The Stations of the Nobility: Earl

Earl is the English title for count, as “shire” is the English name for county. There will generally be no more than one significant earl for each shire (if even that many), who will be considered the ‘great man’ of that region, with more extensive holdings there than any other noble of equal or lesser rank.

The earls came from the Anglo-Saxon Eorls, each of whom ruled one of the old kingdoms, comprised of several shires. These became earls under the Normans, equivalent to the continental counts, and their areas of influence reduced to no larger an area than a single shire. An official defining characteristic of an earl is the receipt of the “third penny”, one-third of the revenues of justice of a shire, a left over from the Anglo-Saxon days.

Earls are thus the link between the local shire government and the central royal authority. To every earl a shire, but not every shire has an earl. Thus, every earl has an association with a single shire, and the creation of a new earldom commonly takes place in the shire where the new earl already holds large estates and has extensive local influence. True to the origins of the title, just as the “barons” or manor lords are the link between locals and the earls to whom they are often beholden. No female form of the title was ever developed, so the wife of an earl will be referred to as a countess, or contessa, in the continental manner.

The honor of an earl (his feofdom) may consist of as few as three or as many as six castles (more in the case of the palatine earldoms) and upwards of 400 or 450 manors. Each castle might take as much as the proceeds of 20 or more parishes (manors) just to support it. From household officers, knights, gentlemen, yeomen, chamber staff, and the wife’s maids, down to kitchens, stable-hands, and other domestic staff, an earl’s household might number as many as 120, not including the staff resident for castles or manors not occupied, as well as attendant groundsmen, huntsmen, and other outdoor staff for those properties. He can only live in one castle at a time, and generally had one favorite called the “seat” of his honor from which he took his surname, where his administration always resided, and he spends the greatest amount of time in residence there.

An earl’s income can range from £1,000 as high as £10,000.

Historically, there were only six earls in 1327, but 10 by 1336, and 14 by the 1370’s, out of more that 30 shires. Among these were the Clare earls of Gloucester; the Bohun earls of Hereford; the de Lacy earls of Lincoln; the Bigod earls of Norfolk; the Beauchamp earls of Warwick (WAR-ick); Huntingdon; Kent; Lancaster; Leicester; Pembroke; Richmond; Surrey. Of these, Lancaster was a “palatine” earldom composed of five shires, later becoming a duchy which the earl or duke held the right to administer independent of the Crown. The other palatine earldoms were Cornwall, Cheshire, and Durham, with Durham being an ecclesiastical lordship held by a bishop.