What's the Difference Between a Duke and an Earl?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

royal wedding
Several members of the royal family attend a wedding including (L-R): Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, Princess Anne, Lady Frederick Windsor, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex on May 18, 2019. Pool/Max Mumby/Getty Images

Much of the world is fascinated by the British royals, with all of their titles. But those who live outside the U.K. have a difficult time deciphering the Brits' peerage system, which is a complex, overlapping web of dukes, earls, barons and more.

Britain's peerage system, which dates to Anglo-Saxon times, consists of five ranks: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron, according to Debrett's, a leading source of information on the British peerage system. Over the centuries, peerages were inherited, created or conferred by the British king or queen, originally to landowners who advised him or her, as a sort of Royal council. The older your peerage, the more status within your rank. In 1958, the government passed the Life Peerages Act, which allowed for the creation of life peerages, or honorary titles granted by the government. Those receiving a life peerage, which can't be inherited, also received the title of baron or baroness.

Under the modern monarchy, one of the biggest privileges of being a peer, whether hereditary or life, is that it gives you the right to sit in Britain's House of Lords, the upper chamber of Great Britain's legislature. (Elected officials make up the House of Commons, the government's lower chamber.) During more recent times, with the number of eligible peers (mostly life peers created by whichever government is in power) ranging from 650 to more than 800, there have been multiple movements to limit the size of this chamber, without much success. About 90 percent of those sitting in the House of Lords in 2020 are life peers.

Today, there are no new hereditary peerages being created, with one exception: those the monarch creates for members of the royal family.

Here are the basics about the five peerage ranks, in order of rank. Female titles are given in parenthesis and usually designate the wife of a peer. Women are not eligible to succeed to most hereditary peerages.

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1. Duke (Duchess)

This highest-ranking title was created in 1337 by King Edward III, who conferred the title Duke of Cornwall upon his oldest son. Before 1337, the title of duke was used to denote someone with sovereign status, although it wasn't an official peerage title.

Princes in the royal family typically become dukes shortly after coming of age or on their wedding day. Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth II's second son, was dubbed Duke of York when he married in 1986, for example. But there are plenty of nonroyal dukes as well; in 2020, there were 24.

Interestingly, the business of selecting dukedoms for the royals is a fraught process. Many dukedoms are unavailable if the current dukes are still living, for one. But any "open" dukedom must have a clean past to be considered. The dukedom of Cumberland, for example, was once held by George II's son, Prince William Augustus. But the prince brutally crushed a Scottish rebellion in 1745, killing thousands, and subsequently became known as the Butcher of Cumberland. So, that dukedom is permanently out for the royals.

The highest-ranking royal dukedoms are Lancaster, which is held by the Sovereign, and Cornwall, which is awarded to the Sovereign's eldest son (Prince Charles is also known as the Duke of Cornwall.)

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2. Marquess (Marchioness)

Although marquess is the second-highest peerage rank, you don't hear much about it. The term was brought to England in 1385 by King Richard II, who learned of its usage in other countries. Richard wedged it in above earls in status, a controversial move. Today, there are 34 marquesses.

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3. Earl (Countess)

Earl is the oldest title in the British peerage, dating back to the 11th century. Originally an earl administered a province or a "shire" for the king. There are currently 191 earls and four countesses in their own right. In a break with tradition, Elizabeth's third son, Prince Edward, became Earl of Wessex on his wedding day in 1999. Why the lesser title? Supposedly, Edward is holding out for the title Duke of Edinburgh, currently held by his father, Prince Philip, in order to carry on his work after Philip dies.

duke of wellington duel
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (and prime minister of England) challenged George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea to a duel in 1829. Fortunately, neither was hurt.
Culture Club/Getty Images

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4. Viscount (Viscountess)

The rank originally signified a deputy or lieutenant of a count, during the Holy Roman Empire. It entered the Brisith peerage system in 1440 during the Hundred Years' War when Henry VI, king of both England and France, bestowed the title on John Lord Beaumont in an effort to merge the two countries' ranks. Thus, Beaumont became Viscount Beaumont in both countries. Today there are 115 viscounts.

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5. Baron (Baroness)

The lowest peerage rank is baron. In the 13th century, barons were important landholders whom the monarch occasionally summoned to attend the Counsel or Parliament. Initially, a baron's successors weren't necessarily afforded the same honors and privileges, but eventually the rank and all its privileges passed on. Baron is the most populous rank today, with 426 hereditary barons and nine hereditary baronesses.

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