barão (baron) and below a conde. The first Portuguese viscountcy, that of D. Leonel de Lima, visconde de Vila Nova de Cerveira, dates from the reign of Afonso V. A flood of viscountcies, some 86 new titles, was awarded in Portugal between 1848 and 1880 (Portuguese Wikipedia).
  • In the kingdom of Spain the title was awarded from the reign of Felipe IV (1621–65; Habsburg dynasty) until 1846.
  • In various languages we need to verify whether the existing title has actually been awarded there, or is just an empty rendering of foreign realities.
    • Greek: Υποκόμης (Ypokómēs), fem. Υποκόμησσα (Ypokómēssa)
    • Hungarian: várgróf or vikomt and even vicomte (as in French)
    • Polish: Wicehrabia (literally vice-count)

Correct form of address

There are rules on how one should address a viscount.[1] Debrett's, the UK's leading authority on etiquette, suggest that in conversation a viscount should be referred to as Lord X rather than the Viscount X. Ecclesiastical, ambassadorial and armed forces 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

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

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:

  • the Chinese Tzu or Zi (子), hereditary title of nobility first established in the Zhou dynasty
  • the Korean cognate jajak or Pansoh
  • the Japanese cognate Shishaku (子爵) or Shi, fourth of the five peerage ranks established in the Meiji era, based both on the British viscount and Zhou Chinese zi
  • the Vietnamese cognate Tử
  • the Manchu jingkini hafan

See also

Sources and references

References

  1. ^ Debrett's Forms of Address

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

VISCOUNT (through O. Fr. viscomte, mod. vicomte, from Low Lat. vice-comes, cf. Portug. visconde, Ital. visconte), the title of the fourth rank of the European nobility. In the British peerage it intervenes between the dignities of earl and baron. The title is now purely one of honour, having long been dissociated from any special office or functions.

In the Carolingian epoch the vice-comites, or missi comitis, were the deputies or vicars of the counts, whose official powers they exercised by delegation, and from these the viscounts of the feudal period were undoubtedly derived. Soon after the counts became hereditary the same happened in the case of their lieutenants; e.g. in Narbonne, Nimes and Alby the viscounts had, according to A. Molinier, acquired hereditary rights as early as the beginning of the 10th century. Viscountcies thus developed into actual fiefs, with their own jurisdiction, domain and seigniorial rights, and could be divided or even transmitted to females. Viscounts, however, continued for some time to have no more than the status of lieutenants, calling themselves either simply vice-comites, or adding to this title the name of the countship from which they derived their powers. It was not till the 12th century that the universal tendency to territorialize the feudal dominions affected the viscountcies with the rest, and that the viscounts began to take the name of the most important of their patrimonial domains. Thus the viscounts of Poitiers called themselves viscounts of Thouars, and those of Toulouse viscounts of Bruniquel and Montelar. From this time the significance of the title was extremely various. Some viscounts, notably in the duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Toulouse, of which the size made an effective centralized government impossible, were great barons, whose authority extended over whole provinces, and who disputed for power on equal terms with counts and dukes. Elsewhere, on the other hand, e.g. in the Tie de France, Champagne, and a great part of Burgundy, the vicomtes continued to be half feudatories, half officials of the counts, with the same functions and rank in the feudal hierarchy as the chatelains; their powers were jealously limited and, with the organization of the system of prevets and baillis in the 12th century, practically disappeared. In the royal domains especially, these petty feudatories could not maintain themselves against the growing power of the crown, and they were early assimilated to the prdvots; thus there is no record of a vicomte at Paris after 1027.

In Normandy, where from the first the central power had been strong, vicomtes appeared at a very early date as deputies of the counts (afterwards dukes) of the Normans: "They are both personal companions and hereditary nobles." When local Norman counts began in the 11th century, some of them had vicomtes under them, but the normal vicomte was still a deputy of the duke, and Henry I. largely replaced the hereditary holders of the vicomtes by officials. "By the time of the Conqueror the judicial functions of the viscount were fully recognized, and extended over the greater part of Normandy." Eventually almost the whole of Normandy was divided into administrative viscountcies or bailiwicks by the end of the 12th century. When the Normans conquered England, they applied the term viscounte or vicecomes to the sheriffs of the English system (see Sheriff), whose office, however, was quite distinct and was hardly affected by the Conquest.

Nearly four centuries later "viscount" was introduced as a peerage style into England, when its king was once more lord of Normandy. John, Lord Beaumont, K.G., who had been created count of Boulogne in 1436, was made Viscount Beaumont, February 12, 1440, and granted precedence over all barons, which was doubtless the reason for his creation. Within a year the feudal vicomte of Beaumont in Normandy was granted to him and the heirs male of his body on the ground that he traced his descent from that district. In 1446 Lord Bourchier, who held the Norman countship of Eu, was similarly made a viscount. The oldest viscountcy now on the roll is that of Hereford, created in 1550; but the Irish viscountcy of Gorman ston is as old as 1478. The dignity was sparingly conferred in the peerage of England till recent times, when the number of viscounts was increased by bestowing the dignity on retiring speakers (e.g. Viscounts Canterbury, Hampden, Peel, Selby) and ministers who accepted peerages (e.g. Viscounts Melville, Halifax, Knutsford, Llandaff, Cross, Ridley, Goschen, St Aldwyn, Morley of Blackburn, Wolverhampton).

A viscount is "Right Honourable," and is styled "My Lord." His wife, also "Right Honourable," is a "viscountess," and is styled "My Lady." All their sons and daughters are "Honourable." The coronet first granted by James I. has on the golden circlet a row of fourteen small pearls set in contact, of which number in representations nine are shown. The scarlet parliamentary robe of a viscount has two and a half doublings of ermine.

See A. Luchaire, Manuel des institutions francaises (Paris, 1892), bibliography on p. 282; Stapleton s Rotuli Scaccarii Normanniae; Powicke's "The Angevin Administration of Normandy" (Eng. Hist. Rev. vols. xxi., xxii.); Lords' Reports on the Dignity of a Peer; Courthope Nicolas's Historic Peerage.


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