An ealdorman (from Old English ealdorman, lit. "elder man"; plural: "ealdormen") is a term used for a high-ranking royal official who was in charge of one or more shires. The title dates from the sixth century and was in use up to the time of King Canute. Their position was a combination of administrator, judge and military commander. Ealdormen were the predecessors of the later English earls.
The king appointed an ealdorman to govern one or more shires or territories. The ealdorman was also responsible for leading his local fyrd (part-time army) in battle. But these armies owed their first allegiance to their ealdorman. Very often the support of one or more ealdormen could help a royal candidate to become king. In many cases ealdormen succeeded underkings yet kept the same rights. Several had been underkings and were members of the royal family. In early Anglo-Saxon documents ealdormen are also termed dux, princeps, or comitis in documents of the time.
The term first appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 568. But it was probably used long before then. As early as the seventh century ealdormen were seen as judges. But the development of the shire may have come later. As ealdormanries began to become hereditary (passed down from father to son) the families who held them became more and more powerful. Several rose in power second only to the king. They were described in documents by the term patricius. In the eighth century these occurred in Northumbria, Mercia and Kent. The term patricius was roughly the same as the office of mayor of the palace in the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings. This could be dangerous for a king to have someone so powerful exercising power in his name. In the eighth and ninth centuries the most dangerous ealdormen were those who claimed royal descent. They could and in some cases did rise up against a king and took the throne themselves. In the very basic royal administrations of the time a king needed to depend on his ealdormen. A king could create ealdormen from his own family. But he could only fill only a portion of the ealdormanries in that way. As the families of ealdormen banded together in ties of mutual support it became more difficult to remove an ealdorman.
The term ealdorman was replaced by the term earl during the eleventh century. In the laws of King Canute both ealdormen and earls are mentioned. But there was no distinction made between them. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the title Earl was no longer interchangeable with dux or princeps. They were written at times as comes (count).[a] King William replaced most Anglo-Saxon earls with his own appointees. He then limited the power of most earls giving them control of counties, castles or other territories. A few were given more power. These were titled Earl palatine.
- This was due to William the Conqueror's knowledge of the use of these words in Latin. Both dux and princeps had been used to describe the Dukes of Normandy as independent rulers of Normandy. There was no desire to confuse an English Earl with an independent ruler. The Dukes of Normandy were familiar with and had used the title count themselves up to the early eleventh century.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. & trans. Michael James Swanton (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 19 & note 10 (Peterborough Manuscript)
- Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 171
- Thomas St. George, Titles of Honour (London: 1864), p. 20
- Peter Hunter Blair, Roman Britain and Early England 55 B.C.–A.D. 871 (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968), p. 246
- The Oxford History of the Laws of England: c.900-1216, Vol. II, ed. John Hudson (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). p. 203
- The Annals of Flodoard of Reims 919–966, ed. & trans. Steven Fanning; Bernard S. Bachrach (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), p. xxi
- David Douglas, 'The Earliest Norman Counts', The English Historical Review, Vol. 61, No. 240 (May, 1946), p. 130