The standard idea said of feudalism is that nobles have vassals, which could have vassals of their own. So that noble might have an extra title lying around and grant it to someone in exchange for fealty.

But I don't think I've ever heard of an English duke having a sub-vassal who was an earl.

I'm assuming that elsewhere on the continent, it probably happened. I figure the Duke of Normandy must have had counts as vassals.

If this is true that English duke didn't do it, is this just due to English custom or law? Or just realities on the ground? (maybe English dukes didn't govern such ungainly territories that passing out titles for loyalty made sense)

Or maybe dukes were just weird in England to begin with, because I gather they were a late import from the continent and for most of the Middle Ages, England just had earls.

  • Is this excluding Kings who held Dukedoms who had Earl Vassals? Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 0:33
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    (+1) The heartland of feudalism is Northern France, from the 10th to the 12th Century. Indeed, not everything you heard about it would apply to England or other areas or to earlier or later times. Even Southern France was very different.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 8:55
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    Titles and knighthoods are granted by a king. Nobody can bestow a title or knighthood except a king. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 16:19

3 Answers 3


This question Did an English Duke ever grant away an Earldom that he held?" generated so much confusion, including references to courtesy titles and European practice, that I decided to contact the experts on British peerage at the House of Lords. I received a reply from the Assistant Registrar of the Peerage and Baronetage, which he has kindly permitted me to quote. His email includes an analogy with a Trust which, as it is not relevant here, I have omitted. I stated that I believed it was, and always had been, legally impossible for a peer to give away a title he held. Here is his response:-

"Thank you for your email; you are entirely correct.

The position is, certainly as regards English, GB or UK Peerages that it is not possible for the holder for the time being to divest himself of that title. ... a person may decide he or she does not wish to use their Peerage, but nevertheless they hold the rights for their life time... [or] as regards the Peerage under the terms of the grant of that title whether by Patent or in earlier times by Writ of Summons to Parliament. ...in the case of a Peerage the only two recourses a Peer has is to resign the title to the Crown or Petition the Crown for a Charter of Novadamus; in the former case there are I believe a few example of a resignation to the Crown and usually a re-grant to the person resigning it, perhaps under different terms as regards the remainder, but so far as I am aware Petitioning for a Charter of Novadamus has never been successful south of the Border - there are quite a number of examples where the terms of the remainder of a Scottish title were altered and provided, eg. for the holder to elect/decide to whom it should descend after him or her but I am as certain as I can be that English hereditary succession law has never entertained such a remedy. It is settled law that no transfer by sale or otherwise of a hereditary English, Scottish, GB or UK title (or indeed a Life Peerage) will be recognised in law." emphasese mine

So I repeat my original answer. In England, and the UK generally, it is simply not possible for a peer to "grant away" any of his titles.

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    Great initiative and research! Thanks for sharing with us.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 14:41
  • Thanks for the research ... But why do you have two answers to the same question?
    – Nix
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 16:20
  • @Nix it just seemed easier than editing my original answer - particularly on my pathetic tablet!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 16:23
  • I believe to be complete this answer should discuss how this result ties in closely with the principle of primogeniture inheritance mandated by law in England - that estates cannot be split - and perhaps compare to Salic Law jurisdictions such as the HRE. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 9:04
  • Well, I'm not sure primogeniture was mandated, (I will check) and but it does not in itself mean estates could not be split - that is down to entail or strict settlement, whereby the current owner was effectively a life tenant. Entail could be broken, and Salic Law is a bit of a red herring - a very few titles could be inherited by females, eg the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 14:57

They couldn't! All titles were bestowed by the sovereign, you couldn't just say "Oh, I've got a spare earldom etc I don't want, I'll give it to a friend." Apart from any other consideration, your eldest son would be deeply peeved, because he would expect to inherit it!

Also, titles were not attached to land in quite the way the question suggests. When Richard III was Duke of Gloucester, his main landholdings were actually in the North not in Gloucester. The title of Duke was a fairly late import - sorry, can't remember when, but after the Norman Conquest - and originally reserved for the ruling dynasty.

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    @PieterGeerkens Can you reference that? A baron in chief could create vassals, but I know of no mechanism under feudalism/bastard feudalism where anyone but the sovereign could create/confer a title?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 4:52
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    Starting with a clean slate and an entire kingdom, William the Conqueror divies up all of England in personal fealty to himself as Monarch. This is solidified further as only lords owing personal fealty directly to the monarch are peers of the realm, both eligible to sit in the House of Lords and to the protections of Magna Catra. Nothing similar occurs in Germany until 1870, and it never happens at all in Poland. Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 5:41
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    Note also courtesy titles granted to a lord's children during their minority and until inheritance. In Germany it was common for fiefs to be split amongst all sons, causing the need to constantly reconsolidate through inter marriage, as with the houses of Hapsburg and Nassau most famously: history.stackexchange.com/questions/25917/… Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 5:47
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    @PieterGeerkens Precisely my point! Only Lords owing personal fealty to the sovereign could sit in the House of Lords. As I said, greater barons could create vassals but not noble titles, nor give them away. And the courtesy titles of eldest sons is a bit of a red herring - Lord Heathrow, eldest son of the Earl of London, is not a peer, and did/does not sit in the (pre-reform) House of Lords. Lords had vassals, but all honours flow(ed) from the sovereign.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 13:15
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    @PieterGeerkens You are incorrect. Nobles could not create new titles. Neither of your sources claims they could. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 13:17

I thought I ought to answer the question rather than simply commenting on another. There are a few points that may help you understand what is going on. I will confine my answer to England because that is where the question is about and this is a subject which varies considerably across different countries.

The basic point - made by a number of users - is that, with very few exceptions, in at least post-Norman England, a title was just that, a title. You could be styled "Duke of X" or "Earl of Y" but those titles were quite separate from the notion of vassalage.

In fact titles on their own conferred very little by way of rights at any time. There were periods when, for example, particular forms of dress were intended to be restricted to particular classes of people, but in general no.

What I think the poser of the question is thinking about in terms of "vassalage" is the notion of someone being someone else's feudal lord.

Now this system operated in England. All land was either "held of" someone else, or was in the hands of the Crown (technically known as "Royal demesne"). So the Manor of Littletown might be held of Lord W who holds of Lord X who holds of Lord Y who holds of the Crown as tenant in chief.

Being Lord of a particular manor or manors was thus a legal relationship concerning primarily land ownership. It was not really a title in the modern sense. Lots of people are "lords", including numerous women, also known as "lords".

These chains of ownership happened because, at first, the holder of land was permitted and even sometimes expected to create subordinate holders by a process of subinfeudation. In the above example, the Crown may have granted lands including the manor of littletown to Y who then granted some of them to X who then granted some of them to W.

But this process began to be used as a way of transferring land to others. If W wanted to sell the manor to another person they would have to get X's permission (as W's lord) or they could simply grant the whole manor to the purchaser. That created a feudal mess. In 1290, Edward I passed the statute Quia Emptores which prevented any further subinfeudation. At that point no new links in the feudal chain could be created (except by the Crown).

The first duke in England (the Duke of Cornwall) was created in 1337 by Edward III by a royal charter that gives it to the eldest son of the monarch (then the Black Prince).

From this it should be obvious that no duke could have created a feudal inferior because the ability to do so was stopped some 47 years before the first duke was created. There may have been situations where an Earl happened to acquire land where their feudal lord was a Duke but that would be an accident. What is more the reverse could have easily occurred as well.

This is because, as I said earlier, just being a Duke or Earl didn't give you any particular local jurisdiction or create a kind of "subkingdom" in which you were a sort of mini-king. You might be made Duke or Earl of somewhere and have no lands there and no authority at all in that area. In the earlier period that would not be usual - why make someone Earl of March if you weren't also going to give them something to do there? But the current Duke of Cambridge has very little to do with the city or county in law.

There are exceptions, but they are really extra rules rather than something inherent in the title.

The big exceptions were the "counties palatine". In those places someone was usually given local power. There were separate judicial and administrative arrangements. I think only one of these was ever held by a Duke (Lancaster) and for most of its history the Duke was also the Monarch as is the case today. But again dukes come too late for the handing out of feudalities.

The Earl of Chester (another county palatine) was much closer to what the questioner had in mind.

The Duke of Cornwall does have certain rights (by charter) such as bona vacantia (the right to receive property that is not otherwise owned, eg if someone dies with no will or near relatives), so its not a nothing title, but these are not feudal rights.

The "Charter of Novadamus" is unknown to English law and so ought not to form part of a correct answer.

  • 'The "Chartere of Novadamus" is unknown to English law' which is precisely what my answer says.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 15:16
  • The impression I got was that you were implying one could petition for the charter, but it had never been successful. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 15:20
  • I was quoting the Assistant Registrar to the Peerage and Baronetage, who days that a Charter of Novadamus has never been a remedy on English law, so we are splitting hairs!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 15:30

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