Why was the Nobility of France necessary and important?
The French Kings had to administer a very large territory, comprised of more than one hundred Dioceses and Archdioceses, many provinces, and many millions of subjects. The plain truth was that neither the army nor the bureaucracy of the monarchy were capable to impose the King’s law and will over the whole of France. Therefore, the nobility, a social class called “The Second Order”, or the “Second State”, was the only social group with enough local power and close ties to the King to accomplish the task of being the actual facilitators of making France a country able to be governed. The King shared with the nobility a common set of values and culture. So, it was the nobility the very own social class who made possible the government of the Monarchy in France, by being the King’s enforcers. At first, no king could govern without the support of the nobility.
What was the French Nobility?
The Nobility of France has always fascinated many people, including scholars, researchers and academics.
The French Nobility was a separate group within the boundaries of legal society, clearly differentiated by their connexion to the old values of social exclusivity, tradition of landownership, fiscal privilege, ancient lineage and military service in the King’s Armies.
Contrary to popular belief, the very aristocratic exclusivity and capacity for influence of the French Nobility survived the revolution and agrarian crisis, but finally succumbed to the evolution of time and merged with the high bourgeoisie and the industrial elites of the country.
The Nobility in France was an elite that developed many forms of influence which represented their enormous prestige and wealth, but also an eagerness for leadership based on tradition and a very peculiar concept of self-worthiness that was their most distinguishing mark.
Also, we will dispel some misconceptions and doubts about the French Nobility. There is a significant line of thought that stresses the very decadence and uselessness of the French Nobles and the nobility itself, and that sees the nobility as a totally closed group incapable of evolving or adjusting to change. This is quite wrong.
The Nobility of France was a spirited and dynamic social class, preoccupied by the future, and relentlessly renewing itself by recruiting the most prosperous members of the middle classes or marrying into new money.
Now, we will answer the most interesting and important questions that everybody wants to know about the Nobility of France.
How rich was the French Nobility?
The French Nobility was not a homogenous cast. By 1789, the Nobility of France was composed by approximately 25000 families who could be considered legally as noble by the juridical standards of the law. There is to add to this a very interesting data that supports the idea of the social mobility of classes: Between 6000-7000 members of the French Nobility were incorporated into this noble class in the last 100 years. So, about a 25% of the Noble Class were new nobles which came from the richest sectors of the bourgeoisie and middle classes. Moreover, the Nobility of France was comprised of many different people, all unequal in birth, regional affiliation, influence in court, religion, riches, culture and even ideology and politics.
At the top of the French Nobility Pyramid were situated the Princes of the Blood and the Highest Peers of France, which had enormous incomes coming from the possession of fiefdoms, ecclesiastical offices and sinecures, Royal Offices, Pensions, and Gifts. Their wealth did not originate exclusively from the ownership of land, but also from their investments in State Owned Enterprises, trading with the colonies of the vast French colonial empire through state sponsored trading companies, the speculation in real estate, mining settlements, textile manufactures, forges and metallurgy, and investment in debt and bonds backed by the church or the French Crown.
Lesser nobles used often the practice of turning their land to sharecroppers to receive payments in Kind. However, this was not profitable enough. So, the nobility discovered that it was better for them the monetary leases of land. These contracts usually lasted for three years, with the possibility to renew them. Also, the value of monetary leases of land used to leap upwards, and land rents rose very faster.
The richest noble families of France were the Albrets, the Montmorencies, the Polignacs, the Mazarins, the Richelieus, The La Tremoilles, The Orleans, The Nevers, The Noailles, The Condes, and the Bauffremonts.
Nobles were forbidden to engage in usury by law. This could result in the forfeiture of their noble status. However, the nobles proved very resourceful to legally avoid this negative consequence. One of the commercial practices that yielded more money was money lending to the crown. The always empty treasury of the King needed enormous amounts of cash to keep going, and when the money from royal taxation was not enough, the crown turned to the nobility and the church as providers of loans. Consortiums of lenders formed by a mixture of financiers and noblemen used to make short term loans to the crown with such huge rates of interest that the contracts were kept secret to avoid scandal. The church also acted as a bank for the crown in many instances, but charging less aggressive interest rates. It is interesting to note that the interest rate of these short term loans was so high that the own church acted as arbiter, and in the end, bishops decided what rates were moral or immoral.
The highest members of the French Nobility possessed a vast wealth, and this riches were much needed, because the French Nobles were slaves of their own status, and had to live a lifestyle suited to their own class, and were big spenders on luxury goods. The acquisition and purchase of fine jewellery, pieces of art, wines, carriages, feudal land, imported silk, perfumes, porcelain, artistic watches, engraved snuff boxes, fans, venetian glass and mirrors, wigs and all sorts of ornate clothing were a quintessential part of living nobly. A morbid cult for fashion and snobbery was very typical of the French Nobility, and was the main cause of ruin and bankruptcy for many French noble families, unable to reconcile their rents with their spending habits. Prodigality was not uncommon, and many members of the nobility went into debt very heavily.
Normally, a well-managed Lordship or Barony of the first class could yield between 15000 and 85000 Livres per year. However, lesser fiefs could provide from 350 to 1400 Livres per year. Those Barons who rented their marshlands for grazing could get between 500-1000 livres per year.
The famous Cardinal Richelieu left at his death an estate valued at 20 million Livres. The accumulation of wealth by Cardinal Mazarin was even bigger. Mazarin’s estate was worth about 36 million Livres. The recently ennobled banker Nicholas Fouquet enjoyed a fortune of nearly 16 million Livres and lived with such a degree of luxury that would make blush a Roman Emperor. By the standards of today, these men would be billionaires and were among Europe’s richest people. The only one who could surpass them in Europe was the Spanish Count of Regla, the biggest landowner of the Spanish Colonial Empire and also owner of the richest gold and silver mines in Mexico, then part of the Spanish Empire, and whose immeasurable wealth, in comparative terms, would make a Bill Gates look like a petty beggar. The French King’s Ministers used to fare pretty well too. The Sully Family earned nearly 3 million Livres during the tenure of one of his relatives as Prime Minister of Henry IV of France.
The top nobility of France was extremely rich, comprised of monstrously wealthy magnates. The Middle and Lesser Nobility did not fare so well, and had far more modest incomes. As a curiosity, we will mention that the French Revolution had at first enormous intellectual support and sympathy by the lower nobility. Paradoxes of life? Perhaps not.
Education and Culture of the French Nobility:
In ancient times, the Nobility did not receive a formal education by the standards of today. The usual practice for the higher nobility was to hire reputed tutors for their sons and daughters and get them an education in their own household.
The nobles would learn in their own households the rules and codes of etiquette, manners, and learned to recognise the patterns of behaviour associated to their noble status. The noblemen always were polite and deferential in their behaviour towards their elders and superior members of the family. They also learned how to deal with servants, and also how to read and keep accounts. They also studied riding, fencing, dancing and fortification. Some families thought that foreign travel was useful, and some of the richest scions of the French Nobility used to travel to Italy for periods between six months and two years. The other preferred destinies were Germany or Spain.
The immortally famous Cardinal Richelieu made his views on the education of the nobility very clear, and thought that any system of education should promote: “good habits and morals, the fear of God, obedience to Princes, submission to laws, respect for magistrates, love of country, and the practice of virtue, without which great estates can neither maintain themselves in peace nor exist for long.”
The French Nobility was also instructed in Religion. There was an ever increasing emphasis on the importance of public acts of religious faith, the observation of the correct religious doctrines, a desire to supervise morality among children, and many attempts at developing more suitable and private forms of spirituality.
Normally, the five or six first years of life of a nobleman were spent in the company of women. This process was usually supervised by a trusted governess, who was habitually in charge of the process of nourishment, initial moral instruction, the implementation of hygiene habits, etc. Mothers of the French Nobility did not usually breast-feed their aristocratic sons, because the preservation of their beauty was considered a social obligation, and also because they normally had to manage a large household. This task was normally given to Wet Nurses. In fact, Wet Nurses were extremely important in the life of the very young noblemen. The families placed great care in the choosing of these nurses, who had to be morally and physically acceptable. The position of Wet Nurse for an important noble household was a very much coveted position, and there was significant competition to earn the post. Normally, Wet Nurses received compensations in the form of pensions, and were rarely abandoned when their usefulness came to an end. Often, they were given other positions in the household, and many of them were always close to the children they breast fed, remaining at the household for life. In fact, many wet nurses became chief governesses when the children they took care of grew up and became masters of the household. Also, in many cases, the first “sexual instruction or initiation” of young French noblemen came very often from these women. This was very habitual in Europe at the moment for all the nobilities of Europe. This no doubt influenced the well-known generalisation by which all noblemen were considered spoiled children. The truth is that the mothers did not spend time with their sons in the way they do today, and that families considered that sex with wet nurses or loyal maids and governesses was a lesser evil than the possibility of their sons hiring prostitutes, and this way, they tried to preserve their sons to engage in sexual practices with unhealthy women and prostitutes who could carry diseases, at a young age when their judgement was doubtful.
When the children had more than five or six years old, they were put in the care of male servants, who would teach them other useful things in life.
It was very important for the members of the French Nobility to learn manners at the table. The ritual of eating was here very important. Children needed to learn how to sit upright, not to make noises when eating, not to look at food when they were served, not to put their elbows at the table, and many more parts of the important rite of eating in a noble table. Noble Meals usually started with the act of washing hands. This had to be made in strict order of precedence and according to hierarchy. Noble children became acquainted with their own importance and the social differences at these events. Later, the second part of the right was the act of sitting at the table according to rank. Hats were usually lifted by servants when spoken to by his superiors, and food was distributed also according to Hierarchy. It is here when young nobles learned many things and how to control their bodies and gestures. Also, they needed to familiarise themselves with the right use of table utensils such as Spoons and Forks. One of the main obligations of a nobleman was the art of carving roasted meat, and know how to differentiate the best parts of a roasted animal. A famous adage was: “For Ground Birds the wings are the best, and for flying birds the thigh is the finest”.
There is also to mention that whipping for misbehaviour was permitted and was socially acceptable, and even the King’s sons did not escape to this. It is also convenient to say that when the young noblemen apologised, it was common to stop the punishment, which was never intended to force their will.
The education for boys of the French Nobility usually took up one of these routes:
Page school, Military school, College or Academy.
The education of Girls usually took place in convents, where they learned all they needed to get a good marriage, which was their goal in life.
The emphasis on education was in grace and wit, decorum and style, and a proper use of the French language, a mastery of the use of the spoken language and eloquence.
The Tradition of Marriage in the French Nobility:
The French Nobility had a dynastic concept of marriage. Personal compatibility and love were always secondary when seeking a good marriage. The important concepts to be taken into account in the French Nobility Patterns of Marriage were social and economic.
Individuals did not count. It was the family as a whole the important factor in order to establish alliances.
The old fashioned ceremonials usually took a long time. If a young French nobleman was interested in a young French noblewoman, the established protocol indicated that the best thing to do would be to send to the girl’s family a report with his genealogy, an account of his patrimonial wealth, and a list of his relatives and friends in good positions in life.
If considered suitable, the families would start negotiations through professional intermediaries, and if they came to an agreement, a new process would start, and the young people would be introduced and chaperoned, starting a phase of courting merely ceremonial. If all successful, then the marriage would be arranged following always the same pattern:
1. Signature of the Articles
2. Signature of the Marriage Contract
3. Church Ceremony.
The marriages of the French Nobility were designed to stimulate stability and social immobility as well as concentration of wealth. Marriage was a tool for the preservation and acquisition of riches, influence and position.
Evolution of the Use of Noble Titles by the French Nobility:
Prior to the French revolution one could be as noble as the king and be an untitled nobleman. The Rohan’s motto proves 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 loathed the display of noble titles; the Montesquious, descendants of the dukes of Aquitaine, until the XVIIIth century named themselves as “Lords of Marsan”. The title of baron, today the final in the pyramid of nobility should be considered historically the most ancient: under the Merovingians, the term “baron” identified, in fact, the noble, the king’s companion.
The classification of titles was somewhat confused. Under the first dynasties it identified duties or occupations. The duke organised armies, and managed shires; the marquis kept the garrison on the borders; the count governed a town, a part of the territory; the viscount, his deputy.
The vidame which is a rigorously French title is the bishop’s lieutenant responsible for managing the ecclesiastical estates owned by the church.
The Ancient Book of Justice, written in the XIth century states: “The first dignity is that of duke, then 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 forced severely or all of a sudden. Powerful lords indifferently took on the titles of duke or count. The Count of Barcelona in French Catalonia 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 nine types of French Nobility
1.- Nobility of the Sword: also called Nobility of Race, or Old/Ancient Nobility, sometimes referred to as the Traditional Nobility. They were the oldest ones, emerged as noblemen mainly from medieval France or Carolingian times, when warriors and knights were awarded lands and fiefs in return for homage and loyalty.
2.- Nobility of the Chancery: It was in the beginning a form of personal nobility that later could be transformed into hereditary nobility of nobility of blood. It worked as follows: a non-noble person entered the service of the French King and if this person held some high offices in the administration, the position himself granted the recipient of the office personal nobility that may turn out to be hereditary in the end.
3.- Nobility of Letters: It was the people who were ennobled directly by the King or authorized official through the means of a Letter Patent conferring Nobility. A Letter Patent was an official Document signed by the King who granted nobility and many times the use of a Coat of Arms. It could confer just nobility or also a title.
4.- Nobility of the Robe: It works the same way as the Nobility of the Chancery. It was a method of acquisition of nobility through the holding of some administrative offices such as President of a High Court of Justice.
5.- Nobility of the Bell: It was a method of acquisition of nobility that came from holding specifically some municipal or city council positions in some specific cities of France where the acquisition of nobility in such a way was considered customary and acceptable. Nobility could be gained directly or through successive generations holding office, as many of these positions were hereditary and susceptible of purchase.
6.- Military Nobility: Holding military positions of officer could lead through some generations to the attainment of nobility.
7.- Knightly Nobility: those who were noble before 1400.
8.- First Generation Nobility: Those who attained nobility after the concession of nobility after at least 20 years of service.
9.- Gradual Nobility: Nobility proved for three or four generations by paternal line.
There is to notice that nobility was never transmitted by the female side. So, nobility could only be inherited if your father was noble.
The commoners in France were known as Roturiers.
The Hierarchy and Noble Ranks in the French Nobility:
1.- Prince: The Prince was the holder of a Principality, in the sense of a territorial fiefdom recognised by the King with the title and rank of Prince. It was not an independent principality or kingdom, but just a territorial fiefdom with the rank of Principality.
2.- Duke (Duc): The Duke was the holder of a Duchy, in the sense of a territorial fiefdom recognised by the King with the title and rank of Duke. It must not be confused with independent Duchies of Royal Rank, who function as principalities in the sense of a self-governing and autonomous state.
3.- Marquis: The Marquis was the possessor and holder of a Marquisate.
4.- Count: The Comte was the holder or possessor of a County.
5.- Viscount: The Vicomte was the holder or possessor of a Viscountcy.
6.- Baron: The Baron was the holder or possessor of a Baronnie or Barony.
7.- Lord: The Seigneur or Sieur was the possessor of a Lordship or Seigneurie.
8.- Gentleman: The Gentilhomme was any noble, from the King to the untitled Squires, called in France Ecuyers.
9.- Vidame: it was more of a feudal title than a noble title, and it only existed in certain parts of northern France. It was a minor title usually conferred by bishops to the administrators of ecclesiastical holdings.
The 8 Ranks of the French Nobility:
1.- Sons of France: The Fils de France were the sons of the King or the Sons of the Dolphin (Dauphin, crown prince of France).
2.- Little Son of France: Petit Fil de France was the grandson of a king in the male line.
3.- Prince of the Blood: Prince du Sang was a legitimate male descendant of a French King.
4.- Peer of France: it was a dignity from the crown.
5.- Legitimised Prince: legitimised male descendant of the king.
6.- Foreign prince: Prince Etranger. Foreign princes naturalized and recognised by the French Court.
7.- Knight: Chevalier, a member of the nobility who belonged to an order of Chivalry.
8.- Squire: Ecuyer. Member of the untitled nobility.
Some Extinct Privileges of the French Nobility:
1.- French Baronial and Ducal Dowries.
2.- Regulations of Fairs and Markets
3.- Prenuptial Agreements
4.- Franchising of Villages
5.- Sponsorship of Communes
6.- Acquisition and Assignment of Fiefs
7.- Acquisition of Castles
8.- Feudalization of Allodial Castles.
9.- Repurchases of Fiefdoms
10.- Allotment of Fiefdoms to Heirs
11.- Renewal or Renunciation of Homage.
12.- Foundation of Convents and Nunneries.
13.- Mortgage of Castles
14.- Rights over villagers.
Styles of the French Nobility:
In the times of the Ancient Regime (well before the revolution of 1789) the French nobility did not use particular styles. A titled nobleman was addressed or mentioned to as Monsieur le Duc, Monsieur le Comte. Later, Styles as Votre Seigneurie (Your Lordship), Votre Grandeur (Only for the higher nobility), or Votre Excellence (Your Excellence, for noblemen holding ambassadorial or ministerial posts of relevance) were the most habitual.
Acquisition of Nobility in France:
The nobility of France is one of the most peculiar and distinguished institutions of the world, as you will see.
The French Nobility first hated noble titles and later loved to use them:
The very old French nobility and the immemorial members of the most rancid aristocracy used to downplay the importance and use of titles of nobility. In fact, it needs to be told that the most distinguished families coming even from ancient royal bloodlines did not use at all noble titles, or always preferred the lower ranks of the nobility, as for them the important thing was not the title of nobility itself, but a male, unbroken lineage linked to nobility of blood. The possession of noble blood inherited via a male line was the really important matter. In fact, some members of the oldest noble dynasties of France had more ancient lineages and proven nobility than the own Kings of France and were just untitled members of the nobility, whose justification to belong to the very elite noble cast was to be in possession of “Nobility of Blood”. This peculiar attitude changed with the course of time, and by the XV-XIX centuries, the old nobility promoted the use of noble titles and many noblemen accumulated noble titles, as the medieval prejudice had disappeared, and now the use of noble titles was trendy, desirable, and accepted. For nearly three centuries, in France, if you did not have a noble title you were nothing.
French Nobles with Blue Blood
The Spanish Concept of Nobility of Blood was adopted stringently by the French Nobility. The oldest Spanish nobility claimed to descend from visigothic blood, and these people had very blue skin and veins. This idea was exported to France, where nobility of blood was the most important concept in early times. There is to say that selective inbreeding, intermarriage and the use of silver sets like plates, spoons, and goblets, made their skin even paler. Another interesting data is the fact that most of the original nobility of France belong to the RH- Blood Group, which is very scarce. Many Royal European Families have the same blood group.
Also, in Early Times, the nobles used reluctantly and in a very confusing way titles of nobility, some of them styling themselves indistinctly and at the same time as Dukes, Princes, Lords, Counts and more.
From the XVI century onwards this all changed into a more organised system.
The French Nobility as a caste was never a totally closed group. The degree of permeability and penetration of other social classes was important, and presented a wide range of opportunities for affluent individuals eager to join the ranks of the nobility.
Both the French nobility itself and the nobility titles were hereditary most of the time. Also, the sons of a nobleman, both titled and untitled, would have the juridical consideration of being possessors of nobility.
The Transmissibility and inheritance of nobility and noble titles were predominantly passed on to the male descendants. There were few exceptions to this rule, though it was not uncommon to see female succession under the concept of “Uterine Nobility” in the region of Champagne or the French Brittany. Also, the transmission of nobility titles in France was taxed by the Sovereign, and the heirs had to pay a heavy duty to maintain the honour in their name. Otherwise, the title would go into abeyance.
The acquisition of Nobility in France was as follows during most of the Ancien Regime:
1. Acquisition by Letter Patent: The Sovereign would ennoble a person by the written confirmation of his nobility or the concession of a noble title through a written letter patent of creation.
2. Acquisition by office: It was very usual in France to obtain nobility through the holding of posts and offices in the government, military, chanceries, local councils, courts, municipal entities, etc. Most of these positions could be purchased, and it was a very important source of revenue for the King’s Treasury. You could even pay an additional amount of money to make the position hereditary for your sons.