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A viscount (i// VY-kownt, for male) or viscountess (for female) is a member of the European nobility whose comital title ranks usually, as in the British peerage, below an earl or a count (the earl's continental equivalent) and above a baron (in the United Kingdom).
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 the UK 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 hereditarily; but soon they too tended to establish hereditary principalities lato sensu (in the wider sense).
Viscounts in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
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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, though most are secondary titles. They were a relatively late introduction to the British peerage, and on the evening of the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne explained to her why (from her journals):
I spoke to Ld M. about the numbers of Peers present at the Coronation, & he said it was quite unprecedented. I observed that there were very few Viscounts, to which he replied "There are very few Viscounts," that they were an old sort of title & not really English; that they came from Vice-Comites; that Dukes & Barons were the only real English titles;—that Marquises were likewise not English, & that people were mere made Marquises, when it was not wished that they should be made Dukes.
- 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].
- 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's 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.
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 (count). 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, were awarded in Portugal between 1848 and 1880.
- In the kingdom of Spain the title was awarded from the reign of Felipe IV (1621–65; Habsburg dynasty) until 1846.
Correct form of address
There are rules on how one should address a viscount. Debrett's, the UK's leading authority on etiquette, suggests that in conversation a viscount should be referred to as Lord X rather than the Viscount X. Ecclesiastical, ambassadorial and military 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.
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-chueh (tzu) or zijue (zi) (Chinese: 子爵), hereditary title of nobility first established in the Zhou dynasty
- the Korean cognate jajak or Pansoh
- the Japanese cognate shishaku (shi) (Japanese: 子爵), fourth of the five peerage ranks established in the Meiji era, based both on the British viscount and Zhou Chinese zi (tzu)
- the Vietnamese cognate Tử
- the Manchu jingkini hafan
- List of British Viscountcies
- List of Viscountcies in Portugal
- Visconti, the leading noble family that became ruling dukes of Milan, apparently taking its surname from a returning crusader Ottone who was created Visconte of Milan
- Shen Kuo, a Chinese viscount
- RoyalArk: Royal and Ruling Houses of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas—see various non-European countries
- WorldStatesmen—see various non-European countries
- Burke's Peerage & Baronetage, 1956, introduction, pp cxx–cxxviii.