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German Nobility 
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The following is an article by Michael Waas of the Westphalian Heraldry Society. This article was translated from an article in a German historical publication. The English website address for Westphalian Heraldry Society is:

It is often said that nobility was abolished in Germany after World War I. That is not the true. It is simply a misinterpretation of article 109 of the former German Weimar Constitution. Translated properly this article of the constitution reads as follows, ". . . all advantages and disadvantages by social class and by birth are abolished. Usage of styles and titles are prohibited. Noble titles become part of the name. Ennobling a person is no longer allowed anymore. . . ." This means that the usage of all princely, royal and imperial warranties, grants etc. were no allowed any longer. It was forbidden.

This law impacted the German aristocrats rather than commoners. The noble title became part of their last names, but all styles like “Geheimrat” (privy councilor) were abolished. For a noble, it doesn´t matter if he was addressed “Graf  Max von Adlerstein” or “Max Graf von Adlerstein.

In ancient times, noble titles were unknown in Germany.  A free man, who was a land-owner, was a "Herr" and was addressed in this way. The King and Emperor was likewise a “Herr” like the knight and land-owner. A Graf could be a free man and “Herr” if he had a free estate. If he only worked as a Stewart, he was perhaps a knight, but not a free man by old Germanic law, because he was an "employee."

Of course most Grafen were sons of Kings and Dukes or related to them. In that case, they were a "Herr" as well. This system was working until the crusades. “Herzog”  was a title of honour only and so the Leader of Bavaria for instance styled himself as Herr von Bayern. During that period the German hilly-billy´s and red-necks came into touch with the French way of life and culture. Everyone in France was holding a title and seemed to be more distinguished than merely a “Herr.” So some “Herr” requested now to be a "Freiherr" similar to "baro" and a  simple steward would address himself as "Graf" similar to "comes." The German King advanced to a Augustus, Caesar, Rex, Imperator and Basileus.  

By the way, the term “Adel” for the Nobility was not in common use in Germany until Martin Luther, who wrote a open letter addressed to the "deutschen Adel." Adel derives from germanic "adil" meaning something special or shining.  A warrior was entitled "Edelknecht" (ancient German adil-kneght). The word “kneght” which means servant in German  became the word knight in English language with a completely different meaning. The German word for a noble is "Edelmann" literally in English "gentleman." The meaning differs again.

Generally it is incorrect to translate German noble titles into foreign languages because the meaning is quite different. For instance the German title “Herzog” is translated as duke. Herzog is deriving from the old Germanic word “herizuogo,” that is, the man who is riding in front of the army or the man who is commander of a tribe.  A “Herzog” was elected for a war only, but this designation later became the title of a hereditary chieftain of a German tribe. The English Duke is in most cases is a titular-title only.

The English Marquis has nothing in common with the German Markgraf or Margrave. The German word Graf is the name for a steward in a special function. So a Holzgraf (ancient lower German:  Holtgreve) literally Wood-Grave is one who is responsible for forests. In the days of Charlemagne a “Graf” became the name for a tenant-in-chief. The name was connected with a special job. For instance a Burggraf (Bourghgrave) was the commander of a castle which belonged the German King or Roman Emperor. The Markgraf was the tenant and military inspector in chief for a land located near an unsafe boundary of Germany. It was not necessary that a Graf was of noble birth. He merely had to be able to read and write. Later Graf became a noble title---the owner of a Grafschaft (county) or Markgrafschaft (margraviate).    

The term "Fürst" (germanic furisto) was no title at all. It was a collective term for all German leaders, no matter whether they were Graf, Herzog or Freiherr. All who had a seat and vote in the Imperial Assembly were entitled Fürst. Later it became a term for Landgrafen, Markgrafen and Herzoege only. All others were named "Herr."

Until 1888 to be ennobled and become a Graf, it was necessary had to buy a large estate free from all other rights which became a titular-graviate. When the rich merchants Fugger became Graf and later Fürst, they bought an enormous area of land - the Grafschaften Glott, Babenhausen, Kirchberg, Weißenhorn, etc. No one could be become a Graf or Freiherr without being the owner of an estate. Later Fürst became a title for a noble in the rank between Graf and Herzog.

German nobility is split into two levels of status, (1) “Uradel” ( in Austria called Alter Adel) and (2) “Briefadel:”

To the “Uradel” (old nobility) belongs all those who can prove that their ancestors were free and knightly born before 1360. Some say before 1340.

"Briefadel" (literally noble by Letters Patent) are all others who became ennobled after 1360 by the issue of Letters Patent.

Most people believe that only the Emperor of the Holy Empire and German King was allowed to ennoble anyone. But in reality, he delegated this right to many persons and institutions as follows:

a. The Emperor and his descendants
b. The Chancellors of the Holy Empire, for instance the Archbishop of Cologne etc.
c. The Pfalzgrafen for instance the Pfalzgrafen bei Rhein
d. The Imperial administrators (Reichsverweser or Reichsvikare) traditional the Dukes of Bavaria and the Dukes of Saxony
e. The Hofpfalzgrafen (Comes Palatinus) not to be confused with the Pfalzgrafen mentioned above. Hofpfalzgrafen were the later Princes of Schwarzburg. The office of Hofpfalzgraf could also be granted to a university or town.

Imperial Chivalry

Generally Imperial Knights were a class of its own. They neither belonged to the nobility nor to the feudal chivalry (Landstaendige Ritterschaft).

The German King and in most cases the Emperor of the Holy Empire was elected by a special class of high and powerful nobles the Electors. Of course the Electors didn´t want to vote for a potential competitor, so they often voted for a weak Count or Duke who was a small landowner only.

When the Stauffer Friedrich (Barbarossa) , Duke of Suabia became German King he was lacking necessary military power. He had the idea to install a stewart or servant (named Imperial Knight) who was responsible to the King and Emperor only. Those knights were free from Imperial taxes and dues. They got a large fief to pay the costs for their service and last, but not least, they were independent rulers on their estates and dominions. On their dominions they had sovereign rights so the right to raise taxes, tolls, to mint, to ennoble or to knight someone, etc. Ennobling  was usually restricted to the rank of untitled nobility or to the rank of a baron. The Imperial Knightship formed the backbone of the Imperial army. Until the 17th century the Imperial Chivalry was the most powerful military organization in Germany.

In the 16th century the regalian rights were entered in the registry of deeds. Some of the rights are today totally useless like the right to knight somebody but some rights are most valuable today. For instance the right to brew or to distil brandy or the rights of hunting or fishing.

The Chivalric names do not become part of the name like a true noble identity. But it is allowed to use the names by courtesy. Sometimes these names are valuable too. For instance “Mueller von Bogenbach Real Estates” is sounding much better as “Mueller Real Estates”. With the exception of the Chivalric names all regalians are inextricably linked with the estate and couldn´t be sold separately .           

The Imperial Knights were tightly organized in “Schilden” (shields=lances), “Kantonen” (cantons) and “Ritterkreise” (districts).  The shield was the lowest form of organization. Some Imperial knights from a region joined together under the general command of  a “Hauptmann” (captain). The Hauptmann was elected and most of the time he was the wealthiest and most powerful knight. To indicate a corporate identity they were sharing a similar symbolic in their arms. For instance all members of the “Loewenschild” (lion´s shield) from Hesse were using symbols taken from the arms of the later Graves of Nassau. The knights Loew von Steinfurth for instance were using the billets of the Nassau arms. The Fauerbachs were using the Lion Or, but in an Azure field and so forth. Another famous shield was the “Georgenschild” (St . George´s  shield).

Chivalric shields joined together in “Kantons” commanded by an elected “Kantons-Hauptmann” and at last “Kantons” were incorporated  into  “Reichskreisen”  (imperial districts) commanded by “Bannerherrn” (Lord Bannerett). The imperial districts had seat and vote in the Imperial Diet.  
Napoleon I dissolved the Chivalry and their dominions were incorporated into the territories of  Napoleon´s allies. After 1848 the Imperial Chivalry were sometimes incorporated into the nobility or they could apply to become ennobled. Most didn´t because the fees were much to high. But nevertheless families who were former members of  the Imperial Chivalry are allowed to use the former styles and titles even though they were only titles of courtesy. The former Imperial Chivalry is recorded and the records are kept either by the German Association of Nobles or by Regional Associations of Knightship.   

Since the 17th century the title of a “Reichsritter” was bestowed upon some people. The keepers of  Imperial Insignias automatically received the honour to style themselves “Reichsritter. These knights should not to be confused with the genuine “Reichsritter” because it was a style only.

Feudal Chivalry

To the feudal chivalry belonged all the those who are commonly named knights. Most of them were stewart in service of a Landlord. Comparable with the British lord of the manor. The feudum they got wasn´t hereditary and fell back to the landlord when the knight passed away. Knights who didn´t own a feudum were called “Burgmannen.” The latter were the majority. These Burgmannen usually did not receive the accolade because they were lacking the money for the ceremony.

In the 15th century the feudal knights sank into insignificance because they didn´t own a personal and hereditary feudum.

Other Feudal Titles

The oldest  German feudal titles comes from Saxonian times. The Saxonian Dukes appointed warriors to “Meier” (Germanized from Latin Maior Domus). Those Meier were governors of a ducal tenure perhaps comparable with an English lord of the manor. All these families could be identified by their names. The beginning always is Meier followed by the preposition “zu” (at) than followed by the name of  a location. For instance  “Meier zu Verl.” In most cases those families never applied for an imperial recognition because their family tree is longer than any other family tree in Germany.  Most such families were owners of the tenure since the 700's.
Comparable with the Meier´s  is the feudal title “Schulte” (latinized scultetus). A Schulte was appointed by a landlord as a stewart for his tenures. He was stewart and sheriff in personal union. He also got a personal fief as a reward for his service. The fief was usually located in the center of the area of his responsibility.  The title Schulte comes from later times  ---13th century. Likewise the Meier´s a Schulte can be identified by his name. A typical  name is “Schulte zu Buecke” for instance or “Schulte zum Loh.” Sometimes it was an hyphenated name like "Schulte-Lendringsen."

Like the Meiers most bearers of these titles never applied to become ennobled although they sometimes were wealthier than a Baron or else.

In Westphalia, Northern Germany and the Lower Rhine the feudal title for stewart was Drost or Droste. Sometimes these titles became part of a noble name like “Freiherr von Droste-Huelshoff.

Burggraf (Bourgh-Grave) was also a feudal title. A bourgh-grave was commander of a fortified place or castle and a stewart and sheriff in personal union. A bourgh-grave also could be the commander of an Imperial Bourgh-Graviate. In that case he was elected by the other Imperial Knights.

Schenk”, “Kellner”, “Rentmeister” are German dialect-words which also were often used for the  above mentioned titles and styles.

The bearers of these feudal titles had one thing in common, they had to be born free and had to be from knightly descent.

The list below shows the Prussian conventions published 1900, they are useful, but different from those in Austria or Bavaria:

S. K. M. or H. I .H
Seine Kaiserliche Majestaet
His Imperial Highness
Kaiser und Kaiserin
Emperor and Empress
S. M.  or  H. M.
Seine Majestaet
His Majesty
Koenig und Koenigin
Kings and Queens
King´s/Queen´s mother if granted
The Grandduke of Hesse was also entitled to use the style.
S. K. H. or H.R.H.
Seine Koenigliche Hoheit
His Royal Highness
Princes (Royal Blood)
Granddukes,  The Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Heads of electoral or ducal Houses
S.H. or  H.H.
Seine Hoheit
His Highness
Princes and Dukes
S.D. or  H.S.H.
Seine Durchlaucht
His Serene Highness
S.E. or H.ILL.H.
Seine Erlaucht
His Illustrious Highness
Mediatized Princes and Counts
The style has to be recognized or granted
S.H.G. or H.D.G.
Seine Herzogliche  Gnaden
His Ducal Grace
Titular-Dukes of
lower nobility
S.F.H. or H.P.G.

S.G. or H.G.
Seine Fuerstliche Gnaden
His Princly Grace

Seine Gnaden
His Grace
Titular-Princes of
lower nobility


Style has to be granted

Counts, Barons of
High and Wellborn
Ritter Hoher Orden
Knights of High Orders (Schwarzer Adlerorden or so)
military ranks below General but above Major were also entitled to use the style
For members of higher social classes
Also for military ranks above 2nd  Lieutenant but below Major  
S.E. or H.E.
Seine Exzellenz
His Excellency
Higher Nobility of the former Holy Empire

Lower nobility holding high military ranks or offices
Special Cases:

Occassionally a particular style was created and became new or varied in time. For instance, the King of Bavaria was styled “Allerdurchlauchtigster,Serenissimus or Most Serene.  

Hereditary princes of some immediate principalities/dukedoms held the primogeniture title “Prinzlicher Graf” literally Princely Count with the style “Erlaucht.

Bearer of titular-titles --- titles without ancient terrritories as opposed to sovereign titles belonged to the lower nobility and were promoted/elevated to Duke. For example: Fuerst Otto v. Bismarck, Herzog von Lauenburg.  

Honorary titles were for life only and were usually granted for extraordinary merits. For example:       
Graf Leberecht von Blücher, Fuerst von Wahlstatt. The title Fuerst v. Putbus was a honorary title too. The holder was a Freiherr who inherited a titular Principality.

Ritter” and “Edler” are not noble titles. They are honorary awarded styles. They were awarded in Austria and Bavaria only. Often, these style were not accepted nor recognized in other German countries.  

Jonkher/Junker is a honorary style for the untitled nobility.  In the Netherlands, the style had to be recognized by the “Hoge Raad van Adel.” This institution is comparable with the Lyons Court in Scotland or with the office of the Earl-Marshal in England.   

It is true that Herzog, Landgraf and Markgraf are equal by rank, but Markgraf was more prestigious. That is why some German nobles "adopted" the title although they never ruled a Mark. An example of this is the Markgraf von Bayreuth. To distinguish the territory of such a self-styled Markgraf, it was called Markgrafentum (Margravedom) instead of Markgrafschaft (Margraviate)!

The German Landgraf (comes provincialis) was installed by the Emperor as a counterbalance to the tribal Dukes who became too mighty in the 11th century. In the beginning it was an officeholder (always a powerful noble and large landowner) who was appointed by the Emperor. These Landgraf got a large fief beyond all tribal bounds. In opposite to the margraviates the landgraviates were located in the midlands. So the Landgraviate Thuringa for instance included Thuringa, parts of Saxony and Hesse. By rank, a Landgraf was equal to a Herzog and higher than a titular Herzog.
Other articles in this section:

We encourage you to read and enjoy the articles that follow, which are informative and can deepen one's understanding of the whys and wherefores as well as the true and permanent rights of royalty, nobility and chivalry. The following articles are considered to be especially important and valuable:
(1) "IDEALS"
(4) "PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS: The Future of Nobility and Chivalry"
(4) "DEPOSED SOVEREIGNTY AND ROYALTY: how to preserve it and how to lose it"

Article #1: "Dynastic Law" by Stephen P. Kerr, LL.M., JD

Article #2: "German Nobility" by Michael Waas

Article #3: "Nobiliary Law and Succession" by Jan-Olov von Wowern

Article #4: "Royal and Noble Ranks, Styles and Addresses"

Article #5: "HM Juan Carlos I: The King who Championed Democracy"

Article #6: "Genealogy"

Article #7: "Heraldry"

Article #8: "Chivalry and Modern Times" by D. Edward Goff

Article #9: "Demoralised Georgia may renewed itself by restoring its monarchy"

Article #10: "The Royal Line of Kings & True Successors of the Kingdom of Georgia"

Article #11: "A Statement Issued by the Chancellery of the Royal House of Georgia"

Article #12: "Some Inaccuracies on the Website of Prince David Bagrationi"

Article #13: "The King and the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara"

Article #14: "His Majesty, the King of Rwanda"

Article #15: "Monarchy Efforts in Serbia"

Article #16: "Sources of Corruption in Government: The Need for Checks and Balances, Part One"

Article #17: "Sources of Corruption in Government: The Need for Checks and Balances, Part Two"

Article #18: "Virtue, Greatness and Government"  

Article #19: "The Model Constitution"

Article #20: "The Return of Royalty to Indonesia" by Gerry van Klinken & Donald P. Tick

Article #21: "Sovereignty in the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires"

Article #22: "The Claim of Sovereignty of the Self-Styled Abbey-Principality of San Luigi"

Article #23: "The Wacky World of the so-called Abbey-Principality of San Luigi"

Article #24: "First Defamation Web Page of the Self-Styled Abbey-Principality of San Luigi"

Article #25: "The Second Defamation Web Page of the Self-Styled Abbey-Principality of San Luigi"

Article #26: "The Third Defamation Web Page of the Self-Styled Abbey-Principality of San Luigi"

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