What Is a Count and Countess?

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A count is a man who has the rank of count in certain European countries. A countess is the female equivalent of a count. During the Middle Ages, counts oversaw sections of land for the king or a duke. The term county, used to denote divisions of land within states, comes from this arrangement between the counts and royalty.

European Titles

The nobility is the social class directly below the royalty, and members of this class enjoyed special privileges like serving in parliament. This was not an option for the lower classes, including the gentry, serfs and slaves. In some countries, the titles of count and countess were passed on through families, but others let the duke or king appoint people to the position.

History of the Count

Counts rank below those with the titles of Duke or Marquis. They rank above the viscounts. This rank dates back to the days of the Roman Empire when counts worked closely with the Emperor or military officials. The role eventually evolved into an overseer position, like a modern-day county commissioner. They didn’t own the land they oversaw. They resolved issues through the courts and collected revenue for the king. 

As feudalism spread across Europe, counts transitioned into the role of vassals who still oversaw land but had less power. This was most obvious in France and part of the reason English earls lost their authority in the 11th century. By the 10th century, counts in Germany enjoyed a hereditary title. In Italy, the pope bestowed the title of count on individuals.

Count vs. Earl

Counts and earls have the same ranking. Countries in continental Europe like France and Germany used the term count. In England, this position had the title of earl. An earl’s wife is called a countess. This highlights the fact that the aristocracy varied between countries. Earls in England were, in fact, equal to the duke before the Norman invasion in 1066, when they lost much of their power.

How to Address a Count or Countess

Although the customs for communicating with members of royalty or nobility vary between countries, it helps to understand some of the basic guidelines. Counts and earls are lords, and countesses are ladies. When speaking directly with an individual with the title of count, the proper address is “My Lord,” “Your Lordship” or “Lord” followed by the person’s name. Countesses receive the same address using the terms “Lady” or “Ladyship.” It’s not necessary to bow or curtsy to a count or countess.

How to Become a Count or Countess

Individuals who want the title of count can purchase them from companies that sell titles. In exchange for a fee, they receive legal documents that indicate the new title. Some of the titles come with micro parcels of land that can be passed on (along with the title) to descendants as part of an estate. These titles don’t allow the holders to be members of parliament and are for show.