1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Honourable
HONOURABLE (Fr. honorable, from Lat. honorabilis, worthy of honour), a style or title of honour common to the United Kingdom, the British colonies and the United States of America. The terms honorabilis and honorabilitas were in use in the middle ages rather as a form of politeness than as a stereotyped style; and though Gibbon assimilates the late Roman title of clarissimus to “honourable,” as applied to the lowest of the three grades of rank in the imperial hierarchy, the analogy was good even in his day only in so far as both styles were applicable to those who belonged to the less exalted ranks of the titled classes, for the title “honourable” was not definitely confined to certain classes until later. As a formal address it is found frequently in the Paston Letters (15th century), but used loosely and interchangeable with other styles; thus John, Viscount Beaumont, is addressed alternately as “my worshipful and reverent Lord” (ii. 88, ed. 1904) and as “my right honorabull Lord” (ii. 118), while John Paston, a plain esquire, is “my right honurabyll maister.” More than two centuries later Selden, in his Titles of Honor (1672), does not include “honourable” among the courtesy titles given to the children of peers. The style was, in fact, used extremely loosely till well on into the 18th century. Thus we find in the registers of Westminster Abbey records of the burial (in 1710) of “The Hon. George Churchill, Esq.,” who was only a son of Sir Winston Churchill, and of “The Hon. Sir William Godolphin,” who had only been created a baronet; in 1717 was buried “The Hon. Colonel Henry Cornwall,” who was only an esquire and the son of one; in 1743 a rear-admiral was buried as “The Hon. Sir John Jennings, Kt.”; in 1746 “The Hon. Major-General Lowther,” whose father was only a Dublin merchant; and finally, in 1747, “The Hon. Lieutenant-General Guest,” who is said to have begun life as an hostler. From this time onwards the style of “honourable” tended to become more narrowly applied; but the whole matter is full of obscurity and contradictions. The baronets, for instance, allege that they were usually styled “the honourable” until the end of the 18th century, and in 1835 they petitioned for the style as a prefix to their names. The Heralds’ College officially reported on the petition (31st of October 1835) that the evidence did not prove the right of baronets to the style, and that its use “has been no more warranted by authority than when the same style has been applied to Field Officers in the Army and others.” They added that “the style of the Honourable is given to the Judges and to the Barons of the Exchequer with others because by the Decree of 10 James I., for settling the place and precedence of the Baronets, the Judges and Barons of the Exchequer were declared to have place and precedence before the younger sons of Viscounts and Barons.” This seems to make the style a consequence of the precedence; yet from the examples above given it is clear that it was applied, e.g. in the case of field officers, where no question of precedence arose. It is not, indeed, until 1874 that we have any evidence of an authoritative limitation of the title. In this year the wives of lords of appeal, life peers, were granted style and precedence as baronesses; but it was provided that their children were not “to assume or use the prefix of Honourable, or to be entitled to the style, rank or precedence of the children of a Baron.” In 1898, however, this was revoked, and it was ordained “that such children shall have and enjoy on all occasions the style and title enjoyed by the children of hereditary Barons together with the rank and precedence, &c.” By these acts of the Crown the prefix of “honourable” would seem to have been restricted and stereotyped as a definite title of honour; yet in legal documents the sons of peers are still styled merely “esquire,” with the addition of “commonly called, &c.” This latter fact points to the time when the prefix “honourable” was a mark of deference paid by others rather than a style assumed by right, and relics of this doubtless survive in the United Kingdom in the conventions by which an “honourable” does not use the title on his visiting card and is not announced as such.
As to the actual use and social significance of the style, the practice in the United Kingdom differs considerably from that in the colonies or in the United States. In the United Kingdom marquesses are “most honourable”; earls, viscounts and barons “right honourable,” a style also borne by all privy councillors, including the lord mayor of London and lord provost of Edinburgh during office. The title of “honourable” is in the United Kingdom, except by special licence of the Crown (e.g. in the case of retired colonial or Indian officials), mainly confined to the sons and daughters of peers, and is the common style of the younger sons of earls and of the children of viscounts, barons and legal life peers. The eldest sons of dukes, marquesses and earls bear “by courtesy” their father’s second title, the younger sons of dukes and marquesses having the courtesy title Lord prefixed to their Christian name; while the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls are styled Lady. The title of “honourable” is also given to all present or past maids of honour, and to the judges of the high court being lords justices or lords of appeal (who are “right honourable”). A county court judge is, however, “his honour.” The epithet is also applied to the House of Commons as a body and to individual members during debate (“the honourable member for X.”). Certain other corporate bodies have, by tradition or grant, the right to bear the style; e.g. the Honourable Irish Society, the Inns of Court (Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, &c.) and the Honourable Artillery Company; the East India Company also had the prefix “honourable.” The style may not be assumed by corporate bodies at will, as was proved, in the case of the Society of Baronets, whose original style of “Honourable” Society was dropped by command.
In the British colonies the title “honourable” is given to members of the executive and legislative bodies, to judges, &c., during their term of service. It is sometimes retained by royal licence after a certain number of years’ service.
In the United States of America the title is very widespread, being commonly given to any one who holds or has held any office of importance in state or nation, more particularly to members of Congress or of the state legislatures, judges, justices, and certain other judicial and executive officials. Popular amenity even sometimes extends the title to holders of quite humble government appointments, and consoles with it the defeated candidates for a post. See also the article Precedence.