Medieval Nobility

Medieval society was defined by structures and everything was predetermined even before birth. People in the Middle Ages remained in the class they were born and raised in. Out of the need to preserve Noble bloodlines and maintain the wealth and social standing of elite families, however, a set of strict succession and inheritance rules were imposed on and governed Medieval Nobility. Though Nobles stood at the top of the feudal class system, just below the king and his royal vassals, there was hierarchy even within their own class.

Baroness

Medieval Baroness Cecily Bonville 7th Baroness Harington

A medieval Baroness was the wife of a medieval Baron and part of the medieval nobility, a baroness would have high status in medieval society Read more about the Baroness >>

Medieval Baron

Medieval Nobility Medieval Baron Oliver St John 1st Baron St John of Bletso

The title of Medieval Baron was introduced to England by William the conqueror during the Norman conquests. A medieval baron was considered to be among the lower titles of the nobility. Read more about the Medieval Baron >>

Medieval Lady

Medieval Lady

Medieval ladies usually looked after the household and managed the maids of the castle or manor. A higher level Lady would usually live in a castle whereas a lower level lady lived in a village manor. Read more about the Medieval Lady >>

Medieval Lord

Lord Robert Dudley in Medieval Times

Medieval lords lived in manor houses and were high level medieval people, medieval lords were granted land in return for their service and loyalty to the medieval king. Read more about the Medieval Lord >>

Medieval Vassal

Image of a Medieval Vassal or Lord in Medieval Times

Medieval Vassals were important people in the Feudal system. Medieval Vassals looked after and defended the Kings territories Read more about the Medieval Vassal >>


 

  • What different titles were there for medieval nobility?
  • How do we define medieval nobility and what was the definition of medieval Nobility in medieval society ?
  • What was the role of different classes of nobles and nobility in medieval times?
  • What was a hereditary title and how did this system work?
  • What were the main Nobility of England and the rest of Europe?

Peerage and Hereditary Title

Peerage refers to the widely accepted system of hereditary titles in the Medieval era. The system was very popular in England but it was not exclusive to the region. A peerage may mean an entire group of nobles or individual titles and a noble under this system is called a peer. Hereditary titles, on one hand, were used to address positions in the feudal hierarchy. These titles were passed on by virtue of blood, mainly concentrated on a specific lineage, from one generation to another. Successors may inherit several titles at the same time. Some titles were older than the others that even if they were ranked lower, the people in these positions held a significant amount of influence compared to higher-ranked nobilities with fairly new titles.

Medieval Nobility Titles

The peerage of England differed greatly from that of France and Prussia. While England stuck to the five classes – Duke and Duchess, Marquess and Marchioness, Earl and Countess, Viscount and Viscountess, and Baron and Baroness – France and Prussia luxuriously pursued other titles, adding more layers to the already complicated hierarchy of nobilities.

The following noble titles were used in various parts of Europe:

Viceroy and Vicereine

Viceroys were royal officials who governed countries, city-states or colonies on behalf of monarchs (e.g. king, queen, prince or princess). Vice is a Latin prefix that connotes replacement or “a substitute of." Roi, on one hand, means king. Putting the two Latin terms together, you get the main function of a viceroy: the king’s substitute or replacement. A territory or province under the viceroy’s jurisdiction was called vice royalty. Although viceroy is a generic term for both male and female royal representatives, a female viceroy in her own right (suo jure) and the wife of a viceroy were both referred to as vicereines. The king, as well as rulers who wielded about the same infuence as the king, held the right of appointing viceroys. From the Medieval times to the 18th century, the Habsburg crown appointed viceroys to Spain (provinces of Aragon, Catalonia, Navarre and Valencia), Italy (provinces Naples, Sicily and Sardinia) and Portugal.

Archduke and Archduchess

The Habsburg monarchs of Austria were the first ones to use the title of Archduke. Everyone who belonged to the Habsburg dynasty began to address their rulers in such a manner. The title was far more important than a duke and just a rank below the king. Archdukes ruled territories called archduchies (singular: archduchy). An Archduke’s wife or a female in the same position was referred to as an Archduchess. The term Archduke comes from an old French word archeduc (archidux in Latin), which means primary duke or a duke of authority. Other European kingdoms had a different address for ranks below the king. Germany and Luxembourg used the term Grand Duke instead of Archduke.

Grand Duke and Grand Duchess

The titles of Grand Duke and Grand Duchess were popularly used for minor monarchs in Germanic countries and throughout Western Europe. Like the Archduke, the Grand Duke was second only to the king and more powerful than a regular duke. A monarch’s children would be called Grand Princes, but in several translations they were addressed as Grand Dukes. In other parts of Medieval Europe such as in Bosnia, military commanders who served the crown were seen in the same light as Grand Dukes. The Granduke’s wife or a female who inherited this important position was a Grand Duchess.

In the standard five-class peerage system prevalent in Medieval England, the Duke stood at the top. Not only did he have the highest hereditary title in the peerage, but he was also the most powerful of the king’s peers. The Duke was the de jure leader of the aristocracy. In fact, Duke is rooted from the Latin word dux, meaning leader. The feminine version of the title is Duchess. The first ever duchy approximately began in 1337 in the British Isles. Towards the end of the 15th century, there were around 14 ducal titles bestowed upon well-known noble houses including Clarence, Cornwall, Ireland, Somerset, Buckingham, York and Lancaster to name a few.

  • Nobility titles were handed down through the elite bloodlines
  • Nobles could inherit several titles at the same time
  • There were five nobility classes in medieval England – Duke & Duchess, Marquess and Marchioness, Earl and Countess, Viscount and Viscountess, and Baron and Baroness

Marquess and Marchioness

Next in rank to the Duke was the Marquess, who had more power and influence over the earl. A female noble in the marquisate or the wife of a Marquess would be known as a Marchioness. In France, the Marquess and the Marchioness were referred to as Marquis and Marquise respectively.

Margrave and Margravine

Military commanders tasked to defend the Holy Roman Empire’s provincial borders received a special title inherited in certain families: Margrave. Soon enough, leaders of the Imperial Diet started calling themselves Margraves until the Empire dissipated early in the 19th century. Margravine was the address given to a Margrave’s wife.

Earl and Countess

The Earl was the third most powerful noble in the peerage. His rank may be lower than a Duke and a Marquess but he still exerted some power over Viscounts and Barons. His wife was addressed as Countess.

Viscount and Viscountess

The Viscount (Vicomte in French) held the fourth most important hereditary aristocratic title. With more influence and authority compared to a Baron, elites outside of the peerage paid homage to nobles in this position. The female equivalent of a Viscount, as well as his wife, was called a Viscountess.

Baron and Baroness

Of all members of the aristocracy, Barons had the least influence. Though their title could be hereditary, they ranked last in the peerage system. A female Baron was called a Baroness.

  • France and Prussia (Now Russia) had more Nobility titles and it was more complexed
  • Viceroys and Vicereine were important medieval nobilty who could govern a country
  • Medieval Nobility titles such as Archduke and Archduchess originated in Austria
  • The Medieval Nobility title Grand Duke and Duchess were used for minor Monarchs
  • The Duke was at the very top of the Medieval Nobility in England

Other Medieval Nobility Titles

A Baronet (female: Baronetess) was not part of the peerage even though he possessed a hereditary title. Knights, Dames and other individuals conferred with non-hereditary titles were considered as non-nobles. However, they did own lands and have a limited amount of power.

Vassals

Vassals were individuals who swore fealty and allegiance to a monarch or noble. The terms and conditions of the lord-vassal relationship were governed by the feudal system. In exchange for their loyalty and protection, vassals received portions of land otherwise known as fiefs. There were two types of vassals: an upper group of powerful and influential nobles personally connected to the crown and a lower group of landless knights obliged to serve the peerage for the sake of resources.

Noblemen and Noblewomen

Men and women born to the Medieval nobility were called noblemen and noblewomen. They were more privileged and esteemed compared to other members of society. While nobility was generally hereditary, there were instances in the Medieval period where commoners became nobles through royal favour, military achievements or acquiring wealth and power.

  • The Marquess and Marchioness was below the Duke only in Medieval Nobility importance
  • Barons were the least powerful Medieval Nobility and ranked last in the peerage system
  • Knights could be Medieval Vassals and part of the Nobility
  • Armigers were not born into the Medieval Nobility but had their own coat of arms
  • The feudal system organised medieval people and Medieval Nobility
  • Medieval Nobility were below the King and Kings imposed the structure of the Nobility

Other Positions and Titles Outside the Peerage

Supporting and coexisting with the nobles were individuals well-respected in society despite the circumstances of their birth. Certain people were allowed to use a coat of arms. Called armigers, folks in this category earned the privilege through a grant, matriculation or hereditary right. Landed individuals with a degree of social standing were collectively referred to as Gentry. Most of the people born to this class had a gentle or good upbringing. They also had connections to the manor, the clergy and old families. Finally, a tenant-in-chief was a person who received a fief or land tenure directly from the king or his heir as opposed to vassals who were awarded tenure from another aristocrat. Rigid though the feudal system may be because of the way it divided people into various classes, on the whole Medieval society was well-organised and set clear-cut parameters for each class. Monarchs back then deemed it best to impose such a structure so as to maintain order.

We hope you enjoyed the information and facts of medieval nobility in this article, if you would like to learn more about the specific members of the medieval nobility such as a Duke or Duchess please click the links at the bottom of this medieval nobility page that will take you directly to the correct page.

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