The French nobility (French: la noblesse) was a privileged social class in France during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period to the revolution in 1790. The nobility was revived in 1805 with limited rights as a titled elite class from the First Empire to the fall of the July Monarchy in 1848, when all privileges were permanently abolished. Hereditary titles, without privileges, continued to be granted until the Second Empire fell in 1870. They survive among their descendants as a social convention and as part of the legal name of the corresponding individuals.
In the political system of pre-Revolutionary France, the nobility made up the Second Estate of the Estates General (with the Catholic clergy comprising the First Estate and the bourgeoisie and peasants in the Third Estate). Although membership in the noble class was mainly inherited, it was not a fully closed order. New individuals were appointed to the nobility by the monarchy, or they could purchase rights and titles, or join by marriage.
Titles, peerage, and orders
There were two kinds of titles used by French nobles: some were personal ranks and others were linked to the fiefs owned, called fiefs de dignité.
During the ancien régime, there was no distinction of rank by title (except for the title of duke, which was often associated with the strictly regulated privileges of the peerage, including precedence above other titled nobles).
The hierarchy within the French nobility below peers was initially based on seniority; a count whose family had been noble since the 14th century was higher-ranked than a marquis whose title only dated to the 15th century. Precedence at the royal court was based on the family’s ancienneté, its alliances (marriages), its hommages (dignities and offices held) and, lastly, its illustrations (record of deeds and achievements).
* Foreign Prince
* Duc: possessor of a duchy (duché—a feudal property, not an independent principality) and recognition as duke by the king.
* Prince: possessor of a lordship styled a principality (principauté); most such titles were held by family tradition and were treated by the court as titres de courtoisie—often borne by the eldest sons of the more important duke-peers. This title of prince is not to be confused with the rank of prince, borne by the princes du sang, the princes légitimés or the princes étrangers whose high precedence derived from their kinship to the King.
* Marquis: possessor of a marquessate (marquisat), but often assumed by a noble family as a titre de courtoisie
* Comte: possessor of a county (comté) or self-assumed.
* Vicomte: possessor of a viscounty (vicomté) or self-assumed.
* Baron: possessor of a barony (baronnie) or self-assumed.
* Vidame: a rare title, always with the name of a diocese, as their origin was as the commander of a bishop’s forces. The Vidame de Chartres is the best known.
* Fils de France: son of a king or dauphin.
* Petit-fils de France: grandson of a king in the male line.
* Prince du Sang (“prince of the blood”): a remote, legitimate male-line descendant of a king of France.
* Peer of France was technically a dignity of the Crown (as, e.g., marshal of France), but became in fact the highest hereditary rank borne by the French nobility—always in conjunction with a title (e.g. “Duc et Pair”, “Comte-Pair”). The peerage was originally awarded only to princes of the blood, some legitimised and foreign princes, often the heads of the kingdom’s most ancient and powerful families, and a few bishops.
King Louis XIV of France and Navarre
Eventually it was almost always granted in conjunction with the title of duke. Gradually the peerage came to be conferred more broadly as a reward for distinguished military or diplomatic service, but also on favourites of the king (e.g. les mignons). The peers were entitled to seats in the Parliament of Paris, the most important judicial court in the kingdom.
* Prince légitimé: legitimised son or male-line descendant of a king. Precise rank depended upon the king’s favour.
* Prince étranger (“foreign prince”): members of foreign royal or princely families naturalized at the French court, such as the Clèves, Rohan, La Tour d’Auvergne, and Lorraine-Guise.