Pontifical and Papal Nobility

Sep 4, 2018 | Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Pontifical Nobility.

The Papal nobility refers to the families who were ennobled by the Roman Pontiffs, mostly after the disappearance of the Papal Estates. This nobility should not be confused with the ancient Princely Medieval families of the Papal Estates, which might even be classified as the heirs of the ancient nobility of the Western Roman Empire.

The pontifical nobility never had any legal privilege in Italy and has the peculiarity of having been conferred by the popes in several countries that do not even recognise nobility. The families of the pontifical nobility almost always carry a noble title.

The Problematic Hereditary Nature of Papal Noble Titles:

“The Papal Nobility believes in merit and not in antiquity”, as Prince Constantin Cantacucene has affirmed. The majority of the Papal Noble titles awarded by Rome were never hereditary. Only about a 20% of the grants contained hereditary clauses.

However, the hereditary regulations contained many legal fluctuations, and had as rule the restriction of the hereditary nature of the titles.

Therefore, most of the Pontifical Nobility held non inheritable titles of nobility. Even among the hereditary ones was common to find bylaws stating that the ” transmissions of the nobility title should stop with the sons or nephews or grandsons of the original grantee”, as quoted by Dr. Di Mattei.

Reasons for Ennoblement in the Papal Nobility:

1. Financial Support for Charitable works and Catholic schools.
2. Construction of Hospitals
3. The Promotion and defence of Catholic Faith and Ideas.
4. Practical Support for the Social Doctrines of the Church.
5. Political Campaigning for the Church’s Rights.
6. Exceptional Merits to the Holy See.
7. Military Defence of the Vatican City against invasions
8. A whole life at the service of the Church that imply a risk of life or career.
9. Active participation in Poverty Relief

These are some of the reasons behind the Roman titles. Many of these Brevets (Letters Patent), state that if the title contains a hereditary clause, it is to remind the descendants and all they know them, that the acquisition of merits is a worthy way of life, and good deeds should always be rewarded. The Church always emphasised that the important thing is the quality of the services rendered, and not the antiquity or rank of the title.

History of the Papal Nobility:

The Papal Nobility aided the Popes and the Holy See in the administration of the territories under direct control of the Papacy. The temporal rule of the popes is lost in the mist of time. The formation of their territorial domains was completed only at the beginning of modern times after a lengthy progression that continued for all the middle Ages. It was in the year 1623 that Pope Urban VIII accomplished the formation of the States of the Church by the acquisition of the Duchy of Urbino. These states then consisted mainly of the Italian states around Rome, what today would be Lazio, and later some parts of Emilia, Romagna, and Umbria were added. The Popes also had direct territorial rule under territories in France, around Avignon, in the “Comtat Venaissin”, since 1271.

The feudal system was dominant in these states, as it was the rule then in most of Europe. The feudal nobility of the Italian papal lands was represented by the Feudal Baronage (The Old Feudal Nobility owning fiefdoms). In the French part of the Pontifical states, there was also a feudal nobility, beside which grew a nobility acquired by office. Finally, in addition to the categories of nobles already mentioned, the pope also created nobles without fiefs or land, or territorial designations. The best-known title of this kind was that of “Count Palatine”, some of which were hereditary and others not.

The annexation by France of the French located part of the Papal States in 1791 marked the end of the pope’s sovereignty over the “Comtat Venaissin” and Avignon. In 1870, the Kingdom of Italy also annexed the remaining territories under direct rule of the Pope in Lazio.

Deprived of their temporal sovereignty in France and Italy, the popes continued to grant titles to their Catholic subjects mainly in Italy, France, Spain and Belgium , and of course to those of the different states of the world.

The Global and International Nature of the Papal Nobility

The Papal Nobility is formed by members of the Church as baptized. Over the centuries, the Roman pontiffs recognized different types of nobility and ennobled people from many countries of the world, in many different ages, times epochs, and eras, without national or geographic restrictive criteria. There are no concepts of territoriality involved. The Papal nobility is still an international meritocracy with a Universalist vocation.

The Mystery and Secrecy of the actual Number of Papal Noble Titles

It has never been in the tradition of the Holy See to publish the list of granted titles. While the secret archives of the Vatican are very interesting research, there are no official lists. It is difficult to understand the number and nature of the Noble Grants. After some research carried out for nearly half a century in the various archives of European countries, with the official authorities of states where nobility and titles have a legal existence, recognized or protected, and with historians or researchers, have allowed to have a better knowledge of the subject.

Papal Nobility and Titles in Italy:

Gilberto Pandolfi, Roman Lawyer of the Roman Rota, says that 115 pontifical titles have been recognised since 1870. But it is particularly stimulating to mention the scholarship of Professor Francesco Ridolfini, which gives the exhaustive list of noble titles officially recognized by the Italian State by decree of the President of the Republic of 1 March 1961.

There are mentioned 387 titles under the motu proprio signed the 21 December of 1827 by Leo XIII. Most of the Recipients of Papal Noble titles did not care or bother about recognition from the Italian State.

The Pontifical Nobility in France:

From 1789 until 1931 exactly 530 papal titles of nobility were granted to French recipients by the Popes of Rome, 198 of them with a hereditary nature, with nearly one hundred of them still existing nowadays.

Principalities: 5 hereditary titles of Prince and 8 life titles of prince were awarded.

Duchies: 7 non inheritable duke Titles were granted, plus 9 hereditary Dukedoms.

Marquisates: 23 hereditary and 20 life titles given

Counts: 276 life Count Titles, non-transmissible ad infinitum, and 155 susceptible of being passed by inheritance

Viscount: 1 hereditary title

Baron: 21 Life Barons, only 3 with the capacity of being inherited.

Papal Noble Titles in Spain

The legislation and topic is so complex that would merit an independent article. For now, we will only say that in principle, The Kingdom of Spain has registered in his history about 100 Papal Titles, only in the last 90 years.

The Papal Nobility in Belgium

From 1820 to 1932, around 79 people received hereditary noble titles of which 19 were awarded to members of 7 families. Another sixty different Belgian families obtained noble titles. Since 1852, 17 concessions of pontifical titles have given rise to Belgian honours and recognitions. Around 35 hereditary pontifical titles still remain nowadays in Belgian families.

In the Kingdom of the Netherlands. -For the Northern provinces prior to the constitution of the kingdom in 1814, the secret archives of the Vatican contain the granting of a pair of noble titles. Since the 1814 Constitution of the Northern Provinces and the Basic Nobility Law of the Netherlands of 1815, four concessions have been granted, of which only one is currently represented in the Holland.

Catholic Nobility In Sweden: A Swedish family still existent today has received two hereditary titles from the Holy See: one with the rank of Marquis, and other with the rank of Count.

The Papal Nobility in Poland: Among the titled Polish nobility, 20 families have benefited from a pontifical title of nobility, of which three would be represented at the present moment.

Pontifical Titles on the Holy Land:

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem keeps in its archives the writ of a title of hereditary marquis conferred on a family currently represented in Lebanon.

The Pontifical Nobility of Malta:

The research into the Papal Nobility of Malta made it possible to establish that 9 different families were granted 14 titles of nobility, with 2 still remaining, one of Count and another of Marquis.


1. The Papal Nobility is a very hermetic and closed social caste
2. It is a truly global nobility
3. It is an International Nobility

Studies are continuing in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the former federal states of the former German Empire, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, Portugal, Lithuania, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. If a conclusion can be drawn from this research, it is that the hereditary titles have been granted sparingly and are indeed a rare fact, as well as that the Papal Nobility is a truly global meritocracy.


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