This will be a slightly longer post than usual, but it should also be better organized. I will explain the specifics as I go along, but to begin, there are three tiers of ranks in the issuance of titles. No rule is universal so there are exceptions everywhere, but generally speaking the royal titles are self-appointed or granted by a higher level royal, while the noble and gentry titles are granted by a bearer of a royal title. There are also other titles that don't quite fit into the three-tier hierarchy and are thus placed in a fourth "Other" category for further analysis.
Titles have been around probably since before people could speak and they continue today even in non-hierarchical societies where hereditary right doesn't necessary denote a succession. "President" and "Premier" are still titles roughly equivalent to "King" - the context has just changed. Below, in rough hierarchical order, are the major and some minor titles used by royalty and nobility in the last 2000 years:
Grade 1 – Royal Titles: Royal titles usually derive from inheritance and usually are created when a noble upgrades him- or herself. Generally speaking, a royal title-holder is sovereign—as in holds power independently of any other power—although certain other titles may officially or titularly have power over it (such as the Holy Roman Empire over the King of Bohemia). Royalty can appear at many levels, but only the following four titles are traditionally associated with sovereign royal control:
- Emperor & Empress (including Tsar, Shah, Augustus, Khagan, Maharajah, Kaiser): An Emperor or Empress is truly the highest title anyone can hold. In most languages, it is defined as the "King of Kings", which virtually defines itself. Emperors rule empires, but an empire is not always ruled by an emperor (the British Empire was not ruled by an Empress until 1876, and even then the title only applied to India). Emperors also almost always divide their lands into domains which may or may not be ruled by other lesser royal and noble titles. Emperors also usually have many sub-titles which may include kings, dukes, counts, &c.
- King & Queen (including Sultan, Khan): Kings and Queens are the most popular and well-known rulers on earth. They are almost always sovereign unless they are under an Emperor. They rule kingdoms or, in the case of hereditary queenships which have not been known in the last 2000 years, queendoms. Most noble titles are granted by a king or an emperor working in the capacity of king.
- Imperial Elector & Electress: Unique to the Holy Roman Empire and formed in the 1200s, Imperial Elector is a hereditary title that usually accompanies other titles such as the Duke & Elector of Bavaria. Electors are sovereign rulers who help elect the Holy Roman Emperor and make decisions within the Empire. They are always just beneath kings in the European hierarchy regardless of any titles the electors may hold within their lands (the Elector of Brandenburg was technically only a Margrave: a type of count). An elector rules an electorate.
- Sovereign Prince & Princess (including Grand Duke, Duke, Emir): Princes come in many shapes and sizes but the sovereign prince is an independent ruler. Sovereign princes usually begin life as a dependent vassal of a kingdom but break off at some point in time. The Dukes of Austria began life as the Margraves of the Bavarian Eastern Lands (Österreich: East Lands) dependent to the Carolingian kings of Germany. At some point, they broke free and many centuries later came to rule the Holy Roman Empire themselves. Sovereign princes can include virtually any people not mentioned above that have hereditary sovereignty over their land, including almost any of the titles in the next category. But beware of the generic term "Prince" as it has dual meanings. While a sovereign prince can fairly well be the ruler of their own land (Prince of Monaco, for example), they can also be a simple term denoting little more than a relationship to royalty (see below).
- Hereditary Duke & Duchess: The highest level of nobility is the plain and simple duke. Not sovereign in their own right but not necessary related to royalty either, the hereditary duke gained his title from some ancestor and will pass it on to some relative. If the duke is the son of royalty, his hereditary status isn't assured until he dies and the title gets passed on. If a hereditary duke breaks off or goes independent, officially or not, then he becomes a sovereign duke (see above). The easiest way to tell if the duke is hereditary or not is to see if he has land. A hereditary duke always has hereditary land, otherwise he probably falls into the "Royal Duke" category below. A duke rules a duchy.
- Marquess & Marchioness (or Marquis, Margrave, Marcher Lord): The title of Marquis is the highest of the comital (count) titles. In concept, a Marquis is a count who lives on the fringes of a kingdom, which is called the "March". They were more powerful titles than regular counts because Marquis often had to fight against angry neighbors, meaning they had to be stronger than the soft, safer counts. A Marquis rules a margraviate.
- Landgrave: Landgrave is a title mostly unique to Germany. It is actually a rather simple title, but it says a lot. A landgrave is a count who owes fealty directly to the Holy Roman Empire, not any other noble or royal. They usually had a lot more land than a count but weren't as important militarily as a marquis. A landgrave rules a landgraviate.
- Count & Countess (including Earl, Count Palatine): A Count rules a county. A county is smaller than a landgraviate but bigger than a viscounty. In reality, though, it can still be quite large. There is very little special that separates a count from any other title except the title itself. The term Earl was an Anglo-Saxon term that fell into common English usage but is equivalent to a count in the British peerages.
- Viscount & Viscountess: A Viscount is, in reality, just a lesser count; it literally means vice-count, as in the companion of a count. A viscount rules a viscounty which is smaller than a county.
- Baron & Baroness (including Freiherr): Barons are the lowliest of nobles and often considered rather generic. A barony is usually quite small, sometimes no larger than a large mansion and its surrounding lands, but it is still considered a prestigious title compared to the lesser gentry titles below. They are the most common noble title in Europe and the most likely to be associated with "Lord".
- Baronet & Baronetess (including Nobile): Baronets are mostly a British phenomena from the 1600s to provide a new source of revenue from, basically, selling titles. Unlike noble titles, a baronet cannot sit in the House of Lords and is thus the only British hereditary title not allowed to do so. It also doesn't outrank Knights who are members of certain Chivalric orders, although they do outrank all other knights. The lands of a baronet are called a baronetcy, although that often doesn't include more land than the property the family has always owned. Baronetcies are not usually landed titles (which means they have nothing to do with hereditary land).
- Seigneur (or Knight of the Manor): A seigneur is a term mostly unique to France. It basically is a hereditary knight whose land is linked to the title. The land may not be very large but the Knight is lord of that land. Most people actually know this title through its function in the feudal system. In medieval times, a lord of some sort usually had a number of knights who ruled smaller regions within his land. Those were seigneurs and their lands were seigneuries, which is the same as a fiefdom. Except on the small Norman island of Sark in the English Channel, seigneurs don't really exist anymore.
- Hereditary Knight & Dame: Very similar to the seigneur but without the land attached to the title, a hereditary knight is just that: a knight who can pass on his title. These were just as common in Early Modern times as Medieval, and these types of knights were not always required to fight like the standard knights. No land was attached to their titles.
- Knight & Dame: These titles are the first non-hereditary titles in peerages. That means they can't be automatically passed on to the next generation (although the lord may confer them on a child). They also are not linked to any land.
- Esquire: Traditionally a title given to the assistant of a knight, noble or royal, an esquire has come to mean many things including: son of a knight, younger son of a noble, a landholder, a justice (judge), a lawyer, or even a military officer. In the peerages of Britain, it is generally the lowest gentry rank associated with a land owner.
- Gentleman & Gentlewoman: Thus a gentleman is someone who doesn't necessarily own land but has a good enough connection to someone important to possibly be important himself one day. They were more likely the attendants of royalty and nobility in the Early Modern era, the esquires having moved out of that role by acquiring land.
- Yeoman: Yeoman are really hardly gentry. In medieval times, they were simply people who owned their own land, although they still were on another person's territory (usually multiple people's). Yeomen also had a say in government, mostly in the House of Commons. Now it is mostly used in its other context: a highly praised aide (butler) in a noble or royal household, such as the Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London.
The other famous example of non-sovereign titles is that of Archduke of Austria. Technically, the title Archduke should trump any other duke in Europe. The problem is the title has been given to all members of the House of Habsburg, male or female, regardless of whether they have any ruling power in the hereditary Austrian lands. In virtually all cases, the title itself is insignificant compared to other titles they may hold. It is the equivalent to the commonly held definition of a prince or princess as the child of a king or queen. Thus non-sovereign titles may sound flashy and important, but they hold no actual clout in most cases and are generally not hereditary or related to any actual land. A Royal Prince is nothing except the child of a sovereign unless they are given some better title, something that has actual power. Virtually all Disney princess movies focus on a powerless prince or princess falling in love with a non-royal commoner who will become upon marriage a princess or a prince.
Other Titles: Finally, let's just rush through some random titles that aren't on this list but still are hereditary and have been held by some important people in history:
- Patriarchs & Matriarchs: Generally not hereditary, there have been cases such as in the Republic of Florence where a patriarch (one of the Medicis) ruled in a somewhat hereditary, unofficial capacity. Hereditary patriarchies usually disappear after a few decades/centuries of rule or get upgraded to one of the titles above. Non-hereditary patriarchies are often religious in nature (like the Pope).
- Caliph: In Sunni Islam, there was for many centuries a person who was both the religious and secular leader of the people. The title Caliph was said to have passed to the first rulers of Islam and then it fell to two dynasties before crumbling between rival factions and being usurped by the Ottomans in the 1400s. In reality, it was the equivalent to an Emperor and religious Patriarch combined. A Caliph ruled a Caliphate.
- Tetrarch: These dudes ruled Palestine during Biblical times (well, Roman times) so everyone will recognize the King Herod who sent Jesus to die around 30 CE. He was in fact the Tetrarch of Galilee which simply meant the ruler of a quarter of the Herodian inheritance, meaning there at least should have been three other rulers (there rarely were).
- Ethnarch: Pretty similar to a patriarch really, an Ethnarch was the patriarch of a specific ethnic group. One could say that Moses was the ethnarch of the Israelites during the 40 years of wandering. The Byzantines liked to call the rulers of local barbarian tribes ethnarchs, though the leaders probably thought of themselves as kings. It is now generally used as a religious title by some Greek Orthodox leaders.
- Exilarch: A rather mystical title given to the senior descendant of King David, the exilarchs continued the Babylonian exile after their kin returned to the Holy Land. They served as Jewish advisers to regional rulers for nearly a millenia, long into the Muslim age, before quietly disappearing into obscurity. It is thought the descendants of the last exilarch escaped to Spain but no one really knows. For all intent and purposes, an exilarch is a patriarch with only a claim to land (like a titular ruler that no one listens to anymore).
That's it! Huge list, huh? If you made it this far you're awesome. I won't say anymore except we will have another poll later this week to see which family is the case study for next Saturday. Have a great week!