When Prince Edward, the youngest child of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, married Sophie Rhys-Jones in June 1999, it was expected that he would be bestowed with a dukedom, as is customary for the son of a monarch on the occasion of marriage. It was instead announced that the Prince would become the Earl of Wessex and Viscount Severn, and his new bride would be known as HRH the Countess of Wessex.
It had been suggested before the marriage that the Prince would be created as a duke of either Cambridge or Sussex, titles that were later bestowed on his nephews, Prince William and Prince Harry respectively. The Prince chose to accept an earldom and is the third royal to hold the title of Earl of Wessex.
An earldom is the third rank of the British peerage system, below that of a Duke and Marquess, but considered higher than a Viscount and Baron. Since the reign of King Richard II, earldoms were either inherited directly from their previous holders or were as a result of life creations. The area of Wessex, in the south west of England, had previously been an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
The first Earl of Wessex was Godwin, who was bestowed the title around 1020 and was considered to be one of the most powerful earls in England. On his death in 1053, the title passed to his son, who would later become King Harold II. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in which King Harold died, the earldom was given by the new King William, to William FitzOsbern, who was a trusted and close aide of the King. By the time the earldom was passed to FitzOsbern’s son in 1071, the earldom was no longer that of Wessex, but of Hereford, a smaller regional area.
In 1999, prior to the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, it was announced that the Prince would, in the future, become the Duke of Edinburgh; so on the occasion of their marriage, he was instead bestowed the title of Earl of Wessex and Viscount Severn.
The Earl and Countess of Wessex have two children, Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn. James is eligible to inherit the earldom and currently uses the courtesy title of Viscount Severn.
It was announced in March 2019 that on the Earl of Wessex’s 50th birthday, The Queen had granted to him the additional title of the Earl of Forfar, meaning that when in Scotland, the Earl and his wife would be known as the Earl and Countess of Forfar. The earldom of Forfar was first created in 1661 for Archibald Douglas, and the title was inherited by his son, also Archibald Douglas, when the first Earl of Forfar died in 1712. In 1715, the second Earl died at the age of 20, leaving no children to inherit the title, which then became extinct.
Forfar is the county town nearest to Glamis Castle, the seat of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, which belonged to the family of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. James, Viscount Severn, is also eligible to inherit this earldom.