For a bit more, you can upgrade a loved one or your entire family, a popular gift for the Downton Abbey fan who has everything except noble blood.
Or, you could join Ed Sheeran and become a baron of Sealand — a WWII defense platform just off the coast of England. For $45, you’ll get a deed and documents about Sealand, and the ability to connect with fellow Sealand barons around the world.
“Our titles offer you the chance to be a part of the Sealand’s story and adventure, which is totally unique,” says “Prince” Liam Bates, the grandson of the pirate radio broadcaster who declared Sealand a nation in 1967.
The business of nobility titles — some more legit than others — is proliferating, with dozens of sites hawking titles and deals everywhere you turn.
The Hustle set out to learn more about the business. And in our attempted journey from peasant to noble, we uncovered a bizarre world of colorful characters and hard-to-spot scams.
What’s in a lord title?
British peerage dates back to the feudal system when someone could gain a title (baron, viscount, earl, marquess, duke) by blood, marriage, or from the crown.
Today, most sites claiming to sell you one of these titles use the honorific ‘lord’ or ‘lady.’
An ad on Groupon to become the tsar or tsarina of Marinovka, a small forest in Russia (Groupon)
However, British peerage can’t be bought or sold. Neither can chivalric order titles like knight or dame, or baronetcies, which are hereditary.
Nobility from other countries is often equally, if not more, meaningless. (Russian nobility, for example, hasn’t been acknowledged since the Bolshevik revolution.)
Enjoying this article?
Get the Hustle’s 5-minute weekday roundup that keeps you hip to happenings in tech, business, and internet… things.
Usually, all a buyer really gets is a fancy certificate that bestows upon them a meaningless title — and perhaps a few keepsakes.
Some services also come with a deed poll, which, in the UK, lets you change your first name to Lord or Lady. But Brits can already do that for free, like the UK man who changed his name to Mark I Love Spam Benson and got married at the Spam Museum in Minnesota.
In the US, it costs ~$150-$450 to change your name. But if you ask nicely, maybe your friends will call you Lord Dave of Culver City or Lady Jennifer of Bowling Green.
The Earl of telling you what’s rubbish
Bonafide British noble Richard Bridgeman, the 7th Earl of Bradford, is the operator of the site Fake Titles, which warns people of title scams.
He told The Hustle he started the site after someone paid to become Lord Newport, which is actually Richard’s son’s title. This led him to discover one scam after another in an industry he estimates to be worth “millions of pounds.”
Richard doesn’t care about protecting his own title and will happily explain real ways to buy them, but seems to find it offensive that people can profit off what is essentially nothing.
“The whole thing is ludicrous and should be stamped on,” he told us.
Despite his warnings, people continue to buy fake titles while others, like Sealand, successfully use the ruse to fund projects.
So, what’s actually for sale?
Scottish Barony titles are the only real titles on the market. Michael Yellowlees, partner and head of rural services at Scottish law firm Lindsays, told The Hustle they’re very rare and currently run between US ~$120k-$130k or even more for Lordships, Earldoms, and Marquisates.
Baronies can be sold, transferred, or bequeathed (which is most common), and “because of their rarity, they have retained their value despite various economic downturns,” Yellowlees said.
For a hefty sum, some German nobles will adopt commoners, who can then call themselves by a title. Per Bloomberg, it costs about ~$100k to become a baron and $975k or more to be a prince. Of course, Germany’s monarchy is long gone and nobility comes with no legal perks.
Stuff that isn’t real is for sale too, like “recreated lordships of the manor” that died out many years ago, reverted to the crown, and thus, Richard said, no longer exist.
One man shelled out $2.8k for a likely non-existent manor, per British tabloid The Sunday Mercury. Another paid $20k to become a German prince, then hired a private investigator who appeared to uncover a many-layered fraud.
The author spent $10 for this certificate declaring her the tsarina of a Russian forest. Nobility hasn’t been recognized in Russia since 1917. (Juliet Bennett Rylah)
Manorial lordships. They date back centuries and refer to not a lord, but the lord of a manor or rural estate. Because lordships can be split from their associated land, most don’t come with any.
When the Manor House in Horton, Gower went up for sale for $1m+ in 2017, an attorney who specializes in medieval manorial rights told the BBC it was the second time in 40 years that he’d seen a lordship come with property.
A handful may come with other privileges, like mining or fishing rights. The Lord or Lady of Horton has rights to any wreckage within the manor’s coastal boundaries.
A man once bought several lordships in Wales, then tried to charge his neighbors to cross the verges in front of their homes like he was playing Monopoly. (It didn’t work.)
And infamously, the Scottish Lairdship
In 2001, Charles Dixon-Spain’s wife, Sadie Dixon-Spain, bought him one square foot of land in Scotland. They were relocating from England, and the gift was a “promise to each other that soon, we’d own a few more square feet,” he told The Hustle via email.
Dixon-Spain soon learned his plot was in an inaccessible field in Argyll and that the company that sold it wasn’t even based in Scotland.
A couples package to become Lord and Lady at Dunans Castle is $29 on Groupon (plus shipping). It includes a certificate, information about the castle and area, a map, and visitors’ guide. (Groupon)
These schemes are billed as Scottish Lairdships, and there are several sites that hawk them through Groupon and social media ads. They come with a small “souvenir” plot of land and purport to make you the lord or lady of it.
They cost as little as $50 and Ice Cube has one, but it doesn’t make you lord of anything.
The novelty nobles of a fire-gutted castle
Back in 1999, Lord and Lady Marr bought Dunans Castle and ran it as a hotel, offering — among other activities — a juice cleanse retreat. In less than 2 years, it was gutted by a fire.
It turned out Lord and Lady Marr were actually Robert and Ewa Lucas-Gardiner. Ewa had — you guessed it — bought the titles online years prior.
The Dixon-Spains bought Dunans in 2003 for ~$320k and finished renovating the smaller Dunans House in 2009, where they now live.
The ruins of Dunans Castle (David Solman)
But it turns out restoring a burned-out castle is expensive — about $5.6m to $9.9m before taxes. Because that’s more than its value, Dixon-Spain said they can’t borrow funds.
So, in 2010, they established The Scottish Laird Project, which sells decorative titles and plots to finance the castle’s return to glory. Once finished, it will become a tourist attraction and events space, and its “nobles” can even vacation there.
If the whole thing sounds a bit theatrical, the Dixon-Spains are versed in that, too. Sadie also runs the Walking Theatre Company, an interactive theater troupe that has performed all over the world, including at Dunans.
The plot-of-land game isn’t exclusive to Scotland, by the way.
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Squire Association formed in 1956 when demand for its whiskey was higher than the distillery could meet.
An employee proposed that fans who wrote in about the shortage would get a plot of the Lynchburg distillery, thus making them part-owner and “Squire.”
Today, new Squires must be nominated and enjoy perks like free parking at the distillery, gifts, and events.
Why do people buy titles anyhow?
The website Elite Titles — which bills itself as a title change service — suggests that by going from Mrs. to Viscountess, you’ll “experience life as a VIP or celebrity” with free hotel and airline upgrades.
A nobility title in Dartmouth, Devon goes for ~$1.4k on Elite Titles (Elite Titles)
Richard said that in his 73 years as an actual noble, this has never happened to him.
“You will find people with titles are not overbearing and trying to claim things that they’re not entitled to, whereas people who bought fake titles try to claim everything,” Richard told us.
Yellowlees, the property lawyer from Lindsays, said in his experience with baronies, it’s predominantly been for social status, an interest in heraldry (referring to coats of arms, crests, etc.), or to connect with Scottish ancestry.
“I acted for one American gentleman who acquired the barony of the area in Scotland where his family originated from in the 17th century before emigrating to the States,” Yellowlees told us.
For others, it’s for fun, a quirky gift, or as a joke. One man told The Hustle he bought a couples’ package one Christmas so he could call his wife “m’lady” and “leave family events early by dramatically accusing them of being usurpers.”
A lord or lady title in the Principality of Sealand can be had for $45 (Sealandgov.org)
For Dunans’ “nobles,” the novelty and restoration appear to be the draw. So far, Dunans Castle has:
- 300k+ “lairds” and “ladies” worldwide, 2k-7k of whom visit annually
- ~100k subscribers to the castle’s newsletter
- Invested between $32k and $254k into restoring the castle, bridge, and grounds every year since 2010
Over the next 5 years, the Dixon-Spains plan to invest significantly more in building upgrades, hoping that lords and ladies may be able to stay overnight sometime in 2024.
For now, Dunans offers its nobles “glamping” in a small cottage, priced at ~$126/night, and tours of the grounds.
Like naming a star, buying nobility isn’t possible — unless you have a lot of money. Done with transparency, the model could work as a fundraiser, though.
But if you get caught scamming, the Earl of Bradford will expose you on his website — and you’ll deserve it.