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Nobility of the Robe

The Nobility of the Robe was yet a section of the nobility whose status and whose outlook were different from others. Many offices in France could be bought. They and their perquisites became the property of those who purchased them and could transmit them to their children, and one of the perquisites that such offices carried was a patent of nobility. This was the created nobility, the nobility of the robe, so called because its most conspicuous members were the judges, or members of the higher tribunals or parlements.

It used to be a rule in the older days that no one might enter the king's service who was not a noble, but gradually as the king needed money and as the bourgeois grew richer and more ambitious, things changed, until at last everyone who entered the king's service thereby became noble. Apart from Court posts, M. Necker computed that in 1780 there were four thousand offices in France the holding of which secured hereditary nobility. Over two thousand of these belonged to the law-courts, over seven hundred to the Bureaux de Finances, about fifty were held by provincial governors, and nine hundred by secretaries to the king. The last especially were created, not for the work to be done, but for the money men paid to be appointed.

They paid highly for the honour. Montesquieu in his Lettres Persanes, said : "The King of France has no gold mines like the King of Spain, his neighbour, but he has far greater wealth in the vanity of his subjects, which is more inexhaustible than any mine. He has been known to undertake or continue a war without any resource but the titles of honour he has to sell." Nobles bought for themselves posts which involved higher titles, while the middle class and lower middle class bought posts which would give any title.

Many of the judges who presided over royal courts were rich bourgeois who had purchased their appointment from the king. For a large price it was possible to buy a judgeship or seat in a Parlement, not only for a lifetime but as an hereditary possession. It has been estimated that 50,000 bourgeois families possessed such judicial offices: they formed a sort of lower nobility, exempted from certain taxes and very proud of their honors. Naturally envious were his neighbors when the "councilor" appeared in his grand wig and his enormous robe of silk and velvet, attended by a page who kept the robe from trailing in the dust. No wonder these bourgeois judges were called "the nobility of the robe."

In some way or other the "noble of the robe" had to compensate himself for the price of his office and the cost of his robe. One bought an office for profit as well as for honor. For to the judge were paid the court fees and fines; and no shrewd judge would let a case pass him without exacting some kind of a fee. Even more profitable were the indirect gains. If Monsieur A had gained his case in court, it was quite to be expected that in his joy Monsieur A would make a handsome present to the judge who had given the decision. At least, that is the way the judge would have put it. As a plain matter of fact the judges were bribed, and justice was too often bought and sold like judgeships.

Notwithstanding the large number of offices created, the prices paid for them increased rapidly. Some of them were, legitimately or illegitimately, very lucrative. All of them furnished a sure income and the sensation of official dignity, while from comparatively very few was any burdensome service required. The office of colonel of the Swiss guards sold for 800,000 francs ; that of first gentleman of the chamber for 1,000,000, nearly four times as much as it brought 40 years before. For the chancellorship of the order of the Holy Spirit 340,000 livrcs or almost 700,000 francs were paid. The position of general of the galleys brought 1,400,000 francs. The prices of judicial offices were equally high. The place of president a mortier of the Parliament of Paris was worth 1,000,000 francs, or nearly 200,000 dollars. The office of first president of the provincial Parliament at Grenoble brought only quarter of this sum. The office of master of requests sold for 400,000 francs, and 1,500,000 livres or 600,000 dollars was paid for the office of attorney-general.

Even religious offices were sometimes transferred for a money consideration. The charge of grand almoner of the queen was sold to the bishop of Alet for 30,000 livres. Richelieu took the money and bought Limours. His bishopric of Lu$on was also disposed of, after he had become cardinal, to the dean of Saint Martin of Tours. He received for it the deanery of Saint Martin and the abbey of Saint Vast, and also reserved a pension of five thousand livres on the revenues of the bishopric of Lucon. The deanery and abbey were stated to be worth seven thousand three hundred livres a year, and were to be conveyed clear of any charges. Each party agreed to obtain the consent of the king and the Pope to his own resignation, and to the appointment of his successor. These transfers were executed in proper form and preserved among the official papers. There was no concealment about them, and apparently no feeling of any impropriety in selling or trading religious offices. A deanery or bishopric was transferred in as business-like a manner as a right to cut wood or pasture cattle.

The nobility of the robe constituted a large and influential body. Not only their character and their habits, but even their dress, distinguished them from the nobility of the sword. While the marquis was arrayed in a cloak of many colors, the president of the Parliament wore the black gown of the scholar. On occasions of special importance a gown of red marked his dignity, but the simplicity of his dress always contrasted with the elaborate and costly garments of the courtier. Though many judges had their country houses and lived in much splendor, still their ordinary mode of life was simpler than that of the class above them. There was also less immorality among them. Domestic tastes and virtues have generally prevailed among this class in France, as well as among the bourgeoisie. The character of the ladies who were among the leaders of the Fronde gives an air of license to the age, which did not extend through all ranks in society. The wives of the counsellors of the Parliament and the aldermen of the city were less bewitching, and more discreet.

These judges appeared, in one aspect, as liberals, in that as lawyers they opposed certain unpopular innovations attempted by the king. But in reality as soon as their own privileges were threatened they became the stiffest of defenders of many of the most odious abuses of the Old Regime. In the opening days of the Revolution the Third Estate found no more bitter opponents than these ennobled judges.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:22 ZULU