When does a woman become "The Dowager X"?
The rule is:
A widow of a peer may be called dowager only if (a) her husband bore the title and (b) the current peer is a direct descendant of her deceased husband.
Put another way, "A dowager peeress is the mother, stepmother, or grandmother of the reigning peer, and the widow of a preceding one. In no other case is she a dowager."(111a)
If she is eligible, a widow assumes the title of dowager immediately she becomes a widow. However, she continues to be referred to as "Lady Denville" without the "Dowager" tacked on as long as the current title-holder (her son or grandson) remained unmarried, i.e., so long as there is not another "Lady Denville."(112) I think sometimes people also referred to dowagers as "the elder Lady Spenborough." (Unless, as in Fanny's case, the new Lady Spenborough is older than she is!) I seem to recall reading some contemporary letters which refer to "the old duchess" when meaning the widow of the 1st Duke of Marlborough (and in that case, it was one of her own daughters who was the new duchess). The rules for addressing a dowager in speech are in all ways the same as if her husband were still living, except that if confusion arises, she is referred to as The Dowager Countess (or Amabel, Countess of Denville) to distinguish her from the current peer's wife, or from any other countesses still alive.
According to Debrett's Correct Form:
"Officially the widow of a peer is known as the Dowager Countess (or whatever) of X, unless there is already a dowager peeress of the family still living. In the latter event, the widow of the senior peer of the family retains the title of Dowager for life, and the widow of the junior peer in that family is known by her Christian name, e.g., Mary, Countess of X, until she becomes the senior widow. . . . When the present peer is unmarried, by custom the widow of the late peer continues to call herself as she did when her husband was living, i.e., without the prefix of (a) dowager, or (b) her Christian name. Should the present peer marry, it is usual for the widowed peeress to announce the style by which she wishes to be know in future."(113) This last bit is twentieth century, and Black's agrees: most widows don't use "dowager" at all anymore, and simply use the Mary, Countess of X option, announcing in the press the style they will be using.
In False Colours, when Lady Denville decided to marry Sir Bonamy, one beneficial circumstance she noted about the match was that after she was married, she would no longer be a dowager countess. Fanny, Lady Spenborough, is not a dowager and never will be, because the new Lord Spenborough was not a descendant of her deceased husband.
In Their Noble Lordships,
Winchester notes is that thanks to dukes' apparent inability to make or maintain good
marriages, there are twice as many duchesses today as there are dukes.(114) That's because most divorceÚs are entitled to
the "Mary, Duchess of Southampton" style until they remarry.
On to Entails, Marriage Settlements, and Dower
If you dispute a fact from these pages, please contact me, and if you can, provide a contradicting source. These pages are a work in progress and I expect them to change in the future, although what I present today is as accurate as I can make it.
Laura A. Wallace
12 June 2004
Hereditary Peerages, including Royal Titles
Rights and Privileges of Peers
A Peeress "in her own right"
Entails, Marriage Settlements, and Dower
Almack's (coming soon!)
Biographical Details of Real Regency People (coming soon!)
Correct Forms of Address
The 1st Duke of Marlborough
Links to other Sites