SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT FRENCH NOBILITY

by

Dr. PANGLOSS

 

 

A nobiliary title is an honorific label which is added to the nobility of the bearer. It presupposes nobility (papal titles are an exception) but the reverse is not true.

Prior to the French revolution one could be as noble as the king and not be titled. The Rohan’s motto illustrates the point: "King, I cannot be, Prince deign not to be, Rohan, am I". And the Lord of Coucy’s: "Neither King,nor prince nor duke, but Lord of Coucy am I".

France’s oldest nobility scorned the display of titles; the Montesquious, descendants of the dukes of Aquitaine, until the XVIIIth century identified themselves as "Lords of Marsan". The title of baron, today the lowest in the hierarchy of nobiliary distinctions should be considered historically the most ancient: under the Merovingians, the term "baron" identified, in fact, the noble, the king’s companion.

The origin of titles is rather confused. Under the first two dynasties it identified duties or functions. The duke led armies, and governed provinces; the marquis maintained the garrison on the borders; the count governed a town, a portion of the territory; the viscount, his deputy. The vidame which is a strictly French title is the bishop’s lieutenant responsible for managing the ecclesiatical real estate.

The Book of Justice, written in the XIth century states: "The first dignity is that of duke, the marquis, then count and viscount and then baron followed by castellan, vavasour (sub-vassal), and villein."

This hierarchy came into being progressively, almost imperceptibly. It was not imposed harshly or all of a sudden. Powerful lords indifferently took on the titles of duke or count. The Count of Barcelona styled himself count, duke, marquis and prince all at the same time. The Count of Toulouse was the equal of the Duke of Aquitaine.

The functions of these powerful personages became patrimonial. The title became stuck to the name, i.e. the duke of canton x, the count of town y. The problem was that medieval circumscriptions were wide and there weren’t enough to go around. Large landowners also craved independence and were avid for titles implying sovereignty. The situation would improve; duchies and counties split up; in other cases landowners simply assumed the titles which suited them and attached them to their domains.

At the outset, the kings of the first two dynasties recruited soldiers by granting them fiefs, however this could not go on for ever. So they used the ploy of changing the fief into a dignity, saying that such and such a piece of land would be noble and would be known as a county, barony etc. The fundamental principle of feudalism was :"no title without land". A jurist defined a title as : "the relationship existing between the lord and the fief." This principle was upheld, at least theoretically, until the Revolution . The difference between titles granted during the ancien régime and those granted in the XIXth century resides in the juridical obligation of the land which existed in the former.

Under the ancien régime titles were subjected to a tax which the heir of the title holder had to pay in order to maintain in his name the nobiliary quality and title of his father. This tax was the counter-part of the guarantee given by the sovereign of the value of the title.

Nobiliary titles have survived but they are now merely nothing more than honorific appendages to names. They have a long history of having been abused excessively both before and after the Revolution.

When the king wished to recompense one of his subjects he conferred upon him a title for a parcel of noble land which could be as small as a few hundred acres or as large as a township. Thus Olivier le Daim became Count of Meulan. The procedure was useful because it brought revenues to the crown as the letters patent erecting the land into "dignities" were subject to rather high registration fees. For all that though, so long as the feudal system remained firmly in place, kings were somewhat parsimonious in awarding such distinctions. Starting with the XVIth century one began to see the creation of duchies, and counties in favor of illustrious families . The rate of these creations intensified in the XVIIth. In 1575 King Henry III had imposed a regulation that for each title created proof had to be demonstrated that the land brought in a certain revenue, but future kings paid no attention to it. There resulted an inflation which almost appears to have been systematic.

There were three principal ways for a person to accede to the nobility: the recognition of eminent merit; the King’s own whimsy and money. There is no doubt that certain heroic military or civil services were recognized. If truth, were told, however such specific examples are rare. Colbert, the finance minister is one notable example but he had to go and find himself some ancestors in Scotland! In 1750 an Edict decided that the military rank of brigadier general would grant the holder hereditary nobility; also, a person could acquire nobility if he, his father and grandfather were holders of the Royal Military Order of St. Louis. Pandering to the tastes of the King was another method which brought good results. Henry III who was known for his predilection for young men covered his minions with honors. Under Louis XIV ennoblement by pandering became so common that it didn’t ever raise eye brows; and Louis XV did not appear to have any objections either.

There were several ways to purchase nobility.

A commoner could purchase "noble" lands and become noble himself for so-doing. It is doubtful that the old laws condoned the method, but it was sufficiently common in 1579 for the Ordinance of Blois to be promulgated condemning the practice. It was, however, not particularly successful and didn’t prevent the abuses from going on. Much later one would find purchasers of chateaux which had become national properties at the Revolution who, along with the land, took on the name and title of the former owner . Some of the beneficiaries of these operations - or at least their descendants- are still around.

The acquisition of nobility through purchase took two forms:

- the issuance of ennobling letters patent, or of letters confirming nobility or of legitimation of nobility; and,

- acquisition of functions which conferred nobility.

Very early on, kings went into the nobility business. Georges Maurevert, in his excellent work "Fisc et Blason"(loosely translated as "Arms and the Exchequer") suggested the establishment of a tax on nobiliary titles invoking the example of kings who had known how to take advantage of their subjects’ vanity and citing the Persian of Montesquieu’s "Persian letters" : "The French King is the most powerful prince of Europe. Though he does not have his neighbor the King of Spain’s gold mines, he has more riches than he because he derives them from the vanity of his subjects, which is inexhaustible."

To be sure there were the usual ennoblements for money through well-known networks of genealogists with the right access; but in addition to this the King would

from time to time go wholesale, and there would be literally hundreds of ennoblements at one time much like the nominations to the Legion of Honor today. Under Charles IX the contingents of 1564 and 1568 were particularly large. In 1576 Henri III ennobled one thousand of his subjects, without their assent. One of them, Richard Graindorge, a major cattle dealer who had asked for nothing tried to protest but was coerced to accept and to pay a fee of 1000 crowns.

Under Louis XIV and Louis XV blank letters patent were sent to the provinces in bundles. Prices varied from 1,500 to 6,000 crowns. At other times nobility was acquired for much less. The Mayors, sub-mayors and echevins (municipal magistrates)of Nantes were regularly ennobled for 1,000 francs. Some only paid 100 francs and were known as "hundred frankers". The sale of nobility, however, created a number of fiscal problems since those ennobled were exempted from having to pay major taxes.

The Kings solved the problems in two ways. The first was simplicity itself. From time to time an edict would cancel the ennoblements granted on a certain date. This was a favorite procedure of Henri III and Henri IV. In 1715 the regent cancelled all the ennoblements granted since 1696: those who wanted to keep their status could do so by obtaining a "confirmation" which cost 6,000 crowns. Louis XV followed suit in 1730 for all ennoblements since 1643: for 2,000 crowns one could maintain his nobility. The same procedures were used in 1771 and 1784.

The second method was as follows: The Kings noticing that the expansion of the nobility was getting out of hand, that the integrity of the order was being compromised as were the nation’s revenues, decided to remove some of the undesirable elements by requiring the nobility to produce its titles. This way they killed several birds with the same stone: they got rid of the false nobles who were unduly exempted from taxes and at the same time they instituted new fees for the registration and confirmation of titles.

Louis XI who had no trouble with numbers was the first to order an investigation into the status of the nobility. During the XVth and XVIth centuries more surveys were conducted but they were usually ineffective due to the Hundred Years war and the religious troubles which caused the greatest confusion in the nobiliary archives. Many edicts threatening usurpers were issued but they did little to prevent the abuses.

Louis XIV decided to get serious. His able finance minister Colbert whose nobility was of recent origin, gave the problem his full attention. The campaign was launched in 1655 and assigned to the Board of Customs and Excise. The following year special inspectors were sent to the provinces to seek out those who pretended to be noble. There were also periods of little activity. In 1696 the activity started up again with renewed vigor. Many nobles were stricken from the rolls and condemned to pay fines; others whose titles were of little value paid to "maintain" their status. There were rumors that it was possible to come to an understanding with the inspectors and that these had in fact created more nobles than they had eliminated.

The venality of appointments and functions was a real source of revenue for the crown. Tocqueville wrote: "As the financial problems grew one noticed new jobs being created all of which were rewarded with the exemption from the payment of taxes or by special privileges; and, since the requirements were those of the Treasury and not of the administration one arrived by this method to create an almost incredible number of useless or actually harmful positions."

Nobility, came as a bonus with a large number of these positions. From time to time, with a surge of zeal some of these were eliminated but the need for cash brought them back. In 1664 the number of such functions in the fields of justice and finance reached 45,780; their sale value represented 419,842,000 crowns which in today’s money would equal roughly a billion US dollars.

Positions in the judiciary soon became patrimonial property which remained in the family. The Edict of the Paulette (1604) put some order in the system and ensured the transmission of the function to the heir after paying a simple succession tax. Thus was born what was known as the "nobility of the robe" (from the robes worn by magistrates). Court personnel became a veritable caste from which came such well known houses as the Mesmes, the Thoré, the Séguier,the Molé, the Pasquier, the d’Aguesseau, the Meaupéou the d’Ormesson and the Lamoignon.

Other functions also came with nobility attached, i.e. Board of Customs and Excise officers; officers of the Mint; Treasury; War Department and especially that of King’s Secretary which was the principal "savonette à vilain".(1) This charge entailed the minimum amount of work and usually cost 120,000 crowns; but as soon as the titular started to enjoy the nobility and the rights attached thereto, he resold the charge to someone else and the process started all over again.

Things reached such a point by the end of the ancien régime that one could count no less than 4000 charges conferring nobility. The burgher, the farmer, the financier then purchased a charge of King’s Secretary just as one would today buy a new car. It was a vanity to which few enlightened spirits did not succumb. Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, the author and musician purchased one and would laughingly show off the diploma saying it meant absolutely nothing to him; there’s no doubt that honors are easier to disdain when one has acquired them.

Some of these ennoblements granted nobility in the first degree, that is to say that it became immediately hereditary; in the case of others such as Treasurers of Finance not exercising in Paris, the nobility was in the second degree, that is the nobility only became hereditary after the second generation in the function. In the case of King’s Secretary, the nobility was in the first degree but the titular had to exercise the function for twenty years for it to be complete. At the end of that period he obtained "letters of honor" or of "veterance" and his nobility then became hereditary.

Besides these commercial ennoblements there were a few other curious sources of nobility. The governors of provinces - the governors of Lorgues in Provence - doctors of law in certain universitites - Dôle and Avignon for instance were noble on account of their functions.

The most important source of nobility was that of the corps of municipal magistrates. The charges of municipal magistrate were not venal. Quite to the contrary their exercise was hard. In certain towns (2) they were rewarded with nobility just as today one awards the Legion of Honor to individuals who have accepted a responsible but non remunerated position.

The acquisition and transmission of this nobility varied according to the towns. It was know as the "nobility of the bell" because these magistrates were summoned to their meetings by ringing the bell in the town square. This class has left some deep traces among the provincial gentry and it is noteworthy that the number of nobles has remained high around the towns which enjoyed this privilege. In Nantes and Potiers for instance many distinguished people who would have you believe that during the ancien régime their ancestors had the privilege of administering high and low justice, actually are descended from municipal magistrates ; which is perfectly honorable of course; but it must be pointed out that in nobiliary parlance the descriptive: noblesse de cloche is somewhat discredited. Wrongly, I would add, since the peaceful functions of the municipal magistrate are certainly at least as agreeable as the murderous exploits of those belonging to the nobility of the sword.

The XVIIIth century saw a burgeoning of titles. Rich financiers and lawyers were not content to be noble: they wanted to be titled and acquired noble fiefs and made it a point to have their new distinctions registered. The magistrates were happy to oblige, and seemed amused by the trend; while they were very obliging with their peers who offered themselves such luxuries they showed themselves to be implacable towards those of the old nobility who decided to regularize the titles which they had taken motu propio. A sort of revenge by the bourgeoisie!

According to Woelmont de Brumagne a student of these things, the XVIIIth century saw the creation of more genuine marquis than all other preceding ones. When one considers that an marquisate was equivalent to three baronies and three castellanies or two baronies and six castellanies, it is obvious that this was not for everyone.

Notwithstanding, gentlemen of high lineage did not adapt well to the system and the ambitious competition of the new rich. They complained to the sovereign, who in order to console them invented the "Honours of the Court".

For ladies the "Honours of the Court" was the privilege of being introduced to the sovereign, the queen and the royal family; for gentlemen it meant the privilege of climbing aboard the king’s coach and to hunt with his majesty after having been properly introduced beforehand.

In order to gain admission it was necessary according to the Edict of 17 April 1760 to be able to prove before one of the king’s genealogists an unbroken nobility since 1400. One of these genealogists was Chérin, who was as loyal to the king as he was strict in judging the value of the documents presented for his examination. His files are still available in the Title Collection of the National Library in Paris .

Admission to the Honours of the Court was an expensive luxury which only a few gentlemen could afford . The names of those elected were always preceded by a title: viscount, count or earl which were either self chosen or proferred by the king.

Thus were born what are known in France as courtesy titles. The qualification was a strictly personal one and was proportional to the importance of the seeker; however the sons of those who had obtained the Honours of the Court considered that the distinction proffered on their parents applied to them as well and that what was worth acquiring was worth keeping. In nobiliary law this personal honor in no way implied a right to an hereditary one.

A title is hereditary as is nobility but certain conditions apply.

In nobiliary law the rule is absolute and couldn’t be more logical: the title is transmitted from male to male by primogeniture upon the death of the title holder.

A title implies a defined jurisdiction over a determined territory: it is absurd for there to be two, three or ten counts - as if often seen today - for only one county. The son, in order to acquire the title must await the death of his father. Identical titles or graduated titles are a nobiliary monstrosity. In Britain where feudal and heraldic rules are integrally applied, only the eldest son inherits the title; the younger offspring, if there are no other hereditary titles in the family, simply becomes "The Honourable".

The system in France is pure anarchy. The custom has been established to title younger sons according to a descending scale" the eldest son of a count styles himself viscount and the younger styles himself baron even during the life of the their father the count. It is perfectly absurd and against the rule of the indivisibility of titles; but the custom is by no means new as it emerged in the XVIIIth century and became accepted usage by the French nobility.

In case of a lack of a direct heir, the title may be transmitted collaterally, but it requires a new grant implying the authorization of the sovereign.

Women, before the Revolution were not excluded from succeeding to a title but they only were eligible in the case the last title holder had no male heir. An only female would inherit her father’s or grandfather’s title before any collaterals of the latter.

Nobiliary titles in the XIXth century are quite different from those of the ancien régime. Now the traditional link between the title and the fief completely disappears.

With Napoleon we see a reconstitution of a "functional" nobility, which had originally existed in Roman Gaul.

The hierarchy of titles: dukes, counts, barons, knights becomes a part of the general administration . Notwithstanding, the influence of old tradition can be seen in two characteristic creations: the twelve fiefdoms of dignity and the majorats or entailed properties.

The fiefdoms were created in Italy, where Napoleon was king and were titled duchies. These were of Dalmatia, Istria, Friuli, Cadore, Feltre, Bassano, Vicenza, Padova and Rovigo and were conferred on generals with rights of succession by primogeniture. The fifteenth part of the revenues of these duchies was awarded to the title holder. In 1806 six others were created in the Kingdom of Naples.

The purpose of the majorats was to maintain the fortune within the families of those ennobled by attributing to the successive title holders a share of the inalienable possessions the amount of which was proportionate to the eminence of the title.

The emperor would occasionally grant the endowment at the same time as the title in which case it was known as a majorat de propre mouvement or automatic majorat. At other times the majorat was created at the request of an individual already possessing a title and using his own funds. This was known as a " self requested majorat . The properties constituting the majorat were considered inalienable, unseizable and indefeasible.

This, in effect was reverting to the apanages of the ancien régime made up of inalienable fiefs in favor of successive elder sons.

The constitution of majorat for a duke required an income of 200,000 francs; for a count, 30,000 francs; for a baron 15,000 francs; for a knight 3,000 francs. Registration fees were not excessive: 900 francs for a duke, 600 and 300 francs respectively for a count and a baron. The displaying of arms and use of titles was strictly regulated.

It must be pointed out, however, that the great majority of the 1,519 ennoblements (not counting the knights) were personal in theory. The only transmissible ones were those which were founded on a majorat, though one would not think so from leafing through current social directories or who’s whos. There’s hardly a descendant from a nobleman of the period who does not style himself with his ancestor’s title if he does not raise it a level or two. Some whose knowledge has gaps even style themselves with the titles of viscount and marquis which were eliminated by Napoleon.

The charter of 1814 conceded by Louis XVIII stipulated: "The old nobility regains its titles; the new nobility keeps its own. The King may create nobles at will, but only accords ranks and honors, without granting them any exemptions from taxes or from the obligations of Society." (Art 71) Thus the status of the nobility was in effect reduced to that of an hereditary decoration. The Restoration of the monarchy was also notable because it also the restored the peerage which in turn revived the ancient dignity of the Grand Vassals of the Crown which had virtually fallen into desuetude by 1789. The Chamber or House of Peers, instituted by Louis XVIII, survived the 100 Days and, after Waterloo, reassumed its role of Upper House. A number of "legitimate" titles displayed today have their origin in this House. Contrary to the principle of the indivisibility of titles , sons of peers had the privilege to take, during their fathers’ lifetime the title immediately inferior to their fathers’. The King derived a double benefit. While submerging the old imperial nobility he at the same time profited nicely.(During the imperial period the fees paid to the treasury were quite moderate: 900 francs for a duke, 600 francs for a count and 300 for a baron). Louis XVIII raised these to 18,000 francs to be a duke, 7,000 to be a count, 5,000 francs to be a viscount and 4,000 to be a baron.

During the Restoration the "prostitution" of nobiliary titles was almost comical. A Council of the Privy Seal was reestablished to verify titles: but many were burned during the Revolution. Noble candidates claimed this circumstance and were believed without investigation. Many of those "verified" titles claimed today originate during this period. 17 dukes, 60 marquis, 83 counts,62 viscounts, 225 barons, and 785 esquires were created.

Each Peer of France was necessarily titled and obliged to create a majorat.

The July Monarchy (1830-1848) was very parsimonious with respect to ennoblements. No more than 6 dukes, 19 counts or viscounts and 59 barons. It is not because the bourgeois King Louis-Philippe attached a great deal of importance to the issuance of letters patents, but that he preferred to see his subjects ennoble themselves. He got rid of the majorats and the hereditary peerage; two measures which demonstrate his complete disinterest in the hereditary status of the nobility. Thus any attempts to prosecute anyone for false usage of titles became virtually impossible.

 

(To be continued)

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(1) savonette=bar of soap. Was so-called to denigrate the common statusof those (villeins) who acquired nobility by purchasing a charge. Meaning was that the villein cleaned the dirt off himself with the soap and thus became clean and noble.

(2) The following towns had, at different times been granted the privilege: Abbeville, Angers, Angoulême, Bourges, Cognac, Lyon, Nantes, Niort, Paris, Péronne, Poitiers, La Rochelle, Saint-Jean-d'Angély, Saint-Maixent, Toulouse and Tours.