One of the things my wife enjoys a great deal (and I suffer through) is the reality show on the Bravo channel called “The Real Housewives of New York City”.
One of the participants on the show called LuAnn de Lesseps (née Nadeau) and uses the title of “Countess”. The title comes from her now ex-husband, the current Count de Lesseps, Alexandre. The title was inherited through his paternal line from Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who designed the Suez Canal and who presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States.
Let’s start with the Coat of Arms of the de Lesseps family displayed above. The image comes from Wikipedia and the blazon can be found in Jean-Baptiste Rietstap ”Armorial général” as
D’argent, à un cep de vigne de sinople, fruité de deux grappes de raisin de sable, le pied accosté de deux champignons de sinople, le tout soutenu d’une terrasse du même et acc. d’un soleil rayonnant de gueules, mouv. du canton senestre du chef.
Or, in English:
Argent, a vine Vert fructed of two bunches of grapes Sable, between in base two mushrooms Vert all supported by a terrace of the same, in sinister canton a sun rayonny Gules.
A very interesting Coat of Arms, though I would’ve expected something less “agricultural” from a family known for their diplomats and engineers all the way back to the 16th century. However, I admit I know nothing of the de Lesseps family ancestral origins.
Since we’re talking about the de Lesseps and we touched upon LuAnn from the show “The Real Housewives of New York City”, this would be a good opportunity to answer the two big questions everyone has about her status as “Countess”:
1. How could she be a Countess since France has abolished the nobility?
The answer to this is very simple: The title is a courtesy title that is used only in social circles but has no legal standing whatsoever. In other words, the Count de Lesseps cannot and does not call himself “Count” in any formal legal documents in his home country of France, or anywhere else for that matter. The rule applies to all who claim a title of nobility from a country that no longer recognizes them legally. It is only in social circumstances such as social events, when making dinner reservations, etc. that the title is used and only in those cases. The only exception to the rule is when another country recognizes the title and this is not the case with the de Lesseps title.
2. How could she still be called Countess if she’s divorced from the actual Count?
Ms. LuAnn de Lesseps is not a Countess in her own right (i.e. the title is not hers) but had received it by virtue of marrying the Count, just like Kate Middleton is not The Duchess of Cambridge in her own right but is so because she’s married to The Duke of Cambridge. One would think that upon divorcing the Count, she would lose the title as well but, it is not the case. The former wife of a title-bearer usually retains the right to continue using the courtesy title of her ex-husband, if the ex-husband or Sovereign allows it. Since there isn’t a King of France anymore and titles are not recognized in the Republic of France, it is up to the actual title holder. Furthermore, the mother of the heir to the title also tends to keep the title.
Ms LuAnn would be able to continue the use of the title even if Count Alexandre de Lesseps remarries and the new wife will also be called Countess! However, here comes the key difference: LuAnn would be known as “Countess de Lesseps” whereas the new wife of the Count would be known as “The Countess de Lesseps”. The “The” makes all the difference in the world. In the case of royalty (royalty and nobility are not the same), we find occasions where the former wife of a Prince is called “Dowager Princess X”. This would’ve been the case in the event Princess Diana (note I did not use HRH as she lost that in the divorce) had survived to this day where HRH The Prince of Wales is remarried and she would be known as “The Dowager Princess of Wales”.
- Free online version of Rietstap’s Armoral General: http://www.euraldic.com/blas_aa.html
- Official site of the Real Housewives of New York City: http://www.bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-new-york-city
- Official site of LuAnn de Lesseps: http://www.luanndelesseps.com
Note: Image from Wikipedia