A duke (male) (British English: /djuːk/ or American English: /duːk/) or duchess (female) can either be a monarch ruling over a duchy or a member of the nobility, historically of highest rank below the monarch. The title comes from French duc, itself from the Latin dux, 'leader', a term used in republican Rome to refer to a military commander without an official rank (particularly one of Germanic or Celtic origin), and later coming to mean the leading military commander of a province.
During the Middle Ages the title signified first among the Germanic monarchies. Dukes were the rulers of the provinces and the superiors of the counts in the cities and later, in the feudal monarchies, the highest-ranking peers of the king. A duke may or may not be, ipso facto, a member of the nation's peerage: in the United Kingdom and Spain all dukes are/were also peers of the realm, in France some were and some were not, while the term is not applicable to dukedoms of other nations, even where an institution similar to the peerage (e.g., Grandeeship, Imperial Diet, Hungarian House of Magnates) existed.
During the 19th century many of the smaller German and Italian states were ruled by Dukes or Grand Dukes. But at present, with the exception of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, there are no ruling dukes. Duke remains the highest hereditary title (aside from titles borne by the reigning or formerly reigning dynasty) in Portugal (though now a republic), Spain and the United Kingdom. In Sweden, members of the Royal Family are given a personal dukedom at birth. The Pope, as a temporal sovereign, has also, though rarely, granted the title of Duke or Duchess to persons for services to the Holy See. In some realms the relative status of "duke" and "prince", as titles borne by the nobility rather than by members of reigning dynasties, varied—e.g., in Italy and the Netherlands.
A woman who holds in her own right the title to such duchy or dukedom, or is the wife of a duke, is normally styled duchess. Queen Elizabeth II, however, is known by tradition as Duke of Normandy in the Channel Islands and Duke of Lancaster in Lancashire.
By Dean Hanley