Difference between Duke and Earl

Throughout the centuries, the nobility has never ceased to capture the interest of the public. Whether it is their extravagant lifestyle, bloody history or grand titles, they have managed to spark the desire of common people to get to know more about them. However, with so many peerage titles and rules out there, one can easily be confused as to what makes one form of nobility different from another. So it’s time to take out our history books and get to know more about two of the most well-known British peerage titles – the Duke and the Earl.


Duke vs Earl
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

From the Latin word dux which means “leader,” it is only therefore fitting that the Duke serves as the highest in the ranks of the English peerage. The Duke (male) and his Duchess (female) historically are only below the monarch and rule over a duchy or a dukedom. The holder of the title may either be a monarch (in which a duchy or dukedom was bestowed) or someone from a noble family. As is custom in most peerage, the title is hereditary, although various means of transferring the title rely on traditions of the families. It is possible for a Duke to have a dukedom (title) – usually when it is given to a member of the royal family – but to not rule over a duchy (territorial domain).

One notable Duke is Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who was a well-known politician during the Tudor realm. As uncle to two wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) of Henry VII, he played a key part in their marriages and even helped Mary I secure her throne.

Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford

The Anglo-Saxon title of Earl is a member of the English Peerage whose rank is akin to that of the European Count. It is stationed above a Viscount and Baron, but below the Duke and Marquess. The feminine version of an Earl is called a Countess and they usually rule over an earldom. Most Earls though, do not necessarily rule over the place in their titles. This is mostly due to the fact that in Medieval England, the titles were given to commoners to raise money for war efforts.

Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, was an English aristocrat and soldier best known for his conflicts with the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

Duke vs Earl

When comparing the two, what is the difference between a Duke and an Earl?

Going back to the ranks of the peerage, the Duke is higher than the Earl. The Duke is only lower than the ruling monarch, while an Earl is a simply a member of the high nobility. Most Dukes are given earldoms as well, so that the eldest son of a Duke typically carries the next highest title of his father which can be that of a Marquess or an Earl.

A dukedom is also generally given to a friend of a monarch, or to someone who has given great service to the country. Historically, earldoms were given to commoners who helped bring funds during war times. Dukes also typically rule over vast territories as part of their duchy. Meanwhile, Earls do not usually rule over their earldoms. For example, the Earl of Buckingham did not rule over Buckinghamshire.

As for their counterparts, a Duke has a ruling Duchess with him. The Duchess is also granted the same due as that of her husband. An Earl’s feminine equal has never been formally established, although the title “Countess” has been used in its stead.

Comparison Chart

Duke Earl
Highest member of the nobility 3rd highest member of the nobility
Dukedom/Duchy Earldom
Duchess Countess