Friday, April 13, 2012

All About Earls

Next in line of importance in the aristocracy, after dukes and marquesses, are earls. Most of them are the Earl OF something, but a few are like Earl Spencer, Princess Diana's father --who was not the Earl of Spencer. (And that's why a few American reporters have gotten all messed up when interviewing Diana's brother, the current holder of the title, thinking that his first name is Earl.)

In most cases, the earldom is the main and most prominent title that a gentleman holds, and it's inherited from a near male relative (father, brother, uncle). When the previous earl dies, then the new one succeeds to the rights and responsibilities and property of the title. Through most of history, that included a seat in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Great Britain's Parliament.

Occasionally, a duke or a marquess is also an earl, and in that case his oldest son may use the title of Earl of Whatever as an honorary title.

An earl's wife is the Countess of Whatever. Why isn't she called ...I don't know, maybe an Earl-ess? (And that's probably enough of an answer right there! Who'd want to be known as an ear-less?) Actually it's because an earl and a count -- or in France, a comte -- are roughly equivalent. However, when William the Conqueror arrived from Normandy in 1066 to take over England, bringing a new order of aristocracy with him, the older Saxon title of Earl stuck.

The oldest son of an earl carries one of his father's lesser titles as an honorary title; he's generally a viscount or a baron. The younger sons are not titled and are formally referred to as The Honorable Firstname Lastname -- in person, they're called Mr. Lastname. This is one of the few times that being female carries an advantage, because all the daughters of an earl are referred to as Lady Firstname Lastname. And like the daughter of a duke, an earl's daughter maintains her rank as a lady even if she marries a commoner. If she marries someone with a title, then she generally uses the rank she acquires through marriage, rather than the one she has from birth.

(Which reminds me -- someday we really must take up the discussion of whether "Princess Diana" was ever her real title -- even before her divorce!)


  1. Hello. I don't know where this will post so I'll note that I'm reading some of your older posts about titles and if you're willing, I'm hoping you can confirm, or disaffirm, something for me. Here's the scenario: The Earl and Countess of Whatever have no children when the earl dies, so his younger brother inherits the title. The brother is also married so he and his wife become the Earl and Countess of Whatever. Since the previous countess did not give birth to the next earl she can't be the dowager countess, but will be the elder countess. Is this correct? And if so, is she ever actually addressed as the elder Countess of Whatever? Thanks in advance for your help with this.

  2. Hi, Dianne -- She would be the Dowager Countess, even though she didn't have children. The dowager is simply the former countess; since she held her title only because of her husband's rank, once he's deceased she becomes the dowager.

    For example, let's say the elderly Earl of XYZ married a very young wife and died soon after, leaving the title to his younger brother. The younger brother might be 60 and his wife 50, while the widowed countess could easily still be in her twenties and not an "elder" anything. But she would still be the dowager.