An earl /ɜːrl/ is a member of the nobility. The title is
Anglo-Saxon in origin, 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 by duke (hertig/hertug/hertog). In later medieval
Britain, it became the equivalent of the continental count (in England
in the earlier period, it was more akin to a duke; in
assimilated the concept of mormaer). However, earlier in Scandinavia,
jarl could also mean a sovereign prince. For example,
the rulers of several of the petty kingdoms of Norway had the title of
jarl and in many cases they had no less power than their neighbours
who had the title of king. Alternative names for the rank equivalent
to "Earl/Count" in the nobility structure are used in other countries,
such as the hakushaku of the post-restoration Japanese Imperial era.
In modern Britain, an earl is a member of the peerage, ranking below a
marquess and above a viscount. A feminine form of earl never
developed; instead, countess is used.
2 Earls in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
2.1 Forms of address
2.2.1 Changing power of English earls
2.2.2 Earls, land and titles
2.7 Former Prime Ministers
4 See also
7 External links
Ríg (Norse god)
Ríg (Norse god) for the account in Norse mythology of the
warrior Jarl or Ríg-Jarl presented as the ancestor of the class of
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
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".
In the other languages of Britain and Ireland, the term is translated
as: Welsh iarll, Irish and
Scottish Gaelic iarla, Scots yarl or yerl,
Earls in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
See also: List of earldoms
The royal procession to Parliament at Westminster, 4 February 1512.
Left to right: The
Marquess of Dorset,
Earl of Northumberland,
Earl of Shrewsbury,
Earl of Essex,
Earl of Kent,
Earl of Wiltshire. From: Parliament Procession Roll of 1512.
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
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
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), for instance the eldest son of The
Earl Of Wessex is
styled as James,
Viscount Severn. Younger sons are styled The
Honourable [Forename] [Surname], and daughters, The
Lady Diana Spencer being a well-known example).
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",
one-third 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
Earls originally functioned essentially as royal governors. Though the
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
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
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. In 1337 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", one-third 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
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
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.
The first Irish earldom was the
Earl of Ulster, granted to the Norman
knight Hugh de Lacy in 1205 by Henry II,
King of England and
Ireland. Other early earldoms were
Earl of Carrick (1315),
Earl of Desmond (1329) and
Earl of Waterford (1446,
After the Tudor reconquest of Ireland (1530s–1603), native Irish
kings and clan chiefs were encouraged to submit to the English king
King of Ireland) and were, in return, granted noble titles
Peerage of Ireland. Notable among those who agreed to this
policy of "surrender and regrant" were Ulick na gCeann Burke, 1st Earl
of Clanricarde, Murrough O'Brien, 1st
Earl of Thomond, Donald
Earl of Clancare, Rory O'Donnell, 1st
Randal MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim
Randal MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim and Hugh O'Neill,
Earl of Tyrone. The earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell later rebelled
against the crown and were forced to flee Ireland in 1607; their
departure, along with about ninety followers, is famed in Irish
history as the Flight of the Earls, seen as the ultimate demise of
native Irish monarchy.
Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, and the last Irish
earldom was created in 1824. The
Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland does not
recognise titles of nobility.
Notable later Irish earls include Jacobite leader Patrick Sarsfield,
Earl of Lucan; Postmaster General Richard Trench, 2nd
Clancarty; Prime Minister
William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne
William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (later
made a marquess) and the murderer John Bingham, 7th
Earl of Lucan.
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.; subsequent earldoms developed by
analogy. The principal distinction between earldom and mormaer is that
earldoms were granted as fiefs of the King, while mormaers were
virtually independent. The earl is thought to have been introduced by
the anglophile king David I. While the power attached to the office of
earl was swept away in England by the Norman Conquest, in Scotland
earldoms retained substantial powers, such as regality throughout the
It is important to distinguish between the land controlled directly by
the earl, in a landlord-like sense, and the region over which he could
exercise his office. Scottish use of Latin terms provincia and
comitatus makes the difference clear. Initially these terms were
synonymous, like in England, but by the 12th century they were seen as
distinct concepts, with comitatus referring to the land under direct
control of the earl, and provincia referring to the province; hence,
the comitatus might now only be a small region of the provincia. Thus,
unlike England, the term county, which ultimately evolved from the
Latin comitatus, was not historically used for Scotland's main
Sheriffs were introduced at a similar time to earls, but unlike
England, where sheriffs were officers who implemented the decisions of
the shire court, in
Scotland they were specifically charged with
upholding the king's interests in the region, thus being more like a
coroner. As such, a parallel system of justice arose, between that
provided by magnates (represented by the earls), and that by the king
(represented by sheriffs), in a similar way to England having both
Baron and Magistrates, respectively. Inevitably, this led to a
degree of forum shopping, with the king's offering - the
As in England, as the centuries wore on, the term earl came to be
disassociated from the office, and later kings started granting the
title of earl without it, and gradually without even an associated
comitatus. By the 16th century there started to be earls of towns, of
villages, and even of isolated houses; it had simply become a label
for marking status, rather than an office of intrinsic power. In 1746,
in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, the Heritable Jurisdictions
Act brought the powers of the remaining ancient earldoms under the
control of the sheriffs; earl is now simply a noble rank.
Some of the most significant Earls (Welsh: ieirll, singular iarll) in
Welsh history were those from the West of England. As Wales remained
independent of any Norman jurisdiction, the more powerful Earls in
England were encouraged to invade and establish effective "buffer
states" to be run as autonomous lordships. These Marcher Lords
included the earls of Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and
Shrewsbury (see also English Earls of March).
The first Earldoms created within Wales were the Lordship of Glamorgan
(a comital title) and the Earldom of Pembroke.
Tir Iarll (English: Earl's land) is an area of Glamorgan, which has
traditionally had a particular resonance in Welsh culture.
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 elevated. However the last Prime Minister
to accept an earldom was Harold Macmillan, who became
Earl of Stockton
in 1984. In the 1970s life peerages (baronies) 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
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
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 king Sverre).
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
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
IV of Norway for his efforts in bringing
Iceland under Norwegian
kingship during the Age of the Sturlungs.
List of earldoms
^ "Earl". Collins Dictionary. 23 September 2014. Retrieved 23
^ Stevenson, Angus, ed. (2007). Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary. 1
A-M (6th ed.). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Järsberg Runestone (6th century) ek erilaz [...] runor
^ Lindström (2006:113–115).
^ Hughes, Geoffrey (1998-03-26). Swearing: A Social History of Foul
Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Penguin Books. Retrieved
^ Crouch p108
^ Davies, John; Jenkins, Nigel; Menna, Baines; Lynch, Peredur I., eds.
(2008). The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. Cardiff: University
of Wales Press. p. 872. ISBN 978-0-7083-1953-6.
^ 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. (in Swedish)
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