William Capell, the man who could be earl

Retired store clerk in Calif. is next in line for Essex title

August 05, 2005|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

YUBA CITY, Calif. - He could be addressed one day as "My Lord." But retired grocery store worker William Jennings Capell would prefer to be known as just plain Bill.

A lifelong resident of this farming town 45 miles north of Sacramento, Capell always knew he had noble blood. What he didn't know was that he might one day assume the title of England's Earl of Essex.

Then a British newspaper reporter called in June to inform Capell that the 10th Earl of Essex had died and the 11th had inherited the title. As the new earl's fourth cousin once removed, Capell was next in line as the 12th Earl of Essex.

"I was still half asleep," recalled Capell, 52, an affable, heavy-set man, as he lounged in an armchair at his home. "I acknowledged it. But that was all. It wasn't until later that I got to thinking about it, that `Wow, I'm next in line.' It started to sink in a little."

An earl is a member of the British peerage - a nobleman of high rank. According to Burke's Peerage & Gentry, whose books have recorded the genealogy of titled and landed families in the United Kingdom and Ireland for some 175 years, the title can be inherited or bestowed upon an individual by the state.

Capell stands to succeed the current Earl of Essex, Frederick Paul de Vere Capell, a 61-year- old retired elementary school assistant principal, who lives near Lancaster (the one in England, not the one in Pennsylvania).

According to Burke's and Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, Frederick succeeded his father, Robert Capell, the 10th earl, who died in June. (The late earl was a distant cousin of the ninth Lord Essex.)

The 11th earl is a bachelor and has no children. With no other apparent successor in sight, Capell is the new heir apparent to the earldom. His aristocratic genealogy is documented in the 106th edition of Burke's Peerage & Baronetage.

"I'm excited about it," said Capell, who has never met or corresponded with his British kin and has never visited England.

"I'm planning a trip to meet the earl, to say hi and let him show me around."

"I think we should send him a family photo," said Capell's wife, Sandy, 53. "We've got the address."

She would become Lady Essex, a countess. Her husband's full title, at least for correspondence, would be The Right Honorable Earl of Essex.

Capell believes his great-grandfather emigrated from England to Canada, and then to Idaho. He doesn't recall what the patriarch did for a living, but he did know his grandfather - an Idaho cattle rancher and potato farmer.

"I met him once," said Capell, who used to check and stock shelves and do managerial duties at a local supermarket. "He died when I was 7 years old."

Capell's father, an Army clerk, rarely spoke about his noble family tree.

It's unclear whether Capell would be entitled to sit in the House of Lords, now with 731 members, but he said he would seriously consider moving to England to fulfill his role of representing the County of Essex.

Even if Capell did get a chance to serve, membership in the House of Lords is unpaid. Nor does Capell stand to inherit any land, estate or crown jewels. "There's no castle, no money," he said. Previous earls have been politicians, military commanders - even farmers.

The best-known Earl of Essex is the 2nd, Robert Devereux, who was a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I. Eloquent and vivacious, he subsequently fell out of favor and later attempted a coup, for which he was convicted of treason and executed in the Tower of London in 1601.

Capell's only son, 23-year-old Kevin Devereux Capell, is named for the second earl.

"Because we knew the Essex thing was in the family, we just liked the name," said Sandy Capell, a library technician.

Kevin, a reservations agent at a hotel and casino resort, is married with no children. His title would become Viscount Malden if his dad became Earl, and he would be heir apparent to his father's title.

The Capells, who also have a 31-year-old daughter, live in a modest tract home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood of Yuba City. William retired in 1997 because of arthritis, and the couple share their house with five dachshunds and three cats.

Since the news of his prospective earldom broke, Capell said he has been inundated with media interview requests from both sides of the Atlantic.

"I usually get one or two phone calls a day," Capell said. "Now I get 15 or 20. The phone doesn't stop."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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