Beaumont

Although Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan in Normandy, is almost everywhere shown as the first Earl of Leicester by a grant from Henry I in the year 1107, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica views this creation as erroneous, although it admits that he had "some authority in the county of Leicester" and concedes that his son was undoubtedly Earl by 1131. Other sources are however quite confident in their assertion that Robert was created Earl as a reward for his assistance in the conquest of Normandy by Henry I in 1106.

This Robert's first born sons were twins named Waleran and Robert; and whilst Waleran succeeded to his father's lands in Normandy and became the Count of Meulan (although he later also obtained the English title of Earl of Worcester), it was Robert who inherited his English lands and the title of Earl of Leicester; or at the very least obtained that title on his own account by 1131. (There was also incidentally a third son, known as Hugh the Poor, who afterwards became the Earl of Bedford.)

The 2nd Earl, together with Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk was one of the joint hereditary Stewards of England, but sometime later managed to buy out the Bigod interest in the office of Steward so that the 3rd Beaumont Earl, another Robert, who succeeded in 1168 was recognised as sole Steward of England, a dignity which continued to be consider as attached to the earldom of Leicester until the year 1399.

On the death of the 2nd Earl in 1168, the title passed to his son Robert 'Blanchmaines' de Beaumont and on his death in 1190, the title passed to his son Robert de Beaumont, who proved to be the 4th and final Beaumont earl. With the death of the 4th Earl in January 1204 the earldom finally reverted to the crown.

De Montfort

The de Montforts hailed from Montfort l'Amaury in Normandy, one of whom named Simon de Montfort, the fourth of the de Montfort line to bear that name, married Amice, daughter of Robert de Beaumont, the 3rd Earl of Leicester.

This marriage became significant when the last de Beaumont earl died in 1204, as Amice together with her sister Margaret, who married Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester became the co-heirs of the Beaumont fortune. Amice received her share of the family estates was afterwards styled as Countess of Leicester; since her husband Simon had died sometime before the year 1188 he was in no position to claim to be earl, and their eldest son Amaury was more concerned with the family estates in France.

It was their younger son, Simon de Montfort known as 'the Crusader' who put forward his claim to be Earl of Leicester and was recognised as such by king John in 1206. However this Simon appears never to have been formally invested with the earldom, and his tenure seems to have somewhat fragmented; he was deprived of his estates and titles in the February of 1207, only to have them later restored and then later confiscated once more. In any case, from 1209 onwards Simon became more interested in slaughtering heretics of various kinds and appears to have abandoned his claim on the title.

Indeed after the death of his mother Amice in 1215 Simon was unable to gain possession of her estates by virtue of the fact that he was a sworn vassal of the French king: the property was granted to Ranulf of Blundeville, the Earl of Chester (whose mother was Bertrade de Montfort, sister of 'the Crusader'.)

Simon de Montfort 'the Crusader' was killed besieging Toulouse in 1218, and of his three sons the eldest Amaury de Montfort naturally received the lion's share of his property. Some sources list Amaury as an 'Earl of Leicester' - this is quite incorrect as the gentleman in question never even set foot in England, much less became an Earl of anything. What Amaury had was a claim against the earldom, a claim which he would have had difficulty in pursuing for the same reasons as his father.

It was the Crusader's third son (the second Guy having died in 1220), another Simon de Montfort, who having fallen out with the French monarchy decided to come to England in 1230 to seek his fame and fortune. In particular he persuaded his elder brother, Amaury to surrender to him the family claim on the Beaumont estates his grandmother had inherited.

This Simon de Montfort was able to persuade his cousin Ranulf to relinquish possession of the estates and rapidly became a favourite of the king Henry III, married his sister Eleanor in 1238 and in 1239 was formally created Earl of Leicester. His relationship with Henry III was subsequently more turbulent, and de Montfort eventually became the instigator of the Barons' War against Henry III and was later killed at the battle of Evesham on the 5th August 1265.

Arguably these two de Montfort Earls should be considered as separate creations, but it seems simpler to refer to them as the 1st and 2nd de Montfort earls.

Plantagenet

Following the death of Simon de Montfort in 1265 king Henry III granted the estates and title of the Earl of Leicester to his younger son Edmund Crouchback, although he became better known as the Earl of Lancaster. From Edmund the title passed on his death in 1296 to his eldest son Thomas, who held the title, until his execution for treason in 1322.

Henry of Lancaster, the younger son of Edmund, and the heir of his older brother, managed to win recognition from Edward II as Earl of Leicester in 1324. On Henry's death in 1345 the title therefore passed to his son Henry of Grosmont, who was later created Duke of Lancaster in 1352. Henry of Grosmont died without male heirs in 1361 and therefore his estate fell to be divided between his two daughters; firstly, Matilda who had married William V the Count of Holland and secondly, Blanche who was the wife of John of Gaunt a younger son of Edward III.

With her father's death on the 23rd March 1361 Matilda succeeded to the title of Countess of Leicester. It seems unlikely that her husband William was ever recognised as Earl as he was insane by 1357 with his brother Albert acting as regent in Holland. Matilda died on the 10th April 1362 from the bubonic plague, and since her marriage to the Count of Holland had proved childless, it seems that the title was claimed by John of Gaunt and then merged with the crown when his son Henry became Henry IV in 1399.

Dudley

Robert Dudley was the son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and younger brother of the Ambrose Dudley created Earl of Warwick in 1562. Robert rapidly became one of queen Elizabeth's favourites and was showered with rewards; she made him a Knight of the Garter, and granted him the lordship of Denbigh and estates in Warwickshire, and on the 29th September 1564 created him Baron Denbigh and Earl of Leicester.

Robert Dudley had a varied and complex marital career; his first wife, Amy Robsart died in suspicious circumstances, he next secretly married a lady with the unlikely name of Douglas Howard but later repudiated the marriage and finally married Lettice Knollys, the widow of Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a marriage that may or may not have been bigamous depending on one's view of matters.

This meant that as far as everybody was concerned at the time, when Robert died on the 4th September 1588 he had no legitimate issue and his titles therefore became extinct and reverted to the crown. There was however, a son by his second 'wife' Douglas Howard, who took the name of Robert Dudley, and later tried, but failed, to establish his legitimacy. He later went to live in Italy, where he assumed his grandfather's titles of 'Earl of Warwick' and Duke of Northumberland' until his death in 1649.

Sidney

Robert Sidney was the nephew of Robert Dudley and inherited his uncle's property and estates when the latter died in 1588, and was later created the Earl of Leicester by James I on the 2nd August 1618. He was succeeded in 1626 by his son, also named Robert Sidney, who was entrusted with the care of the younger children of Charles I following the king's execution in 1649.

In contrast the 2nd Earl's son, Philip, was active on the side of Parliament during the Civil War but conveniently refused to take part in the trial of Charles I and therefore easily obtained a pardon at the Restoration and was therefore not prevented from succeeding as the 3rd Earl in 1677.

On his death in 1698 he was succeeded by his son Robert Sidney, the 4th Earl, and Robert was in turn followed by his three sons, the youngest of whom Jocelyn Sidney became the 7th Earl in 1737. Although Jocelyn was married to an Elizabeth Thomas, daughter of Lewis Thomas of Gwernllynwhith, he was no more successful in producing an heir than his two older brothers. Therefore with Jocelyn's death in 1743 the Sidney line came to an end and the dignity of Leicester reverted to the crown. (Although a certain John Sidney later claimed to be Jocelyn's son and consequently styled himself as the 8th Earl of Leicester on occasions.)

Coke, Townshend and Coke again

John Coke was the fourth son of the famous lawyer Edward Coke who acquired the manor of Holksham in Norfolk and set about the business of improving the land and reclaiming some 350 acres of salt marshes from the sea. His son Thomas Coke continued this work and made enough money to begin construction of Holkham House in 1734 and launch himself into a political career.

He served as MP for Norfolk and was a staunch Whig and a friend and avid supporter of Robert Walpole, served as Postmaster General, was raised to the peerage as the Baron Lovell of Minster Lovell on the 28th May 1728, and was subsequently created the Earl of Leicester and Viscount Coke in 1744. His only son predeceased him so on his own death in 1759 his titles became extinct.

The title was not however allowed to remain vacant for long as in 1784, one George Townshend who was the eldest son of the Marquess Townshend was created Earl of Leicester. He subsequently acceded to the title of Marquess in 1807, and is therefore better known under his senior title. On his death in 1811, he was succeeded by his son George Ferrars Townshend, the 2nd Earl and 3rd Marquess Townshend who died without male heirs in 1855 and allowed his titles to revert to the crown.

Meanwhile, whilst the aforementioned Thomas Coke had died without a direct male heir in 1759, there was a niece named Anne who had married a Philip Roberts, a major in the 2nd Horse Guards. It was their son named Wenman Roberts who therefore inherited Holkham House and the Coke estates. This Wenman Roberts subsequently adopted the surname of Coke to suit his new position in life. His son Thomas William Coke known as 'Billy Coke' became a noted agricultural reformer and improver of livestock breeds, inspired the creation of the bowler hat and was subsequently created 'Earl of Leicester' in 1837.

Unfortunately as we can see, the earldom of Leicester already existed at the time and was held by the Marquess Townshend, so in order to distinguish the Coke earldom from the Townshend earldom, Thomas William Coke was actually created the Earl of Leicester of Holkham. Technically speaking this remains the correct name for the 1837 creation, but since of course, the Townshend earldom became extinct with the death of the 2nd Townshend Earl in 1855, thus eliminating the potential for confusion, the latter holders of the Coke title are now simply referred to as 'Earls of Leicester' and are regarded as representing the 'second creation' of the dignity.

Whether as 'Earls of Leicester' or as 'Earls of Leicester of Holkham' Billy Coke's descendants still retain the title to this day, currently held by the 7th Earl, Edward Douglas Coke who also holds the title of Viscount Coke.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER

BEAUMONT

MONTFORT

Title forfeited 1208, 'restored' in 1239

PLANTAGENET

Creation of 1265

Title forfeit in 1322 restored 1324

PLANTAGENET

Creation of 1362

DUDLEY

SIDNEY

COKE

Creation of 1744

TOWNSHEND

See also Marquess Townshend

COKE

Creation of 1837 as Earl Leicester of Holkham


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for
    LEICESTER, ROBERT SIDNEY, EARL OF
    MONTFORT, SIMON DE, EARL OF LEICESTER
    LEICESTER, EARLS OF
    See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • Beaumont geneaology at http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/bb4ae/beaumont01.htm
  • Simon de Montfort at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10540a.htm
  • Norfolk - Holkham extract from Francis White's History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk 1854, pp. 711-713 at http://apling.freeservers.com/Villages/Holkham54.htm
  • Thomas Coke 1st Earl of Leicester http://www.holkham.co.uk/family/1stearl.html
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • THE ENGLISH PEERAGE or, a view of the ANCIENT and PRESENT STATE of the ENGLISH NOBILITY London: (1790) see http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/History/Barons/

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