From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about the title of nobility. For the given name, see Earl (given name). For the surname, see
Earl (surname). For other uses, see Earl (disambiguation).
This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient
inline citations. Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations. (July 2009)
The royal procession to Parliament at Westminster, 4 February 1512. Left to right: The Marquess of Dorset,
Earl of Northumberland, Earl of Surrey, Earl of Shrewsbury, Earl of Essex, Earl of Kent, Earl of Derby, Earl
of Wiltshire. From: Parliament Procession Roll of 1512.
Royal, noble and
Prince / Infante
Sovereign Prince / Fürst
Marquess / Marquis /
An earl /ɜrl/ is a member of the nobility. The title is Anglo-Saxon, akin to the Scandinavian form jarl, and
meant "chieftain", particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king's stead. In Scandinavia, it became
obsolete in the Middle Ages and was replaced with duke (hertig/hertug). In later medieval Britain, it became
the equivalent of the continental count (in England in the earlier period, it was more akin to duke; in
Scotland it assimilated the concept of mormaer). However, earlier in Scandinavia, jarl could also mean
sovereign prince. For example, the rulers of several of the petty kingdoms of Norway had in fact
the title of jarl and in many cases of no lesser power than their neighbours who had the title of king.
Alternative names for the "Earl/Count" rank in the nobility structure are used in other countries, such as
Hakushaku during the Japanese Imperial era.
In modern Britain, an earl is a member of the peerage, ranking below a marquess and above viscount. A
feminine form of earl never developed; countess is used as the equivalent feminine title.
2 Earls in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
o 2.1 Forms of address
o 2.2 England
2.2.1 Changing power of English earls
2.2.2 Earls, land and titles
o 2.3 Scotland
o 2.4 Coronet
o 2.5 Former Prime Ministers
o 3.1 Norway
o 3.2 Sweden
o 3.3 Iceland
6 External links
See also: Ríg (Norse god) for the account in Norse mythology of the warrior Jarl or Ríg-Jarl presented as the
ancestor of the class of warrior-nobles.
The term earl has been compared to the name of the Heruli, and to runic erilaz. Proto-Norse eril, or the
later Old Norse jarl, came to signify the rank of a leader.
The Norman-derived equivalent count (from Latin comes) was not introduced following the Norman
conquest of England though countess was and is used for the female title. Geoffrey Hughes writes, "It is a
likely speculation that the Norman French title 'Count' was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic
'Earl' […] precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt".
Earls in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
See also: List of earldoms
An earl's coronation robes.
Part of a series on
House of Lords
British politics portal
United Kingdom portal
Forms of address
An earl has the title Earl of [X] when the title originates from a placename, or Earl [X] when the title comes
from a surname. In either case, he is referred to as Lord [X], and his wife as Lady [X]. A countess who holds
an earldom in her own right also uses Lady [X], but her husband does not have a title (unless he has one in
his own right).
The eldest son of an earl, though not himself a peer, is entitled to use a courtesy title, usually the highest of
his father's lesser titles (if any); younger sons are styled The Honourable [Forename] [Surname], and
daughters, The Lady [Forename] [Surname] (Lady Diana Spencer being a well-known example).
Furthermore in the peerage of Scotland, when there are no courtesy titles involved, the heir to an earldom,
and indeed any level of peerage, is styled Master of [X], and successive sons as younger of [X].
Changing power of English earls
In Anglo-Saxon England, earls had authority over their own regions and right of judgment in provincial
courts, as delegated by the king. They collected fines and taxes and in return received a "third penny", onethird of the money they collected. In wartime they led the king's armies. Some shires were grouped together
into larger units known as earldoms, headed by an ealdorman or earl. Under Edward the Confessor
earldoms like Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria—names that represented earlier independent
kingdoms—were much larger than any shire.
Earls originally functioned essentially as royal governors. Though the title of Earl was nominally equal to
the continental duke, unlike them earls were not de facto rulers in their own right.
After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror tried to rule England using the traditional system but
eventually modified it to his own liking. Shires became the largest secular subdivision in England and
earldoms disappeared. The Normans did create new earls like those of Herefordshire, Shropshire, and
Cheshire but they were associated with only a single shire at most. Their power and regional jurisdiction was
limited to that of the Norman counts. There was no longer any administrative layer larger than the shire,
and shires became "counties". Earls no longer aided in tax collection or made decisions in country courts
and their numbers were small.
King Stephen increased the number of earls to reward those loyal to him in his war with his cousin Empress
Matilda. He gave some earls the right to hold royal castles or control the sheriff and soon other earls
assumed these rights themselves. By the end of his reign, some earls held courts of their own and even
minted their own coins, against the wishes of the king.
It fell to Stephen's successor Henry II to again curtail the power of earls. He took back the control of royal
castles and even demolished castles that earls had built for themselves. He did not create new earls or
earldoms. No earl was allowed to remain independent of royal control.
The English kings had found it dangerous to give additional power to an already powerful aristocracy, so
gradually sheriffs assumed the governing role. The details of this transition remain obscure, since earls in
more peripheral areas, such as the Scottish Marches and Welsh Marches and Cornwall, retained some
viceregal powers long after other earls had lost them. The loosening of central authority during the Anarchy
also complicates any smooth description of the changeover.
By the 13th century, earls had a social rank just below the king and princes, but were not necessarily more
powerful or wealthier than other noblemen. The only way to become an earl was to inherit the title or marry
into one—and the king reserved a right to prevent the transfer of the title. By the 14th century, creating an
earl included a special public ceremony where the king personally tied a sword belt around the waist of the
new earl, emphasizing the fact that the earl's rights came from him.
Earls still held influence and as "companions of the king", were regarded as supporters of the king's power.
They showed that power for the first time in 1327 when they deposed Edward II. They would later do the
same with other kings of whom they disapproved. Still, the number of earls remained the same until 1337
when Edward III declared that he intended to create six new earldoms.
Earls, land and titles
A loose connection between earls and shires remained for a long time after authority had moved over to the
sheriffs. An official defining characteristic of an earl still consisted of the receipt of the "third penny", onethird of the revenues of justice of a shire, that later became a fixed sum. Thus every earl had an association
with some shire, and very often a new creation of an earldom would take place in favour of the county
where the new earl already had large estates and local influence.
Also, due to the association of earls and shires, the medieval practice could remain somewhat loose
regarding the precise name used: no confusion could arise by calling someone earl of a shire, earl of the
county town of the shire, or earl of some other prominent place in the shire; these all implied the same. So
there were the "earl of Shrewsbury" (Shropshire), "earl of Arundel", "earl of Chichester" (Sussex), "earl of
Winchester" (Hampshire), etc.
In a few cases the earl was traditionally addressed by his family name, e.g. the "earl Warenne" (in this case
the practice may have arisen because these earls had little or no property in Surrey, their official county).
Thus an earl did not always have an intimate association with "his" county. Another example comes from the
earls of Oxford, whose property largely lay in Essex. They became earls of Oxford because earls of Essex
and of the other nearby shires already existed.
Eventually the connection between an earl and a shire disappeared, so that in the present day a number of
earldoms take their names from towns, mountains, or simply surnames. Nevertheless, some[according to whom?]
consider that the earldoms named after counties (or county towns) retain more prestige.
The oldest earldoms in Scotland (with the exception of the Earldom of Dunbar and March) originated from
the office of mormaer, such as the Mormaer of Fife, of Strathearn, etc.; later earldoms developed by analogy.
A coronet of a British earl.
A British earl is entitled to a coronet bearing eight strawberry leaves (four visible) and eight silver balls (or
pearls) around the rim (five visible). The actual coronet is mostly worn on certain ceremonial occasions, but
an Earl may bear his coronet of rank on his coat of arms above the shield.
Former Prime Ministers
An earldom became, with a few exceptions, the default peerage to which a former Prime Minister was
appointed. However the last Prime Minister to accept an earldom was Harold Macmillan, who became Earl
of Stockton in 1984. In the 1970s life peerages became the norm for former Prime Ministers, though none
has accepted any peerage since Margaret Thatcher in 1992.
In later medieval Norway, the title of jarl was the highest rank below the king. The jarl was the only one,
beside the king himself, who was entitled to have a hird (large armed retinue). There was usually no more
than one jarl in mainland Norway at any one time, sometimes none. The ruler of the Norwegian dependency
of Orkney held the title of jarl, and after Iceland had acknowledged Norwegian overlordship in 1261, a jarl
was sent there as well as the king's high representative. In mainland Norway, the title of jarl was usually
used for one of two purposes:
To appoint a de facto ruler in cases where the king was a minor or seriously ill (e.g. Håkon galen in
1204 during the minority of king Guttorm, Skule Bårdsson in 1217 during the illness of king Inge
To appease a pretender to the throne without giving him the title of king (e.g. Eirik, the brother of
In 1237, jarl Skule Bårdsson was given the rank of duke (hertug). This was the first time this title had been
used in Norway, and meant that the title jarl was no longer the highest rank below the king. It also heralded
the introduction of new noble titles from continental Europe, which were to replace the old Norse titles. The
last jarl in mainland Norway was appointed in 1295.
Some Norwegian jarls:
Skule Tostesson, killed by peasants near Haverö church in the 12th century.
Erling Skakke, father of king Magnus V
Alv Erlingsson, earl of Sarpsborg and governor of Borgarsyssel.
Haakon the Crazy
Main article: Swedish jarls
The usage of the title in Sweden was similar to Norway's. Known as jarls from the 12th and 13th century
were Birger Brosa, Jon Jarl, Folke Birgersson, Charles the Deaf, Ulf Fase, and the most powerful of all jarls
and the last to hold the title, Birger Jarl.
Only one person ever held the title of Earl (or Jarl) in Iceland. This was Gissur Þorvaldsson, who was made
Earl of Iceland by King Haakon IV of Norway for his efforts in bringing Iceland under Norwegian kingship
during the Age of the Sturlungs.
"Earl". Collins Dictionary. 23 September 2014. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
Stevenson, Angus, ed. (2007). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1 A-M (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford
University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-920687-2.
e.g. Järsberg Runestone (6th century) ek erilaz [...] runor waritu...
Hughes, Geoffrey (1998-03-26). Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity
in English. Penguin Books. Retrieved 2014-04-08.
Jesse L. Byock (2001), Viking Age Iceland, Penguin Books, ISBN 0141937653 p. 350
Crouch, David (2002). The Normans. ISBN 1-85285-387-5.
Morris, Marc (December 2005). "The King's Companions". History Today.
Lindström, Fredrik; Lindström, Henrik (2006). Svitjods undergång och Sveriges födelse. Albert
Bonniers förlag. ISBN 9789100107895. (Swedish)
Media related to Earls at Wikimedia Commons
History of Norway
History of Sweden
Men's social titles
Norwegian noble titles
Donate to Wikipedia
What links here
Cite this page
Create a book
Download as PDF
Srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски
This page was last modified on 7 March 2015, at 21:43.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may
registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.