The nobility of medieval Europe is often confusing, especially when trying to decipher a thousand years of change and competing systems that sometimes changed rapidly and in other places had contradictory rules depending on who you were. It can be a headache to decipher and sometimes as a writer I just want a simple answer. I’ve tried my best to summarise here a wide breadth of the nobility of medieval Europe, but the resources available to me are more focused on western Europe than Eastern, and importantly, things changed a lot. I also can’t rule out mistakes on my behalf. Further, it can be a mistake to view nobility or feudalism as a stagnant system that followed the same rules throughout its existence. Despite how often nobility calls back to tradition in its claim to power, the realities were much more fluid. But this is my best attempt at a guide to the nobles titles of medieval Europe for writers
Before we begin, consider checking out my guide to nobility for fantasy writers, which goes over some common questions and will help give you context for what follows.
Finally, here are some basic rules apply to deciding the precedence of a European aristocrat. These generally (but not always) are as follows
- The older title has precedence over the equivalent younger title
- The Duke of Norfolk, whose title was created in 1486, is more important than the Duke of Atholl, whose title was created in 1703
- A sovereign ruler is always higher in the order of precedence than a non-sovereign title. The Prince of Moravian Serbia was of higher precedence than the Prince of Melfi.
- Within the Holy Roman Empire, a title with ‘imperial immediacy’ (meaning the holder had no lord above them but the Emperor himself) was of higher precedence than a title with a feudal overlord. For example, the Prince of Liechtenstein was of higher precedence than the Prince of Auersperg, who owed fealty to the Duke of Austria. This made lands with imperial immediacy, no matter how obscure, extremely valuable. The Dukes of Troppau purchased Liechtenstein and never set foot in it for 300 years, simply for the claim to imperial immediacy it offered.
Emperor, coming from Imperator, was initially reserved to claimants to the title of successor to Rome.
There were a number of Emperors in medieval Europe, including the Byzantine Empire (known, to people living at the time, as the Roman Empire) and Holy Roman Empire (officially also known as the Roman Empire for most of its history, but also called the Holy Roman Empire to limit confusion). The exact customary title varied – The German Emperor was Kaiser, the Russian & Bulgarian Emperors used Tsar (both derived from Caesar), the Byzantine Empire used a variety of titles during its history – including Imperator, Caesar, Augustus, Autokrator, Basileus (which could also mean King, not emperor).
Image: Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand I. 1531, public domain, courtesy of the Met Museum.
Many Emperors had unique titles for their heirs and children. Grand Duke for Russia; Archduke for Austria-Hungary; Prince in other countries. The wife of an Emperor is usually an Empress. The title Imperatrix, despite simply being the feminine of Imperator, is usually reserved for Empress’ reigning in their own right and not consorts. The form of address for an Emperor was sometimes Your Imperial Majesty, but some Emperors preferred unique terms.
Below Emperors come Kings. A King was usually, but not always a sovereign title. The King of Bohemia still owed fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor. A High King would sometimes be crowned, such as in Ireland, and held higher precedence than a simple King, and usually ruled over other Kings.
The son of a King is usually a Prince; the heir to a King is usually a Crown Prince (these things must always have exceptions). The wife of a King is usually a Queen consort. The husband of a reigning Queen is usually a Prince consort, though in some courts the title of King consort was also used as a courtesy – or a reigning Queen’s husband would assume co-rulership with her.
Image: King Charles II of England by Philippe de Champaigne, 1653. Public domain, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Some thrones of Europe have received a special title from the Pope, which also effected their seniority and granted them the right to wear white when meeting with the Pope. For example, the King of Spain could use the title Most Catholic Majesty, Portugal could use Most Faithful Majesty, Hungary could use Apostolic Majesty and France could use Most Christian Majesty. The British throne held the title of Defender of the Faith until it was revoked in 1530.
Other titles equal to a King have been used in Europe – and obviously, the title King is translated differently in various languages. The various successor states to Alexander the Great, such as the Kingdom of Pontus, used Basileus. Later, the 18th century Kingdom of Greece used the title as well.
Relatives of a king
A variety of titles sit below Kings in precedence. The heir or direct family of a king are usually next on the ladder. In the simplest terms, the heir to a King is a Crown Prince. But many kingdoms have created unique titles over the centuries to emphasize the respect they felt members of the royal family deserved.
In the Austrian Empire, the title of Archduke of Austria was used. Similarly, the Russian empire used Grand Dukes (sometimes translated as Grand Prince instead), though a variety of people related to the royal family held the title and their importance varied by exactly how close they were to the throne.
In the Byzantine Empire, the title Despot was used in a similar way to Archduke – reserved for the heir to the Byzantine throne, or the sons and son-in-law of the Emperor – but since the Byzantine Empire existed for a thousand years, the exact usage varies with time. After the empire fractured, the title began to be used for independent rulers as an equivalent to Prince.
Image: Louis de France, called Le Grand Dauphin or Monseigneur, by Robert Nanteuil, 1677. Public domain, courtesy of the Met Museum.
In France, the title of Dauphin of France was reserved the heir to the throne, which literally means Dolphin – derived from the nickname of the Count of Vienne, given for the dolphin on his coat of arms. In 1349, Count Humbert II sold the title of Dauphin to the throne to be used for the French heir.
Many thrones simply append the name of an important territory to the title of Prince to indicate importance. Portugal used the title Prince of Brazil, Spain uses Prince of Asturias, and in the modern day, Britain continues this practice with the title of Prince of Wales. Whether the holder actually rules the territory in question depends on the nation and time period.
Princes, but better
Medieval nobility was a constant battle to prove your importance – and titles were an important weapon in that battle. Over the centuries, the title of Prince became not good enough for some and whether by currying favour of an overlord or the Pope, through conquest or with some judicious forging of paperwork, various families created more senior variants on the title of Prince.
These include Most Serene Prince (originally used to indicate a prince who was sovereign, with no loyalty owed to the emperor). Today the Princes of Monaco and Liechtenstein use the term, and only in their term of address – for example His Serene Highness Albert II. Most Serene was also appended to the name of the Republic of Venice to indicate the same thing.
Within the Holy Roman Empire, the title of Prince-Elector meant a member of the college that elected the emperor – one of the loftiest honours in the empire, offering them precedence over all other princes in the empire. They also used the term of address Serene Highness. The heir of a Prince-Elector is an electoral prince. The wife of a prince-elector is an electress.
The title of Grand Prince was used by various courts of Europe, mostly for subsidiary titles held inside empires – such as the Grand Principality of Transylvania.
Variants on Prince were also used for sovereign rulers of important monasteries and temporal lands ruled by Church officials – in order of precedence: Prince-Archbishop, Prince-Bishop, and Prince-Provost & Prince-Abbot (roughly equivalent to each other).
Other titles were used which are roughly equivalent to Prince. In Croatia, the title of Ban could be translated as Prince or Vice-Roy (Vice-Roy literally means “representative of the King”, but was a royal appointment not a noble title).
If you were to believe your average fantasy reading material or Disney movie, Prince (the feminine Princess) is the child or relative of a King. But the title has had a much more complex history. It is often used in exactly that way today – the children of the British Queen used the title Prince or Princess.
But the older, original meaning was for the ruler of a sovereign or quasi-sovereign territory. For example, the Prince of Wales was once literally the sovereign ruler of independent Wales. A sovereign country ruled by a prince is a Princedom or a Principality.
But it doesn’t even stay that simple. The Holy Roman Empire had many Princes, and the role fulfilled multiple role at once – the title was used for sovereign rulers who answered only to the Emperor (such as the Prince of Liechtenstein), the relatives of reigning sovereigns (the famous general Prince Eugene was actually nephew of the Duke of Mayenne) and as a courtesy title granted to noble families or important court bureaucrats and generals without any legal rights attached. Further, various foreign guests who held titles equivalent to Prince in their homelands were allowed to use it at court.
The title of prince as a courtesy with no feudal land or sovereign status was also granted by various other thrones, and the Pope, to families in return for services or as a favour. This practice continues even today – in 2007, the Polish-Russian-Ukrainian noble family Czetwertyński were granted use of the title of Prince in Belgium after members of the family settled in Belgium.
The title is also sometimes used to generally refer to any feudal lord of a kingdom, or all the lords collectively – for example, members of the Imperial diet in the Holy Roman Empire might be referred to collectively as the princes of the diet, no matter that its members included Kings and Abbots.
Duke is usually (but not always) the most senior title in a peerage. A sovereign Duke is above a non-sovereign one, and below a sovereign prince. The feminine form is usually duchess, but this is not always true – Queen Elizabeth II was still called Duke of Lancaster. The territory of a duke is a duchy or a dukedom.
Image: Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690-1695. Public domain, courtesy of the Met Museum.
Duke replaced the Old English word Heretoga, but the term Earldorman more closely resembled what Dukes would later be – the most powerful subnational landowners and feudal lords. In German, the title Herzog is equivalent, French duc. Despite being related to the word Earl, the role of a Jarl more closely resembled a duke.
In modern times, duke is often reserved for the relatives of a royal family – though non-royal Dukes remain in Britain and other places. In the United Kingdom, a Duke is addressed as Your Grace.
Assorted high ranked titles
There exist an enormous number of titles of various rank below a duke, jockeying for best position.
Among these are Count Palatine (literally Count of the Palace) was an esteemed version of a count, usually directly below a duke in precedence. The feminine form is Countess Palatine. The equivalent German title is Pfalzgraf (feminine: Pfalzgräfin), often translated as Palsgrave (feminine: Palsgravine). Their territory was a County Palatine or a Palatinate. Generally, the title of Palatine implied extra autonomy from the king or emperor. The title voivode was primarily a military governor but was used interchangeably with palatine in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Also roughly equal to Count Palatine were the titles of Margrave (German: Markgraf, Feminine: Margravine, Markgräfin), Marcher Lord and Marquess As you might guess, all these titles derive from a similar root – the word marchis, “ruler of a border area”, itself from marche, “frontier”. Originally, all of these titles began as an elevated honour (and sometimes, implication or actual autonomy) meant for lords responsible for defending the borders of the country.
The United Kingdom mostly uses Marquess, except in Scotland where the French spelling Marquis is sometimes preferred. The wife of a British Marquess is a Marchioness, but a French one is a Marquise. The position and territory of the title is a Marquisate or a Marquessate. The territory of a Margrave was originally a march or mark, later a margraviate or margravates.
Marcher Lords were nobles who defended the border with Wales. They were usually also earls. The territory of a Marcher Lord was a march.
Count / Earl
Count comes from a Latin term meaning companion, literally companion of the emperor. From this beginning, it became a mid-tier noble title. The French version is comte, often left untranslated in English. The feminine form of Count is Countess.
The Count of Flanders tried to claim the title Archcount, following in the footsteps of Archdukes, but this title seems to have not been widely recognised.
The German equivalent is Graf (feminine: Gräfin), however Grafs often followed a practice of appending a prefix to denote their territory before the term. From this we gained the titles Landgrave (“Land Count”), Freigrave (“Free Count”), Raugrave “Rough Count”), Waldgrave or Wildgrave (“Forest Count”), Rhinegrave (“Rhine Count”), Altgrave (“Old Count”), Gaugrave (“Imperial Count”, restricted to the Carolingian Empire).
Counts with imperial immediacy were Reichsgrave (“Imperial Count”). There seems to be debate about whether a Landgrave was equal to a Margrave or below it. In either case, being a Landgrave implied imperial immediacy as well. The title of Freigrave usually implied having special dispensations from the emperor.
Earl is the British equivalent of a Count. Oddly, the wife of an earl or in fact a female Earl, is a Countess. No feminine equivalent of earl was ever created. Before the Norman invasion of England, the title of High-Reeve was somewhat similar to an Earl or Count in position and prestige.
Viscounts and so forth
Viscount is a British title, of sorts. It was adapted from the position of Vice-Comites, a sort of deputy to a count or duke, and filled a hole left by the Old English title Shire Reeve (from which we derive Sherrif). The French form is vicomte, which is usually left untranslated. A female viscount is a viscountess, and the position of a viscount is a viscounty. The German equivalent translation is vizgraf, though the title burggrave (“Castle Count”), was more close to a viscount in role.
A castellan was a similar position to a burggrave – a castle administrator. Their territory was a castellany or castellania. They were a very old title and most had disappeared by the late medieval period.
Similarly, an advocatus was a title who acted (advocated) on behalf of a major feudal lord. These titles were often used as a way for feudal priests (such as bishops) to keep their hands clean. An advocatus would hand down death sentences or lead wars so their boss, the bishop, didn’t have to take personal responsibility. In the Holy Roman Empire, a similar title was Vogt. A Vogt governed a Vogtei (or Vogtland) on behalf of the emperor. The vogts and advocatus had almost disappeared by the end of the empire, but a few remained in Swabia up until 1806. The french title Vidame was also similar in role. Though these three were relatively lowly titles, many of them had very early origins and so became quite prestigious.
Confusingly, the island of Jersey retains the position of Viscount in the original meaning – an administrative officer who acts on behalf of the royal court.
There are essentially two types of baron. A feudal baron is the owner of a manor house or castle, or an area of land, and the title is usually (but not always) tied to whoever owns that land or castle. I say usually, as the Scottish Baron of the Bachuil is whoever legally owns the Bachuil Mor, a sixth century saint’s staff. This system was used in medieval France, and, until 2004, in Scotland and meant that Baron was the only noble title that could be bought and sold in those systems.
The other type I’ll call a noble baron, though I’m not sure that is the official name. These titles operate much like any other title of the peerage, and are simply the lowest rank in most cases. The German equivalent is Freiherr, the Italian equivalent was Barone.
A Scottish feudal Baron is below a baronet, but an English noble baron is above a baronet, where a baronet is hereditary but not a peer of the realm – they’re more like a hereditary knighthood (though that is a simplification).
The feminine form is Baroness.
The lower nobility, knights and untitled nobility
Below all the titled nobility of medieval Europe were usually the lower nobility, the untitled nobility, and knights.
In the British system, these are the before mentioned Baronets – a hereditary title, but not a peerage, as they have no right to attend parliament; and Knights, which could be either hereditary or non-hereditary (the United Kingdom had both historically) positions, often awarded for military service. German knighthoods (Ritter) were hereditary – the feminine form is Frau. The wife of a British knight is a lady, while a Dame holds an equivalent to a knighthood in her own right (a damehood).
Image: Sir Anthony Mildmay, Knight of Apethorpe. By Nicholas Hilliard, 1590-1593. Public domain, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Germany also had another level below knights, edler, a title mostly used for bureaucrats. In France, this took the form of the Nobles of the Robe who derived nobility from administrative posts. The Nobles of the Robe generally did not have titles. In other states, such as the Italian republics, the patricians were similar in function. Derived from the minor landowning nobility and the officials (such as stewards) of the higher lords, they held no specific title but were granted rights such as voting in city elections. Overtime, some of the patricians grew to eclipse the landholding feudal nobles their ancestors had once worked for.
However, it is important to note that not all nobility systems even had formalised titles (medieval Finland did not until quite late, simply referring to all nobles as lords). In this case, the comparative importance of say, an untitled Finnish noble and a titled British one would probably be decided on a case by case basis.
However, in systems that did have titles, the untitled nobility were usually the lowest rank. The untitled nobility are generally minor but very old families of prestige, sometimes the junior descendants of titled families but often simply very old families who never quite managed to ascend higher. In Germany, and many other German speaking areas, such untitled but noble families were designated (sometimes but not always) by appending von or zu to their family name.
Britain does not formally have untitled nobility, though the lords of the manor and Scottish lairds are similar in concept – they have no title but are recognised by a courtesy title due to their ownership of manorial lands. The British gentry, meanwhile, were a large group of landowners of prestige who had no nobility but could usually trace their family lines to nobility, and by virtue of their landowning, had certain social and legal prestige.