Napoleonic Nobility in the First French Empire

Sep 29, 2017 | Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Napoleonic Nobility in the First French Empire.

The Napoleonic Nobility is born with the French First Empire. The Imperial Decree of 18th of May of 1804 creates the office and Position of “An Emperor of the French”, and by the magic and alchemy of the law, Napoleon becomes Napoleon I.

But could an Emperor do without grand dignitaries, pages, squires and of a pomp and etiquette that only a Royal Court could give?

And on the Parisian scene, which only a few years back was dominated by the grandiose and sinister figure of Robespierre, the incorruptible, appeared, disciplined by the Senate Organic Consultation, alongside the new throne, the members of the imperial family, carrying the title of Prince of the French and the great dignities of the empire: the great elector, the arch-chancellor, the Secretary of State, the Arch-Treasurer, the Constable, The Grand Admiral, all nominated by the new sovereign.

A real act of plagiarism was committed against the already decadent and dying Holy Roman Empire, inspired by the young and genial Corsican adventurer. But if the greatest offices and dignities of the old Empire came from centuries of honour and glory, and were traditionally the private domain of illustrious families, those of the new triumphant French state, attributed to “new men”, looked like artificial islands in an empty sea: it was necessary then to surround the new court with a new aristocracy. A nobility was desperately needed.

On the other hand, if it was true that, as it was argued before the Senate by the supreme president, Bernard Germain de Lacepede, that “the great dignitaries offer the greatest brilliant services to the state, and therefore elevate the citizens to a more illustrious rank only to highlight even more the triumph of equality”. This could well justify the creation of a new nobility within a democratic context, able to defend the regime and protect the conquests of the revolution, obviously ensuring places and honours for the men of Brumaire, and also stimulating the emergence of new talent without contradicting the idea of ​​equality. Here, the problem was precisely the principle of equality and Napoleon had to overcome it gradually and with Prudence.

The Creation of a New Nobility

“An important issue that does not concern the people at all, but that greatly agitates governmental, military and administrative environments is the creation of a nobility. It is referred to as a very advanced project,” is reported by Joseph Fievee, a journalist, writer and secret agent, in a note to the emperor in February 1805.

A shining witness to the imperial epic, Fievee does not ignore that the empire was in expansion, an imperial court was being organized, and a project had been addressed to the government with the solid purpose and view of re-establishing the ancient social distinctions.

It is the case of the Duke of Levis, member of the constituent assembly in 1789, who emigrated at the beginning of the revolution and then returned to French after Brumaire, who writes a long memorandum where he proposes the foundation of an equestrian order “which shall include all the members of the Legion of Honour and all the ancient nobles who, in a determined period of time, will have to register with the office of the Herald of Arms of the Imperial Army.

The old Knight of Saint Louis, wounded in the battle of Fontenoy, will be welcomed by the Victors of Austerlitz, and the gaps between the two generations will be eliminated, as national gratitude does not differentiate among the descendants of those who helped save France in the battles of Denain and Marengo”. Those in office must also be allowed entry into the nobility: this admission must be associated with those attaining success and merit and following a commitment at all social levels, as this will be a safe way to stimulate a patriotic sense of emulation and to silence envy.

And the author goes on to say” that the good qualities of the nobility had been overlooked because of the arrogance of some gentleman. The good work of the great majority of the nobility as a caste had become at the time of the revolution an object of hatred by a multitude of bourgeois and wealthy countrymen desperate to ever be allowed entry into the noble class. In fact, for an unimaginable abuse under the last two sovereigns, finance, the least noble of professions, had become the only way to gain entry into the nobility, and the lucky speculators, gaining access to the secretaries of the king through despicable acts of bribery, received the awards that the Monarchs once granted only to the most valiant and valued servants.”

The Duke of Levis then proposes the implementation of another way to access nobility within the civil service: “it is not enough to reward the merit, it is also necessary to promote social mobility by enhancing the value of some properties. The duke suggests the transformation of the landholdings of at least three hundred hectares (about 600 acres) in Baronies, with the condition that the title should be extinguished at the time when, by sale or division, the property area becomes smaller than the one set by law”.

It still does not advocate the restoration of the title of Marquis “silhouetted both by us and abroad for the superficiality with which the government had allowed it to be used by too many adventurers, while in fact there were no more than a hundred marquisates in France.”

Then he concludes: “if you think of how many important services have been made to the state in order to obtain a decoration or a noble title, it should be well understood that among men the true love for glory is so rare as well as it is so common for decorations”. So, these are the proposals that Napoleon would not disapprove, and therefore announced the introduction of the nobility of the French First Empire.

Fievee points out: “You are noble in your own country every time you can consecrate yourself and have a commitment to the state without receiving any compensation …”; Then he recommends:

  1. Do not confuse the distinctions with the nobility: the nobility must be within the state, otherwise it does not exist; the distinctions depend on the whim of the ruler and the opinion, which in turn may be whimsical.
  2. Nobility should not be recognised if the candidate to enter the noble class cannot consecrate his life to the public service without asking for compensation; this does not exclude repayments, but reduces them without causing any deprivation.
  3. Not to see the freedom in the monarchy unless high-level officials have such a great wealth to be able to express opinions without being accused of being factious or partisan. Such nobility, wealth and freedom are consequential to each other and unite in the monarchical system and ideal. And yet in all this there is no aristocracy in the true sense of the term, since the aristocracy is since the first moment a nobility created to govern.

Jean Tulard, the great historian of the Napoleonic Epoch reconstructs the ideological climate in which the creation of the Napoleonic nobility is maturing; It deserves to be emphasized, however, that the “governmental, military and administrative” environments faced ideological opposition from public opinion, with which Napoleon had to deal with daily, which was particularly suspicious when it comes to the fact of touching the dogma of equality.

Joseph Fouche, the chameleon-like and powerful Minister of the Interior, always fully informed by his confidants of the mood of the populace, referred to this in his report of the 25th of June of 1806: “These days some people are discussing the various changes that His Majesty plans to realize shortly: Restoring a nobility whose members would be chosen among those who pay more taxes, erection in baronies of a certain number of great properties”. The report adds nothing else: from this synthetics it is evident to see a remarkable coldness, if not a sort of mute reproach.

A careful route for the Nobility

However, the dice was drawn and the emperor decided that it was time to create the new nobility of the empire.

Napoleon proceeded with more stages. At first he created in favour of members of his family and some high court dignitaries, some “great fiefdoms” whose territories were situated in the lands of the foreign countries conquered in Europe, outside France.

The Decrees of March 30, 1806 establish the legal statute of the imperial family (education, marriages, role of family council, emperor’s role, etc.) and twelve provinces were erected in Duchies described as “Grand Fiefdoms of the French Empire” , being: Dalmatia, Istria, Friuli, Cadore, Belluno, Conegliano, Treviso, Feltre, Bassano, Vicenza, Padua and Rovigo. Napoleon reserved for himself “the right to award and regulate the investiture of these feudal domains, inheritable by line of male primogeniture by the legitimate descendants of those who were ennobled and favoured in the original grant of nobility.”

This is the justification given by Chancellor Regis de Cambaceres to the Senate on March 31, 1806:” the Emperor created these states not only for his affection towards the Princes, but above all to consolidate the social order and its throne, establishing the foundation and base that allows the creation of centres of reference and support for the great French empire. “

In essence, what counts is the highest interest of the state: Napoleon wanted to create an imperial court and the pillars for the empire: the nobility must have this exclusive function and fulfil this role.

It seems interesting to note that Napoleon has not ruled anything predetermined in relation to any economic endowment or provision in favour of these duchies-grand fiefdoms of the empire (which makes the use of the term “fief” technically devoid of meaning and content) simply by saying that “whenever His Majesty finds it it convenient “, in order to reward the loyal services he received, or to petition a” useful emulation “or to contribute to the” splendour of the throne “, he may authorize the head of the family to subordinate his possessions” to form the endowment of a hereditary title of nobility which Napoleon would erect in his favour, reversible to his eldest son, born already or of future birth, and his descendants, always from male to male, in order of primogeniture. ” (Senate Consultation Decree of August 14, 1806).

On May 28, 1807, we have a further significant step: Napoleon nominates Marshal Francois Joseph Lefebvre to be granted a nobility title with the rank and denomination of “Duke of Gdansk”, a town he successfully besieged from March to May 1807. This new title created for the French Marshall is a honorary title in the sense that the new nobleman does not get any “fief”, neither in Gdansk nor anywhere else, being the honour awarded just as a simple “remembrance of the assault, analogous to the traditions of use of cognomens of the victorious generals of ancient Rome”. In fact, the title must appear so as not to create fractures between the men of the revolution to which Lefebvre belongs: the senate, guardian of the revolutionary orthodoxy, cannot oppose an honour granted to its members.

The step is decisive: the nobility meant as a state reward is not only found ideally convenient, but also socially useful, and therefore is inserted into the order and laws of the state. The process is reaching its final end.

On March 11, 1808, the Prince Chancellor of the Empire, Cambaceres, goes back to Napoleon’s Senate to present the statutes signed on March 1 by the Emperor concerning the creation and regulation of titles of nobility and landed entails.

The discourse is terribly clever: “the statutes I present to you and that His Majesty and King wanted to communicate should give way to the system created by the Senate on August 14, 1806. There is certainty about the benefits of this system, and if there were any doubts, in order to solve them, we would have to recourse to the experience of the centuries and the authority of one of our greatest public lawyers, who considered the existence and maintenance of hereditary distinctions as somehow part of the essence of the monarchy. The social relevance that this institution determines, the ranks that it introduces, the memories it transmits, are the food of honour: and this honour is at the same time the principle of government under which the strength of our national character has been developed. It is therefore urgent to fill this gap in our political organization. “

Once again nobility is honour, reward and distinction, always deserved within the framework of service to the state, and as the pillar and foundation of the throne.

And in fact: “These distinctions cannot ever be so pure, as titles of nobility will now serve to signal public appreciation for those who have come to shine for their admirable deeds and their devotion to the prince and the homeland. Europe, at all times a witness to our political convulsions, admires the resources of the genius that created this happy institutional outcome. His esteem welcomes the names of those to whom the benevolence of our august sovereign will give a new light and the opportunity to shine. “

All this must not be confused with the structure of the old nobility, as indeed the granting of new noble titles must be considered “the best way to remove the last roots of a tree that has now been eliminated by time “, all the more that “the new order of things does not raise any barriers among the citizens. The regulated distinctions that it introduces do not interfere with the rights that make all the French equal in the face of the law: on the contrary, they reconfirm these rights as they serve as the moral guides of the opinion that is often lost in the absence of distinctions based on reasons worthy of honour “. In essence “progress remains open to virtue and talent, the benefits that the (new order) will give to those able to prove merit will not harm the virtue yet to emerge, on the contrary it will be a reason to hope that they will stimulate a just and praiseworthy sense of emulation among the citizenship of the empire.”

The New Titled Class

As we can see, Cambaceres speaks in the senate about “titles,” “new Orders,” “distinctions,” but never uses the term nobility: yet another confirmation, even in the legal sense, of the rewarding function of the new system of honours.

And the system thus created is as follows:

a) The holders of the higher dignities of the state will receive the title of Prince and the qualification, address and style of Serene Highness. Their eldest sons are entitled to the title of Duke of the Empire, and then an entail with a guaranteed yearly rent of 200,000 francs will be established in their favour.

b) The ministers, senators, councillors of state, the presidents of the legislative bodies and the archbishops receive the title of Count, which can be made transmissible and hereditary by setting up an entail with an annuity of 30,000 francs.

c) The Presidents of the Electoral Constituencies of the Departments, in office for three sessions, the first Presidents and the General Prosecutors of the High court of law, court of appeal, court of Accounts, bishops, mayors of 37 “bonnes villes” who have been at least 10 years in office, and the members of the electoral college who participated in three sessions obtain the title of Baron, which can become hereditary, justifying an annuity of 15,000 francs, of which at least one third is to be allocated to the title’s endowment.

d) The Knights of the Legion of Honour for three generations, and those who will receive specific letters patent from the Emperor to reward services rendered to the state, obtain the title of Knight of the Empire, which can become transmissible justifying a net income of at least 3,000 francs per year. It should also be said that by decree of March 3, 1810, the transfer of the title was conditioned to the establishment of the annuity, and also to a specific resolution or confirmation of the Council of the Seal.

It is important to note that, in these lists, the prefects of police, the generals and the officers of the armed forces are absent: Napoleon reserves himself with total exclusivity the right to grant them the titles “which he considers appropriate” according to the services rendered.

Some firm points emerge that should be emphasized:

  1. First, there is no mention of “ennoblements or concessions of nobility” granted by the emperor, but only of “distribution of rewards” in the form of “Honorary titles”.
  2. Secondly, “the function( meaning service to the state), which confers the title, is not at least in principle the goodwill or the will of the emperor”, not by chance, even though he reserves the right to grant with exclusivity titles to General, prefects, civilian and military personnel for services rendered to the Empire.
  3. Napoleonic Titles of nobility are of a personal nature, not familiar or hereditary, but they can become part of the family’s patrimony if the investee asks and gets permission to set up an entail for the title. Napoleon in fact feared a possible financial catastrophe of the new Nobility, similar to the one that overwhelmed the old aristocracy: hence the need for the new nobleman to transmit the title to their descendants only if he could guarantee a solid financial rent from his entail.

To this effect, Article 896 of the Italian Civil Code, which, in principle, prohibited testamentary provisions for substitution and which required the heir or donor to “keep and make a third” from the total patrimonial wealth of his estate.

A second paragraph is thus introduced, according to which “however, the financial patrimony that constitutes the endowment of a hereditary title erected by the Emperor in favour of a prince or the son of a member of his family may be passed on by inheritance, as laid down in The Imperial Act of March 30, 1806, and the Senate’s Consultation of the Next August 14th.”

With the Decree of March 1, 1808, the rules of constitution, establishment and incorporation of the entails for the Napoleonic nobility were thus defined, which hence became “a privileged endowment granted by the public authority” and not a simple private provision.

Still it may seem interesting to remember that, in fact, Napoleon often renewed through letters patent of succession, titles of nobility in favour of the children of soldiers who had died in combat and who had not constituted or set up the proper and legally necessary entail with the pertinent financial endowments for the title, and that the transfer of Napoleonic Titles of Nobility was also commonly allowed to the adoptive son, but only with the permission of the Emperor. This practice was abandoned and forbidden soon.

On the other hand, everything conforms to the “new order of things”: the Napoleonic nobility was a nobility of functions and as The Council of the Seal of Titles underlined in the session of 19 April 1813, the emperor had founded a “titled class ” and not “an order of nobility”.

This rupture with the principle of equality, the cardinal point of the revolution, could only be tolerated if it was intended to reward brilliant services to the French State.

However, “the Spanish War, a powerful and visible sign and warning of Napoleon’s change of approach regarding the 1789 heritage and views, had not yet started, but when Napoleon began to play the monarch and his bon plaisir replaced the merit, the Napoleonic nobility soon becomes unpopular “(Tulard).

However Napoleon had become “two at the same time”, since he added for himself the title of King of Italy to his title of Emperor of the French. Thus, with the seventh constitutional statute of the kingdom, promulgated in Milano on September 4, 1808, the system of Napoleonic nobility was also introduced in Italy.

The discipline and rules were identical to the one already in force in the empire, including the necessity of the institution of the Entail to be able to inherit the titles and make them transmissible and hereditary.

It may be interesting to recall the Italian cities whose Majors, after ten years of exercise in office, were entitled to the title of Baron namely Milan, Venice, Bologna, Verona, Brescia, Modena, Reggio, Mantua, Ferrara, Padua, Udine, Ancona, Macerata, Ravenna, Rimini, Cesena, Cremona, Novara, Vicenza, Bergamo, Faenza, and Forli.

Similar statutes were emanating from the sovereigns of the other satellite kingdoms, namely Naples, Westphalia, Holland and Spain, a country that instead of accepting the Napoleonic rules, resisted them with unprecedented fury.

What was the influence and diffusion of the Napoleonic nobility?

This very important question is answered by the research on decrees and letters patent of nobility issued in the empire by Napoleon, which created 3263 new nobles according to Tulard. The ratio of new creations of nobility is out of proportion if one analyses the census statistics: “a nobleman out of ten thousand citizens in 1814”, compared to “seven out of ten thousand in 1789 “; But Napoleon reigned for about eleven years while the monarchy in France had existed for more than 900 years.

In Italy alone there were 2 dukes, 104 counts, 93 Barons and 2 knights of the kingdom, as well as some others, either civilians or military men, who only obtained the decree of ennoblement.

The Napoleonic Sunset begins in Leipzig, the last days of fight and glory are at Waterloo. Napoleon’s fall also ends the nobility he created. How will history judge this “Titled Class”?

The conclusions written by Jean Tulard, who has thoroughly and passionately studied this topic, seem unmistakable: “The nobility of the empire appears ultimately as a vast institutional framework, a collection of men coming from different backgrounds, from different occupations, but to whom an identical mission was entrusted: the defence of the fourth dynasty and whose recruitment was based not on criteria of class (euphemistic as this may be), but on the quality of the services rendered or to be offered to the State.

In 1814, the nobility of the empire lost its sense of being. After that it merges, not without difficulty, with the aristocracy of the “Ancien Regime” in a third nobility called to know yet other vicissitudes.


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