TT: Dukeor/of Earl

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and hear how I recharge between projects.  You can also see a photo of my assistant, Kel.  Then join me and Alan as we continue to explore the often hilarious convolutions of British titles.

Kings, Queens, also Dukes, Earls…

JANE: Well, Alan, last time we learned that even the “simple” titles like king, queen, prince, and princess can get pretty complicated.  Now it’s time to delve into what – for Americans, at least – are murkier waters.

Last time you mentioned that both Phillip, husband of Elizabeth II, and Camilla, wife of Prince Charles (is this getting confusing enough, yet?) prefer to be called by titles beginning with Duke or Duchess and followed by a place name.

Now, I happen to know that the title “duke” has its ultimate roots in the Latin “dux,” meaning “leader,” “captain” or “commander.”  In other words, it began as a military title.  What is it these days?

And, while we’re at it, I believe I’ve heard of “Grand Dukes” and “Grand Duchesses.”  Do those still exist or are they extinct?

ALAN: A duke is a ruler of a province and gets first dibs on the income from the province. Grand Dukes and Duchesses are a European (mainly Germanic) institution and I’m really not very clear how they fit into the hierarchy. They have no British equivalent that I can find.

Generally dukedoms are hereditary, though there are exceptions. The Duchy of Cornwall is always held by the eldest son of the monarch. The monarch is also traditionally awarded sovereignty over the Duchy of Lancaster and is entitled to the revenues from it. Amusingly, the title associated with the office is always Duke of Lancaster, even when the monarch is a queen!  The monarch also rules the Channel Islands as Duke of Normandy.

So Queen Elizabeth II is, quite legitimately, two times a duke!

JANE: However, I suspect it would be improper to call her “duchess.”  The highest title wins!

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but you are spot on with that observation.

JANE: Next, I’d like to bring up the interesting question of the title “earl.”  Again, there’s a root meaning here – in this case out of the Old English “eorl,” which basically meant someone of rank or nobility.

ALAN: In Anglo-Saxon times, earls had authority over quite large administrative areas (Earldoms). They collected fines and taxes on behalf of the king, and creamed off a nice living for themselves in the process, thank you very much. In times of war, they also led the king’s armies.

JANE: I’m with you so far, but here’s a wild card.

Unlike prince which becomes “princess” in the feminine and duke which becomes “duchess,” there seems to be no related feminine for “earl.”   I came across a whole mess of titles that seemed to fall into the same general area – marquise, count, margrave – but all of these seemed more European.

So, what do you folks call a female earl?   Is such a title still currently in use?

ALAN: She’s  called an early bird. And she’s often really good at catching worms for her husband. Earls do a lot of fishing, you know…

JANE: Okay, you can have your joke!  However, I have to admit, this is question I’ve seriously wondered about.

You see, when I did the Firekeeper books, I used variations on the British titles because I figured they’d be most familiar to my audience.

I simplified.  (Queen Zorana the Great who founded the whole system had an aversion for ornate titles.)  However, since there didn’t seem to be a female “earl” and title in this world were held by males and females (without any sense that a “king” outranked a “queen” or suchlike), I found myself in a dilemma.

I tried making up my own female variation of earl.  First, I tried adding “ess.”  That became Earless, which sounded pretty good but looked too much like “ear-less.”  Then I tried “Earlene,” but my then editor (Teresa Nielsen Hayden) said it sounded too much like a southern redneck.  I had to agree.

We went round and round, trying alternatives.  Finally, we settled on adding a silent “e” to the end, making the feminine version of the title “Earle.”

ALAN: Actually, to be serious for a moment, there really is an official word for the wife of an earl. She’s a countess. After the Norman Conquest, earldoms largely vanished. William divided the country into shires (subdividing many of the larger, older earldoms in the process). Shires were administered by counts, which was a Norman rank. So earls and counts are largely equivalent in terms of their place in the hierarchy. Hence Earl/Countess.

JANE: That’s wonderful!  I knew counts were roughly equivalent, but I didn’t want to use that title because it sounded so very European.  Count Dracula is probably the best-known count in the United States.  Although Sesame Street’s “count who loves to count” probably is better known by the kids…  Or Count Chocula of cereal fame.

Anyhow, all of these counts have strong (if not very precise) European accents.

ALAN: And they are all very trustworthy. Everyone knows you can always count on a count.

JANE: <giggle!> I like that.  It’s right up there with “Cheetahs never prosper.”

Since I can’t possibly top that line, I think I’ll wait until next time for my next question!


7 Responses to “TT: Dukeor/of Earl”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    This is fun. I’d always wondered about the female earl bit.

    As an aside, I should add in Bujold’s derivations for the Vor Lord/Counts of Barrayar in her Miles Vorkosigan series. According to her, they were originally tax collectors and accountants, and that got shortened when they became the major political power on the planet, using their tax-collection bodyguards as the basis for their personal armies.

    While I know that’s not where the English “Count” came from (it’s some derivation of “imperial companion” and looks similar to the root for “posse comitatus”), I still like the way Bujold’s head worked on that one.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hi! Me again 🙂

    Ummm… I believe Alan was a bit off on some of this.

    Duke is, AFAIK, derived from the Latin dux. My understanding of the latter, however [and I may well be wrong, we’d need to ask David Drake] is that it was _not_ a territorial title; rather it referred to an officer more equivalent to the modern field marshal – a commander of armies and campaigns, like the Byzantine Strategos. The English words count & countess derive via French comte/comtesse from Late Latin comes, which I’ve usually seen as part of ‘comes equitorum’, the commander of the horse. A very important position in the late Empire, since by then the Legions had been reduced to garrison troops on the frontiers and the core of the field army was the cavalry. I think that there is some evidence for it being used territorially as well, although I remain skeptical of the supposed position of Arthur as Comes Brittanorum.

    Earl isn’t Anglo-Saxon at all. It’s Norse, from Jarl, and was found strictly in the Danelaw at least through the mid-11th century. The English title Alan was looking for was Ealdorman, whose modern descendant may be strange to Americans but should be familiar to English-speakers – just take the e off the front. Shire is also Anglo-Saxon, as is the original form of the title William would later adopt: shire-reeve. The authority Alan ascribed to Earls was actually that of a sheriff. Pretty well all Earls held at least one sheriffdom, but by no means all sheriffs were Earls. I’m not at all sure that William I created the modern shire system, either, since the great Ealdormen of the 11th century, like Harald of Wessex, were the rulers of the old Heptarchy, the 7 kingdoms that were amalgamated into England. I think that those territories were already divided into shires in the English period. Calling Harald Earl of Wessex may be anachronistic, since the main sources were all in Latin and would actually have used ‘comes’.

    Bear in mind that William and his nobles were mostly – but not entirely – Norman, and the language of the Court was French up to the reign of Edward III. [I think English may have been adopted as part of the opposition to the She-Wolf of France and her favorites] They would never have used ‘Earl’; William’s great nobles were Comte, and their wives Comtesse. The reason that there is no English word for a female earl is that by the time the title came into the language, there _were_ no female earls. Except for a very, very few surviving titles dating to before the mid-13th century, patents of nobility were all granted to the recipient and their heirs-male. Most of those titles are now held by higher-ranking peers, mostly dukes, whose heirs have been men for generations. I’m only aware of one surviving old-style earldom that isn’t, the Earl of Errol held by the Hays in Scotland, It’s stayed in the family since it was created by Robert the Bruce around 1214, and the last time I checked was held by a Countess, who is also the High Constable of Scotland.

    Have to stop, but there’s a bit more about Duke and Marquis if you’re interested.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Thanks for that Louis. Isn’t it amazing how many of the things you learn in school turn out to be less than accurate? Probably because the reality was too complicated for the classroom. Keep up the good work! I’m enjoying it.


      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Well, I commit inaccuracies too 😉

        The Earldom of Erroll dates from c.1314, not 1214.

        I do have a bit more to say about Dukes. I have no idea how the title came to have its current meaning in French, but I suspect that Dux was simply adopted by the Franks, along with Comes, as equivalents of Herzog and Graf, when they started the process of converting late Latin into Old French. Those Germanic titles are still in use, of course, and I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that those were originally indications of clan/tribal status, and not really territorial domains until fairly well on in the development of the Frankish realm [BTW, it’s useful to remember that what are now Austria and southern Germany were Frankish, as well, although they remained German-speaking.]

        The reason I say that is that by the 9th century, they were quite definitely associated with territory, but the status and power of the rulers of those territories doesn’t match the current precedence of the titles. Both the Count of Provence and the Duke of Aquitaine were independent Princes, while the Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy were not. Even worse, the Duke of Burgundy was a vassal of the French crown, but the Count of Burgundy – who was the same person in the 11th – 13th centuries, wasn’t. The power, or for that matter the survival, of the Kings of France wasn’t assured until one of them married the only daughter of the last Count of Provence, thereby doubling the size, and more than doubling the wealth, of his kingdom. So, whether you were a Duke or a Count was more a matter of personal or family status than it was an indication of territorial hierarchy.

        In any case, the only Duke in what’s now the UK was the King of England, in his persona as Duke of Normandy and, later, Aquitaine. The Ealdormen of Wessex and Mercia, at least, might have merited that status had England been organised on continental lines, but it wasn’t, and William seems to have worked with what he found in place. He certainly didn’t leave it as it was, however, since giving anyone either Mercia or, especially, Wessex would have been too great a threat to his own power. They, along with Sussex, were split up between lands he kept and grants to his supporters, some of whom were important enough to be made counts – a title replaced by Earl when English became the court language 3 centuries later, very likely as a deliberate archaism on Edward III’s part along with his revival of the Round Table in the Order of the Garter. He is also responsible for another innovation: the creation of Dukes. Originally, a title reserved for his sons, who you may recall weren’t yet princes. The same was true in Scotland – Dukes were only of the blood-royal. The story is that when the first Dukes were created, they were all already Earls [often, by marriage], and their eldest sons were appointed to their now-vacant Earldoms. When it came the turn of the Earl of Douglas, who was not at all fond of his son, and, of course a Douglas, not a Stewart, he objected ‘and wha’ll be the Earl o’Douglas?’, and refused the title of Duke. This makes sense, if you know that the Douglases, at the time, were _far_ more powerful than even the King of Scots, and that power was wielded by the Earl. In any case, the decision was made to restrict the title Duke to the blood-royal, as it would have been impossible to promote anyone else to a rank above that of the Earl of Douglas. The first non-Royal dukes in England were created by the Tudors in the early 16th century; in Scotland, it was during the Civil War period, or possibly not until the Restoration.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for filling in, Louis.

    We do our best but these are just friendly chats. It’s nice when someone fills in where neither of us are experts.

    In fact, it’s delightful!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Thanks. I’m hardly an expert, either. Just got interested in the late classical and early medieval periods, and had a chance to acquire some good books on the subject. There’s a book by William Harris titled ‘Ancient Literacy’ that any fantasist working in a milieu similar to Classical Antiquity should read. It has a great deal of info on social and economic organisation to provide the context for the discussion of who could read and write. The whole thing is quite fascinating – and there are sound reasons for the ability to read and write spreading in lock-step with the rise of the middle class and the disappearance of ‘military’ from ‘military aristocracy’. But that’s another discussion entirely.

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