Buying Titles of Nobility in France

First published Feb. 6, 2001.


The short answer

It is impossible to buy titles of nobility in France today.

The reason is simple:  in modern French law, titles of nobility are a component of the family name, subject to particular rules of transmission.  No statutes exist to create or confer property rights in a title.  The bearer of a title has no ability to dispose of it, any more than he can dispose of his or her last name.

Furthermore, while titles were attached to land before 1789, they were so because titles were an element of the feudal system.  A title was a special status conferred to a (land-based) fief by royal act or (more rarely) by custom.  A fief, in turn, was a piece of real estate. Thus, it was possible to buy the fief, but not the title. The purchaser, to bear the title, had to be a noble, and in most cases, had to obtain the king's approval. If the owner was not already a nobleman, he could only call himself "lord" (that is, owner) of the baronny of X, the county of X, the duchy of X. Purchasing the fief did not make him noble.

In any event, the feudal system was abolished by the National Assembly on 4 August 1789, and it was never restored.  The original legal basis for titles, in particular as forms of property rights, was therefore removed.  When titles of nobility were recreated, first by Napoleon in 1808, then by the restored monarchy in 1814, only titles were recreated, not feudalism.  The fiefs without the feudal rights just became real estate in the modern sense.

What did titles now mean in a post-feudal world, without the land?  French courts, over the course of 150 years, have formed a very precise doctrine on the matter, which can be found in any number of reference works (e.g., the Répertoire juridique de Dalloz).  Briefly put, titles are appendages to the family name, inherited in male line, according to the rules laid down in the letters patent that created them or in the legislation in force at the time.  But they do not constitute a property right, although they are protected (just like the family name) from misappropriation and abuse, and therefore entitle their bearer to seek redress in court.

Thus, a title cannot be acquired by anyone, except by inheritance.  Furthermore, the purchase of a land that once supported a title brings its modern owner no nobiliary right whatsoever.  The owner of what was once a baronny or a county can no more claim the title than he can force the farmers in the local village to use his flour-mill or repair his roads three days a year.

See more information on French titles of nobility.

The The legal scholarship

I am not the only one to say so.

The following is an excerpt from an article by Henri-Louis Brin: 'La survie des titres de noblesse dans le droit moderne' Revue Trimestrielle de Droit Civil 1969 67(2):205-29.  The author was a doctor of jurisprudence and a magistrate (vice-président au tribunal de grande instance de Paris).  On pages 223-4 he discusses exactly our topic.  The original text follows my translation.

Transmission of the title by acquisition of a titled land

Such transmission is impossible because, since 1789, statutes know nothing of the concept of "noble land" and possession of a land that was previously titled confers no nobiliary right to its owner (Nîmes, 21 décembre 1874, Dalloz 1877 2.126) given the abolition of the feudal system by the decrees of 4, 6, 7, 8, 11 August and 3 November 1789.  In an opinion dated 2 July 1866 (Reg. II, p. 341) the Conseil du Sceau des Titres had incidentally recalled that, under the Old Regime in France, the transmission of the title in such cases was possible only with new letters patent of confirmation [issued by the king].

Acquisition of the title by deed

The rules of transmission of nobiliary titles are firmly established by laws and regulations, as well as by the letters patent that created them.  These rules, which belong to public law, make it impossible for a title of nobility to be transfered as a form of property (letter of the minister of justice to the minister of foreign affairs, 9 Nov 1937, and to the public prosecutor of the Seine département, 15 July 1932).  On 13 Feb 1865 the Conseil du Sceau des Titres had incidentally issued an opinion in the following terms: "Whereas since 1789 statutes know nothing of the concept of 'noble land' and confer upon no individual the right to dispose freely of a title whose transmission can only be regulated by the sovereign authority" (Reg. II, p. 240 et 241).

Transmissibilité du titre par acquisition d'une terre titrée

Cettre transmissibilité est impossible car depuis 1789 nulle disposition législative ne connaît de terres nobles et la possession d'une terre anciennement titrée ne confère aucun droit nobiliaire à celui qui la détient (Nîmes, 21 décembre 1874, D. 1877 2.126) compte tenu de l'abolition du régime féodal par les décrets des 4, 6, 7, 8, 11 août et 3 novembre 1789.  Dans un Avis du 2 juillet 1866 (Reg. II, p. 341) le Conseil du Sceau des Titres avait d'ailleurs rappelé que, dans l'Ancienne France, la translation du titre en pareil cas n'était possible qu'au moyen de nouvelles lettres de confirmation.

Acquisition du titre par cession

Les règles de transmission des titres nobiliaires sont immuablement fixées tant par les lois et règlements que par les lettres patentes en vertu desquelles ils ont été créés.  Ces dispositions qui sont d'ordre public s'opposent à ce qu'un titre de noblesse puisse faire l'objet d'un transfert de propriété (lettre du garde des sceaux au ministre des affaires étrangères du 9 novembre 1937 et au procureur de la République de la Seine du 15 juillet 1932).
Le 13 février 1865 le Conseil du Sceau des Titres avait d'ailleurs émis sur cette question un Avis ainsi libellé: "Attendu que depuis 1789 nulle disposition législative ne connaît de terres nobles et ne confère à aucun particulier le droit de disposer à son gré d'un titre dont la transmission ne peut être réglée que par la puissance souveraine" (Reg. II, p. 240 et 241).

The Jurisprudence

I present here two court precedents which make clear the foundation for this legal doctrine.

Nîmes, 21 décembre 1874

(Source: Dalloz 1877 2.126)

This case concerns the family Vincens de Causans, originally from the Comtat-Venaissin, and known since Giraud Vincens, lord of Brantes, who married Isabeau de Caromb, heiress of Causans.  Their descendant Claude was made marquis de Causans in the principality of Orange by William of Nassau on 28 Aug 1667.  (The principality of Orange was a foreign enclave in France until 1731).  His descendant Jacques de Vincens de Mauléon, marquis de Causans (1751-1824) was an army officer, deputy of the nobility of Orange to the Estates General.  He emigrated in 1791 and his estates were confiscated.  When he returned after 1800, he tried to reconstitute his estates that had been divided among various family members in his absence.  Under the Restoration he was given the rank of  lieutenant-general, and he was elected representative to the House of Deputies for the Vaucluse from 1815 to his death.  He had three sons:

  1. Louis-Philippe-Joseph, styled "comte" while his father was alive, whose sons were Adhémar and Ernest;
  2. Paul-François-Joseph, styled "vicomte";
  3. Antoine (a cleric, d. 1825).
Paul (1790-1873) made a better marriage than his elder brother by marrying Sophie Renoyer in 1813, the daughter of the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit.  Paul's career was also rather more successful, since he was conseiller général du Vaucluse and was created peer with the rank of baron (5 Nov 1827; letters patent 15 Apr 1829).  He had two sons, Armand (1818-1902) and Maxime (1820-1902), both with male issue.  The family is still abundantly represented.

Because Jacques' younger son Paul seemed better poised to sustain the family rank, Jacques decided to sell to him (on 8 Apr 1819) the remnants of the marquisate of Causans that he had been able to cobble back together since his return. Paul, who had continued to call himself "vicomte" throughout his life, took up the style of "marquis de Causans" in the last years of his life. He died in 1873, and was styled "marquis de Causans" on his death certificate (as his wife had been styled "marquise de Causans" on her death certificate in 1869).  His eldest son Armand (and, it seems, his younger son Maxime) took up the style of marquis as well.

The children of Jacques's eldest son Louis-Philippe sued their first cousins in 1874 to prevent them from using the style of marquis.  The children of Paul gave two arguments in their defense:

  1. the contract of 1819 passed to Paul the lands formerly composing the marquisate of Causans, hence the title was his;
  2. the title, created by the prince of Orange in 1667, was not subject to French law but to the law of the Holy Roman Empire, in which all descendants of the grantee are equally allowed to bear the title.
The case came before the court of Orange.  The court ruled on 21 May 1874 with the plaintiffs, rejecting both arguments.  The case was appealed, and the Appeals court in Nîmes upheld on 21 Dec 1874.  We are interested in the reasoning of the court concerning the defendants' first argument, that possession of the land entitles to possession of the title and rank.  In the court's words:

Titles of nobility, from the moment they are recognized in law, obviously represent a property right protected by ordinary courts; lacking any statutory dispositions regulating their transmission, we must first determine what existed before and then assess what may be compatible with modern institutions.  There is no doubt that, originally, titles were attached to fiefs, that is, to land; only the owner could bear the title; if he sold the fief, he relinquished the title, which went along with the land to the purchaser, as long as the latter fulfilled the conditions of the ordonnance of Blois of 1579.  The title, once established in a family, passed as a consequence of the fief's indivisibility from male to male by primogeniture.  Only one family member at a time took the title and the name of the lordship, the other members had no rights whatsoever, the younger sons could only use the title of knight or esquire.  Thus are the rules accepted by all writers on the subject and summarized in the recent work by the comte de Sémainville (p. 714).  The intervening legislation, which abolished feudalism (decree of 11 Aug 1789) and nobility (law of 17 Jun 1790) has eliminated all disctintions between estates.  All have become "free and equal" as persons themselves have.  Only twenty years later has nobility returned following the decrees of 1808 and 1809 creating "imperial titles" based on majorats and following primogeniture.  But the old nobility, ignored by these statutes, was restored only by article 71 of the Charter of 1814, which "restored the old titles and preserved the new ones" by putting them all on the same plane, in the sense that "they only confer rank and honor but no exemption from any imposition or duty of society".  It is on this new basis that the rules of transmission of nobiliary titles must be founded.
First of all, the possession of a formerly titled land cannot confer any nobiliary right to its present owner.  Feudalism, along with its retinue of privileges and abuses, disappeared forever in 1789.  All the statutes of the time have made it clear, particularly the Rural Code of 1791, which states that "no land has on an other any form of superiority or supremacy".  A fief today would be a true anomaly; furthermore, since very few still existed whole, one would have to either multiply the title by granting it to all those who own a fraction of the land, or destroy it almost completely by restricting it to the owner of the whole fief.  One would also have to revive the ordonnance of Blois and demand various parchments from the current owners. These impossibilities are more than enough to prove that this method of acquiring a title has ceased to exist.  It is like maternal nobility, incompatible with our modern public law.  Transmission in male line by primogeniture encounters no such difficulty.  It was under the Old Regime the general rule and was applicable to titles without specific clauses.  Hereditary ennoblements confered nowadays since the restoration of the nobility invariably include this clause.  It regulated the nobility based on majorats of the Empire, as well as the hereditary peerage of the Restoration (ordonnance of 25 Aug 1817).  It has since been cited in all letters patent issued by our various sovereigns.  This procedure is perfectly consistent with the Charter of 1814.  The abolition of the first-born right is of no consequence in this matter where everything is exceptional and outside the norms of absolute equality; the sovereign who has the right to create nobles, can certainly regulate the transmission of the titles he creates when no boundary limits the exercise of his prerogative. This mode of transmission [i.e., in male line by primogeniture] is obviously the only one that is compatible with our new institutions.  It was adopted and approved by the Empire as well as the Restoration.  It is in conformity with the uses and traditions of all regimes.
"Les titres de noblesse, du moment où ils sont reconnus par la loi, constituent une propriété évidemment placée sous la sauvegarde des tribunaux ordinaires; en l'absence de dispositions législatives réglant leur transmission, il faut tout d'abord rechercher ce qui existait anciennement pour apprécier ensuite ce qui peut être compatible avec nos institutions modernes.  Il n'est pas douteux qu'à l'origine les titres ne fussent attachés aux fiefs, c'est-à-dire à la terre; le possesseur seul avait le droit de le porter; s'il vendait le fief, il abdiquait le titre, qui passait avec le sol sur la tête de l'acquéreur, pourvu qu'il réunit les conditions requises par l'ordonnance de Blois de 1579; le titre une fois consolidé dans une famille, s'y transmettait ensuite par suite de l'indivisibilité du fief de mâle en mâle et par ordre de primogéniture; un seul dans la famille prenait le titre et le nom de la seigneurie; tous les autres membres n'avaient absolument rien à y prétendre; les puînés ne pouvaient se parer que du titre de chevalier ou d'écuyer; telles sont les règles acceptées par tous les auteurs, et résumées dans le récent ouvrage du comte de Sémainville (p. 716).  La législation intermédiaire, en supprimant d'abord la féodalité (Décr. 11 août 1789) et ensuite la noblesse (L. 17 juin 1790) a fait disparaître les distinctions qui existaient entre les propriétés.  Toutes sont devenues "franches et égales" comme les personnes elles-mêmes.  C'est après vingt ans seulement que la noblesse a reparu à la suite des décrets de 1808 et 1809, instituant des "titres impériaux" ayuant des majorats comme base et l'ordre de primogéniture comme moyen de transmission; mais l'ancienne noblesse, étrangère à ces actes, n'a été rétablie que par l'art. 71 de la charte de 1814, "qui relève les anciens titres et conserve les nouveaux" en les plaçant tous sur la même ligne, en ce sens "qu'ils ne confèrent que des rangs et des honneurs sans aucune exemption des charges et des devoirs de la société".  C'est sur ces données nouvelles qu'il faut édifier les règles destinées à régir la transmission des titres nobiliaires.
Tout d'abord, la possession d'une terre anciennement titrée ne saurait conférer aucun droit nobiliaire à celui qui s'en trouve nanti; la féodalité, avec les privilèges et les abus qui formaient son cortège, a disparu sans retour depuis 1789; toutes les lois de l'époque l'ont proclamé, et spécialement le code rural de 1791, qui rappelle que "nulle terre n'a sur une autre une supériorité ou une suprématie quelconque".  Un fief serait aujourd'hui une véritable anomalie; au surplus, comme très-peu existaient dans leur intégralité, on serait amené ou à prodiguer le titre en le conférant à tous ceux qui possèdent une fraction de la terre, ou à l'anéantir à peu près complètement s'il n'était conféré qu'à l'heureux possesseur de l'entier fief.  Il faudrait sans doute aussi raviver l'ordonnance de Blois et demander des parchemins aux propriétaires actuels.  Toutes ces impossibilités prouvent surabondamment que ce mode d'acquérir un titre a cessé d'exister; il est comme la noblesse utérine, incompatible avec notre droit public moderne. La transmission de mâle en mâle, et par ordre de primogéniture, ne se heurte contre aucune impossibilité de cette nature.  Elle était sous l'ancien régime la règle générale et applicable même aux titres silencieux sur ce point.  Les anoblissements héréditaires effectués de nos jours depuis le rétablissement de la noblesse portent invariablement cette clause.  Elle régissait la noblesse à majorats de l'Empire comme la pairie héréditaire de la Restauration (Ordonn. 25 août 1817).  Elle a depuis trouvé place dans toutes les lettres patentes émanées de nos différents souverains.  Ce procédé est en parfaite harmonie avec la charte de 1814.  L'abolition du droit d'aînesse ne saurait réagir sur cette matière spéciale où tout est exceptionnel et en dehors des règles de l'égalité absolue; le souverain qui a le droit de faire des nobles, a certainement aussi celui de régler la transmission des titres qu'il crée, lorsque aucune borne ne circonscrit sa prérogative.  Ce mode de succession est évidemment le seul qui cadre avec nos institutions nouvelles.  Il a été suivi et approuvé par l'Empire comme par la Restauration.  Il est enfin conforme aux usages et aux traditions de tous les régimes."

Falaise, 21 février 1959

(Source: Dalloz 1959, 202).

In April 1958, the family of de Tournebu sued the family de Foucault, to prohibit them from calling themselves "de Foucault de Tournebu", "de Tournebu" or "de Foucault baron de Tournebu".  The case came before the civil court of Falaise, which ruled on 21 Feb 1959.

The title in question was not a title created by letters patent, but was a customary title originating in feudal times.  The title's history is interesting, in that it shows how, before 1789, a title was indeed transferred along with the land.   It first appeared in the 13th c. in the hands of the lords of Tournebu, descendants of a companion of William the Conqueror.  It passed by marriage to the Thère family in 1448.  Then it was seized in 1520 as part of bankrupcty proceedings and passed to the Le Fournier.  It was seized again in 1544, bought by the duchess of Longueville, who ceded it to the Thézard family.  It was then given to the Rheingrave family (of Germany), related to the Thézard.  Finally, in 1701 the head of the junior branch of the Tournebu family (called Tournebu-Livet)  bought it back.  At the time of the Revolution, the baronny was owned by his niece, Marie-Pierre de Tournebu.  She gave the lands to her distant cousin and closest relative Jean-Jacques Luce Edmond de Foucault in 1806.  Since then, he and his descendants claimed that the title attached to it had passed tothem.  The Foucault family also claimed that, independently of this gift, at Marie-Pierre's death Jean-Jacques de Foucault would have inherited the baronny in any case, as her closest relative (albeit in female line).  The plaintiffs were not descended from the last owners of the baronny, but from the senior branch.

The court ruled with the plaintiffs and ruled that the defendants could not use the title of "baron de Tournebu" or add "de Tournebu" to their name.

The main reason for doing so was that the Foucault family simply had no right to the title.  In the court's words:

"this deed [of 1806], occurring after the disappearance of the concept of fiefdom that followed the decree of 4 August 1789, could not have transmitted the title of baron of Tournebu on the head of Jean-Jacques de Foucault; there is consequently no need to determine, as the plaintiffs ask, whether Jean-Jacques de Foucault was or not noble at the time, a condition that was necessary to confer on the owner of a fief of dignity the right to bear its title; [...] there is no doubt that the title, which does not follow the land since the Revolution, is now transmitted in a hereditary fashion in the same family and must fall, in case of extinction of the branch that bears it, by the closest collateral relatives; but, on one hand, if it is true that, since the establishment of the Republic, this transmission takes place by right, it is certain that it could not have taken place under the Old Regime, or the Restoration or the July monarchy, or even the Second Empire, without a confirmation emanating from the public authorities; on the other hand, the transmission of nobiliary titles only occurs in modern law from male to male; it follows that dame de Janville [Marie-Pierre de Tournebu] could not transmit her title at her death; at most her husband, whom she married in February 1789 and who was entitled to the title of baron, could have transmitted it to the Foucault at his death in 1810, had the latter had any claims on his estate; and in any case an act of confirmation or grant in their favor would have been necessary; [...]."

"[...] cette donation postérieure à la disparition de la notion de fief qui a été la conséquence du décret du 4 août 1789 n'a pu avoir pour effet de transmettre le titre de baron de Tournebu sur la tête de Jean-Jacques de Foucault; [...] qu'il n'y a pas lieu par suite de rechercher, comme le voudraient les demandeurs, si Jean-Jacques de Foucualt avait ou non à cette époque la qualité de noble, indispensable sous l'Ancien Régime, pour conférer au propriétaire d'une terre de dignité le droit d'en porter le titre;  […] il n'est pas douteux que le titre, ne suivant plus la terre depuis la Révolution, se transmet désormais par voie héréditaire dans la même famille et doit échoir, en cas d'extinction de la branche qui le porte, aux collatéraux les plus proches; mais d'une part, si depuis l'instauration de la République, cette transmission peut se faire de plein droit, il est certain qu'elle ne se fut pas faite, sous l'Ancien Régime, ni sous la Restauration ou la Monarchie de juillet, voire sous le Second Empire, sans un acte de confirmation de la puissance publique; d'autre part, la transmission des titres nobiliaires ne se fait plus, dans le droit moderne, que de mâle à mâle; il s'ensuit que dame de Janville n'a pu transmettre son titre à sa mort; que tout au plus son mari, le sieur de Janville, qu'elle avait épousé en février 1789 et qui avait droit au titre de baron, eût-il pu le transmettre aux de Foucault à son décès, en 1810, si ces derniers avaient eu vocation à sa succession; une lettre de collation relevant le titre à leur profit eut du moins été nécessaire; [...]"

The main point for our purposes here is the statement by the court that title and land became separated after 1789, that acquisition of the land after 1789 confers no right to the title that was hitherto attached; that transmission of titles after 1789 occurs only among blood relatives.

It is therefore impossible for anyone to acquire a title of nobility by purchase or donation or any means other than inheritance in male line by primogeniture.

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François Velde

Last modified: Oct 12, 2001