The French Nobility, called in original French “La Noblesse” was the elite, top of the chain and privileged social class in France from the Carolingian ages to the second empire in 1870, where most of the privileges that remained were abolished.
In numerical terms, the French Nobility was always a very small fraction of the total population, totalling between 50000-80000 people, about 0.5-1% of all the inhabitants of France.
The Old French Nobility has its origins in the Feudal System.
The Feudalism was a system who was created in France and exported to the vast majority of Europe.
France and the French Nobility are an impeccable example of a feudal society dominated by the nobility in the strictest sense of the term. France was a conglomerate of lands that many Lords, Barons, Counts, Bishops, Dukes, Marquises and Princes held in fief from the King and many other assorted laymen, ecclesiastical lords, and other people and institutions. Over these dissimilar lands the different lords imposed a unified administration, ruling some areas directly or through some officials, while granting the rest as fiefs to Barons and Knights in return for homage, loyalty and service. These Barons, Bishops and Knights in turn created fiefs in their own lands.
The French nobility had specific legal and financial rights and prerogatives. The first official list of these prerogatives was established relatively late, under Louis XI after 1440, and included the right to hunt, the right to wear a sword and have a coat of arms, and, in principle, the right to possess a fief or seigneurie. Nobles were also granted an exemption from paying the taille, except for non-noble lands they might possess in some regions of France. Furthermore, certain ecclesiastic, civic, and military positions were reserved for nobles. These feudal privileges are often termed droits de féodalité dominante.
With the exception of a few isolated cases, serfdom had ceased to exist in France by the 15th century. In early modern France, nobles nevertheless maintained a great number of seigneurial privileges over the free peasants that worked lands under their control. They could, for example, levy the cens tax, an annual tax on lands leased or held by vassals. Nobles could also charge taxes for the right to use the lord’s mills, ovens, or wine presses. Alternatively, a noble could demand a portion of vassals’ harvests in return for permission to farm land he owned. Nobles also maintained certain judicial rights over their vassals, although with the rise of the modern state many of these privileges had passed to state control, leaving rural nobility with only local police functions and judicial control over violation of their seigneurial rights.
The Nine Types, forms and classes of French Nobility:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Lawyers, officers of the court and Judges were called Robins.
The Nine Types of Noble Titles in France: the different nine types of French Nobility titles:
- 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.
- 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.
- Marquis: The Marquis was the possessor and holder of a Marquisate.
- Count: The Comte was the holder or possessor of a County.
- Viscount: The Vicomte was the holder or possessor of a Viscountcy.
- Baron: The Baron was the holder or possessor of a Baronnie or Barony.
- Lord: The Seigneur or Sieur was the possessor of a Lordship or Seigneurie.
- Gentleman: The Gentilhomme was any noble, from the King to the untitled Squires, called in France Ecuyers.
- 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 Eight Ranks of the French Nobility:
- Sons of France: The Fils de France were the sons of the King or the Sons of the Dolphin (Dauphin, crown prince of France).
- Little Son of France: Petit Fil de France was the grandson of a king in the male line.
- Prince of the Blood: Prince du Sang was a legitimate male descendant of a French King.
- Peer of France: it was a dignity from the crown.
- Legitimised Prince: legitimised male descendant of the king.
- Foreign prince: Prince Etranger. Foreign princes naturalized and recognised by the French Court.
- Knight: Chevalier, a member of the nobility who belonged to an order of Chivalry.
- Squire: Ecuyer. Member of the untitled nobility.
Some extinct Privileges of the Former Feudal French Nobility:
- French Baronial and Ducal Dowries.
- Regulations of Fairs and Markets
- Prenuptial Agreements
- Franchising of Villages
- Sponsorship of Communes
- Acquisition and Assignment of Fiefs
- Acquisition of Castles
- Feudalization of Allodial Castles.
- Repurchases of Fiefdoms
- Allotment of Fiefdoms to Heirs
- Renewal or Renunciation of Homage.
- Foundation of Convents and Nunneries.
- Mortgage of Castles
- Rights over villagers.