They toppled monarchies, caused civil war, and many lost their heads to the guillotine's razor, and yet, despite their darkest moments, the members of the aristocracy have fascinated and beguiled the rest of us common folk for centuries with their lavish lifestyles. Whether they were ensconced in the gilded cage that was Versailles, or running amuck marrying "cash-for-title" heiresses to keep their castles from crumbling around their heads, the European nobility form privileged ranks that many could only dream of.
How does someone become a noble? Well, it began with military victories in Medieval times, then soon turned into a matter of bloodlines, and proceeded to become quite confusing and pretentious from there on out. While they were (in theory) always subservient to their ruler, 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 centuries to the Crusades and beyond.
Nobility Is Rooted In Feudalism And Holy War
The privileged position of the nobility is intrinsically tied to the rise of monarchy out of the Medieval era's system of lords and vassals. As kings and queens rose to positions of power they required representatives who could carry out their will across the vast territory of their kingdom. The kingdom or empire would be split down into geographically designated areas and a vassal would be given control over the land and its population, while in turn reporting to the authority of the ruler.
These noble knights would also protect the land with their own private armies, as the monarch wouldn’t have 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 have dated their ancestry back to the Wars of Religion and the Crusades.
Buying And Selling Nobility Was Big Business
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 along with it. When he brought the nobility to live in the gilded cage of the royal court, Louis XIV encouraged the buying and selling of offices as a way to make money for the crown, and these positions often carried with them the immediate rank of nobility, thus a wealthy but common man might be able to work his way up the social ranks should he find an available position at court. However, sometimes if one paid enough then an actual job wasn't required to possess the title, such as the case of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s purchase of the Barony of Aubonne in 1670 for 60,000 livres - the equivalent of 172,000 ounces of gold.
On the flip side, some title holders down on their luck began selling their titles, and this has continued into the present day. In recent years there have been several controversies involving hereditary noble titles being sold; even internet scams are not uncommon anymore. There are titles listed for as low as $50 in Scotland which are scams but some listings for $100,000 have turned out to be real; regardless, it's clear that this system of buying nobility is not a recent phenomenon.
Nobility Is The Ultimate Tax Break For The Rich
One of the ultimate 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 go. It can be argued that the success of monarchies has a direct correlation to whether or not 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, whereas England continued to give extensive tax breaks to the nobility well into the 19th century and the monarchy survives today.
Noble Rank Is Heavily Codified
You hear a lot of noble titles tossed around - Lord, Countess, Baron, Duchess, Earl, and so on, but which actually ranks the highest? Throughout European history there have been slight variations to the hierarchy by country but the current British ranking is considered the yardstick by which all aristocracies are measured. In descending order, non-royal titles of nobility are:
The titles are derived from the place the noble reigns over, like the Duke of Suffolk comes from the duchy of Suffolk, or the Countess of Pembroke hails from the county of Pembroke. If one has any of these titles they are automatically considered a "Lord" or "Lady."