AskDefine | Define duchess

Dictionary Definition

duchess n : the wife of a duke or a woman holding ducal title in her own right

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /ˈdʌ.tʃəs/
  • /"dV.tS@s/


  1. The female ruler of a duchy.
  2. The female spouse or widow of a duke.


Extensive Definition

"Duchess" redirects here. For the Beanie Baby, see Beanie Babies 2.0
A duke is a noble person, historically of highest rank below the king or queen, and usually controls a duchy or a Dukedom. The title comes from the Latin Dux Bellorum, which had the sense of "military commander" and was employed by both the Germanic peoples themselves and by the Roman authors covering them to refer to their war leaders.
In the Middle Ages the title signified first among the Germanic monarchies. Dukes were the rulers of the provinces and the superiors of the counts in the cities and later, in the feudal monarchies, the highest-ranking peers of the king. There were, however, variants of these meanings and there were even sovereign princes employing ducal titles.
In the Modern Age it has become a nominal rank without an actual principality. It is still the highest titular peerage in France, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy.
A woman who holds in her own right the title to such duchy or dukedom, or is the wife of a duke, is normally styled duchess. However, Queen Elizabeth II is known as Duke of Normandy in the Channel Islands and Duke of Lancaster in Lancashire.


Roman Empire

see also dux Originally, dux was a title given to a leader of a single military expedition or army and holding no other power than that which he exercised over his soldiers. The designation, first applied to barbarian tribal leaders, became a formal Roman title in the Roman Empire over time. Upon the separation of the civil and military functions in the fourth century, the dux became commander of all the troops contained in a military territory, often corresponding to one or more provinces; this Roman rank was below the similar comes rei militaris. To avoid the connotations of the modern "dukes," Roman and post-Roman military leaders are usually styled with the Latin title, e.g., Artorius Dux Bellorum rather than a translate the title to duke.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages following the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, the title was still employed in the Germanic kingdoms, most often to the rulers of the old Roman provinces.


They retained the Roman divisions of their kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula and it seems that dukes ruled over these. They were the highest magnates in the land and, together with the bishops, elected the king, usually from their own file. They were the military commanders and in this capacity often acted independently of the king, especially in the last days of the kingdom.
The army was structured decimally with the highest unit, the thiufa, probably corresponding to about one thousand people from each civitas, city district. The cities were commanded by the counts, who were in turn responsible to the dukes, who called up the thiufae when need be.


When the Lombards entered Italy, the Latin chroniclers called their war leaders duces in the old fashion. These leaders eventually became the provincial rulers, each with a recognized seat of government. Though nominally loyal to the king, the concept of kingship was new to the Lombards and the dukes were highly independent, especially in central and southern Italy, where the Duke of Spoleto and the Duke of Benevento were de facto sovereigns. In 575, when Cleph died, a period known as the Rule of the Dukes, in which the dukes governed without a king, commenced. It lasted only a decade before the disunited magnates, in order to defend the kingdom from external attacks, elected a new king and even diminished their own duchies to provide him with a handsome royal demesne.
The Lombard kings were usually drawn from the dukes when the title was not hereditary. The dukes tried to make their own offices hereditary. Beneath them in the internal structure were the counts and gastalds, a uniquely Lombard title initially referring to judicial functions, similar to a count's, in provincial regions.


The Franks employed dukes as the governors of Roman provinces, though they also led military expeditions far away from their duchies. The dukes were the highest ranking officials in the realm, were more typically Franks than the counts (who were often Gallo-Romans), and formed the class from which the kings' generals were drawn in times of war. The dukes gathered every May with the king to converse on policy for the upcoming year, the so-called Mayfield.
In Burgundy and Provence, the titles of patrician and prefect were commonly employed in preference to duke, probably for historical reasons relating to the greater Romanization of those provinces. The titles, however, were basically equivalent.
In late Merovingian Gaul, the mayors of the palace of the Arnulfing clan began to use the title dux et princeps Francorum: "duke and prince of the Franks." In this title, "duke" implied supreme military control of the entire nation (Francorum, the Franks) and it was thus used until the end of the Carolingian dynasty in France in 987.
Stem duchies


Anglo-Saxon times
The highest political division beneath that of kingdom among the Anglo-Saxons was the ealdormanry and, while the title ealdor person was replaced by the Danish eorl (later earl) over time, the first ealdor people were referred to as duces in the chronicles. Thus, in Anglo-Saxon England, where the Roman political divisions were largely abandoned, the grade of duke was retained as supreme territorial magnate after the king.
Late medieval times
The Black Prince was created Duke of Cornwall in 1337. He was the first proper Duke to be created by a King of England. To celebrate this event six new Earls were created. In the Patent creating the new Earl of Salisbury, on 16 March 1337, the King refers also to this higher Honour as: ''"willing more securely to establish the Royal sceptre as well as by the addition of new honours as by the restoration of old ones, and to augment the number of nobles by whose counsels our realm may be directed in doubtful, and by whose suffrages be supported in adverse circumstances, have advanced our most dear first begotten Edward (whom in the prerogative of honour as is meet, we have caused to have precedence of others) to be Duke of Cornwall, over which awhile ago Dukes for a long time successively sided as chief rulers..."''

The Modern Age

In the 19th century, the sovereign dukes of Parma and Modena in Italy, and of Anhalt, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Nassau, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen and Saxe-Altenburg in Germany survived Napoleon's reorganization.
Since the unification of Italy in 1870 and the end of monarchy in Germany in 1918, there have no longer been any reigning dukes in Europe; Luxembourg is ruled by a grand duke, a higher title, just below King.
In the United Kingdom, the inherited position of a duke along with its dignities, privileges, and rights is a dukedom. However, the title of duke has never been associated with independent rule in the British Isles: they hold dukedoms, not duchies. Dukes in the United Kingdom are addressed as 'Your Grace' and referred to as 'His Grace'. Currently, there are twenty-seven dukedoms in the Peerage of England, Peerage of Scotland, Peerage of Great Britain, Peerage of Ireland and Peerage of the United Kingdom, held by twenty-four different people (see List of Dukes in order of precedence).

Equivalents in other European languages

Royal dukes

Various royal houses traditionally awarded (mainly) dukedoms to the sons and in some cases, the daughters, of their respective Sovereigns; others include at least one dukedom in a wider list of similarly granted titles, nominal dukedoms without any actual authority, often even without an estate. Such titles are still conferred on royal princes or princesses in the current European monarchies of Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Other historical cases occurred for example in Denmark, Finland (as Sweden, in personal union) and France, Portugal and some former colonial possessions such as Brazil and Haiti.

United Kingdom


In Belgium, the title of Duke of Brabant (historically the most prestigious in the Low Countries, and containing the federal capital Brussels), if still vacant, has been awarded preferentially to the eldest son and heir presumptive of the King, other male dynasts receiving various lower historical titles (much older than Belgium, and in principle never fallen to the Belgian crown), such as Count of Flanders (king Leopold III's so-titled brother held the title when he became the realm's temporary head of state as Prince-regent) and Prince of Liège (a secularised version of the historical Prince-bishopric; e.g. the present king Albert II until he succeeded his older brother Baudouin I)


Denmark's kings gave appanages in their twin-duchies of Schleswig-Holstein (now three-fourths of them is part of Germany, but then the Holstein half of it was part of HRE in personal union with Denmark proper) to younger sons and/or their male-line descendants, with a specific though not sovereign title of Duke, e.g. Duke of Gottorp, Duke of Sonderburg, Duke of Augustenborg, Duke of Franzhagen, Duke of Beck, Duke of Glucksburg and Duke of Norburg.

Iberian peninsula

When the Christian Reconquista, sweeping the Moors from the former Caliphate of Cordoba and its taifa-remnants, transformed the territory of former Suevic and Visigothic realms into Catholic feudal principalities, none of these war lords was exactly styled Duke, a few (as Portugal itself) started as Count (even if the title of Dux was sometimes added), but soon all politically relevant princes were to use the royal style of King.



Spanish infantes and infantas were usually given a dukedom upon marriage. This title is nowadays not hereditary but carries a Grandeza de España. The current royal duchesses are: HRH the Duchess of Badajoz (Infanta Maria del Pilar), HRH the Duchess of Soria (Infanta Margarita) (although she inherited the title of Duchess of Hernani from her cousin and is second holder of that title), HRH the Duchess of Lugo (Infanta Elena) and HRH the Duchess of Palma de Mallorca (Infanta Cristina).
In Spain many dukes hold the court rank of Grande, i.e. Grandee of the realm, which had precedence over all other feudatories.

Finland and Sweden

Sweden had a history of making sons of its Kings real ruling princes of vast duchies, but this ceased in 1622. Title-wise, however, all Swedish princes since 1772, and princesses since 1980, are given a dukedom for life. Currently, there is one duke and three duchesses. The territorial designations of these dukedoms refer to four of the Provinces of Sweden.
Key parts of Finland were sometimes under a Duke of Finland during the Swedish reign.

France and other former monarchies

See appanage (mainly for the French kingdom) and the list in the geographical section below, which also treats special ducal titles in orders or national significance.


The highest precedence in the realm, attached to a feudal territory, was given to the twelve original pairies, which also had a traditional function in the royal coronation, comparable to the German imperial archoffices. Half of them were ducal: three ecclesiastical (the six prelates all ranked above the six secular peers of the realm) and three temporal, each time above three counts of the same social estate: The Prince-Bishops with ducal territories among them were:
  • The Archbishop of Reims, styled archevêque-duc pair de France (in Champagne; who crown and anoint the king, traditionally in his cathedral)
  • Two suffragan bishops, styled evêque-duc pair de France :
    • the bishop-duke of Laon (in Picardy; bears the 'Sainte Ampoule' containing the sacred ointment)
    • the bishop-duc de Langres (in Burgundy; bears the scepter)
Later, the Archbishop of Paris was given the title of duc de Saint-Cloud with the dignity of peerage, but it was debated if he was an ecclesiastical peer or merely a bishop holding a lay peerage.
The secular dukes in the peerage of the realm were, again in order of precedence:
  • the duc de Bourgogne, i.e. Duke of Burgundy (known as Grand duc; not a separate title at that time; just a description of the wealth and real clout of the 15th century Dukes, cousins of the Kings of France) (bears the crown, fastens the belt)
  • Duke of Normandy or duc de Normandie (holds the first square banner)
  • Duke of Aquitaine or duc d'Aquitaine or - de Guyenne (holds the second square banner)
It should be noted what the theory of the participation of the peers in the coronation was laid down in the late XIIIth century, when some of the peerage (the duchy of Normandy and the county of Toulouse) had already been merged in the crown. At the end of this same century, the King erected some counties into duchies, a practice what went increasing till the Revolution. Many of this duchies were also peerages (the so-called 'new peerages').

Italy, Germany and Austria

In Italy, Germany and Austria the title of "duke" ("duca" in Italian, and "Herzog" in German) was quite common. As the Holy Roman Empire was until its dissolution a feudal structure, most of its Dukes were actually reigning in their lands. As the titles from the HRE were taken over after its dissolution, or in Italy after their territories became independant of the Empire, both countries also had a share of fully souvereign dukes. Also, in Germany in many ducial family ever agnate would bear the ducial title of the family as a courtesy title.
In Italy some important souvereign ducal families were the Visconti and the Sforza, who ruled Milan; the Medici of Florence, the Farnese of Parma and Piacenza; the Cybo-Malaspina of Massa; the Gonzaga of Mantua; the Este of Modena and Ferrara.
In Germany, important ducial families were the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria, the Welfs in Hannover, the ducial family of Cleves, the Wettins in Saxony (with its Ernestine branch divided into several duchies), the Württembergs, the Mecklenburgs and finally of course also the Habsburgs in Austria as "Archdukes". In the German Confederation the Nassaus, the Ascanians of Anhalt, the Welf branch of Brunswick and the Ernestine lines of the Saxon Duchies were the souvereign ducial families.

Elsewhere in Europe

Nordic countries


In the Kingdom of Hungary no ducal principalities existed but duchies were often formed for members of the dynasty as appanage. During the rule of the Árpád dinasty dukes held territorial powers, some of them even minted coins, but later this title became more often nominal. These duchies usually were
In the Jagellonian era (1490-1526) only two dukes did not belong to the royal dynasty: John Corvin (the illegitimate son of Matthias Corvinus) and Lőrinc Újlaki (whose father was the king of Bosnia), while both bore the title as royal dukes.
After the Battle of Mohács the Habsburg kings rewarded Hungarian aristocrats (like the Esterházys) with princely titles, but they created these titles as Holy Roman Emperors, not as kings of Hungary.


As the Catholic crusaders overran orthodox parts of the Byzantine empire, they installed several crusader states, some of which were of ducal rank:
Byzantines had used the title Dux, still a military office for them, also territory-specifically: Dux of Dyrrhachium, Dux of Thrakesion.
Palaiologos emperors, living under much more feudalized necessities, granted fiefs to some westerners: Duke of Leucadia, Duke of Lemnos.
Sometimes in Italy and other Western countries, the later Byzantine appanages were translated as duchies: Peloponnese, Mistra, Mesembria, Selymbria and Thessalonike. However, as these had Greek holders, they were titled Archon ('magistrate') or Despotes (rather Prince of the blood).
After Greece's post-Ottoman independence as kingdom of the Hellenes, the style of Duke of Sparta was instituted as primogeniture for the royal heir, diadochos, the crown prince of Greece.

Slavic countries

Generally, confusion reigns whether to translate the usual petty ruler titles, knyaz/ knez/ ksiaze etc. as Prince (analogous to the German Fürst) or as Duke;
  • in splintered Poland, also in (later ethnically German parts of) Silesia (later within the HRE), petty principalities generally ruled by branches of the earlier Polish Piast dynasty are regarded as duchies in translated titulary. Examples of such: Kujavia, Masovia, Sandomir, Greater Poland, Kalisz and Silesia (Lower Silesia and Upper Silesia), as well as various minor duchies, often short-lived and/or in personal union or merger, named after their capitals, mainly in the regions known as Little Poland and Greater Poland, including (there are often also important Latin and/or German forms) Cracow, Opole, Ratibor, Legnica, Zator, Leczyca and Sieradz.
  • In Pomerelia and Pomerania (inhabited by the Kashubians, different Slavic people from the Poles proper), branches of native ruling dynasties were usually recognized as dukes, quite similarly to the pattern in Poland.
  • in Russia, before the imperial unification from Muscovy; sometimes even as vassal, tributary to a Tartar Khan; later, in Peter the Great's autocratic empire, the russification gertsog was used as the Russian rendering of the German ducal title Herzog, especially as (the last) part of the full official style of the Russian Emperor: Gertsog Shlesvig-Golstinskiy, Stormarnskiy, Ditmarsenskiy i Oldenburgskiy i prochaya, i prochaya, i prochaya "Duke of Schleswig-Holstein [see above], Stormarn, Dithmarschen and Oldenburg, and of other lands", in chief of German and Danish territories to which the Tsar was dynastically linked.


After Belgium and the Netherlands separated in 1830, the title of duke didn't occur in the Netherlands anymore. There is, however, one exception; the title Hertog van Limburg (Duke of Limburg) still exists. This title, however, is an exclusive title for the head of state (the monarch, i.e. the king or queen of the Netherlands).

Post-colonial non-European states

Brazilian empire

In this former Portuguese kingdom, after separation ruled by a branch of the Portuguese royal dynasty (House of Bragança), only three dukedoms were created, being its highest ranks for non-members of the imperial dynasty. Two of these titles were for relatives of D. Peter I: an illegitimate daughter and a brother-in-law who received the title when married with D. Peter's daughter D. Mary II. The third, to the most important Brazilian military man, de Lima e Silva, was the only duke created during the reign of D. Peter II. A fourth title was created for another illegitimate daughter of D. Peter I, but she died before receiving the title (and so it is often disconsidered). None of these titles were hereditary, just like every other title in the Brazilian nobility system.


The royal Christophe dynasty created eight hereditary dukedoms, in rank directly below the nominal princes.


Like other major Western noble titles, Duke is sometimes used to render certain titles in non-western languages with their own traditions, even though they are as a rule etymologically and often historically unrelated and thus hard to compare, which are considered roughly equivalent, especially in hierarchic aristocracies such as feudal Japan, useful as an indication of relative rank.



duchess in Afrikaans: Hertog
duchess in Tosk Albanian: Herzog
duchess in Arabic: دوق
duchess in Bosnian: Vojvoda
duchess in Catalan: Duc
duchess in Czech: Vévoda
duchess in Danish: Hertug
duchess in German: Herzog
duchess in Estonian: Hertsog
duchess in Spanish: Duque
duchess in Esperanto: Duko
duchess in Persian: دوک
duchess in French: Duc
duchess in Western Frisian: Hartoch
duchess in Korean: 공작 (작위)
duchess in Croatian: Vojvoda
duchess in Italian: Duca
duchess in Latvian: Hercogs
duchess in Limburgan: Hertog
duchess in Hungarian: Herceg
duchess in Dutch: Hertog
duchess in Japanese: 公爵
duchess in Norwegian: Hertug
duchess in Polish: Diuk
duchess in Portuguese: Duque
duchess in Russian: Герцог
duchess in Simple English: Duke
duchess in Slovak: Vojvoda
duchess in Slovenian: Vojvoda
duchess in Finnish: Herttua
duchess in Swedish: Hertig
duchess in Turkish: Dük
duchess in Ukrainian: Герцог
duchess in Urdu: ڈیوک
duchess in Chinese: 公爵
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