Countess is a hereditary title in European countries for a member of the Nobility Class of varying status, but historically deemed to convey an approximate rank intermediate between the highest and lowest titles of nobility. The word countess came into English from the French language comte, itself from Latin comes—in its accusative comitem—meaning “companion”, and later “companion of the emperor, delegate of the emperor”. The adjective form of the word is "comital". Equivalents of the rank of Countess exist or have existed in the nobility structures in various countries, such as Gräfin in the Kingdom of Prussia, Contesa in the Kingdom of Romania and Grevinde in the Kingdom of Denmark.
Issuance of Title
The title of Countess was often conferred by the Monarch as an honorific title for special services rendered, without a feudal estate (Countship, County) being attached, so it was merely a title, with or without a domain name attached to it. In the Kingdom of Sweden there is a distinction between Countesses (Swedish: Grevinna) created before and after 1809. All daughters in Comital families elevated before 1809 are called Countess. In families elevated after 1809, only the head of the family or mother is called Countess, the rest had a status similar to Baronesses and were called by the equivalent of Ms/Mrs.
The vast majority of Countesses acquired the title through marriage to a Count or an Earl and rarely held the title in their own right. However, there are many instances both today and during the Middle Ages were women held the title Sou Jure. For example,Margaret de Clare (1293-1342) was High Sheriff of Rutland from 1313 to 1319 and in 1314 she became the Sou Jure Countess of Gloucester until she married Hugh de Audley, 1st Baron Audley (1291-1347) who was then created 1st Earl of Gloucester by the King of England.
In the 12th and 13th Century Isabella Hawise (1173-1217) was the Sou Jure Countess of Gloucester twice in her lifetime. In Ireland each of Isabel Marshal, 7th Countess of Pembroke (1200-1240) brothers died without a legitimate male heir, thus passing the title on to the next brother in line. She also became the 7th Lady Marcher of Striguil making her the first female to acquire a Marcher Lordship Sou Jure. Interestingly, Margaret de Clare's sister, Eleanor de Clare (1292-1337), became the Suo Jure 6th Lady Marcher of Glamorgan making her the second known female to acquire a Marcher Lordship Sou Jure. Her other sister, Elizabeth de Clare (1295–1360), became the Sou Jure 11th Baroness of Clare - the wealthiest Barony in England at the time.
Land Attached to Countess Title
Originally, with the emergence of the title came the most powerful symbol of entitlement, that is the ownership of and jurisdiction over land, hence the term county. The term is derived from the Old French conté or cunté denoting a jurisdiction under the control of a Count, Countess or a Viscount or Viscountess.
Countess Title Today
In the 21st century it is extremely rare for a Reigning Monarch to grant the title of Countess and parliaments no longer summon people even though both have the legal authority to do so. Some de Jure Royalty has granted titles, but it is rare, involves a lot of money and servitude that the vast majority of people cannot afford nor commit to. Most Reigning and De Jure Monarch's and Royalty simply grant Knighthood Honors instead of ennobling people. The now deceased King Kigeli V of Rwanda briefly granted titles of Nobility during his lifetime, but the person who replaced him has stated that practice has officially ceased. Still, legitimate royalty, whether reigning or not - and irrespective if their Kingdom, Principality or Duchy still exists or not; have the reserved power to grant titles of nobility to whomever they find deserving.
Forms of Address
A Countess is theoretically the ruler of a County; she can be address as "The Countess of Markland"; My Lady or Dear Lady Markland; or Your Ladyship or Lady Markland. A Countess has the title of Countess of [X] when the title originates from a placename, or Countess [X] when the title comes from a surname. In either case, she is referred to as Lady [X]. A Countess who holds an Earldom or Countship in her own right also uses Lady [X], but her husband does not have a title (unless he has one in his own right). The eldest child of a Countess is technically, though not themselves a peer, is entitled to use a courtesy title, usually the highest of his father's lesser titles (if any); younger sons are styled The Honourable [Forename] [Surname], and daughters The Lady [Forename] [Surname] .
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- Dewald, J. (1996). The European Nobility, 1400-1800 (Vol. 9). Cambridge University Press.
- Pinches, J. H. (1994). European nobility and heraldry: A comparative study of the titles of nobility and their heraldic exterior ornaments for each country, with historical notes. Heraldry Today.