What Is an Earl? And Are There Any Famous Earls? Here's Everything We Know

When we decided to do a deep dive into all of the British royal titles, we never expected that it would get so, well, complicated.

The dukedom was pretty straightforward, then we tackled the next obvious question: What is a duchess? But by the time we got to counts and barons, things really started to get interesting (and involved). Now that we have a good grasp on those four, we're breaking down one of the remaining royal titles—earl. So, what is an earl? And how does someone acquire the title? Keep reading for everything we know.

From Duchess to Viscount (Vis-what?) A Complete Guide to British Royal Titles

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1. What is an earl?

An earl is a title of nobility given to someone of status in Britain. According to Merriam-Webster, it's an ancient title that comes from the words "warrior" and "nobleman."

There are five possible titles for males in the peerage system (a legal system conferring titles of realms in the United Kingdom). Ranked from highest to lowest, they include duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. So, while an earl is slightly less fancy then a duke or a marquess, it falls somewhere in the middle of the royal hierarchy. Not to mention, it’s actually the oldest title in the entire peerage system. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with special perks other than the name.

That said, it is still pretty impressive. Earls and countesses (see below) often represent His Majesty and his interests at public outings.

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2. What is the female equivalent of an earl?

Princes have princesses. Dukes have duchesses. Barons have baronesses. However, when it comes to earls, there’s no such thing as earlesses (maybe because the name is a tongue twister). The female equivalent in this title’s case is a countess. Why? Because in other European countries outside of Britain, a count is the equivalent to an earl title. Ah, count and countess, now we get it.

When it comes to the word countess, its origins are largely attached to the word “county,” as in an estate or a vast amount of land. This makes sense considering back in the old days counts and countesses were among the wealthy who owned land.

3. Are there any famous countesses?

Queen Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Sophie (Countess of Wessex and Forfar), is probably the most well-known countess of the royal family. Like we mentioned before, as a countess, Sophie has taken on quite a number of royal duties (especially since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry gave up their royal roles).

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4. Are there any famous earls?

While we mentioned his wife, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Forfar, is probably the most well-known modern day earl. There are currently 191 earls, but Edward is the only prince with the title.

Edward is the youngest child of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, putting him at number 13 in the line of succession. And while he may not be as famous as King Charles or Princess Anne, the royal has been taking on more responsibilities ever since his dad passed away. Edward and Sophie tied the knot at St George’s Chapel in 1999. They now have two children together, Lady Louise (18) and James, Viscount Severn (14).

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5. How does one become an earl?

Unlike others, earl titles are handed down from father to son and cannot be bestowed upon an individual. So, the only way to really become an earl is to be passed the title from one generation to the next.

6. How do you address an earl?

With all of these different titles, it’s difficult to figure out the right way to address each of them. Sure, King Charles must be called Your Majesty. But what about when you come across an earl? According to royal etiquette, you should address an earl as My Lord or Your Lordship.