The first earl of Norfolk was one Ralph Guader, the son of a Norman who had previously held some position of authority in East Anglia under Edward the Confessor and may even have held the position of eaolderman in the district. Ralph was one of the key participants in the Revolt of the Earls and forfeited the earldom on the failure of the rebellion in 1075.
The earldom was consequently left vacant for the next seventy years or so until the time of one Hugh Bigod, who was the second son of a Roger Bigod who held extensive estates in East Anglia. With the premature death of his brother William in 1120, Hugh inherited the family lands - he later became one of Stephen's key supporters when the later seized the throne in 1135 and was rewarded with the grant of the earldom of Norfolk sometime before the year 1141.
Hugh Bigod later abandoned his support of Stephen in 1153 and threw his weight behind the efforts of Henry II to obtain the throne. However in 1173 he supported the revolt of Henry’s sons against their father, and as a result his lands were seized. Hugh was forced to pay a heavy fine and surrender his castles but he was allowed to keep his lands and earldom.
Hugh died in 1177 and was succeeded by his son, Roger Bigod, who became the 2nd Earl. Roger appears to have incurred the displeasure of Henry II in some way and had to wait to have his estates and titles confirmed by Richard I. Roger Bigod later took a leading role in the baronial opposition to king John and was one of the signatories to Magna Carta.
On Roger's death in 1221 the earldom passed briefly to his son Hugh Bigod the 3rd Earl, before he died in 1225 and the title passed to his son, another Roger Bigod who became the 4th Earl. As it happens, Hugh Bigod, the 3rd Earl had married Matilda Marshal, a match that became significant once Anselm Marshal, the last of William Marshal's sons had died in 1246, as this made Matilda Marshal a valuable heiress.
As a result his son Roger the 4th Earl, obtained as his share of the Marshal inheritance the office of Marshal of England in 1246. Roger married a daughter of William the Lion king of Scotland but the marriage produced no sons, hence on his death in 1270 the earldom and the office of Marshal of England passed to his nephew Roger Bigod the son of yet another Hugh Bigod who was a younger son of the 3rd Earl.
This Roger Bigod, the 5th Earl, got into financial difficulties and was bailed out by Edward I in return for which he agreed to bequeath his titles and estates to the crown, hence on his death in December 1306, the title of Earl of Norfolk reverted to the crown.
The title and estates of Norfolk therefore reverted to the crown on the 5th Earl's death and were granted by Edward II to his half-brother Thomas of Brotherton in 1312 together with the hereditary office of Marshal of England three years later. Thomas subsequently died in the August of 1338, leaving no sons, and his surviving daughter Margaret was recognised as the Countess of Norfolk in her own right.
Although Margaret married John de Segrave, 3rd Lord Segrave, her husband made no claim on the title of Norfolk for himself. Their only child Elizabeth married a John de Mowbray, 4th Lord Mowbray, and it was their son Thomas Mowbray who laid a claim for the title but was elevated to the status of Duke of Norfolk in 1397. His grandmother Margaret was similarly promoted to being Duchess of Norfolk in the same year, a title that she held until her death in 1400.
As noted above Norfolk became a Dukedom from 1397 onwards and was in the hands of the Mowbray family until 1476. It was briefly held by Richard, Duke of York between 1476 and 1483 before coming into the hands of the Howard family in 1483. The early Howard dukes had rather a chequered career with the Dukedom lying dormant between 1485 and 1514, being forfeit between 1547 and 1553 and finally being forfeit once more with the execution of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke for treason in 1572.
However the 4th Duke's son, another Thomas Howard, made efforts to recover the family's position. With the accession of James I he was restored to his fathers earldoms of Arundel and Surrey in 1604 and in 1644 succeeded in recovering Norfolk as well, but only in the form of an earldom.
Thomas Howard and his son and grandson were therefore the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Earls of Norfolk in the Howard line but were known at the time as Earls of Arundel as the earldom of Arundel was senior to those of both Norfolk and Surrey. With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Thomas Howard the 3rd Earl was dukedom was restored and he duly become the 5th Howard Duke of Norfolk.
On the exact legal position of the post Bigod Earls of Norfolk
As noted above the last Bigod Earl of Norfolk got into financial difficulties and effectively surrendered the title back to the crown, which was subsequently granted in the year 1312 by Edward II to his brother Thomas of Brotherton. Following Thomas' death the title of Earl of Norfolk lay with his daughter Margaret as the Countess of Norfolk until her death on the 24th March 1399. After which, the title should have arguably passed to her grandson and heir Thomas Mowbray, but since he was already Duke of Norfolk and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in exile, he appears to have neither the inclination or capacity to have claimed the title.
None of the subsequent Mowbrays ever claimed the title of Earl of Norfolk as they were understandably more interested in that of Duke of Norfolk. However almost six centuries later a descendant of Thomas of Brotherton, the Lord Mowbray made a formal claim on the title and made an application to the House of Lords to be recognised as such. (The title of Duke of Norfolk having lone since passed out of the hands of the Mowbray family and into that of the Howards.)
In 1906 the Lords delivered their judgement and refused the request. This decision was justified on the argument that the surrender of the title by Roger Bigod was invalid. A peerage the Lords stated, following the precedent sent in 1625 in the case of the Earl of Oxford was "a personal dignity annexed to the posterity and fixed in the blood". No peer could therefore give away or otherwise alienate his inheritance.
Accordingly by strict application of the law none of the post Bigod title holders were actually Earls of Norfolk. As it happens there were plenty of Bigod relations around in 1306 who could have (and should have in the opinion of the House of Lords) inherited the title. It is therefore still technically possible that one day a Bigod desendant may appear to claim the title, although after a seven hundred years proving the claim might be a different matter.
(* Strictly speaking what happened is that Roger Bigod surrendered the Earldom and his office of Marshal of England back to the crown after which they were regranted back to him for life with remainder to his heirs from his first marriage with Aliva Basset. Since Roger Bigod had no children whatsoever, this effectively disinherited his relations as on his death everything reverted to king Edward as ws no doubt the intention.)
THE EARLS OF NORFOLK
In 1397 the Countess Margaret was created Duchess of Norfolk, at the same time as her grandson Thomas Mowbray was made the Duke of Norfolk. Thereafter see Duke of Norfolk until 1572 when Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk was executed for treason and attainted.
The Dukedom was restored in 1660 see Duke of Norfolk thereafter.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entries for
NORFOLK, EARLS AND DUKES OF
RALPH DE GUADER
THE ENGLISH PEERAGE or, a view of the ANCIENT and PRESENT STATE of the ENGLISH NOBILITY London: (1790) see
Royal Genealogy information held at University of Hull see
RoyaList Online at http://www.royalist.info/royalist/index.html
Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)