Ranking Within Nobility Was an Often Controversial Topic

Nobility is afforded to a person in one of two ways. Those born into a noble family will inherit their titles at birth, while others will have their titles conferred to them by a fons honorum, which is a person with the right to bestow such titles on qualified individuals. Titles are typically conferred to male descendants of a nobleman. This practice is referred to as primogeniture, which is defined as the custom of first-born male children inheriting the estate of the deceased. For many years, a number of European countries preferred primogeniture as a rule, often leaving female ancestors without power. However, many countries altered this policy, instead choosing to bestow inheritances f both males and females within a noble family. These include Spain and Russia, which were known for affording titles to both sexes indiscriminately.

New vs. Old
Some were not pleased by the conferring of noble titles to those who were deemed unworthy. This was especially true in France, where those of a more storied noble ranking grew to resent those who were known as parvenu nobility, or the new nobility. In these cases, France’s wealthiest merchants were ennobled by the king, affording them more power and status than they would have enjoyed without such titles. This ongoing resentment caused established nobles to demand restrictions be put on one’s ability to confer title to those outside of wealthy families. Such titles would allow participation in court proceedings, as well as the military, which were often reserved for those who could prove their noble ancestry at least five generations back. In order to prove one’s legitimacy, noble lineage had to include both matrilineal and patrilineal lines.

The Importance of Heraldry in Noble Rankings
The concept of heraldry is described as the act of designing or creating the coat of arms unique to a family name. Heraldry also involves the maintenance of such ancestral matters, including issues of rank, as well as who is permitted to don a family’s coat of arms. Such issues were almost always decided by the office at arms, who was in charge of all matters involving a family’s heraldry. The association between noble status and heraldry was present in many countries. Many noblemen proudly donned their coat of arms as a way of showing their storied lineage, though not only nobles enjoyed such pride in their family history. Many commoners were also permitted to display family crests, despite the lack of noble lineage. Scotland stands as an exception to this general rule, where many of those thought to be commoners were afforded nobility titles, while blood-relatives of such noble families were passed over.

Higher and Lower Nobility
In some cases, hereditary titles did not always equate to a noble ranking. This was true in places like England, where untitled nobles were quite common within the British Isles. While these lower-nobles often had an increased status in society, they weren’t legally recognized as such by the ruling bodies at the time. Other countries allowed those with hereditary titles to be included among the highest ranks. These groups include the young Irish Lords, as well as Lords of Germany, the Hidalgos of Spain, and the Nobility of Italy. Some countries even retain a robust titled and untitled population to this day, including Scandinavia’s Benelux nations.

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