1902 Encyclopedia > Earl


EARL (Latin, comes; French, compte), a title and rank of nobility now the third in the order of the British peerage, and, accordingly, intervening between marquis and viscount. Earl, however, was the highest title and rank of the English nobles post conquestum until the year 1337, when by Edward III. the Black Prince was created duke of Cornwall. The " earl " of England was identical with comte or compte of France; and, so long as Norman-French continued to be spoken in this country, the English " earls " were styled " counts " as well in England as on the Continent. These powerful barons represented and succeeded the Saxon thanes who were ealdormen, their own title evidently having been derived from the jarl of Scandinavia.

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 male heirs of the body of the grantee until, on their failure, it merges in the Crown. Not so was it with either the nature or the descent of the ancient earldoms of England. In early feudal times titles independent of office did not exist. The earls, or comités, of those days, therefore, were actual officers, each having supreme authority in his own earldom, or " county," under the Crown; each one of them also deriving from his earldom a certain fixed revenue, the possession of which was at once an apanage of his official dignity as earl, and the evidence of his lawful and recognized title to it. But an earldom has long ceased to be endowed with any official associations whatever, and has become merely a title by which its owners in male succession inherit and hold the dignity, third in rank, of a peerage. In like manner, the descent and tenure of the ancient earldoms differed in many highly important particulars from the simple succession of the modern dignity. In the course of their chequered history, we find ancient earldoms, instead of passing by a quiet and clearly defined succession from father to son, constantly depending on the rights of female inheritance; they are seen to have been obtained by many 9 husband jure uxoris; they appear to have been transferred in an arbitrary manner, or actually to have been divided between coparceners, or to have been retained for a while by the Crown and let out to farm. At the same time, under such strange conditions as these, and amidst conflicting vicissitudes, until they finally merged in the Crown, the ancient earldoms retained their vitality. They might descend very irregularly, and become vested in successive families, but still they did not become extinct; nor were the claims of legal inheritance wholly forgotten or superseded; and, even if for a time they had been latent or had actually been superseded, they emerged under more favourable circumstances, and under fresh arrangements or modifications they were again recognized by the Crown.

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;" 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 Honour-able," and is styled " My Lady."

The coronet of an earl has, rising from a golden circlet, eight lofty rays of gold, each of which upon its point supports a large pearl; also, between each pair of rays, at their bases, there is a golden conventional leaf, the stalks of all these leaves being connected with the rays and with each other so as to form a continuous wreath. In re- Earl s Coronet, presentations, five of the elevated rays with their pearls and four of the leaves are shown. The cap and lining of the coronet, if worn or represented, are the same as those of the ducal coronet. An earl's coronet without cap or lining is represented in the annexed figure.
In the monumental effigies of noble personages, which yet remain from the Middle Ages, there are many highly interesting representations of the varieties of coronets worn by the earls of those days and by their countesses, before this coronet had assumed its present fixed and definite character. Thus, early in the 15th century, effigies of an earl and countess of Arundel, at Arundel, have very rich coronets. The earl's has a series of leaves and of clusters of three small balls or pearls alternating, all of them being raised to a considerable height above the circlet, the clusters rising rather higher than the leaves. The coronet of the countess differs in having the raised clusters set alternately with single balls or pearls that are less elevated.

The coronet of a countess now in all respects is the same as that of an earl. The scarlet parliamentary robe of an earl has three doublings of ermine. The duke of Norfolk, who is premier duke, as earl of Arundel, Surrey, and Norfolk, is premier earl of England; also he holds his earldom of Arundel, a feudal dignity (as it was adjudged by Parliament, the 11th of Henry VI. 1433), by the fact of his hereditary possession of Arundel Castle only. As heredi- tary Earl-Marshal, his Grace of Norfolk is the head of the College of Arms. (c. B.)

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