Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Read This and Forgert about Burke's Peerage

Still messing around with early English history, I stumble on the datum that the Scandinavian overlords before the Norman Conquest divided England into seven earldoms--decentralized loci of power, probably not fully under the control of their nominal creator.  The tantalizing question: if Harold Godwinson had won the  Battle of Hastings, would "England" thereby have persisted as a loosely related a congeries of loosely related but more or less independent entities?  It's a topic of some interest but I got sidetracked. Wait a minute, earldoms?  That's a Scandinavian term, right, as in "jarl," "chieftain"? 

To that last, there's a short and simple answer: yes.  The term (at least) is an import, pretty much like the people who (in the early days) conferred it and received it.  So the next question would be: when and where did it become domesticated?  And more precisely, are there any more English earls left?

And to that question also, the answer is easy: you  bet.  It turns out that Wiki does a remarkable job of  organizing, grading and candling all the old aristocracy of Britain.  As to earls, it appears we have 20 in the peerage of England alone, another 24 in "Great Britain" (i.e., since the Union of 1707) and another 69 (yikes!) on the list for "the United Kingdom." Evidently the title used to go to retiring prime ministers--scan the list and you find an Attlee, an Asquith, a Lloyd George and perhaps half a dozen others that rattle around in your brain from history class (I guess the first one who did not take up the title would have been Margaret Thatcher, which is just as well--"Earl Maggie" would have been a lot for a nation to bear). 

 The oldest earl in precedence would be the Earl of Shrewsbury of the Second Creation, who won his spurs, or gong, or whatever you call it, in a kind of battlefield commission in the Hundred Years' War--specifically, 1442.  The incumbent is one Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot who serves, inter alia, as honorary president of the The Gun Trade Association, and as liveryman of The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers.  There's a Facebook page, with five "likes," one of whom has the surname "Talbot."

Attentive readers will have already reminded themselves that "Earl" is only second banana in the peerage league tables--behind "Duke," from Latin "Dux," and so a term of French provenance that washed ashore with the Normans in 1066 (William, Duke of Normandy--oh, right).  First in precedence here is the Duke of Cornwall, from 1337, but that is rather cheating since the incumbent is Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor whose day job is as Prince of Wales, where he has to put up with interminable bad jokes about the line from Milton where he says that "they also serve who only stand and wait." Second in order is Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk, whose chief lifetime achievement, one may surmise from his Wiki page, seems to be that he served in his youth as a cub scout.  There are only 11 dukes on the English list--i.e., half the number of earls, although there are another two for Great Britain and nine for the United Kingdom.

Dukes and earls don't end it: between duke and earl stands the "marquess," presumably another French derivation, but one on whom there must have been some kind of open season: only one on the English list, six more for the British and just 15 for the UK.  The senior is the Marquess of Winchester, from 1551.  The incumbent is one "Nigel Paulet," of whom Wiki tells us almost nothing except that he now lives in South Africa.   

There are only  there are also "viscounts," according to Wiki--another cheese-eating surrender monkey title.  There's a curious pattern here: only one from olde England, five from "Great Britain," but the UK list offers a stunning 81--evidently as you head home after pubic service, they stuff one in your tote bag.  No, wait, that would be barons, of whom there 38 on the English list, another 24 from Great Britain and a full on the list for the UK, ending in 1964 when they ran out of parchment and decreed in future the comparable title would be the humble "life peer."  Of those there are now 693, which can't be a whole lot smaller than William's field force when he showed up at Hastings in 1066.

Oh, and What-if?   If Harold Godwinson hasd won the Battle of Hastings, would England have remained decentralized?  No, of course not.  Either he would  have centralized it, or some other stronger power would have come along and done the job William of Normandy had failed to do.

No comments: