Continental titles of nobility have evolved since the time of feudalism, when knights came to be regarded as noble and titles became hereditary. Under the Holy Roman Empire a complex nobility, not confined to the territories of the empire, developed; titles were conferred upon many persons outside the imperial boundaries. Most modern titles of nobility in the Western world descended from these (see the table entitled Hereditary Western European Titles of Nobility for masculine and feminine forms of equivalent titles in Western Europe).
The title count [Fr. comte, Ger. Graf, Ital. conte ] comes from the Latin comes, a noble attached to a kingly court and serving as an adviser to the king. The title Graf was taken over by the Holy Roman Empire from Carolingian and Merovingian terms for a noble appointed by the king and having military and legal authority over a certain territory. The creation of border territories (marches) gave rise to the title of Markgraf (in English, margrave ); the corresponding French title is marquis, from which the English title marquess is derived. A Landgraf (in English, landgrave ) was a count whose territory included a number of fiefs. There was also the title of Pfalzgraf ( count palatine ; see Palatinate). Herzog ( duke ) was a title denoting sovereignty over a large territory such as Bavaria or Saxony. After 1806 the title Grossherzog ( grand duke ) was also used. The title Fürst ( prince ) was below that of duke ; there existed also the title Prinz, which was a courtesy title extended to various persons, notably the sons of a duke or king. Titles in descending order below emperor and king were Herzog; Pfalzgraf, Markgraf, and Landgraf, all of about equal rank; Graf; Baron, Freiherr or Freier (all baron in English); and Ritter ( knight ). The prefix Reichs- before any of these titles meant that the holder held the title directly from the emperor, i.e., he was not the vassal of any other lord.
At the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the German and Austrian nobility retained the titles they had held under the empire. In addition, the male members of the Austrian imperial family were called archdukes, i.e., dukes of the blood royal. This corresponded to the title in the Russian imperial family usually translated as grand duke and in Spain to infante. French titles of nobility in descending order are duc; prince (only a prince of the blood royal was above a duke; an ordinary prince was often the son of a duke and was below a duke), marquis, comte, vicomte, baron, seigneur or sire, and chevalier ( knight ). The heir to the throne was called the dauphin. Members of the French nobility have no privileges at all, but they retain their titles under the law. In Italy, titles of nobility, in descending order, are duca, principe, marchese, conte, visconte, and barone. In Spain they are duque, principe, marqués, conde, visconde, and barón.
Titles in England are, in descending order, prince, duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, and knight. All have evolved since the Norman Conquest except earl, which is a title of the same descent as the continental titles translated as count. The title of earl was long the highest-ranking hereditary title under that of king, and English earls under the Norman kings enjoyed great power. The title of duke was in use on the Continent long before its introduction into England by Edward III, who created his son, the Black Prince, duke of Cornwall, a title now belonging automatically to the sovereign's eldest son from his birth. The Norman kings were themselves dukes of Normandy, a very high-ranking title, and may have been reluctant to confer similar titles upon their subjects. Originally, in fact, the only English dukes were dukes of the blood royal, and the sons of the sovereign are generally created dukes soon after coming of age. The title of marquess came into English use in 1385 as a title between those of earl and duke. The title of viscount, formerly that of a county sheriff, became a degree of honor and was made hereditary in the reign of Henry VI. Baron, originally a title denoting the chief tenants of the land, who were subject to summons to the king's court, is the most general title of nobility; since 1387 the title has usually been created by a legal notice (generally by letters patent, but occasionally by writ of summons), and it has nothing to do with land tenure. The existing baronetage (below the peerage) dates from 1611, when James I revived the title. The title of baronet is not in the peerage but is heritable; that of knight is a title of honor rather than nobility. The title of prince of Wales, at first the only prince in England, is reserved for the eldest son of the sovereign, although not invariably conferred upon him. In the reign of James I, all the sons of the sovereign came to be called prince. Queen Victoria extended the title, along with that of princess, to the royal grandchildren who are children of sons.
During the later Middle Ages life peerages (i.e., nonhereditary titles) were sometimes given as a further honor to one already holding a title. Legislation in 1887 conferred life peerages on all present and former lords of appeal. The Life Peerages Act of 1958 allowed for the creation of life peerages, with the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, for both men and women. Since 1964 life peerages have been the only kind conferred.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.