EARL AND COUNTESS
The Origin and Evolution of Earl and Countess Titles

Today, the title of earl indicates a noble rank that falls below marquises but above viscounts. However, the term earl has a long history that has spanned various countries. Over the centuries, the title has encompassed a number of stations, including chieftains, landed rulers of shires, and nobility.

Etymological Origins of the Title

The title of earl has Anglo-Saxon origins, being notably similar to “jarl,” the Scandinavian title for chieftain. The title was lost over time in many countries that initially used it. For example, in Scandinavia, where the title sometimes meant prince as well as chieftain, earl was only used until the Middle Ages; then, it was replaced with duke. In other countries, the title was adopted around the same time. In Britain, earl started to be used in place of count, a nobility term with continental roots, during the Middle Ages. In still other countries, ranks similar to count and earl existed under other names. For example, in Japan, Hakushaku denoted this rank. Earl also bears linguistic similarities to words used in neighboring countries and cultures. The term is similar to Heruli, the name of an East Germanic tribe, and “erilaz,” a runic word. Earl also resembles the early Norse term “eril,” which was a term used for leaders.

Earls, Counts, and Countesses

Counts and earls share the same rank, which is why the wives of earls are called countesses. The titles of count and countess, which have Norman origins, were not introduced until after the Norman conquest of England. The reasons that the title earl was eventually chosen over count are not known. It is possible that the invading Normans abandoned count in favor of earl because count was phonetically similar to a profane word, but this is only speculation.

Earls and Land Holdings

Today, earls do not necessarily hold land or rule shires. However, in the past, earls governed shires and received one-third of the revenue generated in their shires. When an earldom was created, it would often be established in an area where the new earl already had land holdings and influence among the local people. Not surprisingly, many people still believe in the strong association between earls and their lands.

The naming conventions for earls were fairly relaxed. An earl’s title might have been based on any of the following things:

  • The shire he owned
  • A county town in the shire
  • Another well-known place within the shire
  • His family name

It was less typical for an earl to be addressed by family name, but this may have occurred when earls had limited land holdings in their shires. If an earl held land in a shire that already was designated to another earl, he may have received a title referring to land near his property. For example, the earls of Oxford primarily owned property in Essex, but they could not be titled accordingly, since other nobles already held the title Earl of Essex.

Earldoms Today

Today, earls do not always take their titles from shires. Towns, landmarks, and family names may all be used instead. Some people believe nobility titles based off shires — or counties, as they are called today — are more prestigious. However, there is no denying that the title of earl in any form still commands significant respect.

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