Notes on the French Peerage
These notes describe the French peerage (pairie) from its origins to the 19th century. The best source for the peerage from the 16th c. to 1790 is Christophe Levantal: Les ducs et pairs et duchés-pairies laïques à l'époque moderne, Paris 1996.
For illustrations of the arms of French peers see Arnauds Bunel's page on duchies and peerages. Modern-day descendants can be tracked (with appropriate caution) using Daniel de Rauglaudre's databases.
The French peerage went through different periods, and its nature changed profoundly. The original twelve peers, which arose at some time in the 12th century, were the first vassals of the king of France and supporters of his throne. A second phase followed the extinction of most of the original lay peerages: the peerage became an honor by and large reserved for princes of the blood and some foreign princes. The third phase opened in 1519, with the first grant to a French non-royal. Until the Revolution of 1789, the peerage became a mixture of princes of the blood as before, and non-royal noblemen, all dukes, distinguished by their high birth or their service of the state (as ministers or generals). The abolition of feudalism and titles in 1789/90 eliminated the peerage. In 1814, the fourth phase began when the restored monarchy recreated a peerage on a modern basis, copied from the British House of Lords. All those who had been peers before 1789 (or their heirs) were included in this new peerage, which now included titles ranging from baron to duke, and not based on land or estates. This peerage ceased to be hereditary in 1831 and, the Upper House which it staffed having disappeared in 1848, the peerage slowly died out.
The concept of peerage was created in the 12th c., by Louis VII (1137-80), who decided to elevate some of his vassals, both clerics and lay, above all others. The peerage was a dignity attached to a specific fief (and therefore title), and was transmitted the same way the fief is transmitted. The ecclesiastical peerages were attached to the see. Peers played a role in the liturgy of the coronation (or rather consecration, "sacre") of the kings of France, symbolically upholding his crown. Each peer played also a specific role (see infra).
Coronation of Charles V in 1364 (France, Bibliothèque Nationale). Notice the spiritual peers to the right and the lay peers to the left. Each wears a coat of arms for identification: to the left, Flanders, Étampes, Toulouse; to the right Anjou (holding the sword), Châlons, Beauvais.
Coronation of Jeanne de Bourbon, wife of Charles V, in 1364 (France, Bibliothèque Nationale). To the left, Bourgogne and Bourbon; to the right, Châlons, Beauvais.
The original peers (pairies anciennes) were 12 in total, 6 ecclesiastical or spiritual and 6 lay or temporal. They were, in order of precedence and with their function at the coronation ceremony:
13th century miniature depicting the coronation
of the French king with the spiritual peers to the left and the temporal
peers to the right (from an exhibit at the Library
of Congress). The archbishop of Reims is applying the Holy Oil taken
from the Ampula onto the forehead of the king, using a scapula. The unction,
rather than the coronation, was the defining moment of the ceremony.
There are more pictures
There are more pictures of coronations.
The archbishop of Reims was the one who crowned French kings, and all the other bishops except Langres were in his archdiocese.
The privileges of the peers were actually not that important, aside from precedence. Judicial matters pertaining to them (and to the fiefs to which peerage was attached) were solely under the jurisdiction of the court of peers, which later was incorporated into the Parliament of Paris.
The first coronation with peers playing their parts took place in 1179, when Philippe II Auguste was crowned while his father was still alive. On that occasion, two sons of the king of England took part (Henry, duc de Normandy, who died in 1183, and Richard Lionheart, as duc de Aquitaine). [Note: there is some doubt expressed on the authenticity of the document that describes this coronation. The earliest certain mention of the peers is 1216, and the first full listing of the twelve peers is dated 1275.]
Beginning in 1297 with Artois, Anjou and Bretagne, the king created new peerages for princes of the blood who held an apanage (by 1328, all apanagists were peers). The creation took the form of letters patent, which specified the fief to which the peerage was attached, and the conditions under which the fief could be transmitted. The first peerage to be restricted to males was Poitou in 1314. Many later peerages were "male" (as opposed to "female" or inheritable by females), but not all. In medieval times, women who inherited peerages were considered peers, and took place and rank as peers, including in the court of peers. In modern times, women peers did not take seat in Parlement as men peers did, but otherwise enjoed the same honors and privileges. The letters patent creating the duchy-peerage of Randan for Anne de La Rochefoucauld-Randan in 1661 specify: "pour être dorénavant et à toujours possedé et en jouir par [elle] aux honneurs, autorités, rang, séance, prérogatives, prééminences, franchises, libertés et autres immunités appartenant audit titre et dignité [...] tout ainsi que jouissent les autres ducs et pairs du royaume, même ainsi que les possèdent les duchesses et pairs qui ont obtenu cette grâce".
Until the 1420s, creations of peerages were exclusively in favor of princes of the blood, with a few occasional foreigners. Charles VII created a few peerages for foreigners, Scotsmen who had helped him fight the English, but peerages for non-royals remained very rare. Also, by far most new creations were not baronnies and counties (80% in the 14th c., 93% in the 15th c.), as opposed to duchies.
After the 16th century the new peerages are always duchies (the medieval county-peerages having all died out, or being held by royal princes), and the peerages for non-royals are usually (but not always) male. At the coronation ceremonies, the princes of the blood were called upon to play the roles of the original 6 lay peers, and non-royals would complement when necessary. This tradition contiuned to the Revolution. Contrary to England, actors were never used to play the parts of the peers (at the coronation of George III in 1760, the actors playing the French peers behaved in an unseemly fashion; the claim to the title of king of France was dropped in 1801).
The Parlement actively used its right to refuse registration. Out of 177 letters patent issued from 1519 to 1790, 112 were registered within a year, 26 registered later, and 39 were never registered. The bulk of the letters never registered (30) were issued during the political difficulties of the Fronde in the 1650s. This was also a period of unusually high rate of creation: there had been 84 creations or confirmations from 1519 to 1639, and there were 40 from 1640 to 1660. In 1663, Louis XIV held a "lit de justice" to force through registration of 14 peerages granted during his minority to supporters of the Crown against the Fronde. There were 5 unregistered letters during the rest of Louis XIV's reign (Duras 1668, Le Lude 1675, Nivernais 1676, Roquelaure 1683, Aubigny 1684) and 1 under Louis XV (Taillebourg 1749). Lack of registration did not mean parliamentary opposition: in the Taillebourg case, the grantee died without heirs before registration could take place. The rejection of the Aubigny peerage (which was finally registered in 1787) was based on the terms of the grant.
The letters patent of creation of a peerage enumerated the estates that formed the new duchy. Either the basis for the new peerage already existed, previously created as a simple duchy (for example Harcourt, created a duchy in 1700, was made a peerage in 1709), a marquisate (e.g., Louvois created a marquesate in 1656, made a duchy peerage in 1777), a county, a viscounty, a baronny or even a simple lordship (seigneurie de Lesdiguieres made a duchy-peerage in 1611). Otherwise, if the basis was insufficient, a collection of various estates were collected and formed the new duchy. For example, the duchy-peerage of Mortemart, created in 1650, comprised the marquesate of Mortemart, the estates, seigneuries and parishes of Montrol, Nouic, Blond, Vaulry, Breuilaufa, Le Fraisse, Javerda, the barony of Saint-Victurnien and the castellany of Oradour-sur-Glane, the estates, baronies and castellanies of Lussac, Verrières and Dienné. Estates could be later added to the duchy-peerage: in the case of Mortemart, the estates of Availles, Serres, Abzac, Le Bouchet, Migné and Dasde were added by letters patent of March 1759. Conversely, estates could be removed from the duchy-peerage, with royal authorization. The county of Penthièvre in Brittany comprised mainly the lands of Lamballe, Moncontour, Guingamp, Membréac and Bourbréac; it included the county of Plorhan, as well as La Rochesuart, the island of Bréac, the castellanies of Belle-Isle and Beaufort d'Ahouet, the Pontneuf, the ports of Coesnon and Arguenon, and other lands. The county was made a duchy-peerage in 1569. In 1657, the owners of the peerage sold Lamballe, Moncontour, Guingamp, Membréac and Bourbréac to the baron d'Oulmes for 2.4m livres, but obtained letters patent of October 1658 confirming that the peerage had "survived" this mutilation and the remaining lands prvided "a large income sufficient and able to maintain the names, titles and dignities of duchy and peerage". Later, in 1666, the estates were reunited with the peerage, but the letters patent restricted henceforth succession in male line.
It happened that a new name might be given to the collection of estates. For examples, in 1714 the baronny of Frontenay-l'Abatu was created a duchy-peerage, and at the same time its name changed to Rohan-Rohan (there was already a duchy-peerage of Rohan, created in 1648 for the daughter of the last member of the senior line of Rohan and her husband Rohan-Chabot; the duchy of Rohan-Rohan was created for the head of a junior line, the Rohan-Soubise). Sometimes the change in name took place later, as when the duchy of Montmorency created in 1633 had its name changed to Enghien in September 1689. Then, in October 1689, the simple duchy of Beaufort, created in 1688, had its name changed to Montmorency.
Upon extinction of the peerage, the estates which had formed it were to revert to the Crown, by the terms of the Edicts of July 1566 and March 1582. In fact, every single letters patent of creation of a peerage contained a waiver (the only exception until 1789 being the duchy-peerage of Châteauroux in 1743). Thus, upon extinction of the peerage, the estates returned to their prior rank and were inherited according to the prevailing laws and customs.
Estates held in peerage of the king became immediate fiefs of the Crown (relevant de la Grosse Tour du Louvre), no matter what their previous status was. One exception occurred with the peerage of Aiguillon, which an arrêt of 1604 maintained as a fief of the county of Agénois (held at the time by the king's sister) which was its status prior to becoming a peerage.
The King was free to alter the remainder at any time: Nemours, created in 1528 as a "female peerage" was made male in 1643. Conversely, La Rochefoucauld created as male in 1622 was made female in 1732. Sometimes, a peerage was "extended" and presumed to have passed on from one person to an unrelated person as if the successor had inherited from the predecessor accordign to the original rules. Thus, in 1695 the county of Eu passed from the duchess of Montpensier to the duc de Maine, to whom she had given it, and the seniority of the peerage was unchanged. Kings nevertheless made such changes as special favors, and in the 17th century they were eager to prevent peerages from continuing indefinitely, and often took advantage of an opportunity to alter the remainder (cf. the example of Penthievre above). The case of the duchy of Piney highlighted the problem with female succession, albeit in the realm of precedence.
In May 1711, an edict modified the rules of transmission for all peerages: the rule was henceforth presumed to be transmission in male descent from the first grantee, unless transmission by females was explicitly specified (article 4); in the latter case, a woman could transmit the peerage only if she was descended in male line from the first grantee, if her marriage was approved by the king, and if letters patent were issued confirming the transfer (article 5). This edict applied to peerages, and to duchies which were not peerages as well (article 10); it was obviously not retroactive.
This almost happened in 1698, when the 4th duc de Brissac, direct descendant of the 1st duke, died without children and left all his estates to his sister; his first cousin Artus Timoleon Louis de Cosse was authorized to exercise a retrait lignager by Parlement in 1700 and he became 5th duke. The duke established in 1702 a substitution perpétuelle or perpetual entail, which essentially restricted the succession to the fief itself so that it followed the succession to the peerage.
The Edict of 1711 on the peerages, article 7, formally specified the option of retrait lignager for the heir male of the original grantee, or if he refuses his male successors, against payment within 6 months of the value of the peerage (estimated at 25 times income). It also authorized the formation of perpetual entails on the seat of the peerage as well as part of its estates up to 15,000 livres' worth of income (the amount was increased to 30,000 livres in 1788 to adjust for inflation). The ability to create perpetual entails was an important exception to the Edict of Moulins of 1566 which prohibited entails of more than four degrees of succession. Thus, although the Edict did not create a comprehensive status for estates held in peerage, it gave families the means to avoid unwanted extinctions.
There was another case, in 1732 for the duchy of Sully; the heir of the lands was the closest male heir counting by degrees, whereas the heir of the peerage was the new heir male of the first grantee, not the same person. A retrait lignager was used again.
One case illustrates how retrait lignager was optional. Charles François Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg, duc-pair de Piney, duc de Montmorency, died in 1764, leaving only a grand-daughter Anne who married in 1767 a distant cousin, Anne Léon de Montmorency-Fosseux. The peerage of Piney was restricted to male succession, and the closest male heir of the original grantee was the late duke's first cousin Charles Paul Sigismond de Montmorency-Luxembourg, duc de Bouteville, but he declined to withdraw the duchy of Piney; his son Charles Anne Sigismond, duc d'Olonne declined in 1767, and the latter's son Anne Charles Sigismond, marquis de Royan exercised the retrait lignager and became duc-pair de Piney in 1769.
The case of the duchy of Guise illustrates how different rules might govern the fief and the peerage. The county of Guise was made a duchy by letters patent of January 1528, with remainder to the heirs male and female, and a peerage by the same letters, with remainder to heirs male; in default of heirs male, the duchy continued to exist but lost the rank of peerage. Essentially, the duchy could be transmitted by females in default of males, but the first time it was so transmitted, it ceased to be a peerage.
In 1675, François-Joseph de Lorraine, duc de Guise, died without heirs. The closest heir was the daughter of his grandfather, Marie de Lorraine (1615-88), who thus inherited the duchy of Guise (as well as the duchy-peerage of Joyeuse). But the duchy ceased to be a peerage. By an act of 1686 she left Guise and Joinville to Charles de Stainville, comte de Couvonges, with a remainder to the younger sons of the duke of Lorraine's younger sons and their heirs male. (She also left Joyeuse by an act of 1688 to Charles Francois de Lorraine, prince de Commercy.) The donation of 1686 was voided by the Parlement de Paris in 1689, and Anna Henrietta Julia of Bavaria, second daughter of the prince Palatine, distant cousin of the deceased, inherited Guise and Joinville. She happened to be married to the prince de Condé, and the duchy was raised to the peerage again for them and their descendants in 1704. Had the donation of 1686 been validated, the title would presumably have become extinct and Guise would have returned to its earlier status as a county (or even baronny, depending on what the terms of its creation as a county had been).
After 1630, and particularly in the first half of the 18th century (as much as eleven times in the 1720s), it was common for peers to resign their peerage to their heir presumptive. Between 1519 and 1790 about half of those peers who could at some point resign in favor of an heir did so. The first resignation was Joyeuse in 1590.
Resignation often took place on the occasion of the heir's marriage, at any rate through a notarized document, and could only be made in favor of the heir to the title. The resignation took place usually (but, strangely, not always) at the same time as a transfer of the underlying fief, either complete or only the "nue-propriété" (that is, ownership without enjoyment or "usufruit"). Levantal has found at least five examples of resignation following donation of the underlying by as much as 17 years (in 1696, the duc de Bouillon ceded the nue-propriété of Albret to his son, but only the usufruct and peerage in 1713), an inexplicable contradiction of the principle that the peerage was attached to the land.
The peer who wished to resign had to secure the approval of the king; there was no set procedure for this, and the king usually issued a brevet expressing approval and maintaining for the resigning duke the enjoyment of the "Honneurs du Louvre" (the first such brevet was issued in 1665). In 1740, Louis XV had decided to stop granting his consent to these resignations, but was apparently unable to stick to his decision (Mémoires du duc de Luynes, Jan 1740, 3:106). The peer who had resigned could not take his seat in Parlement any more. If the recipient of the donation died before the resigning peer without leaving any issue, the custom (not universally applied) was for the original peer to regain his peerage, as happened for La Valette in 1658, La Force in 1755. If he died leaving male issue, the peerage was simply passed on (La Trémoille in 1672, Rochechouart in 1688, Biron in 1736, Charost in 1739). If he died leaving female issue but a collateral heir for the peerage (brother or cousin), a retrait lignager could take place as described above. Oftentimes the resignation document itself contained clauses for these cases: Saint-Aignan in 1738, Brissac in 1756 specified reversion to the resigning duke in case of death of the recipient; Saint-Simon in 1727 specified reversion to a younger son of the recipient.
The custom was for the resigned peer to keep using his title, and for the new peer to be called "duc de" some other family fief. For example, the 3d duc de Gramont (d. 1720) who resigned his peerage to his son the comte de Guiche (d. 1725) in 1695; the son took the name of duc de Guiche. In 1713, the duc de Guiche decided to resigned his peerage to his son the comte de Louvigny (d. 1741), who took the name of duc de Louvigny. When the duc de Gramont died in 1720, his son became duc de Gramont and his grandson duc de Guiche. When the 4th duc de Gramont died in 1725, his son became duc de Gramont. Thus, between 1713 and 1720, there were three dukes from the same peerage, and one courtesy title, "duc de Guiche", that looked like a formal hereditary title of duke, although it was never formally created. The choice of the style given to the new duke was the king's, who sometimes decided himself. Mathieu Marais tells how, soon after the duc de Chàrost's resignation in favor of his son the marquis d'Ancenis in 1724, as the king was playing with the marquis, someone mentioned the latter, and the king replied: "I do not see him; I see only the duc de Béthune." And so the court learned the style of the new duke (Mathieu Marais: Journal de Paris, 2004; p. 759).
Why this custom? One possibility is to obviate the problems that arose from the different rules governing the dignity and the fief (see above). This is not very convincing, because, although there are examples of resignations to collateral heirs (Beauvilliers for his brother in 1706, Retz for his first cousin and future son-in-law in 1633), the vast majority of resignations took place between fathers and sons, where no such difficulty would arise.
I suspect that the custom grew in popularity in imitation of the greatest ducal families that held multiple peerages or titles, like Richelieu and Fronsac (both peerages); Noailles and Ayen (one peerage, the other not); Mazarin, La Meilleraye, Mayenne (two peerages, the last not). By 1787, the duc de Penthièvre held seven peerages (Penthièvre, Châteauvillain, Rambouillet, Gisors, Aumale, Eu, Amboise).
Holders of multiple peerages could donate one of them to a son (almost always the eldest, but sometimes a younger son), with prior approval by letters patent of the king; members of the royal family were quite free to do so, and members of the legitimated branches were given the privilege by the edict of 1711 (Levantal, p. 199, n250; p. 387). Thus, in such families, there was more than one duke. For holders of one peerage, the mechanism of resignation allowed to multiply dukes in the same way.
It worked, in the sense that modern-day genealogical references are sometimes very confused about these multiple titles. The Noailles family uses the title of duc d'Ayen for the eldest son, which is in conformity with historical reality. The Gramont family uses the title of duc de Guiche for its eldest son, as if it had a second title like the Noailles, but there never was a formal creation of duc de Guiche.
The ecclesiastical peers all ranked before the lay peers (although there was a dispute on this point in 1610). Lay peerages rank in order of reception of the first holder at the Parlement de Paris. (The letters of creation of the peerages of Joyeuse and Epernon in 1581 gave these peers rank immediately after the princes of the Blood, but these dispositions were voided in 1596.) In the 15th century, Bourgogne was recognized as the "dean of peers" in spite of being more recent than Anjou or Bretagne. But, starting in 1576, princes of the blood rank by their order in the lineage, whether or not they are peers, and independently of any peerage they might hold. The order of precedence was altered by Henri IV for his legitimized son César, duc de Vendôme, who was placed after princes of the blood and before peers, but this rank was changed under Louis XIII. Similarly, Louis XIV legitimized the duc de Maine and count of Toulouse, his sons by Mme de Montespan, and gave them rank and precedence before the peers (1711). In 1714 he went further and placed them in line of succession after the legitimate princes, but this was revoked after his death in 1717. From 1718 to 1723 the legitimized princes ranked as peers as of the date of creation of their peerage. (The duc du Maine (died 1736) and his son (died 1775) were count-peers of Eu; the comte de Toulouse (died 1737) and his son (died 1793 leaving only a daughter) were ducs of Penthièvre).
The lay peerages increased over time. There were 7 in 1297, 26 in 1400, 21 in 1505, 24 in 1588. By 1789, there were 43, of which 5 were held by princes of the blood (Orléans, Condé, Bourbon, Enghien, Conti), 1 by a legitimized prince (Penthièvre), and 37 by other peers, ranking from Uzès (created in 1572) to Aubigny (created in 1787). The same family could hold several peerages (the Orléans also had Chartres, Valois, Montpensier). The minimum age was 25. The peers were called "Monseigneur" and "Votre Grandeur" and were called by the king "mon cousin." They had a few other privileges such as entering the courtyards of royal castles in their carriages, etc.
The Honneurs du Louvre
Mathieu Marais (Journal, vol. 2, p. 402) tells the origin of the privilege called "honneurs du Louvre". In the 16th century the princes, princesses, and great officers of the crown were allowed to dismount or exit their carriage within the gates of the Louvre palace, while everyone else had to do so outside. Under Henri IV, three dukes were given the privilege to enter at night with their carriage inside the Louvre, because of their old age and infirmities: Bouillon, Epernon, and Sully. This privilege was gradually extended to all peers.
Precedence in Parlement: the Bonnet
Old Regime peers were entitled to a mantle, which was armoyé, that is, the outside of the mantle reproduced the arms (the outside of the mantle would be mostly invisible for the viewer, except where the mantle folds back around the arms). The inside was lined with ermine. Furthermore, a crimson velvet cap topped with a small gold ornament in the shape of a tassel is inserted inside the coronet (except for princes of the blood, who keep their usual coronet of fleurs-de-lys unencumbered). The coronet is placed atop the mantle.
It is said that the Rohan did not use a tassel on their velvet cap. It is also said that the La Rochefoucauld used a figure of Mélusine instead of a tassel, but I believe that to be a confusion with their crest, which was often placed in the French manner issuant from the ducal coronet.
Restoration peers (1814-48) also used a mantle, but the outside was simply azure fringed with gold.
Arms of Gabriel-Louis de Neufville, duc de Villeroy (1731-94):
Arms of Charles-Emmanuel de Crussol, duc d'Uzès (1707-62):
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Last modified: Oct 11, 2005