French Aristocracy

1 Aristocracy, peerage and nobility

It´s rather tempting to see the nobility as a rather homogenous group in French ancien regime society. In fact the nobility was however just as stratified as the whole society. Some noblemen clearly belonged to the very powerful while others were nearly penniless. This page is about that very small group of very powerful noblemen we could call the aristocracy, the peerage was a subset of the aristocracy. The rest of the nobility we´ll simply call nobility and shove them to another page.

1.1 Relevance of the Aristocracy vs Nobility distinction

The use of making the aristocracy vs nobility distinction is in understanding the background and career of noblemen. For the poorest parts of the nobility it was an achievement to become captain of a company. The sons of the aristocracy practically got a regiment after leaving school. After that the young aristocrat did not even need to advance in the militairy. He could also become a governor of some province or get a high office at Versailles; a more profitable and less hazardous career.

2 Definition of the aristocracy

In my definition the French aristocracy would begin just below the Bourbon royal family and the bastards fathered by Louis XIV. The top layer of the aristocracy was formed by those that held the rank of ´foreign prince´. It included the Vendomes and the ´foreign´ princes not belonging to the Bourbon family. Next would come the duke-peers; the dukes and finally all the noblemen that were so rich or influential that they could life very independently had Louis XIV not constrained them to live at Versailles. In the description I´ll make a disintinction between the top of the aristocracy; the so-called foreign princes, and the rest.

2.1 Foreign princes

French Aristocracy on 1 January 1700. The foreign princes
Arms*Claim to rank Family Persons
Arms of VendomeBourbon branch Ducs de Vendome Louis Joseph Duc de Vendôme (1654-1712)
Philippe de Vendome, le Grand Prieur (1655-1727)
Arms of LorraineLorraine and branchesDucs de Lorraine Léopold I sovereign duke of Lorraine (1679 - 1729)
Arms of LorraineSovereign of VaudémontPrinces de VaudémontCharles Henry Prince de Vaudemont; governor of Milan (Feb 1649 - Jan 1723)
Charles Thomas de Vaudemont; Imperial general (7 March 1670 - 12 May 1704)
Note that the Vaudemonts were a bastard branch that did not reflect this in its arms
Arms of Lorraine/GuiseLorraine-Guise Princes d'Elbeuf Henry de Guise-Lorraine Duc d'Elbeuf (1661-1748) head of the House of Lorraine in France
Emmanuel M. de Guise-Lorraine (1677-1763)
Princes de Harcourt Alphonse H.C. de Lorraine Prince de Harcourt (1648-1718)
Princes de Commercy Charles de Lorraine Prince de Commercy Imperial general (11 July 1661 - 15 Aug. 1702)
Comtes d'Armagnac Louis de Lorraine comte d'Armagnac (1641-1718)
Louis' brother Philippe Chevalier de Lorraine (1643-1702) lover of Philippe I d'Orléans
Louis' son Henry de Lorraine comte de Briône
Comtes de Marsan Louis' brother Charles de Lorraine Comte de Marsan (1648-1708)
Arms of Savoy CarignanSavoy branch Princes de Carignan Olympia Mancini (1638-1708) widow of Eugen of Savoy Carignan, residing in Brussel
Her son Louis Thomas Comte de Soissons (1657 - 14 Aug. 1702) Imperial officer
Her son Prince Eugen (1663-1736)
Duc de Savoy Nemours Marie de Nemours (1625-1702) Souveraine de Neufchatel, widow of Henry II de Savoy Nemours.
Arms of de la tour d'auvergneDuc Souverain de BouillonDe la Tour d'AuvergneGodefroy Maurice de la Tour d'Auvergne (1636-1721) married to Marie Anne Mancini
His son Emanuel T. a.k.a. Duc d'Albret (1668-1730) and Prince de Turenne from 1692
His son Henry Jule a.k.a. Chevalier de Bouillon (1672-1733)
His son Louis a.k.a. Comte d'Evreux (1679-1753) constructed the palais de l'Élysée
His brother Fredéric Maurice Comte d'Auvergne (1642-1707)
Arms of GrimaldiPrince Souverain de MonacoGrimaldy Louis I Grimaldy (1642-1701)
Antoine de Grimaldy a.k.a. Duc de Valentinois (1661-1731)
Arms of RohanMaison de Rohan Princes de Guéméné Charles III de Rohan Prince de Guéméné (1655-1727)
his son François Armand de Rohan prince de Montbazon (1682-1717) colonel of the Picardie regiment in 1702
his son Louis Henry Casimir comte de Rochefort (b. 1686)
his son Hercule Mériadec de Rohan (1688-1757)
Charles III's brother Jean B.A. de Rohan Prince de Montauban (1657-1704)
Princes de Rohan SoubiseFrançois de Rohan Prince de Soubise (1630-1712)
Hercule Mériadec de Rohan-Soubise (8 May 1669 - 1749)
Arms of prince of TarentePrince de Tarente De La TrémoilleCharles Belgique Hollande de la Trémoille (1655-1709)
Charles IV Louis Bretagne de la Trémoille (1683-1719) Prince de Tarente
Fréderic-Guillaume de la Trémoille (??) Prince de Talmont
Arms of Montmorency LuxembourgBranche of Luxembourg dukesMontmorency-Luxembourg Charles I Frédéric de Montmorency (1662-1726) Duc de Piney Luxembourg; prince d'Aigremont and Tingry
His brother Paul Sigismond de M. Luxembourg (1664-1731) comte de Chatillon; col. of the Piemont regiment 1693-1700
His brother Christian L. de M.L. a.k.a. le Chevalier de Luxembourg (1675-1746); col. of the Piemont regiment 1700-1705
Copy right notice for coat of arms
* Most coats of arms are diminished versions of GNU licensed work by Wikimedia user Odejea.
* The arms of Rohan, prince of Tarente and Luxembourg were made by Jimmy44
* Those of Grimaldi were made by Ale Vespa and is creative commons licensed.

The rank of 'foreign prince' is a somewhat difficult concept. It basically had to do with descending from a sovereign family, irrespective of the rank of this family. In this respect all legitimate descendants of a ruling house where 'princes' irrespective of whether they descended from a king, prince or duke.

The description of the 'foreign princes' clearifies this. The Vendomes were legitimized descendants of Henry IV. The Duke of Lorraine would not consider himself a part of the French kingdom, but was sovereign of a considerable territory connected to the ancient French kingdom. The Vaudémonts were sovereigns of a loan depending on Lorraine. All the Lorraine-Guise branches had a distant claim to the sovereignty of the Duchy of Lorraine.

The Savoy-Carignan had a distant claim to Savoy. The De la Tour d'Auvergne's were sovereign in Bouillon, just like the Grimaldy's were (are) in Monaco. The Rohan's could claim descent from the Dukes of Brittany. The De la Trémoille had a claim on Tarento. The Montmorency-Luxembourg's claimed descent from the Dukes of Luxembourg.

In contrast there were also nobles who held a loan in France that qualified them as a prince. However that might be, this qualification of 'prince of xyz' did not yield the rank of foreign prince.

2.2 The Peerage

The peerage was a somewhat larger group than the foreign princes, This part still has to be constructed

3 The aristocracy and the exploitation of the rural population

The French aristocracy primarily got along by being the lord (seigneur) of a lot of land. This had often been granted as a fief by the king, but could also be held by another title. The amount of money the seigneur got out of this land was then dependent on his exact rights on this land. If he was the full owner he could get those working the land to pay a rent based on the economic value of the land.

At the end of the dark ages most of the land had however been worked by bondsmen or serfs. These held medieval rights somewhere between ownership and rent and these inheritable rights were complicated by personal obligations they owed to their landlord. By 1700 the seigneurs had been successfull in revoking most of these bonds. This had brought about the personal freedom of the people that worked the lands of the seigneur, but destroyed their rights to the soil. As this was a very unequal trade the powerful aristocracy was probably more successful in abolishing servitude and so got a much higher return on their lands than the lesser nobility2.

The bondsmen were sometimes replaced by farmers paying a sensible rent in money, but there was a more thorough method of exploiting the French rural population. It was done by getting farmers to pay their rent in natura. These were the so called métayers, or those paying the rent with half (méta) their crop. Actually this was not half, but it was a much higher percentage than either the bondsman paid or the renter paying in money was prepared to pay. This rent often not only pertained to the soil, but also to the home of the farmer. It thus left the métayer with only one right towards his seugneur, and that was to join the homeless. It seems that somehow the big landlords of France succeeded in tranforming their fiefs into land rented out in this way3.

4 Other occupations of the aristocracy

The activities of the aristocracy were of course not limited to receiving the profits of their fiefs. By the preference of Louis XIV they were excluded from large parts of the administration, but some high offices were indeed reserved for the aristocracy. One of the highest of these was the governorship of a province. By 1700 the administrative powers joined to this function had been mostly replaced by the intendants, but it continued to be prestigious and profitable and to have military significance.

5 notes

1) It might be difficult to cite a direct observation on this subject. John Churchill's hesitations about accepting his nomination as duke do shed some light on it.
2) In fact a lot of farmers in the north of the Netherlands do neither own nor rent their land, but hold it under a medieval title and are called 'meijers'. This translates as métayeurs, but because their 'half' had been fixed at a certain price these can in fact be compared to French serfs. In a way they are still vassals of the owner, but it boils down to giving him about 50 Euros a year for land that is worth millions. They will of course resist any attempts to transform their title into a rental contract. Selling their title would then lead to an adjustment of the rent and make it useless for the new owner.
3) Französische Verfassungsgeschichte by Robert Holmann p. 493 has that the largest part of the land held by big landowners was farmed by farmers paying in natura.