Nobility is a social class that has (or has had) government recognition for its privileges, ranking below royalty but above other estates. Nobility is mainly of historical interest, but claims of nobility and the sale of fake noble titles still continue among various woo artists and conmen. In the past, nobility had an exemption from tax and often the law of commoners, owned much of the land and were often very rich, but in return was expected to provide military or government service, and was bound by strict rules of honor. Eventually, the status often evolved into mere inherited luxury with many rights but few responsibilities. Nobles are a type of aristocrat.
Noble status can be either hereditary or non-hereditary, and can be usually given only by a sovereign. Nobles constituted never more than a tiny percent of the population, about 2-6%. In Europe, nobility is an essential component of feudalism, which began taking shape during the Merovingian dynasty (450-751). In feudalism, nobles would swear loyalty to and support a king, often by participating in their military campaigns. In return, they were granted ownership of, or more commonly, a perpetual lease to land including the peasants inhabiting it. The nobility could live off the profits of these land grants, which were their main source of power. Conspicious consumption was not an incidental, but an essential part of the lifestyle of the old nobility.
Privileges of the nobility were mostly abolished by early 20th century, although there is some residual legal recognition in some European countries. Today, ennoblement is only a honor and does not come with land grants as in medieval times. Nobility is hierarchically divided into various echelons which can have many different titles, which include knights, esquires, barons, counts, dukes, archdukes, earls, princes, grand princes and various others in different cultures. In the British system, lower nobility is identified with "Sir" and "Madam", and higher nobility with "Lord" or "Lady". Nobility is often connected with royalty, as royalty often originated from, or married nobles.
Most modern democracies have either abolished the nobility completely, revoked their privileges or limited new ennoblements to non-hereditary titles. However, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, still allow ennoblement. The British peers are one of the most formally powerful remaining nobles in the world. Besides formal privileges, nobles have often been able to keep their family fortunes and connections, leaving them with significant residual benefits of social status. A conman can conjure images of castles, estates, gardens, cultivated discussion and high-status company by claiming noble birth.
Actual noblemen, even if they have inherited a family fortune, have to maintain it carefully, as they no longer automatically receive tax-free income from their feudal possessions. Significant numbers of nobles with legitimate titles live in e.g. Britain, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Finland. While Russia and Poland became communist states and thus abolished the nobility, many expatriates preferred to retain their titles. Fake claims are still common, however, as there is no definitive authority anymore to recognize their titles. In Communist states, persons with noble ancestry were subject to state terrorism, summary executions, deportation, imprisonment and serious discrimination, such as banishment to the countryside and denial of university education. The only saving grace could be collaboration with the Communist government.
Remaining recognition of the titles varies between countries. The validity of the entire system is not recognized by republicans, liberals and revolutionaries. Particularly, the United States did away with legal recognition of nobility with the American Revolution, and the same applies to e.g. Austria, Norway, the Soviet Union and its successor state Russia. Obviously, a modern person wouldn't assume someone is a better person just because he was born into a particular family, but the concept made much more sense in ancient cultures where everything - status, land, position, offices - were typically inherited without regard to merit or ability.
Fount of honor
Noble status is given by a "fount of honor", usually a sovereign like a king. A prince or in some cases even a duke can be a fount of honor, whether or not they're sovereign. However, there is no uniform rule what constitutes a valid fount of honor, so "interpretations vary widely", so to say.
Coat of arms
A coat of arms is a picture painted on the shield carried by a knight, identifying the knight like a logo. Design and presentation of a coat of arms developed into an art of its own called heraldry. Personal coats of arms are displayed in an arrangement with a knightly helmet. Granting of a coat of arms was the privilege of the sovereign, and when a person was ennobled, he was presented with a letters of patent including the coat of arms. However, having a coat of arms was never exclusive to the nobility: it was, and it is common for the bourgeoisie and clergy to have a coat of arms, and they can be self-styled as well. In other words, nobles will have a coat of arms, but having a coat of arms does not make you noble.
Some European countries also protect noble titles and noble surnames, so that you cannot legally change your name to a noble name. In many languages, noble surnames are distinguished by a special nobiliary particle: 'von' or 'zu' in German, 'af' in Swedish, 'de' in various languages, 'du' and 'd'-' in French, 'de' and 'di' in Italian, 'al-' or 'El' in Arabic and 'Na' in Thai. These particles are not actually exclusive to nobility and in any case legal enforcement would be nonexistent.
In the British system, in contrast, the titles 'Sir', 'Madam' and 'Lord' or 'Lady' are prefixed into the given name. The noble name in the British system identifies both the name of the person, e.g. "Sam Tân", and separately, the feudal title, e.g. "Viscount Pontypandy". That is, "Sam Tân", "Sir Sam" and "Viscount Pontypandy" all refer to the same person "Sam Tân, Viscount Pontypandy". The British government continues to bestow these titles.
Sale of titles
As a general rule, titles of nobility cannot be sold. Almost always a claim to that effect is a sign of a scam, and there are very few exceptions. Aside from the fact that the title is usually pretty meaningless, having been stripped of all its privileges in practice, the associated manor grounds can be nevertheless legally sold. In Britain, a typical cost is $5,000-10,000, or upwards of $100,000 for a Scottish feudal barony, which entails a significant land purchase. This does not effect the sale of the title of "Sir" or "Lord" itself, the sale of which is prohibited by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, 1925. The purchaser is not entitled to use a term like "Lord Bob", but only "Bob Smith, Lord of the Manor of Placeholder", and the barony does not come with a seat at the House of Lords or any other such privileges. Nevertheless, these sales remain popular.
There are several reasons for why self-styled and false titles of nobility are around:
- Pure self-aggrandizement. The simplest method is to claim a noble title on a questionable basis, or without any basis whatsoever.
- Residual powers or property. Pretenders are persons who claim to be entitled to a title, usually when the dynasty in question has been deposed, or when there has been a revolution in the country and it's now a republic. Pretenders may have actual family connections to a former monarch, but often even these are fabricated or imagined.
- Fraud. A scammer introduces himself with a false title to convince his victims of his status and riches.
- Sale of false titles of nobility. The buyer will most likely believe the sale is legitimate, enticed by amazing claims that he will be given the best tables in restaurants or upgrades with airlines. (No. Just no.) In Britain, there are companies that sell a parcel of land on ancient manor grounds, allowing the owner to claim the title "Lord of the Manor", which is as much a noble title as "landlord". Michael Moore exhibited this practice by purchasing such a title in Foleshill, West Midlands for $8,000 (with a credit card) on camera, and had great fun with conversing with his new "subjects" in the local pub. Adoption has also been used to transfer a claim to nobility.
- The micronation Sealand sells the "noble titles" of lord or lady, baron or baroness, count or countess, and duke or duchess. Evidently Sealand has no lower nobility. In 2015, knighthood was available for a mere £99. Then again the "country" is an abandoned anti-aircraft platform off the eastern coast of Britain, whose current monarch, "Prince Michael of Sealand" (civilian name Michael Bates), lives in Essex.
- In 2015, a Birmingham solicitor had sold at least 21 titles to non-existent baronies in Britain. For example, a barony of "Little Barr" was sold for £2,000. The real Little Barr, distinctly lacking any manorial qualities, is a street as much as 80 meters long, in Bordersley, Birmingham, featuring a Halfords ironmonger and not much else. Interest in purchasing manorial properties has increased because of fracking: if oil is found on the grounds, the fracking rights could be sold at a profit. For this purpose, it would obviously help if the manor in question existed in the first place...
- Grimberg, Carl. Världshistoria, book 7, section on Karl Martell, Finnish translation Kansojen historia (4th ed.), WSOY 1967.
- Ilmakunnas, Johanna. Kartanot, kapiot, rykmentit. Erään aatelissuvun elämäntapa 1700-luvun Ruotsissa. SKS 2011. ISBN 978-952-222-264-0.
- See the Wikipedia article on Almanach de Gotha.
- Brummer, Wilhelm. Kuninkaan ja keisarin armosta - vaakunoita aatelille 1420-1912. Pages 110-111, in Henkilö- ja sukuvaakunat Suomessa, Matikkala, Antti and Brummer, Wilhelm (ed.), Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura 2011. ISBN 978-952-222-283-1.
- See the Wikipedia article on Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt.