In the centuries since the medieval period, when the aristocratic structures began to emerge, the various noble families have had a chequered history. Some great lineages dominated their times and maintained their power and influence for generations, only to disappear as the hereditary candidates died out. Other aristocratic families stayed a steady course during the turbulent times and managed to hold onto their noble stature, gracing their youngest descendants with nobility and titles that endure to modern times. And yet other noble families emerged towards the later years of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, providing the world with its most modern aristocratic lines.
The wealth, power and influence of the aristocracy over the ages have played a starring role in the evolution of the modern world, with its many members helping to shape the history and social landscapes of their times. The mix of fortunes and dramas of this elite and exclusive group also makes for a fascinating history in its own right.
Here are just a few of the many noble families of the world that left a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of their contemporaries and secured a permanent place in the history books.
The Borgias are one of the Renaissance period's most legendary noble families, though their legacy has been subject to much scandal and dubious notoriety than many of the discreet nobles of the Middle Ages and beyond.
The family originated in the Kingdom of Aragon, what is now modern Spain, but rose to their infamous prominence as ambitious Italian nobles. Their increasing wealth and influence resulted in attaining one of the ultimate positions of power at the time - the head of the papacy; Pope of the powerful Catholic Church.
According to the various histories of the family, their exploits ranged from nepotism of the highest order (not one but two family members were appointed to the position of Pope) to poisonings, corruption and murder. The infamous Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo de Borja, was widely regarded as one of the most corrupt popes of all time, though there is much debate about how much of the legend is historically factual and how much is myth and hearsay. However, his infamous womanising was deemed to be common knowledge and fathering nine children was certainly a scandal for a pope who is usually subject to a vow of celibacy.
Cristofano dell'Altissimo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Though the Borgia family's rise of wealth, power, influence and opulence with the Church was criticised by many, both during their prominence and in the centuries since, it's undisputed that their successes were, directly and indirectly, responsible for some of the greatest works of the Renaissance period. Famed as patrons of some of the finest artists and craftsmen of the time, the Borgia's wealth funded numerous works by such legendary artist as Michaelangelo and Raphael, with the former being commissioned to work on the plans for the exquisite headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The dramas and adventures of this notorious family provided such rich entertainment fodder that a TV series was made about their most famous members and their antics. The popular series ran for three seasons and garnered a number of Emmy nominations.
The Spencer-Churchill family of England is one of the most famous noble lines, melding two strands of the British aristocracy - the Spencers and the Churchills, and incorporating such legendary titles as the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Sunderland and the Marquess of Blandford.
The two noble lines were conjoined when Charles Spencer, known ad Lord Spencer married Lady Anne, the daughter of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, in 1700.
Some of the most notable members, ancestors or descendants of this family line include:
- Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire - the famous socialite that inspired the Keira Knightley film, The Duchess.
- Winston Churchill, the legendary war-time Prime Minister of Great Britain.
- Sarah Wilson (Lady Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill), who was one of the first women war correspondents.
- Diana, Princess of Wales - her father was Edward John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer, also known as Viscount Althorp.
Perhaps one of the most historic members of this family was Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American teenager who married into this prestigious lineage. Although the Vanderbilt family hailed from working-class roots in the American Republic, the family line acquired noble status when the teenage Consuelo, daughter of wealthy businessman William Vanderbilt, married into the British Aristocracy in 1895. Although this momentous union turned out not to be a happy marriage, the children of this historic couple established a new line of Anglo-American nobles.
The Habsburg family origins can be traced back to the modest castle in Switzerland that gave this legendary lineage its name. Yet this family was destined for much grander roles on the world stage, rising to prodigious power, wealth and influence as they elevated their noble status to positions of regal power and the rule of kingdoms.
Their early claim to the medieval aristocracy was as a line of Counts. However, this ambitious family are perhaps most famous for their ascension to the enormously powerful roles as the House of Habsburg Dukes and later Archdukes of Austria, titles established in the 3rd century by Rudolf 1, Count of Habsburg and King of Germany, for his sons.
Antoni Boys, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The diverse stories of the House of Habsburg were no doubt influenced by the rich variety of ancestral traits that helped to make the family's name and fortunes. The ancestral line includes a host of colourful and intriguing characters, such as;
- Rudolf the Debonair
- Rudolf III the Good
- Frederick I the Fair
- Otto I the Merry
- Albert III the Pigtail
- Albert IV the Patient
- Frederick V the Peaceful
- Leopold IV the Fat
And it's easy to envisage the stories behind Frederick IV of the Empty Pockets and his successor Sigismund the Rich.
Perhaps the most memorable member of this legendary family was actually one of its daughters, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, better known by her pet name; Marie Antoinette. Though her story ended tragically, it perhaps epitomises the heights to which the Habsburg family attained, as she lived much of her life in supreme opulence and privilege, first within the higher echelons of the Austrian Archdukedom, and later as France's final and most famous queen.
The lives and legends of the world's famous noble families have fascinated historians and story-lovers for centuries. Maybe it's their unique positions in the corridors of power, or their enviable lifestyles of luxury and leisure, or perhaps it's their opportunities to create change and make a difference in the world.
Whatever the attraction of the legendary aristocrats of the centuries past, it's a pattern that looks set to endure into the future, as the dramas and stories of today's famous noble families maintain an equally captivating appeal.
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