dowager: theoretically any widow possessed of a dower, or life interest in part of her deceased husband's property, but by extension and in modern practice the widow of (1) a baron; (2) a baronet; (3) a duke; (4) an earl; (5) a marquess or (6) a viscount. If the new holder of the title has not married and there are no other widows of previous title holders in the family, the widow's style of address does not change from what it was when her husband was alive. But since hereditary titles may pass through several hands over a relatively short period, for instance during a war, there may be more than one dowager associated with that title at anyone time. The senior dowager, i.e., the one who has first become a dowager, is addressed or referred to as (1) 'The Dowager Lady Blank'/ 'The Rt Hon The Dowager Lady Blank'/ 'Jane Lady Blank' / 'The Rt Hon Jane Lady Blank'; (2) 'Dowager Lady Blank' [note the absence of any definite article]/ 'Jane Lady Blank'; (3) 'The Dowager Duchess of Blank'/ 'Her Grace The Dowager Duchess of Blank'/ 'Jane Duchess of Blank'/ 'Her Grace Jane Duchess of Blank'; (4) 'The Dowager Countess (of) Blank'/ 'The Rt Hon The Dowager Countess (of) Blank'/ 'Jane Countess (of) Blank'/ 'The Rt Hon Jane Countess (of) Blank'; (5) 'The Dowager Marchioness (of) Blank'/ 'The Most Hon The Dowager Marchioness (of) Blank'/ 'Jane Marchioness (of) Blank'/ 'The Most Hon Jane Marchioness (of) Blank'; and (6) 'The Dowager Viscountess (of) Blank'/ 'The Rt Hon The Dowager Viscountess (of) Blank'/ 'Jane Viscountess (of) Blank'/ 'The Rt Hon Jane Viscountess (of) Blank'. Junior dowagers may only use the form featuring their forename. The use of 'Rt Hon' etc is in each case the more formal version.
The state of dowagerhood is taken to imply that the current holder of the title following the dowager's bereavement will, if he has not already done so, take to himself a wife and that the latter will become the 'reigning' baroness, baronet's wife, duchess etc. For that reason it makes no sense to speak of the widow of a knight or life peer as 'dowager' since on the knight's or life peer's death the title becomes extinct. The earliest use of the word in conjunction with a specific title appears to have been for CATHERINE OF ARAGON on her surviving her first husband ARTHUR, when she was called 'Princess Dowager' till she married her brother-in-law the future HENRY VIII. At that time, owing to low life expectancy, a dowager was often a young woman, even a girl. It was only in later centuries, when life expectancy rose substantially, that its association with advanced age began. In modern times that association has caused many widows of peers or of baronets to reject the style of address 'Dowager' and adhere to 'Jane Lady Blank' etc instead.