False titles of nobility
False titles of nobility are claimed titles of social rank that have been fabricated or assumed by an individual or family without recognition by the current or past government of a country in which titles of nobility exist or once existed. They have received an increasing amount of press attention, as the number of schemes that attempt to confer or sell such honorifics have proliferated coincident with broadened access to and use of the internet. Concern at the use of titles which lack legal standing or a basis in tradition have prompted increased vigilance and denunciation.
Outside monarchies, a distinction is drawn between a legitimate historical title which may no longer be recognised by a successor state (such as a republic) but is borne or claimed by a hereditary heir, and an invented or falsely-attributed noble title that is claimed without any historic basis.
Self-assumption of a title is not necessarily illegal, depending upon applicable law in the jurisdiction where the title is used. The bearers of some self-assumed titles do not claim that such titles have been recognized by any nation at any time. Where such titles have existed historically, the current bearer may make no claim that the use thereof is pursuant to a hereditary grant to an ancestor by a governmental fount of honor.
Some individuals, associations or corporations purport to grant or transmit a legal or official right to a title, honour or membership in a self-styled order of chivalry to an individual or family upon receipt of a remittance, donation or research fee in connection with the alleged honour, receiving a certificate of recognition or for the services rendered.
Titles were hereditary for all legal descendants in the male-line, male and female; primogeniture was not usual. Austria, however, legally abolished its nobility and hereditary titles after World War I and bans the use of noble titles and nobiliary particles.
The British peerage encompasses the titles of baron, viscount, earl, marquess and duke. All of these titleholders, save dukes, are known by the honorific "Lord" (in Scotland the lowest rank in the peerage is "Lord (of Parliament)" rather than "Baron"). No peerage is capable of being sold, as such a transaction would be in breach of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. The British embassy in the United States informs that "the sale of British titles is prohibited".
Baronetcies are hereditary titles granted by the Crown, but are not part of the peerage. Baronets are styled "Sir" with the suffix "Bt." or "Bart." after their surname. Baronetcies can no longer be purchased, and existing ones cannot be bought or sold.
The holder of a peerage, baronetcy or knighthood may not lawfully transfer those titles or any title associated with them to another individual (if a peerage is renounced, it devolves automatically upon the heir-at-law, usually based upon primogeniture: the incumbent has no right to designate a successor to the title).
Several websites and internet vendors on websites such as eBay, sell Scottish lairdships along with small plots of land. The Court of the Lord Lyon considers these particular titles to be meaningless, because it is impossible to have numerous “lairds” of a single estate at the same time, as has been advertised by these companies. According to Richard Bridgeman, 7th Earl of Bradford, these sellers have an income of $2,918,520 per acre of poor land, which could probably be purchased for about $100. W.R.B. Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore has doubts about such companies' claims of conservation of nature as there are not independent proofs of it. Some of these sellers enclose with the deed a coat of arms, which is not authorised by the Lord Lyon and it is unlawful in Scotland to use or display any arms unauthorised by the Lord Lyon. The most recent advice from the Lord Lyon specifically states that this designation is not appropriate to the owner of a souvenir plot, such as sold in these schemes.
The title Lord of the manor is a feudal title of ownership and is legally capable of sale. The owner of a Lordship of the Manor is known as [personal name], Lord/Lady of the Manor of [place name], Owning a title of Lord of the Manor does not by itself replace the title of Mr, Mrs, or Miss, although under English common law a person may choose to be known by any name they see fit as long as it is not done to "commit fraud or evade an obligation."
There are three elements to a manor, the first is lordship of the manor, the second is manorial land and the third element is the manorial rights. The three elements may exist separately or be combined, the first element being the title may be held in moieties and may not be subdivided, this is prohibited by the Statute of Quia Emptores preventing subinfeudation whereas the second and third elements can be subdivided.
In many cases the title Lord of the Manor may no longer have any land or rights and in such cases the title is known as an ‘incorporeal hereditament’. Before the Land Registration Act 2002 it was possible to register lordship titles, most did not seek to register. Since 13 October 2003 it has not been possible to apply for first registration of a title of a manor, however dealings in previously registered titles remain subject to compulsory registration with HM Land Registry. A frequent criticism of the lordships sold at auction is that the statutory declaration is relied upon as a substitute for missing historical deeds and transfer documents which would, in some cases, demonstrate that the manor in question either no longer exists, can no longer be identified definitively, or is not available for sale.
According to John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and co-author of The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, "Lordship of this or that manor is no more a title than Landlord of The Dog and Duck" ("The Dog and Duck" being a stereotypical name for a pub, with "landlord" being the usual term for someone who owns such an establishment). However, the journal Justice of the Peace & Local Government Law advises that the position is unclear as to whether a Lordship of the Manor is a title of honour or a dignity as this is yet to be tested by the courts. Technically, Lords of Manors are barons, or freemen; however, they do not use the term as a title. John Selden in his esteemed work Titles of Honour writes, "The word Baro (Latin for "baron") hath been also so much communicated, that not only all Lords of Mannors have been from antient time, and are at this day called sometimes Barons (as in the stile of their Court Barons, which is Curia Baronis, &c. And I have read hors de son Barony in a barr to an Avowry for hors de son fee) But also the Judges of the Exchequer have it from antient time fixed on them."
Some companies claim to be selling manorial lordships when in fact they are actually selling nothing more than a trademark. For this reason, careful legal advice should be sought before entering into any transaction purporting to be selling a lordship of a manor.
Changes of name
Some companies sell individuals a title when in fact they do no more than offer them the facility to change their name. Such an individual adopts the purported title, e.g. "Sir" or "Lord", as a forename rather than receiving any formal title. The British Passport Office is aware of this practice and will place an official observation in the individual's passport stating that the purported title is a name rather than the person's title. In essence, such an individual becomes Mr. Sir John Smith or Mr. Lord John Smith, for example, as his title has in fact not changed at all.
Continental European titles
All of Europe's monarchies, except Norway, recognise nobility and hereditary titles. Their royal and princely courts also allow their use as courtesy titles by persons entitled to them under former monarchical regimes, unless they are accredited (e.g., to the Court of St. James's) in a diplomatic capacity without the use of their historical titles. Such courtesies do not imply a legal right to any title in the titleholder's homeland, although foreign nobles may be incorporated into another realm's nobility with a variation of the family's original noble title upon being naturalised in some monarchies (Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands).
Many who choose to invent false titles of nobility take advantage of the pool of formerly genuine titles of nobility that derive from a time when a country, now a republic, was once a monarchy; for example France, Austria, Hungary and the many parts of Germany that once had princely rulers who granted noble titles. One advantage of assuming such a title, is that, contrary to the situation involving the British nobility, there is usually no longer any official arbitrator who can or will judge between two separate claimants to such a title. In some such countries, titles may nevertheless be protected by an appropriate law, such as France, or by an extension of copyright law, as in Portugal.
Finland became a republic in 1917, and issue of new titles and substantial privileges of the estates of the realm were abolished by 1920. However, the nobility was not abolished, and they retain exclusivity to their surnames by personal name laws. Claiming a false title of nobility for purposes of marriage remains a criminal offense.
German royalty and nobility bore hereditary titles, noble titles being heritable to all legitimate descendants in the male line, male and female: primogeniture was not usual except in the Kingdom of Prussia. Although the German nobility lost its hereditary prerogatives, including rank, style and honorifics following the fall of the German Empire in 1918, the nobility was not abolished per se, but the hereditary titles of its members were converted into parts of the individuals' surnames. Persons legally adopted by nobles with titular surnames acquire thereby the right to use the surname, but did not become members of the nobility under the monarchy nor heirs to the family's traditional titles, nor do they do so post-monarchy.
Some vendors of fake titles claim to arrange for the customer to acquire an Italian title based on adoption or even through notarial acts ceding the titles to the customer. In Italy, where titles of nobility have not been officially recognised since 1948, and where nobility by feudal tenure was abolished in most regions during the years immediately prior to 1820, an adoptive child cannot succeed to his adoptive parent's title, and no legal act can serve to renounce a hereditary title. Claims to sell titles of nobility linked to ownership of a certain estate or castle are based on equally misguided misconceptions. It should be noted, however, that no Italian publication or record, not even the Consulta Araldica's official registry (the Libro d'Oro now retained at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato at Rome-EUR), is a truly complete record of Italy's nobles and armigers.
A number of legitimate titles recognised in the pre-unitary Italian states (Two Sicilies, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, Papal State), as well as the Republic of San Marino, were not recognised in the Kingdom of Italy between 1860 and 1948. In most cases these were small baronies, minor lordships (signorie) or untitled ennoblements (patrizi and nobili). In connection with this, some Sicilian titles could devolve to female heiresses in the absence of close male kin, and in a few instances there are claimants (in female lines) in Spain as well as Italy, the former looking to Two Sicilies (pre 1860) legislation and the latter citing Italian (post 1860) law. Most of the parallel claims (usually by Spanish citizens) were made after 1948, when the Consulta Araldica (Italy's heraldic authority) was suspended by the Italian constitution, which abolished recognition of titles of nobility.
There exists no law that prohibits private use of noble titles. Such privately adopted titles lack official recognition.
Noble names enjoy no particular legal protection. In accordance with the Name Law's paragraph 3, any family name with 200 or fewer bearers is protected and may not, without all bearers' acceptance, be adopted by another.
Unlike other European states, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its predecessor states did not have a noble class divided into dukes, counts, barons, etc. The privileged noble/gentleman class, the szlachta, were all theoretically equal to each other and made up 6–12% of the population. The problem of false claims to szlachta was widespread in the 16th century, Hieronim Nekanda Trepka denouncing such fakes in Liber generationis plebeanorium.
Because there was no Polish state and a wide Polish diaspora, it became easy for Poles to claim to be exiled nobility, whether they had szlachta ancestors or not. The "fake Polish count" became a stock character in 19th- and 20th-century literature.
Real-life people who falsely claimed to be Polish nobles include:
- Christoph Bienenfeld (Baron Hönig von Bienenfeld)
- Roger de la Burde
- Marek and Andrew Kasperski
- Casimir Markievicz, who married the Irish leader Constance Gore-Booth. She continued to be known as "Countess Markievicz"
- Cramb, Austan. The Telegraph. How to lord it over your friends for only £29.99. 11 December 2004. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- Pine, L.G. Titles: How the King Became His Majesty. Barnes & Noble, New York, 1992. pp. 8-11, 49. ISBN 978-1-56619-085-5.
- Example: "The man who would be king". The Guardian. 1999-09-25. Retrieved 2010-08-15.
- Example: "The Holy Roman Emperor is alive and well and living in Teddington". The Independent. 1999-10-26. Retrieved 2010-08-15.
- British embassy in the United States
- "Fake Titles - the site that lifts the lid". www.faketitles.com.
- The Earl of Bradford, Beware Buying British Titles on the Internet, Burke's Peerage & Gentry
- "The Court of the Lord Lyon: Lairds". 15 May 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2012.
- Land Registry Guidance 1 Archived 2010-03-31 at the Wayback Machine.
- National Archives
- Land Registry Guidance 2.1 Archived 2010-03-31 at the Wayback Machine.
- Land Registry Guidance 2.2 Archived 2010-03-31 at the Wayback Machine.
-  (page from British embassy in US)
- Justice of the Peace & Local Government Law (legal journal)
- Selden, J. (1672). Titles of Honor: By the Late and Famous Antiquary John Selden of Inner Temple, Esquire (Third ed.). London: Thomas Dring. p. 570.
- "Titles included in passports". GOV.UK.
- Rikoslaki 18 luku § 1/Strafflagen 18 kap. § 1.
- Lovdata.no: Lov om personnavn: § 3. Frie, beskyttede og nye etternavn
- "Nobility of Poland - Part I". www.almanachdegotha.org.
- "Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Article: Fantastic Fiction and the Great War - Innsmouth Free Press". www.innsmouthfreepress.com.
- MARISTED, KAI (31 May 2002). "Case of the Cavalier 'Count' and the Scorned Woman" – via LA Times.
- "Phoney Nobles". 10 June 2013.
- Nevin, Donal (1 May 2005). "James Connolly: "a full life"". Gill & Macmillan – via Google Books.