Earl is the third rank of the Peerage, standing above the ranks of viscount and baron, but below duke and marquess.
Before King Canute (c. 994-1035) an 'ealdorman' administered a shire or province for the king. Under Canute the Danish equivalent of earl was introduced, and under the Norman kings the title became hereditary, although the earls eventually lost some of their responsibilities as the king's representatives in the county to the sheriff.
As with dukes, the dignity of earl was conferred by the fastening of a ceremonial sword to a belt or girdle (cincture). In time, a ceremonial cape and golden circlet (placed on the head) were added to the ceremony. In 1615, under King James I, these rites ceased. All earldoms were conferred by letters patent under the Great Seal, which represents the Sovereign's authority.
From the reign of King Richard II (1377-99) earldoms were either life creations or hereditary with 'remainder to heirs male' (the inheritance of the title was restricted to direct male heirs of the original title-holder). Some Scottish earldoms may be inherited by a woman or pass through the female line.
At present there are 191 earls (not including the Earl of Wessex and courtesy earldoms), and four countesses in their own right. The premier earl of England and Ireland is the Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford (created 1442). The premier earl on the Union Roll is the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres (created 1398).
The most recent earldom to be created is Stockton, created in 1984. Since 1989 four earldoms have become extinct, Amherst, Monsell, Sondes and Munster, and Breadalbane is dormant. A title generally falls dormant in circumstances when a peer dies and, although it is believed that there may be heirs to the title in existence, (a) their whereabouts may not be known, or (b) there is insufficient documentary evidence for an heir to prove that he is in fact the next heir of line to the late peer.