Monday, August 17, 2009

Question from TudorFan - Barons vs. Earls

I was wondering what is the difference between a baron or an earl? I was also wondering which title would have been more likey NOT to have to court but could just stay on thier estate.

The reason that I am asking is that I'm writing a story for a fiction writing class. I want the main character to be a nobleman in the Elizabethan era, but I don't want to write about court life...the reason mainly being that I don't care for historical fiction novels with "real" people in them. If my character was at court, it would be reasonable that he would meet up historical figures and I feel like my writing skills aren't up to the task of protraying historical figures at this moment.


kb said...

In Tudor England, earls were ranked higher than barons. Staying on one's estate as opposed to spending extensive time at court was a more a matter of one's relationship with the monarch, participation in the House of Lords and one's health.

If called to the Lords, non-attendance had to be negotiated with the monarch. The most common reason was ill health. However, local responsibilities, if perceived vital to the stability o the crown, were also considered legitimate reasons for missing parliamentary sessions.

For example, during Elizabeth's reign, the earl of Shrewsbury spent more time on his estates than at court, BUT he was also tasked with guarding Mary Queen of Scots. Towards the end of his life, he was frequently in ill health and this combined with his duties guarding the Scots queen excused him from attending court.

Thomas Scrope, 10th Baron Scrope, often complained of his isolation preferring to remain on his estates while the queen required his wife (her cousin) to attend court. He was however MP for at least 2 sessions of Parliament and would have attended.

The lovely thing about fiction is that you can make it up. Barons were more plentiful and of lower rank so you might feel you have more leeway with them. Also if you pick one with estates in the north, the relative distance to court locations may give you more freedom.

PhD Historian said...

I agree with KB. Northern barons had greater reason to be excused from attendance at a sitting of Parliament, especially in the first half of the sixteenth century when there was greater threat of an invasion from Scotland. The northern barons (and earls) might have been of greater use guarding the border regions.

Illness was often used as an excuse not to come to court. Elizabeth famously pleaded illness early in 1554 in order to avoid answering Mary's call to come to London. Mary did not believe her and sent her own physician out to confirm the excuse.

But getting back to your first question, the difference between a baron and an earl. KB is of course correct that earls were higher in rank than barons. But if I may expand on that .... Earls were also expected to act as the king's deputy in maintaining control over a much larger geographic area than were barons. If you are American, think of an earl as similar to a state governor (but appointed by the president) and a baron as a local mayor or district representative. Similarly, titles for the earliest earls were often derived from the name of the county or shire that they oversaw (earl of Essex, earl of Cornwall, etc). Titles for barons were usually derived from a smaller local region, such as Groby or Bolton, or from the name of the family who held it, such as Mortimer or Lisle.

By the Tudor period, barons were far more likely than earls to be excused from attending Parliament, largely because earls were of higher rank and more important socially and politically than barons. As KB noted, whether or not they attended the royal court (as opposed to Parliament) depended on personal interest and/or whether or not the monarch liked or disliked a particular earl or baron.

So you have a lot of flexibility!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you! You gave me lots of good information as usual! :)

I was also wondering if anyone knew of any good books about the day to day life of the nobility. I checked my library and mostly they just have information about court life.

kb said...

You might want to look at some diaries. They can be exceedingly tedious but that's because they include the day-to-day routine of running a country house including the prayer routines. You might look at the Diary of Anne Clifford although it starts in the Elizabethan era it ends in the Stuart. (The diary of Anne Clifford, 1616–1619, ed. K. Acheson (1995)) It includes a great deal about court because most nobles had ambitions to be at court.

The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby might be of interest. (The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599–1605, ed. D. M. Meads (1930)). It has been used as a source for several articles on Elizabethan elites. Lots of prayer in this one.

Walsingham kept a diary although he would not have been considered noble and he was at court most of the time when he wasn't traveling.

I'm afraid you'll have to do some research on this and look for letters that tell you about daily life.