A short excursion » Ranks in the aristocracy

Aristocratic titles and ranks – from the past to the present

The aristocracy used to have much more influence. Nevertheless, aristocratic titles and ranks still have a certain illustrious gloss about them, and there is still lots of interest in the institution, with goings-on in the aristocracy continuing to fill up full-page spreads in gossip mags. But what aristocratic titles are there? How has the aristocracy developed down the years? What does the aristocracy’s hierarchy look like?

The development of the aristocracy down the years

In the Middle Ages the aristocracy was the highest social class that, headed by the King himself, ran the entire state. The higher an aristocrat’s rank, the higher his social status and importance. There were also considerable differences between the upper and lower aristocracy. The upper aristocracy was made up essentially of kings, emperors and princes, and its members dealt with governing the country, while the lower aristocracy was simply privileged. The lower aristocracy didn’t have to pay any taxes in the Middle Ages, and its members were able to forge a career in the state. In comparison with the common people, the aristocracy participated in society more, had a say in cultural life, and enjoyed a certain position of power.

In the Middle Ages power was concentrated in the hands of the aristocracy but, as time went by, the commoners gained more and more economic and even political influence. The French Revolution represented the beginning of the end of aristocratic hegemony. In Germany it was the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 that took a first step towards depriving the aristocracy of its power. This took more than a century, when Germany’s Kaiser was deposed in 1918. The declaration of the Weimar Republic and the adoption of a constitution stripped the aristocracy of its privileges, and from then on an aristocratic titles was no more than a part of someone’s name. A name affix no longer signified any power.

The different ranks

The many aristocratic titles that exist often make the system difficult for outsiders to understand. The following article will provide you with a list of all the aristocratic titles in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present day, plus information about styles of office and nobiliary particles. This list is in descending order: As you’ll see, there are all sorts of aristocratic title from an emperor down to a knight.

Emperor / Tsar

The highest aristocratic title is that of an emperor, called a tsar in Russian, while a Russian empress is called a tsarina. An emperor’s children have the titles ‘prince’ or ‘princess’ except in Russia, where the son is called ‘tsarevitch’ and the daughter ‘tsareva’, or alternatively ‘grand duke’ and ‘grand duchess’.

The form of address for an emperor is ‘Your Imperial Majesty’, while his children are addressed as ‘Your Imperial Highness’.

King

After the emperor comes the king, the second-highest aristocratic title in the noble hierarchy. The king or queen is the highest dignitary in a monarchy. Alongside his law-making role, a king also deals with the executive’s jurisdiction and decisions. An aristocratic king, then, brings together all of the powers of the state.

The king and queen’s children are also called ‘prince’ and ‘princess’. When his subjects address the king directly they call him ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Royal Majesty’, while princes and princesses are ‘Your Royal Highness’.

Archduke

Archduke is an aristocratic title given to the ruler of an archduchy, and was used especially for Habsburgs and in the Archduchy of Austria. The children of the dynasty were also named archdukes. The form of address changed through the years: First this was ‘Your Serene Highness’, which later evolved to the title of ‘Imperial’ or ‘Royal Highness’.

Grand duke

Another type of duke was a grand duke, an aristocratic title used for princes whose rank was between that of a duke and the king. A grand duke had less power than the king, but often more influence than a common duke. Here, too, the children were frequently a ‘prince’ and ‘princess’. ‘Hereditary grand duke’ and ‘hereditary grand duchess’ were also widely used titles for the children. It was common to address a grand duke as ‘Your Most Serene Highness’, though another form of address was preferred in some grand duchies such as Hesse, Luxembourg and Baden, where the grand duke was ‘Your Royal Highness’.

Prince-Elector

In the Holy Roman Empire a prince-elector was the highest-ranking prince. Only the prince-electors were entitled to vote for the Roman (and German) king in the thirteenth century. Prince-electors were also able to bear different titles, including landgrave, archbishop or even king. The first electoral college for a king was composed of seven prince-electors. Four of them were members of the secular nobility, while three prince-electors came from the church. In the seventeenth century the number of prince-electors rose to nine. The College of Electors that convened to elect the king was later made up of ten members,

but following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon there was only one prince-elector, from the Electorate of Hesse-Kassel. From a legal point of view, prince-electors were on a par with landgraves. Over the years, prince-electors were addressed as either ‘Your Serene Highness’ or ‘Your Royal Highness’. Their children, meanwhile, were ‘electoral prince’ and ‘electoral princess’.

Duke

The origins of the title ‘duke’ lie in Germanic history, where a duke was a military leader. Over the years a duke became a royal official, though one with a primarily military function. The form of address for a ruling duke was ‘Your Royal Highness’. The dukes were stripped of their power and privileges after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. From then on dukes were simple noblemen and were addressed as ‘Your Serene Highness’.

Landgrave

Landgrave is an aristocratic title that is exclusive to German-speaking countries, especially in the regions of Thuringia and Hesse. The Landgrave of Hesse was made a prince-elector in 1803. Landgraves had the same rank as a duke, and their children were called ‘prince’ and ‘princess’. Only the last Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg was called ‘Your Royal Highness’. All other landgraves were addressed as ‘Your Highness’ or as ‘Your Serene Highness’.

Palatine

Palatines of the past had the task of assisting the king or emperor with administrative duties, and presided over legal matters at the royal court. Supplicants had to go to the palatine to present their concerns to him. To begin with, each duchy had its own palatine, though later only the Rhineland had one as over time most earls were granted a large principality of their own. The children of a palatine were called ‘prince’ or ‘princess’. The form of address for a palatine was normally ‘Your Serene Highness’. Saxony’s palatine was an exception to this rule as he was also a prince-elector, and thus was addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’.

Margrave

Up until the end of the eleventh century, nobles in the border regions of the empire were called margraves, though this was a role that was not developed further as there were no longer any geographical distinctions in the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, the title of margrave was simply a rank within the Empire’s hierarchy of princes. A margrave had the same rank as a medieval duke, though their prestige differed from place to place. In many countries, margraves belonged to the lower aristocracy and did not have any public office. The form of address fluctuated between ‘Your Serene Highness’ and ‘Your Illustrious Highness’. The children of the lower aristocracy were also a ‘prince’ and ‘princess’.

Prince

This kind of prince ruled over various estates that were grouped together as a principality. The form of address for the prince of a principality was ‘Your Serene Highness’, while a handful of these princes had the special privilege of being addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’. The children of princes were ‘hereditary prince’ and ‘hereditary princess’. The honorary title of prince was partly lost in the course of history. At this point there were no longer any privileges or power associated with the title. Instead, the bearer of this aristocratic title no longer belonged to the ranks of the upper aristocracy. Otto Prince of Bismarck, the chancellor who unified Germany in the nineteenth century, was perhaps the best-known of these.

Baron

Barons are the bottom rung of the titular nobility, followed only by noblemen whose names feature a nobiliary particle like ‘von’ or ‘zu’ but who don’t have an aristocratic title. Male descendants pass the title on, while female descendants are simply called ‘baroness’. Barons are referred to as ‘Highborn’, reflecting their noble status.

Knight / Nobleman / Lord of / Lady of / Countryman

At the very bottom of the noble hierarchy are knights, noblemen, lords and ladies, and countrymen. Candidates for knighthood had to fulfil a great many criteria. Starting from the nineteenth century, knights then belonged to a noble class of their own. Anyone who was knighted would receive an aristocratic title.

The form of address ‘Nobleman’ was not an aristocratic title, but rather a title of nobility. This was applied to the whole family – both parents and their children would be called ‘noble’, ranked below knights in the noble hierarchy.

‘Lord’ and ‘lady’ were official noble designations, while a noble without any title was called a countryman. All members of the lower aristocracy were addressed as ‘Highborn’.