Skip to main content


earls. Though earl is the oldest peerage title, it has been overtaken by duke and marquis, to which it now ranks third. In early Saxon England it was merely the general name for noble. Administrative responsibility in shires belonged to ealdormen, particularly charged with leading the shire levies into battle. But the name earl gradually merged with the Danish jarl and, after the reign of Alfred, earls took over the responsibilities of ealdormen. But since they had responsibility for several shires or provinces, shire administration passed increasingly to the shire reeve. After the Conquest, earldoms tended to become hereditary and, as a consequence, their governmental responsibilities also fell to the sheriff. March earldoms, like Chester and Shrewsbury, retained considerable palatine powers. In the course of time the connection with a specific county, where the earl had his main estates, grew weaker: the earls of Derby were for centuries strong in Lancashire while the earls of Devonshire were strong in Derbyshire. In the reign of Henry I there were only eight earldoms, but Stephen and Matilda, in their rivalry, created many of their supporters earls. Since the titles of dukes and marquises were restricted, earldoms became, in practice, the senior title. The children of earls are in a curious intermediate position, however. The eldest son normally takes as his courtesy title the family viscountcy. Daughters are treated as duke's daughters and are known as Lady Susan ——; but younger sons are merely known as the Hon. Anthony ——.

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"earls." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 18 Feb. 2019 <>.

"earls." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (February 18, 2019).

"earls." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved February 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.