Baronage header


The Earldom of Wessex
A New Creation

THE CHOICE OF WESSEX as the wedding day gift for Prince Edward caught all the newspapers unprepared. There had been much speculation about which dukedom would be chosen for him, Cambridge apparently emerging as the favourite of the journalists, and seemingly no one had expected that the higher of his two new titles would be only that of an earldom (subsequently explained as being more "in tune with the new millenium", whatever that means, and doubtless more "in tune" also with "New Britain" and "New Labour").

"The Queen chooses new title with care" proclaimed one headline. "Shakespeare in Love gave prince his title" announced another. That "the creation of a new dukedom would be inconsistent with the proposed reform of the House of Lords" became the received wisdom, but why Wessex? It was described as having "lain dormant since the death of King Harold in 1066", but this was misleading. Prince Edward is now Earl of Wessex in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. As there has never before been an Earl of Wessex in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, or in its forerunners the Peerage of Great Britain and the Peerage of England, it was not a "dormant" title awaiting "revival".
The last Earl of Wessex, King Harold Godwinson, died before the creation of the first British peerage, at a time when earls were of a different order, known previously as the ealdormen. Wessex itself was the size of a kingdom and had been one from at least 519 until the conquest of the Mercians by Egbert, the first King of All England, in 839. The extent of its territory varied during these three centuries, but in general may be considered to have included all the shires along the English Channel from Kent to Cornwall and to have stretched northwards to include Surrey, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucester.
The Wessex Dragon Standard was probably made of gilded leather and appears to have been fastened to the staff by its nose, tongue, jaw and foreleg. As it had only two legs it would later be technically a Wyvern.

Under Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871 to 899, England was divided into shires whose chief lay officer was the ealdorman who commanded the militia, presided (with the shire's bishop) over the shire court, and was rewarded with one-third ("the third penny") of the judicial revenues plus one-third of the revenues earned by certain of his directly controlled boroughs. During the next century the number of ealdormen decreased as shires formed groups, each group governed by a single ealdorman, a process which continued until King Canute (1016-1035) divided the country into four parts (Wessex, which initially he retained, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria). Canute's father, Sweyn Forkbeard, the first of England's Danish kings, used the Scandinavian jarl for the ealdormen, and as earl this became the established title for the powerful royal appointees. In law their position was not hereditary, but geographical distance and military (hence political) strength tended to make it so in practice, and as the royal house initially retained the earldom of Wessex for its own, the hereditary succession appeared to become a natural principle.

Subsequently the earldoms were reorganised and their number increased, but in the years before 1066 such reallocations were usually temporary groupings of shires (although their earls received "the third penny", subsequently adopted by historians as the true measure of whether a man was an earl). Godwin, the first Earl of Wessex outside the royal family, was a powerful man as early as 1018, and was granted Wessex later in Canute's reign. His five sons also became earls during his lifetime, the family's power having been enhanced by Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) marrying his daughter, and Harold, earl in East Anglia, the future loser at Hastings, succeeded him in Wessex.

Harold was the last Earl of Wessex. Duke William, victor at Hastings, dismantled the earldom and distributed its shires among his more powerful followers. Never again would it have such a vast territory to its name. In choosing it for his title, Prince Edward has not only elected to have a name that has no history in the British peerage, and hence to have no predecessor with whom comparisons may be made ~ he has chosen the name of an historic earldom whose lands and power by far outrank that of any dukedom.

His decision recalls the comment of Archibald the Grim, 3rd Earl of Douglas, Lord of Galloway, on hearing that the Regent was to be made a duke (duc in the French spoken then in court circles), and dismissing the idea that he should become one also ~ "If he'll be a duck, I'll be a drake."

Historians will applaud his choice with a nostalgic smile.

A dragon suitable for Wessex. (Note the four legs, not two!)

Return to the home page
© The Baronage Press Ltd and Pegasus Associates Ltd