EARL, a title and rank of nobility (corresponding to Lat. comes; Fr. comte), now the third in order of the British peerage, and accordingly intervening between marquess and viscount. Earl, however, is the oldest title and rank of English nobles, and was the highest until the year 1337, when the Black Prince was created duke of Cornwall by Edward III.
The nature of a modern earldom is readily understood, since it is a rank and dignity of nobility which, while it confers no official power or authority, is inalienable, indivisible, and descends in regular succession to all the heirs under the limitation in the grant until, on their failure, it becomes extinct.
The title is of Scandinavian origin, and first appears in England under Canute as jarl, which was englished as eorl. Like the ealdorman, whose place he took, the eorl was a great royal officer, who might be set over several counties, but who presided separately in the county court of each with the bishop of the diocese. Although there were counts in Normandy before the Norman Conquest, they differed in character from the English earls, and the earl's position appears to have been but slightly modified by the Conquest. He was still generally entitled to the "third penny" of the county, but his office tended, under Norman influence, to become an hereditary dignity and his Sphere was restricted by the Conqueror to a single county. The right to the "third penny" is a question of some obscurity, but its possession seems to have been deemed the distinctive mark of an earl, while the girding with "the sword of the county" formed the essential feature in his creation or investiture, as it continued to do for centuries later. The fact that every earl was the earl of a particular county has been much obscured by the loose usage of early times, when the style adopted was sometimes that of the noble's surname (e.g. the Earls Ferrers), sometimes that of his chief seat (e.g. the Earls of Arundel), and sometimes that of the county. Palatine earldoms, or palatinates, were those which possessed regalia, i.e. special privileges delegated by the crown. The two great examples, which dated from Norman times, were Chester and Durham, where the earl and the bishop respectively had their own courts and jurisdiction, and were almost petty sovereigns.
The earliest known charter creating an earl is that by which Stephen bestowed on Geoffrey de Mandeville, in or about 1140, the earldom of Essex as an hereditary dignity. Several other creations by Stephen and the empress Maud followed in quick succession. From at least the time of the Conquest the earl had a double character; he was one of the "barons," or tenants in chief, in virtue of the fief he held of the crown, as well as an earl in virtue of his "belting" (with the sword) and his "third penny" of the county. His fief would descend to the heirs of his body; and the earliest charters creating earldoms were granted with the same "limitation." The dignity might thus descend to a woman, and, in that case, like the territorial fief, it would be held by her husband, who might be summoned to parliament in right of it. The earldom of Warwick thus passed through several families till it was finally obtained, in 1449, by the Kingmaker, who had married the heiress of the former earls. But in the case of "co-heiresses" (more daughters than one), the king determined which, if any, should inherit the dignity.
The 14th century saw some changes introduced. The earldom of March, created in 1328, was the first that was not named from a county or its capital town. Under Edward III. also an idea appears to have arisen that earldoms were connected with the tenure of lands, and in 1337 several fresh ones were created and large grants of lands made for their support. The first earldom granted with limitation to the heirs male of the grantee's body was that of Nottingham in 1383. Another innovation was the grant of the first earldom for life only in 1377. The girding with the sword was the only observance at a creation till the first year of Edward VI., when the imposition of the cap of dignity and a circlet of gold was added. Under James I. the patent of creation was declared to be sufficient without any ceremony. An earl's robe of estate has three bars of ermine, but possibly it had originally four.
Something should be said of anomalous earldoms with Norman or Scottish styles. The Norman styles originated either under the Norman kings or at the time of the conquest of Normandy by the house of Lancaster. To the former period belonged that of Aumale, which successive fresh creations, under the Latinized form "Albemarle" have perpetuated to the present day (see Albemarle, Earls and Dukes of). The so-called earls of Eu and of Mortain, in that period, were really holders of Norman comtés. Henry V. and his son created five or six, it is said, but really seven at least, Norman countships or earldoms, of which Harcourt (1418), Perche (1419), Dreux (1427) and Mortain (? 1430) were bestowed on English nobles, Eu (1419), and Tankerville (1419) on English commoners, and Longueville (1419) on a foreigner, Gaston de Foix. Of these the earldom of "Eu" was assumed by the earls of Essex till the death of Robert, the parliament's general (1646), while the title of Tankerville still survives under a modern creation (1714). An anomalous royal licence of 1661 permitted the earl of Bath to use the title of earl of Corbeil by alleged hereditary right. Of Scottish earldoms recognized in the English parliament the most remarkable case is that of the Lords Umfraville, who were summoned for three generations (1297-1380), as earls of Angus; Henry, Lord Beaumont, also was summoned as earl of Buchan from 1334 to 1339.
The earldom of Chester is granted to the princes of Wales on their creation, and the Scottish earldom of Carrick is held by the eldest son of the sovereign under act of parliament.
The premier earldom is that of Arundel (q.v.), but as this is at present united with the dukedom of Norfolk, the oldest earldom not merged in a higher title is that of Shrewsbury (1442), the next in seniority being Derby (1485), and Huntingdon (1529). These three have been known as "the catskin earls," a term of uncertain origin. The ancient earldom of Wiltshire (1397) was unsuccessfully claimed in 1869 by Mr Scrope of Danby, and that of Norfolk (1312), in 1906, by Lord Mowbray and Stourton.
The premier earldom of Scotland as recognized by the Union Roll (1707), is that of Crawford, held by the Lindsays since its creation in 1398; but it is not one of the ancient "seven earldoms." The Decreet of Ranking (1606) appears to have recognized the earldom of Sutherland as the most ancient in virtue of a charter of 1347, but the House of Lords' decision of 1771 recognized it as having descended from at least the year 1275, and it may be as old as 1228. It is at present united with the dukedom of Sutherland. The original "seven earldoms" (of which it was one) represented seven provinces, each of which was under a "mormaer." This Celtic title was rendered "jarl" by the Norsemen, and under Alexander I. (c.1115) began to be replaced by earl (comes), owing to Anglo-Norman influence, which also tended to make these earldoms less official and more feudal.
In Ireland the duke of Leinster is, as earl of Kildare, premier earl as well as premier duke.
An earl is "Right Honourable," and is styled "My Lord." His eldest son bears his father's "second title," and therefore, that second title being in most cases a viscounty, he generally is styled "Viscount"; where, as with Devon and Huntingdon, there is no second title, one may be assumed for convenience; under all circumstances, however, the eldest son of an earl takes precedence immediately after the viscounts. The younger sons of earls are "Honourable," but all their daughters are "Ladies." In formal documents and instruments, the sovereign, when addressing or making mention of any peer of the degree of an earl, usually designates him "trusty and well-beloved cousin," - a form of appellation first adopted by Henry IV., who either by descent or alliance was actually related to every earl and duke in the realm. The wife of an earl is a countess; she is "Right Honourable," and is styled "My Lady." For the earl's coronet see Crown and Coronet.
See Lord's Reports on the Dignity of a Peer; Pike's Constitutional History of the House of Lords; Selden's Titles of Honour; G.E. C(okayne)'s Complete Peerage; Round's Geoffrey de Mandeville.
(J. H. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)