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Summary Article: nobility from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Ranks of society who originally enjoyed certain hereditary privileges. Their wealth was mainly derived from land. In many societies until the 20th century, they provided the elite personnel of government and the military. In the UK members of the peerage sit in the House of Lords.

The term ‘nobility’ is used in two senses. The general sense in Europe is that in which knights, baronets, and younger children of peers are included. In the UK, nobility in a restricted sense is applied only to peers and their wives (and sometimes their children).

Throughout Europe, the proof of nobility (also termed ‘gentility’) is lawful possession of armorial bearings, or paternal descent from an ancestor whom the crown has either ennobled by such a grant or recognized as already noble. In England Henry V laid down that arms are ‘tokens of nobility’. In Scotland non-nobles are prohibited by statute from bearing arms, but may be ennobled by grants.

Nobility has been regarded as a sign of biological or even racial superiority; as a desirable political arrangement; or as a reward for services rendered.

Rome The early Roman patriciate comprised those believed to be descended from Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Later, when it was shorn of its political privileges, the patriciate retained its spiritual or religious significance, since only the members of a clan, or gens, could participate in the sacred rites proper to that gens, and because from very early in the history of Rome certain offices – for example, that of flamen – always went to a patrician.

Venice The hereditary nobility of the republic of Venice sprang from a commercial plutocracy and gradually usurped and retained all the political power in the republic.

Britain The English nobility of the Norman Conquest and the Middle Ages was essentially feudal and military, and based on the foundations of landed property. Like that of the feudal nobility of the Normans and Germans, its origins lie in the personal relationship between lord and vassal, and in the system of commendation by which the lord, in return for the allegiance and personal services (generally military) of his vassal, awarded him land and guaranteed a reciprocal protection.

The English baronial nobility differed in important respects from the nobility of the rest of Europe. Whereas in the former one member only (the eldest son or next heir) of a family is noble in the sense of being a member of the peerage and a hereditary counsellor, in the latter the whole kin of certain families enjoyed political privileges from the fact of descent from an oligarchic aristocracy, and were therefore accounted noble.

The modern nobility of England resembles the old feudal nobility in no other respect than in the fact that it may possess landed estates; for the rest it consists of a heterogeneous body of peers, some with patents entitling them to sit in the House of Lords and some without, and baronets and knights, the great majority of whom possess titles of recent creation, awarded for political or other public services. Only a few of the existing English peerages go back before the time of William Pitt the Younger (twice prime minister between 1783 and 1806), who himself advised the creation of more than 100.

In England, emphasis has been laid on lineal descent joined to wealth, and intense training in the public schools. In Scotland and elsewhere in Europe less importance has been attached to environmental factors and more to ‘proof of nobility’ (16 quarterings; that is, 16 noble great-great-grandparents, or 8 noble great-grandparents) which the individual should be able to display. In other words, the continental nobility tried to maintain itself as a privileged caste, a fact that brought it into direct conflict with the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The English system has been to maintain the peers and their immediate children as a high nobility and to allow their junior descendants to merge into the middle class. The old Scottish system was also to sink the junior members of its nobility into the mass of the people; and even the poorest were encouraged to retain their ethnic pride and sense of kinship to the clan chieftain; titles were regarded as reflecting credit not merely on the holder, but also on the whole clan.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved.

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