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!’

To modern ears this defence sounds puzzling: ‘earl’ is (almost self-evidently) an English word, and was used as a title from the eleventh century by those who governed large regions of Anglo-Saxon England in the King’s name. How, then, could it be applied to the count of Guisnes? The problem is that the sense of Bigod’s retort has been lost in translation. The episode comes down to us thanks to the reporting of Matthew Paris, a gossipy monk of St Albans who was frequently at Henry III’s court. Paris wrote his account in Latin and, in Latin, ‘earl’ and ‘count’ are denoted by the same word – comes. Similarly, Bigod, while he probably understood English and knew that most of his fellow countrymen referred to him as an ‘earl’, was a high-ranking member of an aristocratic elite that still habitually spoke French. Thus the word he would have used to describe himself would have been cuens or conte: again, the same word used to describe a French count.

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