Nobles of the Sword
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The Nobles of the Sword (French: noblesse d'épée) refers to the class of traditional or old nobility in France during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern periods. This class was heir to a militaristic ideology of professional chivalry. It is largely synonymous with the expressions noblesse de race and noblesse ancienne, and is used in opposition to other classes of French nobility, namely:
- noblesse de chancellerie - chancellor nobility made noble by holding certain high offices for the king
- noblesse de lettres - person made noble by "lettres patentes" from the king
- noblesse de robe (nobility of the gown) - person or family made noble by holding certain official charges, like maître des requêtes, treasurer or president of a provincial parlement
- noblesse de cloche (nobility of the "bell") or noblesse échevinale - person or family made noble by being a mayor or "échevin" or "prévôt des marchands" (municipal leader) in certain towns (such as Angers, Angoulême, Bourges, Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, Perpignan, Poitiers)
- noblesse militaire - person made noble through military position
To be considered a noble of the sword, a nominee had to be a fourth generation noble. During the Renaissance, the nobles of the sword provided services for the monarchy, finding positions in all branches of government. However, the monarchy caused strife among the nobility through the appointment of robe nobles. These nobles bought their way into nobility through holding political offices, which angered the sword nobles who saw their positions being taken. The sword nobility began to demand limited access into the robe nobility in the 17th century, but the government needed to increase revenues and continued to sell these positions frequently. Although the government did not want to anger the sword nobles, their need for revenue caused them to continues selling these positions, causing conflict within the two groups of nobility. This trend was beneficial for the monarchy by reducing the potential for the nobility to revolt against it. The nobility of the sword often had members in the military, so maintaining good connections with the nobles not only ensured they would not revolt against the monarchy, but they would support it militarily. Recognizing the importance of maintaining strong relations with the monarch, many nobles remained at court rather than at their appointed seats so they could continue courting the good will of the king.
Specifically during the French Revolution, the sword nobility wielded a great deal of influence. There were three “estates” set up to represent different parts of society, and each estate contained a single vote, so it was easy for those in a more privileged position to overwhelm the peasants. The first of the three estates was composed of clergy members. The second was composed of the nobles. The sword nobles traditionally had more power than the nobles of the robe. This hierarchy is a result of the ability of the sword nobility to trace their lineage back for hundreds of years. Their power was derived from the passing of land-holdings from generation to generation. They were often seen in courts and at the palace of Versailles, and kings such as Louis XIV centralized their own power by inviting the sword nobles to their courts and defining prestige in relation to their aid to the king. However, in later years, the robe nobles were the ones who replaced the sword nobles at the Palace of Versailles. The robe nobles were paid by the king to compose the rest of the noble class, which ensured that the vote of the third estate would always benefit the king. In terms of social status, the Sword nobility was much more recognized, but had a significantly lower income resulting in them not helping the crown and also owning this title allowed them to be exempt from taxes. Whereas the robe nobility were wealthy bourgeoisie who wanted to have the same privileges and exceptions as the first and second estates, resulting from their wealth. The government was content with allowing them to move up allowing the crown to gain wealth.This trend created conflict between the different sects of nobility because the sword nobles felt entitled to the special treatment the roble nobles received because their nobility stemmed from a long history of land-owning. This fracture weakened the balance of power pre-revolution which created the conditions for criticism from the third estate.
Distinctions Between Nobility
French nobility has always had a clear separation. The nobility carried swords as a symbol of their nobility. In the seventeenth-century, it was said that all nobles were allowed to carry a sword to prove their nobility except the nobles of the long robe. As a result, the separation between the nobility of the sword and the nobility of the robe has been evident. The only similarity between the two was the fact that both groups were nobles. Low-ranking nobles were able to receive their higher status by serving in the military; they were a part of the nobility of the sword. The members of the nobility of the robe, however, became nobility by buying their title. The nobility of the sword were the nobles seen to hold power at Versailles and who ran provinces. They held the most prestige, although they had lower incomes; however, the nobility of the robe weren’t as prestigious as the nobility of the sword.
- "Some Random Thoughts About French Nobility".
- "Nobility and Titles in France".
- Bush, M. L. Rich Noble, Poor Noble. pp. 53–52.
- "The Second Estate". Alpha HIstory. Retrieved 5/9/14.
- "Estates General". Worldpress.com. Retrieved 5/29/14.
- Sandberg, William. Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France.