Monday, 20 August 2018

Knowing the French nobility and aristocracy!

Louis XIV - The Sun King

With recent TV series' and movies depicting the differing reigns at the French Court, from the action adventures of The Three Musketeers, the Palace of the Louvre, other, to the glories of Versailles, all have graced our screens from the reign of Louis XIV’s father, to the sun king himself. We've thrilled and chilled to the realities of ambitious courtiers to the blood curdling reality of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Thus novels with French settings are becoming popular within the historical romance genre. But, when writing historical romance novels set within France, whether in the feudal 13th century, the years of Louis XIV (the sun king), or later post French Revolution, there are aspects of the aristocracy across the centuries that has changed, as did the hierarchy of the nobles. Even knowing the difference between “Noblesse militaire” (of the Sword – granted for military prowess) and “Noblesse d’épée” (of the Robe – granted for service or relationship to the royal household) is vital in depiction of an aristocratic family.

Versailles the Series. 
The king, and his brother, Monsieur le duc d'Orleans. 

In short, it helps to know one’s history, and helps even more in understanding the French aristocracy and it’s lineage, so in summary:

Titles in the French aristocracy:
duc (duke)
marquis (marquis)
comte (earl)
vicomte (viscount)
baron (baron)
Chevalier (knight)and écuyer (rider)  were not titles.
They were merely ranks within the lower realms of the nobility, with a few exceptions, namely members of the knighthood of the king. All lesser noblemen no matter how recent in elevation to noble status were referred to as écuyer (rider).

Chevalier de Lorraine
A popular character in the series Versailles. 

The definition of a chevalier, in legal terms, was unclear for centuries. For some it was a matter of ancestry or a matter of eminence. It was found that legal documents, those whose nobility traced to 1410 or earlier – they were referred to as haut et puissant seigneur, while those whose families were connected by marriage to the royal house were très haut et très puissant seigneur. But, by Louis XIV the sun king’s reign, after the Baron’s Revolt, Noblesse militaire was considered of lesser nobility by the Noblesse d’épée - the latter with secure royal ties, either by blood or by marriage to members of the royal household.

It is worth noting "chevalier" was also used to refer to French Knights within the “Order of Saint John” (Order of Malta) as well as those within the French royal court: the use of the term makes it similar to a title such as monsieur le chevalier d'Lorraine - though not so; for it simply indicated membership in such an order, in general for younger sons of the nobility.

Lord (seigneur) was not a title, either. A lordship could be that of mere commoner and owner of land and property, inclusive tenanted property holdings. The term "lord" in the feudal system was a mixture of actual real estate and rights over people - rents and fees collected from them, certain obligations could be imposed on them. All lordships and the majority of aristocratic titles were abolished in 1789, until Napoleon became emperor and established a new common realm of aristocracy befitting his reign.

Forms of address at the French court of Louis XIV -when the “Church of France” came to fruition by Louis’ edict and his rebellion against the Vatican, thus the old feudal Seigneur of the former barons and knights was dropped in favour of Monsieur by aristocrats seeking closer favour with Louis. It was a direct kickback at the Holy Roman Church.

Monsieur le duc (duke)
Monsieur le marquis (marquis)
Monsieur le comte (earl)
Monsieur le vicomte (viscount)
Monsieur le baron (baron)
Monsieur le Chevalier (knight)

Forms of Address Prior to Louis XIV
Seigneur .........

As would be expected each fief, landed title bore more weight than mere lordly title in the days of the old barons: large or small. And yet, post the Baron’s Revolt, many great châteaux and the occasional castle soon fell into disrepair when they were not sequestered by the crown and awarded to newly titled favourites of the French court. But as courtiers were expected to reside within the walls of Versailles and attend upon the king – as and when, often their estates were badly neglected or merely mothballed within the hands of trusted retainers and a handful of minions.