Note: Do not rely on this information. It is very old.
EarlEarl, the name of the third rank in the English peerage, as well as of the "courtesy title" borne by the sons of marquises, and occasionally of dukes. In Anglo-Saxon England we find the words eorl (earl), and ceorl (churl), respectively used for the noble and the non-noble, but free man. According to Professor Freeman, "they mark the distinction of gentle and simple." This nobility, however, was supplanted by the nobility of of thegns (thanes), or comites (the king's companions in war, attached to him by a special and personal tie, and commonly holding some office under him). Under Cnut the term was taken to denote the under-kings of the divisions of England, and made to correspond to the foreign term count or comte (comes), the equivalent of the thegn. An earl, in fact, was the governor of a county as the ealdorman had been in Anglo-Saxon times. Under the Norman kings the earl or count was still such a governor, but the title gradually became dissociated from official rank. Sometimes it passed by inheritance, sometimes by marriage, sometimes both title and office were suspended by the Crown. Edward III. created earls as a hereditary rank, and this, of course, helped to make the dignity purely titular. An earl's wife has the foreign title of "Countess." The earl's coronet is composed of eight golden leaves, connected together into a wreath; between each pair rises a golden spike or ray topped by a pearl. The countess's coronet is precisely similar. The earl is styled "Right Honourable," and commonly addressed by the Crown in official documents as "our trusty and well-beloved cousin." His sons are "Honourable," his daughters "Ladies" by courtesy.
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