Royal Mess

Lots of stories and settings involve aristocracy and politics. If nothing else, focusing on these things is a good way of making the events of your plot feel important, since the fate of nations is in the balance. However, you sometimes find that authors throw about terms and concepts relating to the aristocracy without having done the research. The end result can be that you get barons who outrank dukes, counts who rule kingdoms, and sometimes even kings who rule republics.

You have to be careful, of course, before criticising (if you criticise at all). Titles can shift greatly in meaning and usage across time and between countries, and so things which appear wrong might actually be okay. And for imaginary countries, of course, there's often a justification: "It just works differently here," is perfectly fine, especially if it's followed by "There are complicated historical reasons which are All There in the Manual." It's not as though the real world hasn't produced odd situations from time to time. Plus, of course, a large dose of "Who the hell actually cares?" should be kept handy. Therefore, this shouldn't really be a list of criticisms so much as a list of oddities: things which are interesting in that they diverge from the expected, but which are not necessarily wrong.

Contrast Just the First Citizen, where the Big Bad opts for a deliberately understated title.

Examples

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    Comics 
  • Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman has Nicholas Fury refer to "Sir Reed" in an early issue, then eventually reveals that this universe's version of Fantastic Four is led by Sir Richard Reed, who would therefore be called "Sir Richard". 1602: Fantastick Four by Peter David confuses this further (possibly intentionally), by not only using "Sir Reed" but also "Master Richards" - but still giving his full name as "Richard Reed".

    Film 
  • In Star Wars:
    • The Emperor has a Royal Guard, not an Imperial Guard.
    • The Trade Federation, which doesn't seem to be a monarchy of any sort, has a Viceroy for some reason. (A viceroy is supposed to be a stand-in for a monarch: vice is Latin for "in place of a," and roi is French for "king.")
    • The Queen of Naboo is democratically elected. (There have been elective monarchies in the real world, and still are today, but in all the real instances, the monarch is elected by fellow aristocrats rather than by the people - though sometimes the definition of "aristocrat" is so broad that this is a big chunk of the population, as in Poland-Lithuania.) This is said in the Expanded Universe to have been a gradual evolution from a more traditional monarchy. She also serves in office for a fixed time, as opposed to most monarchs who reign until death, deposition or abdication. For all intents and purposes, it's a republic that treats its presidents like monarchs.
    • There appears to be no universally agreed-upon style for the Emperor. He is addressed as "Your Majesty" in Revenge of the Sith and "Your Highness" in Return of the Jedi. In certain other EU sources, Palps kept his old Republican style of "Excellency".
    • Invoked in-universe with Han Solo, who picks up a habit of addressing Leia with outrageous, nonexistent and/or just plain wrong styles.
  • The Princess Diaries: The succession to the monarchy seems to work in a very odd way in Genovia, with it apparently going first to the spouse of the previous monarch.
    • Considering that the one known offspring of the most recent monarch was not of legal age to take the throne, seems most likely that her grandmother was an acting monarch, as regent for the rightful heir until she reached majority.

    Literature 
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Westeros has noticeably fewer royal titles than in real life; George R.R. Martin did this on purpose to simplify things. He has admitted that in retrospect he wishes he had added one or two more titles though, mostly to differentiate the great Lords (sometimes distinguished as "high lords" or "Lords Paramount") and their bannermen. As it is, you have hierarchies such as Lord Locke being sworn to Lord Manderly, who is sworn to Lord Stark, who is sworn to the King.
    • The Westerosi hierarchy of feudal titles goes: King (styled "King [given name]" or "[Your] Grace"), High Lord (or Prince in Dorne), Lord Bannerman, and finally just a Lord (styled "Prince [given name]" or "Lord [given or surname]). There are also knights, who may be sworn to any of the above examples of nobility or work as hedge knights; knights receive the styling "Ser [given name]".
    • Westeros is commonly referred to as the Seven Kingdoms, but this is an anachronism; nowadays they aren't kingdoms and there aren't seven of them. The realm is ruled by one King, who is superordinate to seven "high lords" and one Prince (a courtesy title, as one of the old "kingdoms", Dorne, was really a principality).
    • Another In-Universe example of the trope: the Southern lords and knights who come with Stannis to the Wall insist on referring to the sister-in-law of a dead "King" of the wildlings as a "wildling princess" (and hope to use her as a political pawn), no matter how many times it's pointed out to them that the wildlings don't believe in hereditary monarchy and don't see the woman as having any innate authority over them.
    • In Meereen, a city-state in Essos, kings and queens are styled "[Your] Magnificence", and the Westerosi "Your Grace" is actively rejected, possibly because the city also features the Temple of the Graces, which houses priestesses, healers, and ritual prostitutes who are known as Graces.
  • Justified in Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar "counts". The title is actually an abbreviation for "accountant", and they used to be the Emperor's tax collectors. This explanation is considered Shrouded in Myth and possibly apocryphal within the setting but it makes for an amusing annecdote. Count Aral Vorkosigan uses salic descent to defend himself against assertions that he arguably has a better claim to the throne than the current Emperor; given Barrayar's tortured political history (in which he played no small part) defending himself from assuming the throne is exactly the way he thinks of it.
  • Honor Harrington series:
    • Later in the series the titles get pretty messy including not only the British noble titles but several more, not to mention knighthoods...
    • It causes confusion in universe, as well, once they bring the Graysons into the mix. Grayson is split into Steadings, each Steading lead by a Steadholder, and the Steadholders all answering (more or less) to the Protector. That said, it is established in the later books that each Steadholder is considered equal in noble station to the Queen of Manticore, given the nature of Grayson government and politics.
  • In Tamora Pierce's earliest books, she uses both "earl" and "count" in a way that implies they're two different things. "Earl" is just the English name for what continental Europe calls a count (and an earl's wife is still called a countess).
  • The Maradonia Saga and Inheritance Cycle both have kings ruling empires.
  • In the Kingdom of Gwynedd the peerage comes in three flavors; Dukes, Earls and Barons. The title 'lord' or 'lady' is however generously applied to cadets and descendants of those three orders, apparently indefinitely. 'Lord' Rhys Thuryn for example is the son of a younger son and in our world would be untitled but in Gwynedd he is a lord and so are his sons and his daughters are ladies. The title of Prince or Princess seems similarly transmittable ad infinitem.
  • In their notes on The Mote In Gods Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explain that the real titles of nobility used by the Empire of Man centuries in the future are things like "sector commander" or "commissar" but they're employing 19th-century British-style titles as a Translation Convention.
  • Played with in The Fifth Elephant, where a character tots up all the titles Vimes has been granted only to have Vimes point out that some of them ought to cancel out the others.

    Music 
  • Gene Chandler's 1962 classic Duke of Earl obviously makes no sense. The lyrics also state "we'll walk through my dukedom" which (see above) is not possible.

    Live Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, the Centauri Republic has both an Emperor and a Royal Navy. The Republic was modeled in part on The Roman Empire, which in its early phases insisted that it was still a republic despite the Emperor ruling all.
  • The West Wing has Lord John Marbury, who is Earl of Croy, Earl of Sherborne, Marquess of Needham and Dolby, Baronet of Brycey and therefore would correctly be referred to as Lord Needham (being the most senior title). Arguably he may have been a younger son when he started his diplomatic career and unexpectadly inherited but chooses to use to previous styling. Or the writers didn't look things up. As Lord John Marbury is a crazy person, it might simply him bucking tradition for a laugh's sake.
  • In the world of JAG (“Washington Holiday”), Romania has restored its monarchy but the King and his heir are living under assassination threat from hardliners who don’t want their country to join NATO.
  • Downton Abbey really has Shown Their Work respecting the British aristocracy; it rather helps that series creator Julian Fellowes comes from the upper crust and is himself a Tory life peer. Much of the interesting stuff is used above as examples in "General", but we should note Sir Richard Carlisle's mangling of proper address when speaking to Lord Grantham's sister:
    Carlisle: Ah, Lady Painswick.
    Rosamund: *with a grandiosity befitting her mother* Lady Rosamund.
  • Merlin did get the "heir apparent" thing right,with Arthur being named as such on his birthday.

    Radio 
  • Cabin Pressure at one point features a King of Liechtenstein, which is really a principality. Word of God, heading off the inevitable angry letters, pointed out that this was because a particular joke relies on the regal, senior expectations associated with a "king", whereas our expectations of a "prince" would not be so subverted by The Reveal that he's a small child.

    Webcomics 
  • In The Order of the Stick, Vaarsuvius addressed Roy as "Sir Greenhilt", which isn't how a real knighthood would work - but of course, judicious application of "this isn't the real world" a la Miko would take care of that.

    Video Games 
  • Pokémon X and Y has a mix of European and UK style ranks at the Battle Chateau.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender,
    • The ruler of the Fire Nation is called the Fire Lord, while his children are referred to as "prince" and "princess", with an explicit mention of a "crown prince".
    • According to Nickelodeon official site, the ancient kings of Ba Sing Se unified the Earth Kingdom in a confederation, and by law the current king is known as Earth King and rule over the subordinate kings. By the time of the series, the Earth King is merely a figurehead, and at least some of the subordinate kings and rulers (like Bumi) got their power back. Bumi is the King of a heavily fortified independent city-state, while the Earth King himself is the head of the loosely united Earth Kingdom (appears to be a coalition of city-states with a common culture and heritage), with direct control over Ba Sing Se and the region within the great walls.
    • Interestingly, when Ozai created the world-ruling rank of "Phoenix King" and turned the Fire Nation over to his daughter, she retained the title of "Fire Lord".
    • In The Legend of Korra, Zuko abdicated and his unnamed daughter is "Fire Lord." The Fire Lord's consort has no known title.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Equestria is a kingdom ruled by two princesses. In it are the Kingdom of Canterlot and the Crystal Empire among others, the latter is ruled by a Prince and a Princess instead of an Emperor and Empress, and it was previously ruled by a queen and taken over by a king. About the only place that gets it right is the ancient Kingdom of the Unicorns, which was ruled by a king.
  • In the In-Universe movie "The Duchess Approves" from Gravity Falls, there is a Count Lionel at the British court. In England, the title of "Earl" replaces the continental rank of "Count". It's vaguely plausible he could be a foreign royal, but with an English name and accent, it's not likely.

    Web Original 
  • In Pay Me, Bug!, there are a collection of "Baronies", ruled by "Barons" and "Baronesses", that are actually independent states. The manual states that they originally evolved from "corporate states", so their CEOs-turned-rulers probably just assigned themselves a title that sounded cool. Although, how they all wound up assigning themselves the same title isn't elaborated upon.

    Real Life 
  • Fun fact: He wants you call him "Sir Geoffrey Lord Archer", but unless he's been knighted he's Lord Archer or Jeffrey Lord Archer. "Sir" is reserved to those who have received a knighthood.
  • Native "princesses". You've probably encountered someone who refers to their ancestor as a "Cherokee princess". Such things didn't exist, but marrying a princess of any nationality was a mark of superiority, even if that princess were from people the government was trying to exterminate.
    • King James I of England took Pocohantas' 'royalty' so seriously he considered prosecuting John Rolfe for having the gall to marry a 'royal princess'.
  • Modern day Andorra is officially a principality, but despite the monarchical title of the country, it is run like a crowned republic in all but name. Furthermore, it doesn't even have its own head of state, as that function is uniquely shared by two "co-rulers of Andorra": The current Bishop of Urgell (in Spain) and the current French president. Before France became a republic, Andorra's worldly head of state was the current Count of Foix. (The co-ruler system began in the Middle Ages, when Roger-Bernard III, Count of Foix agreed to share ownership of Andorra with the office of the Bishop of Urgell.) So, Andorra is a principality, co-ruled by a count (now president) and a bishop and is otherwise relatively republican in nature. Even by the often wacky political traditions of the tinier European countries, it's hard to top Andorra as an example.