Downsizing Royalty? Titles May Hint at Trend in Britain Queen Made One Son the Earl of an Obscure Historical Region, and A

Article excerpt

Royalty watchers are having a field day in the wake of the recent wedding of Britain's Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones.

The reason: Queen Elizabeth II's decision to confer the title "Earl and Countess of Wessex" upon her youngest son and his bride. The move is being seen, variously, as imaginative, odd, a bit of a slight to Edward, and a sign that the monarchy may be under the influence of the movie industry.

One problem with the title is that Wessex doesn't exist except in medieval history books and the novels of Thomas Hardy. It refers to a broad tract of west-central England, including the modern counties of Wiltshire, Somerset, Berkshire, Devon, and Cornwall. Wessex means "West Saxon." The area has a noble history: In AD 878 King Alfred of Wessex defeated the marauding Danes to become King of England. In AD 1066, King Harold, the son of the first Earl of Wessex, was defeated by William the Conqueror. The name lapsed until "The Return of the Native" and other Hardy novels were published in the late 19th century. And the actual title Earl of Wessex didn't reappear until last year, in the form of a fictional character in the film "Shakespeare in Love." Columnist Hannah Betts, writing in the London Times last week, speculated that the movie gave the queen the idea of using the title. Royal historian David Starkey says: "The title itself is a total fiction. There is nowhere called Wessex. This is a strange way to usher in the new millennium." Others take a less critical view. David Williamson, editor of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage, a standard reference on aristocratic matters, calls it "an imaginative choice. "Perhaps the queen is signaling a different approach to royal titles," he says. …