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Earl is a rank of the nobility in the United Kingdom. The title originates in the Old English word eorl, meaning “a man of noble birth or rank”. The word is cognate with the Scandinavian form jarl, and meant “chieftain”, particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king’s stead. After the Norman Conquest, it became the equivalent of the continental count (in England in the earlier period, it was more akin to a duke; in Scotland, it assimilated the concept of mormaer).

In modern Britain, an earl is a member of the peerage, ranking below a marquess and above a viscount. A feminine form of earl never developed; instead, countess is used.

It is important to distinguish between the land controlled directly by the earl, in a landlord-like sense, and the region over which he could exercise his office. Scottish use of Latin terms provincia and comitatus makes the difference clear.

Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma

Initially these terms were synonymous, as in England, but by the 12th century they were seen as distinct concepts, with comitatus referring to the land under direct control of the earl, and provincia referring to the province; hence, the comitatus might now only be a small region of the provincia. Thus, unlike England, the term county, which ultimately evolved from the Latin comitatus, was not historically used for Scotland’s main political subdivisions.

Sheriffs were introduced at a similar time to earls, but unlike England, where sheriffs were officers who implemented the decisions of the shire court, in Scotland they were specifically charged with upholding the king’s interests in the region, thus being more like a coroner.

As such, a parallel system of justice arose, between that provided by magnates (represented by the earls), and that by the king (represented by sheriffs), in a similar way to England having both Courts Baron and Magistrates, respectively. Inevitably, this led to a degree of forum shopping, with the king’s offering – the Sheriff – gradually winning.

As in England, as the centuries wore on, the term earl came to be disassociated from the office, and later kings started granting the title of earl without it, and gradually without even an associated comitatus. By the 16th century there started to be earls of towns, of villages, and even of isolated houses; it had simply become a label for marking status, rather than an office of intrinsic power.

In 1746, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, the Heritable Jurisdictions Act brought the powers of the remaining ancient earldoms under the control of the sheriffs; earl is now simply a noble rank.

An Earl will wear a coronet especially during the coronation of a Monarch.

Coronet of an earl (as worn by the 17th Earl of Devon at the Coronation of Elizabeth II and now on display at Powderham Castle)

A coronet is a small crown consisting of ornaments fixed on a metal ring. By one definition, a coronet differs from other kinds of crowns in that a coronet never has arches, and from a tiara in that a coronet completely encircles the head, while a tiara does not. By a slightly different definition, a crown is worn by an emperor, empress, king or queen; a coronet by a nobleman or lady.

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