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The King's Companions

What did it mean to be an earl, and where did the title come from? Marc Morris looks at the relationship between the Norman and Plantagenet kings and their earls.

Roger Bigod (c.1202-70), fourth earl of Norfolk and marshal of England, was by all accounts a bellicose and irascible chap, and so knew a golden opportunity to settle an old score when he saw one. In 1245, while travelling through France on diplomatic business, he was rudely detained by Arnaud, count of Guisnes. This minor French aristocrat failed to show the earl the respect he felt was his due and extorted money from him and his men in exchange for their continued safe passage. When, therefore, some four years later, Arnaud showed up on this side of the Channel, Bigod had no hesitation in ordering his immediate seizure. This led to the whole business coming before Henry III (r.1216-72), enabling the earl to justify his retaliation: if an upstart French count was free to sell the roads and the air to travellers, Bigod reasoned, then so was he. ‘I am an earl’, he barked, ‘just as he is!’

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