VISCOUNT (through O. Fr. mscomle, mod. vicomte, from Low Lat. vice-comes, cf. Portug. visconde, Ital. visconte), the title of the fourth rank of the European nobility. In the British peerage it intervenes between the dignities of earl and baron. The title is now purely one of honour, having long been dissociated from any special office or functions.
In the Carolingian epoch the vice-comites, or missi comitis, were the deputies or vicars of the counts, whose official powers they exercised by delegation, and from these the viscounts of the feudal period were undoubtedly derived. Soon after the counts became hereditary the same happened in the case of their lieutenants; e.g. in Narbonne, Nimes and Alby the viscounts had, according to A. Molinier, acquired hereditary rights as early as the beginning of the loth century. Viscountcies thus developed into actual fiefs, with their own jurisdiction, domain and seigniorial rights, and could be divided or even transmitted to females. Viscounts, however, continued for some time to have no more than the status of lieutenants, calling themselves either simply vice-comites, or adding to this title the name of the countship from which they derived their powers. It was not till the 12th century that the universal tendency to territorialize the feudal dominions affected the viscountcies with the rest, and that the viscounts began to take the name of the most important of their patrimonial domains. Thus the viscounts of Poitiers called themselves viscounts of Thouars, and those of Toulouse viscounts of Bruniquel and Montelar. From this time the significance of the title was extremely various. Some viscounts, notably in the duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Toulouse, of which the size made an effective centralized government impossible, were great barons, whose authority extended over whole provinces, and who disputed for power on equal terms with counts and dukes. Elsewhere, on the other hand, e.g. in the lie de France, Champagne, and a great part of Burgundy, the vicomtes continued to be half feudatories, half officials of the counts, with the same functions and rank in the feudal hierarchy as the chatelains; their powers were jealously limited and, with the organization of the system of prevots and baillis in the 12th century, practically disappeared. In the royal domains especially, these petty feudatories could not maintain themselves against the growing power of the crown, and they were early assimilated to the prevots', thus there is no record of a vicomte at Paris after 1027.
In Normandy, where from the first the central power had been strong, vicomtes appeared at a very early date as deputies of the counts (afterwards dukes) ot the Normans: " They are both personal companions and hereditary nobles." When local Norman counts began in the 11th century, some of them had vicomtes under them, but the normal vicomte was still a deputy of the duke, and Henry I. largely replaced the hereditary holders of the vicomtes by officials. " By the time of the Conqueror the judicial functions of the viscount were fully recognized, and extended over the greater part of Normandy." Eventually almost the whole of Normandy was divided into administrative viscountcies or bailiwicks by the end of the 12th century. When the Normans conquered England, they applied the term viscounle or vicecomes to the sheriffs of the English system (see SHERIFF), whose office, however, was quite distinct and was hardly affected by the Conquest.
Nearly four centuries later " viscount " was introduced as a peerage style into England, when its king was once more lord of Normandy. John, Lord Beaumont, K.G., who had been created count of Boulogne in 1436, was made Viscount Beaumont, February 12, 1440, and granted precedence over all barons, which was doubtless the reason for his creation. Within a year the feudal vicomte of Beaumont in Normandy was granted to him and the heirs male of his body on the ground that he traced his descent from that district. In 1446 Lord Bourchier, who held the Norman countship of Eu, was similarly made a viscount. The oldest viscountcy now on the roll is that of Hereford, created in 1550; but the Irish viscountcy of Gorman- ston is as old as 1478. The dignity was sparingly conferred in the peerage of England till recent times, when the number of viscounts was increased by bestowing the dignity on retiring speakers (e.g. Viscounts Canterbury, Hampden, Peel, Selby) and ministers who accepted peerages (e.g. Viscounts Melville, Halifax, Knutsford, Llandaff, Cross, Ridley, Goschen, St Aldwyn, Morley of Blackburn, Wolverhampton).
A viscount is " Right Honourable," and is styled " My Lord." His wife, also " Right Honourable," is a " viscountess," and is styled " My Lady." All their sons and daughters are " Honourable." The coronet first granted by James I. has on the golden circlet a row of fourteen small pearls set in contact, of which number in representations nine are shown. The scarlet parliamentary robe of a viscount has two and a half doublings of ermine.
See A. Luchaire, Manuel des institutions franfaises (Paris, 1892), bibliography on p. 282; Stapletpn's Rotuli Scaccarii Normanniae; Powicke's " The Angevin Administration of Normandy " (Eng. Hist. Rev. vols. xxi., xxii.) ; Lords' Reports on the Dignity of a Peer; Courthope Nicolas's Historic Peerage.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)