They toppled monarchies, caused civil wars, and occasionally lost their head to the guillotine's blade. Despite their darkest moments, however, members of the aristocracy have fascinated and beguiled us common folk for centuries with their lavish lifestyles. Whether ensconced in the gilded cage that was Versailles, or running amuck marrying "cash-for-title" heiresses to keep their castles from crumbling, the European nobility formed privileged ranks.
But how did someone become a noble? It began with military victories in the Middle Ages, then soon turned into a matter of bloodlines, and proceeded to become quite confusing and pretentious after that. While always subservient to their ruler (at least in theory), the nobility has more than once turned the world on its head and sent history in a totally different direction; how this unique and tightly formed social group came to dominate the world stage for so long is a fascinating story that reaches back through the centuries.
The privileged position of the nobility is intrinsically tied to the rise of the monarchy and the medieval system of lords and vassals. As kings and queens rose to positions of power, they required representatives who could carry out their will across their vast territory. The kingdom or empire would be split down into geographically designated areas and a vassal would receive control over the land and its population - while in turn reporting to the ruler.
These noble knights also protected the land with their own private troops, as the monarch didn't possess a national standing army until later in history. During times of war, it was the nobles' job to raise their troops to fight for their king and country, as well as religion; many European noble families date their ancestry back to the Wars of Religion and the Crusades.
Much like buying forgiveness from the Catholic Church before the Reformation, titles were traded and sold. In the 17th and early 18th century, French titles of nobility were considered the most desirable to hold in Europe, especially because of the social cachet the court of Versailles carried.
When he brought the nobility to live in the royal court, Louis XIV encouraged the buying and selling of offices as a way to make money for the crown. These positions often carried with them the immediate rank of nobility, thus a wealthy but common man might work his way up the social ranks should he find an available position at court. Sometimes, if one paid enough, then an actual job wasn't required to possess the title - as in the case of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s purchase of the Barony of Aubonne in 1670.
On the other side, certain title holders down on their luck began selling their titles, and this continues into the present day. In recent years, there have been several controversies involving hereditary noble titles being sold, with Scottish titles starting at $100,000. And it's clear this system of buying nobility is not a recent phenomenon.
One of the privileges the nobility possessed was exemption from taxation. Even though the nobles possessed the most money, the taxes that fueled kingdoms and empires came from the lowest rungs of society. It was the nobles' responsibility to tax the peasantry; the peasants often worked directly on their land and the nobility collected their dues.
As the aristocracy lost various privileges over the centuries, exemption from taxation was one of the first boons to vanish. It can be argued the success of monarchies has a direct correlation to whether this rule was upheld. In the 18th century, the introduction of the dixième and vingtième taxes contributed to the general unrest that led to the bloody French Revolution.
England, meanwhile, continued to give extensive tax breaks to the nobility well into the 19th century, and their monarchy survives today.
You hear a lot of noble titles tossed around - Lord, Countess, Baron, Duchess, Earl. But which actually ranks the highest?
Throughout European history, there have been slight variations to the hierarchy by country. The British ranking of non-royal nobility titles consists of, in descending order:
The titles are derived from the place the noble reigns over, so the Duke of Suffolk comes from the duchy of Suffolk, and the Countess of Pembroke hails from the county of Pembroke. If someone possesses all but one of these titles, then they are automatically considered a "Lord" or "Lady;" dukes and duchesses are only addressed with their proper title.
In modern times, a final rung exists for knights and dames, who are addressed as "Sir" and "Dame," respectively.