The system of noble ranks and aristocratic titles that we know today evolved largely throughout the centuries of the medieval era, with the more formal aspects developing during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Although their power and social importance began to wane with the emergence of republics in the later centuries of the last millennium, the hierarchy of Dukes, Earls, Viscounts and Lords etc... is one that is still familiar to us in present times.
The histories and the evolution of these noble ranks are as fascinating as the characters and people who bore these titles and made their names in the history books. The earliest medieval noble ranks, in particular, play a captivating role in the emergence of this unique social order over the centuries of human civilisation.
Here are two of the oldest aristocratic titles that went on to form core ranks of the medieval system of nobility.
The title of Baron is undoubtedly one of the earliest noble titles. While the word stems from the Latin baro, meaning simply; 'man', the earliest noble barons were a class above the ordinary man, even from the earliest times.
The barons of medieval times were close companions of the Kings and Lords who ruled the various territories of the Middle Ages. They often played the role of right-hand man to the highest-ranking rulers, pledging their loyalty and service to their sovereign and their country. These early barons would often fight alongside their king in the frontlines of battles, as well as being close to them socially and supporting them with all the many aspects of governance in medieval times.
G. Bruckner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In return for their loyalty, support, bravery and service, medieval barons would be awarded not just the esteemed title of Baron, but they were very often gifted land, estates, territories and property. These became known as a Barony - the domain of a Baron.
Over time, it became common for these lands and properties to be passed onto their heirs, enabling an early medieval King's favourite 'man' to establish a powerful lineage, as they accumulated wealth, esteem and influence over the centuries.
Eventually, the descendants of the earliest barons became so wealthy and powerful that they were believed to pose the greatest threat to later monarchs. For example, it was a group of barons that formed the first parliament in England. These shifts in sovereign power and noble influence marked the beginning of a new phase in which the monarch no longer reigned absolutely, but rather allowed a degree of political influence from representatives of the nation, as the later Barons came to be known.
For example, in the early 14th century, King Edward I of England acquiesced the collection of certain taxes being subject to the "consent of the realm", ie the burgeoning parliament, which was made up of the early noble ranks, largely a great many powerful Barons.
In the later centuries of the Middle Ages, the title of Baron became one of the most prevalent and common noble titles, which explains why they make up a large proportion of aristocratic titles that endure to modern times.
In its earliest incarnation - the Roman title of comes - the role was that of a companion or attendant of the Emperor. The etymology of companion also suggests this link - the Latin com means 'together with'.
The noble rank of Count that is more familiar today evolved during the Norman times and later Middle Ages, from around the 11th century. While this established an early lineage for the medieval and modern versions of the title of Count, they are not considered to be as historic as the Barons and Lords from the early feudal era.
The medieval Counts generally held a slightly different position to their Roman predecessors, being more provincial governors, responsible for a portion of the King's territory, rather than personal attendants to the monarch. These regions became known as Counties, a term still used today to describe administrative divisions of regions.
The title of Count is much more common in Europe because it was discontinued in Britain after the time of William The Conqueror. The equivalent of a noble Count in England, Scotland and Ireland was that of Earl, which dates back to pre-Norman times, i.e. the first millennium. Similar to a Count, the earliest Earls were the holders of an Earldom, a specific region within the country. Interestingly, the female equivalent of an Earl, and the wife of an Earl, is still termed a Countess - a quirky remnant of the evolutionary story of the British aristocracy.
The oldest title of Earl in England's nobility is the Earl of Arundel - known as England's 'premier earl' - which dates back to 1138. It was originally created for the Norman baron William d'Aubigny, and later linked to the ownership of Arundel Castle in Sussex by King Henry Vi. Today it is held as a courtesy title by the Duke of Norfolk.
The ancient noble title of Baron and the later ranks of Counts and Earls are two examples of the earliest medieval noble ranks. Their precise positions within the social hierarchies have changed over the many centuries since the were established in the Middle Ages, for example the earliest Baron’s facing battles alongside their King companions were a completely different style of Barons to the grand aristocrats of the Renaissance era, renowned for their vast wealth, estates, lavish lifestyles and political power.
Yet, the provenance and evolution of these early noble titles played a key role in shaping the formation of the aristocratic system, enduring to the present day to continue their rich contribution to social history and culture. Today’s Barons, Counts and Earls lay claim to a rare and historic noble lineage that has stood the test of time.
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