Noble titles have played an important role in European history for centuries. They have often historically been bestowed upon important people by rulers and passed down the generations through powerful families. Here, Matt Kirkman considers the history of a variety of noble titles across Europe.

Edward, the Black Prince. Edward was the first Duke of Cornwall in the 14th century.

Edward, the Black Prince. Edward was the first Duke of Cornwall in the 14th century.

The concept of titles is a fascinating one, especially when we look at it from an anthropological point of view. Across history, we have used them to establish some form of hierarchy so that the order is understood by all. Europe is known for its rich history; a history that has one of the most diverse collections of cultures across the ages. Noble titles in Europe are interesting, and they play an integral role in the history of the continent.

They are part of European culture, and have helped shape society in order for it to become the way it is today; there are even titles for sale, which are used to this day to bring a little sophistication to some families. This article will take you through some of the most well-known titles and the ways in which they were formed and relate to each other.


The History of Duke and Duchess

Duke and Duchess are the ranks directly under the monarchy and are the highest in terms of nobility. In its furthest origins, it comes from theLatin word dux, meaning leader, which was used to refer to a military commander without an official rank. The male is a Duke, and his wife is referred to as the Duchess. However, it is interesting to note that Queen Elizabeth II is referred to as a Duke for her ruling lands.

The title in its current form dates back to the Medieval period, and it is not exclusive to England. It’s actually held across the entirety of Europe as a royal title; it’s just that the name may end up differing due to the language. In fact, it was first used in lands that make up modern-day Germany before being adopted by neighbouring countries and spreading. Dukes and Duchesses are normally referred to as Your Grace.

It used to be that a Duke reigned over hisDuchy; an area of land, or even country, that belonged to him. This was a key part of a dukedom up until they lost most of their sovereignty in the 19thcentury. It is now only a title as opposed to coming with responsibilities, although this has almost always been the case in Britain. The vast majority of Dukes have inherited their titles as they have been passed down for generations.


The History of Baron and Baroness

Baron and Baroness do not rank as highly as many may think, and is actually only two above Knight. However, it does still hold a great deal of respect, and it is often a hereditary title. It is of French origin and was quite prevalent there as well as across other European countries such as Britain, Scandinavia, and what was to become Germany and Italy.


Withinfeudal Europe, the rank of Baron referred to a man that pledged his loyalty and services to his superior in exchange for land that he would be able to pass down to his heirs. Some barons even had their own subordinate barons, but this practice was abolished by Edward I in England when he realised the potential dangers it implied both fiscally and politically.

While the title was scattered across much of Europe, it has the most history in Britain and France. In France, the ranking of baron changed several times over the centuries. It was at its most powerful in the 13thcentury, before being demoted to a position below viscounts in the 14thcentury. Despite this, the Barons remained more influential in terms of power and possessions, so their demotion did little to lessen the authority they held. It remained a hereditary title until the 17thcentury, when Louis XIV sent letters out promoting people to Baron, so lessening the rank in the eyes of many.

It held more power in what was to become Italy, giving those who held the title the ability to give out the death penalty, wage private war, and even have a right to mint money. Their powers were extensive, and this was especially the case in the south, and it was a recognised title up until 1945. For Spanish Barons, the height of power was in the late Middle Ages, where they became more influential than their French counterparts. The title was, however, abolished in 1812.


The History of Marquis and Marchioness

Marquis and Marchionessis a historically noble rank, and even today it is seen as quite influential. It sits directly below Duke and above Count. In its origin, the title Marquis referred to a Count or Earl that held frontier land, but it is a significance that has long been lost. This old meaning behind the title also meant that they were able to hold more than one county, which actually left them almost on the same authoritative level as a Duke. The title was most prevalent in Western Europe.

Interestingly, the British word for Marquis is actuallyMarquess, with the Marchioness being his wife (or a woman who holds the title herself). However, it is often spelt in its French form Marquis. Many are still around in Great Britain, as well as across Europe. The lines between a Marquis and a Count have often been thin and blurred, which has often led to a great deal of rivalry between the two.

In fact, it was the difficulty in differentiating these ranks that brought the title of Marquis into disrepute in the 17thand 18thcenturies in France. It was seen as being self-made and pretentious, and a title that was abolished after the French Revolution. It was eventually revived by Louis XVIII, and he made sure to give them clear differentiation from the ranks of Duke and Count.

In territories that were to become Germany the title goes back to the10thCenturyas regions made a bid to strengthen their Eastern frontier. They were expected to secure their locations as well as push forward, and the title eventually became one that was handed down over generations. This is also how German Duchy’s spread across countries like Austria.

In modern-day Italian territory and Spain, the title was used in the same way as the other countries; for those who owned and secured frontier land. However, as the title began to become more important  and was passed down the generations, both countries eventually abolished it in the 14thcentury. It is a title you rarely hear in the modern world.


The History of Count and Countess

Counts and Countesses are theequivalent to Earls. They rank after a Duke, or a Marquis for countries that still have this title. It holds its origins in the Roman Empire, where the position, known as comes, was a high-ranking courtier or military official that was close to the Emperor. They were often charged with tasks such as strengthening the frontier, and it later evolved into the term Count for military officials without a specific ranking.

In the Middle Ages, Counts were usually appointed by a Duke or a king, and they were not in charge of armed forces. In fact, you would normally find them ruling a county and keeping things in check, with the Bishop as their rival. It was not a hereditary title in the beginning, especially when it was still referred to as comes. It was a given title, and not one that was passed down, but this changed in the Middle Ages. In fact, many Counts, Earls, and Countesses still exist within society across Europe.

In lands that were to become modern-day Germany, the title actually became hereditary in the 10thcentury, which was quite different from the other countries on the continent. In Italy, it works quite differently as the title is bestowed upon people by the Pope and other sovereign members of society – and this practice continues to this day. This is done quite liberally as well, so you may find there are more Counts in Italy than other European countries.

France lost its Counts when they were turned into the vassals of Dukesby AD 900. They lost their defining features as feudalism swept the land, and became more like lords with land than Counts. In the 12thand 13thcenturies, many of the lords styled themselves in the way of a Count, but they did not hold the official title. The titles were eventually restored towards the start of the 14thcentury, and they were made hereditary, but they held very little power or authority.



Hopefully, this article has piqued your interested and been something that you have found both interesting and informative. The history of European titles is sometimes surprising, and its rich past is one that should be appreciated by all. It is interesting to see how names can be quite similar across different countries, and that many of them have the same word of origin. There’s so much to discover, and these are just some of the titles that exist; there are hundreds more.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones