False titles of nobility

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

False titles of nobility or royal title scams are claimed titles of social rank that have been fabricated or assumed by an individual or family without recognition by the authorities of a country in which titles of nobility exist or once existed. They have received an increasing amount of press attention, as more schemes that purport to confer or sell such honorifics are promoted on the internet.[1] Concern about the use of titles which lack legal standing or a basis in tradition has prompted increased vigilance and denunciation,[1] 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".[2]

Self-styled titles[edit]

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 historical basis.[3]

Self-assumption of a title is not necessarily illegal; it depends on the law of the place 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.[4][5] Where such titles have existed historically, the current bearer may make no claim that its use is pursuant to a hereditary grant to an ancestor by a fount of honor.

Some individuals, associations or corporations purport to grant or transmit a legal or official right to a title, honour, acknowledgement or membership in a self-styled order of chivalry simply in exchange for a payment.

British titles[edit]

The British peerage includes the titles of (in ascending order) baron, viscount, earl, marquess and duke. All of these titleholders, except dukes, are (if male) known by the honorific "Lord" (in Scotland the lowest rank in the peerage is "Lord (of Parliament)" rather than "Baron"). No peerage can be sold; 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".[6]

Scottish feudal baronies are the only British nobility titles that may be passed to any person, of either sex, by inheritance or conveyance.

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.

Persons who have been enrolled in an order of chivalry or dubbed are knights or dames, and are thus entitled to the prefix of "Sir" or "Dame". These titles cannot be bought or sold either.[7]

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, known as souvenir plots. However, they create no legal right of ownership or legal right of heraldry in Scots law.

The Court of the Lord Lyon (the heraldic court tasked with the award and regulation of heraldry) considers souvenir plot titles to be meaningless[1] as the registration of numerous "lairds" of a single estate would pose too great an administrative burden. The opinion of the Lord Lyon has been criticised as the UK government allows the usage of Manorial Titles in British passports of the form: "THE HOLDER IS THE LORD OF THE MANOR/LAIRD OF [X]" (brackets added).[8] However, as a matter of Scots property law, souvenir plots cannot competently create a real right of ownership in Scots law. The Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 forbids the registration of deeds relating to souvenir plots in the Land Register of Scotland.[9]: s. 22 [10] This means that the Buyer obtains no legal right of or to ownership of the souvenir plot in any event,[9]: s. 50  so the evidence threshold required by HM Passport Office to use the Manorial Title will be unlikely to be met. Evidence of ownership of property would typically be the production of a Title Sheet to the property or a formal and valid disposition, which the souvenir plot documents are unlikely to contain.

Richard Bridgeman, 7th Earl of Bradford, estimates these sellers having an income of US$2,918,520 per acre (about US$7.2 million per hectare) of poor land, which he suggests could probably be purchased for about US$100.[11] Some of these sellers enclose with the invalid deed a coat of arms; this is not authorised by the Lord Lyon, and so it is unlawful in Scotland to use it. The most recent advice from the Lord Lyon specifically states that the award of a coat of arms is not appropriate to the owner of a souvenir plot, such as sold in these schemes.[12]

Manorial lordships[edit]

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].[13] According to the style guide Debrett's, a person owning a Scottish Barony title is afforded a particular style, but English lordships of the manor are not mentioned.[14]

There are three elements to a manor:

  • lordship of the manor,
  • manorial land,
  • manorial rights.

These three elements may exist separately or be combined; however the lordship of a manor may be held in moieties and may not be subdivided; this is prohibited by the Statute of Quia Emptores 1290, preventing subinfeudation (except in Scotland, where feudal rights resulting from subinfeudation were extinguished only with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000). However the second and third elements can be subdivided.[15]

In many cases, the title of lord of the manor may no longer be connected to land or other rights. In such cases, the title is known as an "incorporeal hereditament".[15] Before the Land Registration Act 2002 it was possible to register lordship titles; most did not seek to register.[15] Since 13 October 2003 one cannot 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.[16] A frequent criticism of the lordships sold at auction is that statutory declarations are relied upon to 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 runs such an establishment).[17] 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.[18] Technically, lords of manors are barons, or freemen; however, they do not use the term as a title. John Selden, in Titles of Honour, wrote in 1672, "The word Baro (Latin for 'baron') hath been also so much communicated, that not only all Lords of Mannors have been from ancient 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."[19]

Some companies claim to be selling manorial lordships when in fact they are actually selling nothing more than a trademark.[citation needed] 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[edit]

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. This practice is lawful so long as no claim of noble title, knighthood etc. is made as, in British law, a person may adopt any name provided its purpose is not fraudulent. HM 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.[20]

Continental European titles[edit]

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 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.


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.


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.[21]


Although France has been a Republic since 1870, titles are protected by law.[22] The Departement of Justice maintains a register of titles and can deliver decrees of investiture to heirs of titles whose succession has been recognized. This investiture is needed to use a title legally, but many members of former noble families use so-called "courtesy title" without much sanction.


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. The German nobility lost its hereditary prerogatives, including rank, style and honorifics following the fall of the German Empire in 1918. Article 109 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution declared that "noble ranks are regarded as part of the (sur-)name only". Persons legally adopted by former nobles, like e.g. Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt, can acquire the surname (Prinz von Anhalt), but do not become members of the nobility (in this case, they do not become a prince, as such a thing has not legally existed for over a century).


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 before 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. No Italian publication or record, not even the Consulta Araldica's official registry (the Libro d'Oro now retained at the Central Archives of the State in Rome), is a truly complete record of Italy's nobles and armigers.

Several legitimate titles recognised in the pre-unitary Italian states (the Two Sicilies, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, the Papal States), as well as 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.

With the advent of the republican constitution after the Second World War, Italy decided to include noble titles in the name. In the same constitution, in the "transitional and final provisions" the founding fathers decided to join the noble title to the name for living persons only and make it impossible to hand down the title even to natural children. Similar titles (such as "Knight of the Republic" or "Cavaliere del Lavoro") can be delivered on an exclusive, non-hereditary and symbolic basis only by the President of the Republic.


Recognition of Norwegian noble titles was gradually abolished by the Nobility Law of 1821. Persons who in 1821 possessed such titles were allowed to keep them for their lifetimes.

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.[23]


Unlike other European states except Hungary, 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.[24]

After the Partitions of Poland (1772–95) the Polish state ceased to exist. Some Polish notables received titles of Russian nobility, Prussian nobility or Austrian nobility.

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.

Fiction featuring fake Polish nobility includes: the novels The Idiot,[25] The Green Face[26] and The Whispering City,[27] and the films Roberta (1935)[28] and Victor/Victoria.

Real-life people who falsely claimed to be Polish nobles include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Cramb, Austan (11 December 2004). "How to lord it over your friends for only £29.99". The Telegraph. Retrieved 21 September 2022.
  2. ^ Archives, The National. "The Discovery Service". www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Example: "The man who would be king". The Guardian. 25 September 1999. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  5. ^ Example: "The Holy Roman Emperor is alive and well and living in Teddington". The Independent. 26 October 1999. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  6. ^ "What Do YOU Travel For?". 21 June 2016. Archived from the original on 27 July 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  7. ^ "Fake Titles - the site that lifts the lid". www.faketitles.com. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  8. ^ UK Government. "Titles" (PDF).
  9. ^ a b Scottish Parliament. Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 as amended (see also enacted form), from legislation.gov.uk.
  10. ^ Caution the souvenir hunters Law Society of Scotland. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 4 December 2022
  11. ^ The Earl of Bradford, "Beware Buying British Titles on the Internet", Burke's Peerage & Gentry
  12. ^ "The Court of the Lord Lyon: Lairds". 15 May 2012. Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2012.
  13. ^ Land Registry Guidance 1 Archived 2010-03-31 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ "Scottish Feudal Baronies, Scottish and Irish Titles, Titles, Forms Of Address, People of Influence". Debrett's. 7 March 2016. Archived from the original on 7 March 2016. Retrieved 30 March 2020.
  15. ^ a b c Land Registry Guidance 2.1 Archived 2010-03-31 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Land Registry Guidance 2.2" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 March 2010.
  17. ^ "What Do YOU Travel For?". 21 June 2016. Archived from the original on 27 July 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  18. ^ Justice of the Peace & Local Government Law (legal journal)
  19. ^ Selden, J. (1672). Titles of Honor (3rd ed.). London: Thomas Dring. p. 570.
  20. ^ "Titles included in passports". GOV.UK.
  21. ^ Rikoslaki 18 luku § 1/Strafflagen 18 kap. § 1.
  22. ^ French Civil Code
  23. ^ Lovdata.no: Lov om personnavn: § 3. Frie, beskyttede og nye etternavn
  24. ^ Walerian Nekanda Trepka; Włodzimierz Dworzaczek; Julian Bartyś; Zbigniew Kuchowicz; Karol Zierhoffer Liber generationis plebeanorum ("Liber chamorum") Wrocław. Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1963. ISBN 8304041367 ISBN 9788304041363 (in Polish)
  25. ^ Christie Davies (2014). "Hašek, Švejk and the Poles". Brno Studies in English. 40 (2): 47–66. doi:10.5817/BSE2014-2-3.
  26. ^ "Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Article: Fantastic Fiction and the Great War - Innsmouth Free Press". www.innsmouthfreepress.com. Archived from the original on 18 June 2018. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  27. ^ books.google.ie
  28. ^ books.google.ie
  29. ^ Miller, Michael L.; Ury, Scott (22 January 2016). Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism and the Jews of East Central Europe. Routledge. ISBN 9781317696780 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ MARISTED, KAI (31 May 2002). "Case of the Cavalier 'Count' and the Scorned Woman" – via LA Times.
  31. ^ "Phoney Nobles". 10 June 2013. Archived from the original on 21 April 2018. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  32. ^ Nevin, Donal (1 May 2005). James Connolly: "a full life". Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 9780717139118 – via Google Books.
  33. ^ "Irishman's Diary: An enigma of the Famine years in Ireland". The Irish Times.
  34. ^ "Who lived in this Durham 'house' named after a 3ft 3in Polish Count".
  35. ^ "BBC - Wear - Places - Durham Town Hall".

External links[edit]