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Nobility - Classes and Precedence

There was great variety of condition among the members of the nobility, although all were privileged. There were several subdivisions, clearly enough marked. There were two main classes, the nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe, that is, the old military nobility of feudal origin and the new judicial nobility, which secured its rank from the judicial offices its members held. This was accounted for in three ways. All the descendants of a noble remained noble in each succeeding generation ; certain lands bore with them a title of nobility which passed to any new owner; and so also did very many official posts.

By one account they were divided into three classes; the Nobles of Name and Arms, the Nobles of Race and Extraction, and the Ennobled. The Nobles of Name and Arms, were those, who could prove their nobility from the time when fiefs became hereditary, which in many was the accession of The Suabian line; in France, the accession of Hugh Capet: The Nobles of of Race and Extraction were those, whe could prove a century of nobility in their family. In respect to the Ennobled, three distinctions were observed; High Offices, as those of Chancellor, or Keeper of the Seal, immediately conferred nobility on the persons to whom they were granted, and the immediate transmissibility of it to their descendants. Certain inferior offices conferred an inchoate or intimate nobility, which, if both the son and the grandson of the party held such an office, vested a complete nobility in the grandson, and it then became transmissible to the lineage of the first grantee; Nobility acquired by Magistracy, was called Nobility of the Robe.

The dignity and privileges of peers originated with the growth of the feudal system. In Great Britain peer signifies a nobleman; in France the term formerly signified those who had a seat in the upper house. In the feudal system the principle was developed that every association should take care of its own affairs, including the judicial decision of disputes among themselves and with their superiors; and it became an obligation as well as a privilege of the vassal to appear at the court of the immediate lord on days of state and of the administration of justice. In France, at the time of the revolution by which Hugh Capet ascended the throne in 987, there were but seven secular princes immediate vassals of the crown. When the Duke of France became king there remained but six, to whom were added the Archbishop of Rheims as spiritual primate of France, and the Bishop of Laon, with the title of duke, those of Beauvais, Noyon, and Chalons, with that of count; and at a later period, under Louis VII, also the Bishop of Langrcs, because their dioceses were situated within the immediate domains of the crown. The ancient principalities of peers were by degrees united with the crown; only the spiritual lords maintained their titles.

First in importance came the nobility of the sword, that is, of the oldest families, so called because they always had carried and always had had the right to carry a sword. This noblesse d'Epee were the descendants of the men who had conquered France, who had held it for their king and for themselves, and had defended the poorer men who had gathered round their castles. This was the class which Richelieu had found so troublesome, and which when robbed by him of its old sovereignty, was tempted to Court by honours and pensions. The richer among them were called the grande noblesse and the poorer the petite noblesse, and the difference was only one of wealth. But the grande noblesse, who could afford to leave their homes and make a display at Versailles, for a long time held all the important posts at Court, while the petite noblesse had to stay at home, poor and very proud.

After these came the noblesse de robe, judges in Parlement and their descendants, many of whom had bought land to which titles were attached. This class included among its members the best educated, most earnest, and most highly respected men in the kingdom. There was also the noblesse de finanee, descended from men who had transacted the Government money matters; and lastly, the noblesse d'administration, who sprang from families of Intendants.

In France, when a plebeian wished to be ennobled, he purchased the place of secretary to the king. This gave him the right of soliciting for a coat of arms. At the revolution there were 206 secretaries to the king, beside 46 honorary or titular secretaries: so that the facility of acquiring nobility may be conceived. Hence the place of secretaire du roi was styled in derision une savonnette au vilain, or a washball for a blackguard. He, however, was only an anobli, though his son was noble, and his grandson a gentilhomme; nor could his descendants for several generations be admitted as officers into the army. In France the heralds might not grant nobility or coats of arms to every postulant. It was necessary, that the petitioner should hold some place under government; but as these places were avowedly to be purchased, the only difference was, that the chief part of the fees in France went to the state, whereas in England they go entirely to the College of Arms.

In France before the revolution, the title of Duke was very superior to the other dignities, and the peerage there was composed of Dukes only : but the rest of the nobility were properly jealous of this pre-eminence, and opposed with spirit every encroachment of the peers. In a procession of the order of the Holy Ghost, several Ducs et Paris endeavoured to prevent M. de Gamache from walking at the side of the last Duke. The master of the ceremonies hastened to inform the King of this dispute, who decided, that the Dukes were wrong, if they pretended that a Gentleman should not walk aside of them. So, after the procession, the Dukes said that they never had formed such a pretension, and that it was a misunderstanding.

But when in France the gentility of an individual was acknowledged, it was a matter of indifference whether his title was marquis, comte, vicomte, or baron; or whether he had any title or not. Frequently the eldest son was comte, the second marquis. In several families that possessed the titles both of marquis and comte, they succeeded alternately; so that the father, being styled comte, styled his eldest son marquis; which marquis styled his eldest son comte, and so forth; the two titles being considered so equal, that it was not worth while to change them, and this prevented confusion, as every individual retained the title by which he was known in the world, or presented at court. In other houses the titles succeeded as in England. These variations were optional, and depended on caprice. The only important question was, not what title any individual bore, but whether he really was a gentilhomme, or man of ancestry.

In France, and all military countries, Military Nobility stands much higher than Nobility of the Robe: the Robe did not, however, degrade the military nobleman. Consequently, a nobleman of name and arms, by filling an office of magistracy, did not lose or taint, in the slightest degree, his military nobility. Dukes, Marquises, Counts, Viscounts and Barons, as such, were not noble. Almost always, they were of noble birth ; but the King might create them from the non-nobles ; and when he intended to confer such a dignity on a nou-no- ble, he previously ennobled him. The princes of the blood were out of the line, and preceded all.

At court, and at ceremonies and assemblies, held by the officers of the crown, in that capacity, the dukes, and peers, and the hereditary dukes, had precedence; and a precedence was there allowed to the Marechaux de France, to the knights of the order of the Holy Ghost, and to those, who commanded nobility, as Governors of Provinces, and Lieutenants-General. With this single exception, all the nobility of France, whether Dukes, Marquises, Counts, Viscounts, or Barons, were, in all respects, of the same degree. Public opinion made a difference among them; it was founded on the antiquity of their rank, and the illustration of their families by dignities and alliances. Thus, in public opinion the Baron de Montinorency was, at an immeasurable space, above the Duke de Luynes; and the Count de Rieux ranked much higher than the Prince de Poix.

In England, it is often said, that, among the French, noblemen and gentlemen were convertible terms, every nobleman being a gentleman, every gentleman being a nobleman. But the expression is inaccurate ; every French gentleman wa a nobleman, but every French nobleman was not a gentleman. A person, to whom nobility was granted, or who was appointed to a charge conferring nobility, the transmissibility of which was suspended till it vested in his second descendant, was noble; but neither he nor his son was a gentleman; the grandson was the first gentleman of the family. Thus, in France, gentleman was an higher appellation than nobleman: -'-Francis the First, styled himself the first gentleman of his kingdom ; the king's brother, was Monsieur, the first gentleman among the subjects of the French king.

In France, trade in general, and farming the lands of another, derogated from nobility. At any time, within a century after the first net of derogation, the derogated nobleman, unless he had been bankrupt or otherwise disgraced, might easitj obtain letters of relief or rehabilitation. After that term, he could only be ennobled by a new title. In Britanny, when a nobleman engaged in trade, his nobility was said to sleep ; the instant he quitted trade, paid his debts, fulfilled all his mercantile engagements, and entered this on the public registers, he was restored to his nobility.

These classes were not on equal terms, for a noble of the sword was as unwilling to associate with a noble of administration as with a bourgeois ; but as regarded law and custom, all were alike distinguished from the untitled man. Disunion completed the weakness of the French nobility. Even a small body of men cannot long be held together save by the effort to get or keep something of value to all the members. The English landed interest found such an object in political power and its advantages. The French nobles had no common tie of that kind. The nobles of the Court, who formed the most elegant society in Europe, despised their rustic brethren. The provincial noble swelled with anger at the thought that the reward of his campaigns and scars was intercepted by triflers and flatterers at Versailles. The noble of ancient lineage flouted the rich upstart who had bought an office conferring nobility, and affected to be familiar with descendants of the Crusaders. The "nobility of the sword," as it was termed, which made arms its career, looked down upon the "nobility of the robe," which preferred to fill, generation after generation, the more dignified places in the judicature. The absolute monarchy which denied any scope to combined effort, and the privileges which seemed to exclude all vulgar competition, left the French nobles free to indulge a mutual jealousy which only perished with the order.

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