The Complete Guide to the British Peerage & Baronetage
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Earls of England
An earl's coronet
Current English Earldoms
Extinct English Earldoms
The title of earl is one of the oldest titles still in everyday use. It derives from the Old English eorl, which itself comes from the Old Norse jarl. In Saxon times the eorl was a Royal officer, with great power and responsibility, who governed a large administrative area made up of several shires. At the end of the Saxon monarchy England was divided into four great Earldoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. William the Conqueror was aware of the potential danger that could come from these vast and semi-independent Earldoms, and so he split them up amongst his followers, so that by the end of the 11th century the only remains of the former semi-regal state of the great Saxon Earls were the Palatinate Earldoms of Chester and Shrewsbury on the Welsh border, and the Counties Palatine of Lancaster and Durham on the Scottish border. In these Palatinate Earldoms the Earl, and in the case of Durham the Prince Bishop, had vice-regal powers similar to those exercised by the King himself in the rest of England. It was only the potential menace of invasion across the borders that caused the King to tolerate such dangerous independence.
In the rest of England the Earl became the King's principal officer in the county. In the course of time this dignity became hereditary, the first instance being the created of Geoffrey de Mandeville as Earl of Essex "with inheritance of the title of heirs" by King Stephen. The Earls were tenants-in-chief of the King and were usually granted "the third penny" from the county revenues on their creation. The first Earldom to have no territorial connections was that of March, created in 1328, thus setting the precedent for later creations.
An Earl is styled the "Right Honourable" and he is officially addressed by the Crown as "Our Right Trusty and Right Well Beloved Cousin". This mode of address started in the reign of King Henry IV, who through his immediate family was related or allied to every Earl in the kingdom. When an Earl or any other peer is a member of the Privy Council the word "Counsellor" is placed before his name, for instance: "George......To Our Right Trusty and Right Well Beloved Cousin and Counsellor, Edward George Villiers, Earl of Derby.....Greeting!".
He bears also, upon some occasions, the title of "Most Noble and Puissant Prince".
In common with all peers, Earls are entitled to both coronation and parliamentary robes. The Coronation Robe, which, as the name suggests, is worn only at the Coronation of the Sovereign, is of crimson velvet, edged with white fur and having three rows of ermine on the white fur cape. Countesses are entitled to wear coronation robes similar to those of an Earl, these being edged with a three inch border of white fur with a train a yard and a half on the ground. The Parliamentary Robe of Estate of an Earl (or of a Countess in her own right), which is worn for the State Opening of Parliament or by those taking part in the ceremony of Introduction of a new peer, is of fine scarlet cloth lined with taffeta. It is trimmed with three guards (or bands) of ermine and gold lace, and is tied at the left shoulder with a white ribbon.
Coronet - A circle of silver gilt, surmounted by eight silver balls raised upon points with gold strawberry leaves between the points; a cap of crimson velvet, turned up ermine, thereon a golden tassel.
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