Peerage of France

Peerage of France
The drapeau blanc or standard of the royal family of France

The Peerage of France (French: Pairie de France) was a distinction within the French nobility which appeared in the Middle Ages. It was abolished in 1789 during the French Revolution, but it reappeared in 1814 at the time of the Bourbon Restoration which followed the fall of the First French Empire. On 10 October 1831, by a 324 against 26 vote of the Chamber of Deputies, hereditary peerage was abolished, but peerage for the life of the holder continued to exist until it was definitively abolished in 1848.

The prestigious title and position of Peer of France (French: Pair de France) was held by the greatest, highest-ranking members of the French nobility. French peerage thus differed from British peerage (to whom the term "baronage", also employed as the title of the lowest noble rank, was applied in its generic sense), for the vast majority of French nobles, from baron to duke, were not peers.[1] The title of "Peer of France" was an extraordinary honour granted only to few dukes, counts, and princes of the Roman Catholic Church.


The words "pair" and "pairie"

The French word pairie is equivalent to the English "peerage". The individual title, pair in French and "peer" in English, derives from the Latin par, "equal"; it signifies those noblemen and prelates considered to be equal to the monarch in honor (even though they be his vassals), and it considers the monarch thus to be primus inter pares, or "first among equals".

The main uses of the word refer to two historical traditions in the French kingdom, before and after the First French Empire of Napoleon I. The word also exists to describe an institution in the Crusader states.

Some etymologists[who?] posit that the French (and English) word baron, taken from the Latin baro, also derives from the Latin par. Such a derivation would fit the early sense of "baron", as used for the whole peerage and not simply as a noble rank below the comital.

Peerage of France

Under the Monarchy: feudal period and Ancien Régime

Medieval French kings conferred the dignity of peerage upon certain of his preëminent vassals, both clerical and lay. Some historians consider Louis VII (1137–1180) to have created the French system of peers.[2]

Peerage was attached to a specific territorial jurisdiction, either an episcopal see for episcopal peerages or a fief for secular. Peerages attached to fiefs were transmissible or inheritable with the fief, and these fiefs are often designated as pairie-duché (for duchies) and pairie-comté (for counties).

By 1216 there were nine peers:

  • Archbishop of Reims who had the distinction of anointing and crowning the king
  • Bishop of Langres
  • Bishop of Beauvais
  • Bishop of Châlons
  • Bishop of Noyon
  • Duke of Normandy
  • Duke of Burgundy
  • Duke of Aquitaine also called Duke of Guyenne
  • Count of Champagne

The presence of Normandy – held by the English crown by Angevin heritage – was theoretical, since in French eyes it had been forfeited to the crown in 1202.

A few years later and before 1228 three peers were added to make the total of twelve peers:

These twelve peerages are known as the ancient peerage or pairie ancienne, and the number twelve is sometimes said to have been chosen to mirror the 12 paladins of Charlemagne in the Chanson de geste (see below). Parallels may also be seen with mythical Knights of the Round Table under King Arthur. So popular was this notion, that for a long time people thought peerage had originated in the reign of Charlemagne, who was considered the model king and shining example for knighthood and nobility.

The dozen pairs played a role in the royal sacre or consecration, during the liturgy of the coronation of the king, attested to as early as 1179, symbolically upholding his crown, and each original peer had a specific role, often with an attribute. Since the peers were never twelve during the coronation (due to the fact that most lay peerages were forfeited to or merged in the crown), delegates were chosen by the king, mainly from the princes of the blood.

This paralleled the arch-offices attached to the electorates, the even more prestigious and powerful first college in the Holy Roman Empire, the other heir of Charlemagne's Frankish empire.

The twelve original peers were divided in two classes, six clerical peers hierarchically above the six lay peers, which were themselves divided in two, three dukes above three counts:

Bishops Lay
Dukes Reims, archbishop, premier peer, anoints and crowns the king Burgundy, premier lay peer, bears the crown and fastens the belt
Laon, bears the sainte ampoule containing the sacred ointment Normandy, holds the first square banner
Langres, the only one of the five bishops not in the Reims province, bears the sceptre Aquitaine also called Guyenne after its refounding, holds the second square banner
Counts Beauvais, bears the royal mantle Toulouse, carries the spurs
Châlons, bears the royal ring Flanders, carries the sword
Noyon, bears the belt Champagne, holds the royal standard

In 1204 the Duchy of Normandy was absorbed by the French crown, and later in the 13th century two more of the lay peerages were absorbed by the crown (Toulouse 1271, Champagne 1284), so in 1297 three new peerages were created, the County of Artois, the Duchy of Anjou and the Duchy of Brittany, to compensate for the three peerages that had disappeared.

Thus, beginning in 1297 the practice started of creating new peerages by letters patent, specifying the fief to which the peerage was attached, and the conditions under which the fief could be transmitted (e.g. only male heirs) for princes of the blood who held an apanage. By 1328 all apanagists would be peers.

The number of lay peerages increased over time from 7 in 1297 to 26 in 1400, 21 in 1505, and 24 in 1588. By 1789, there were 43, including five held by princes of the blood (Orléans, Condé, Bourbon, Enghien, and Conti), (Penthièvre) (who was the son of a legitimized prince, the Count of Toulouse, also a pair de France), and 37 other lay peers, ranking from the Duchy of Uzès, created in 1572, to the Duchy of Aubigny, created in 1787.

One family could hold several peerages. The minimum age was 25. The majority of new peerages created up until the fifteenth century were for royal princes, while new peerages from the sixteenth century on were increasingly created for non royals. After 1569 no more countships were made into peers, and peerage was exclusively given to duchies (duc et pair). Occasionally the Parlement (Parlement de Paris) refused to register the lettres of patent conferring peerage on them.

Apart from the coronation of French kings, the privileges of peers were largely matters of precedence, the titles Monseigneur, Votre Grandeur and the address mon cousin, suggesting parentage to the royal family, or at least equivalence, by the King, and a priviligium fori. This meant that judicial proceedings concerning the peers and their pairie-fiefs were exclusively under the jurisdiction of the Court of Peers. Members of the peerage had also the right to sit in a lit de justice, a formal preceding and speak before the Parlement, and they were also given high positions at the court, and a few minor privileges such as entering the courtyards of royal castles in their carriages.

While many lay peerages became extinguished over time, as explained above, the ecclesiastical peerages, on the other hand, were perpetual, and only a seventh one was created before the French Revolution, taking precedence behind the six original ones, being created in 1690 for the Archbishop of Paris, after centuries as a mere suffraganage, styled as second archevêque-duc for he held the Duchy of Saint-Cloud.

The expression pair was also sometimes used for groups of nobles within a French fief (e.g. the Prince-Bishop of Cambrai, who held the County of Cambrai, was the overlord of its twelve pairs). These "peers" did not benefit from the royal privileges listed above.

Under the First Republic and the First Empire : the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period

The original peerage of the French realm, like other feudal titles of nobility, was abolished during the French Revolution, on the night of August 4, 1789, the Night of the Abolition of Feudalism.

Napoleon I (Emperor of the French from 1804) 'reinvented' the functions of the anciennes pairies, so to speak, as he created in 1806 the exclusive duchés grand-fiefs (in chief of politically insignificant estates in non-annexed parts of Italy) in 1806 and first recreated the honorary functions at (his own) imperial coronation, but now vested in Great officers, not attached to fiefs.

Napoleon reinstituted French noble titles in 1808 but did not create a system of peerages comparable to the United Kingdom. He did create a House of Peers on his return from Elba in 1815, but the House was not constituted before his abdication at the end of the Hundred Days (Cent jours).

Under the Restoration: the Chamber of Peers

The French peerage was recreated by the Charter of 1814 with the Bourbon Restoration, albeit on a different basis from before 1789. A new Chamber of Peers (Chambre des pairs) was created, on the model of the British House of Lords.

This chamber acted as a Upper House, like the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. Members of the Chamber of Peers were appointed by the king, without limit on their numbers, starting with 154, including all surviving pre-Revolutionary lay (except the British-held duchy of Aubigny) and ecclesiastical (Reims, Langres, and Châlons) peerages.

Thirteen peers were also prelates. Peerage was for life or hereditary, granted at the king's will. Male members of the royal family and descendants in male line of previous kings (princes du sang) were members by birth (pairs-nés), but needed explicit permission from the king to sit at each session of the Chamber of Peers.

At first comprising only hereditary peers, the Chamber became a body to which one was appointed for life following the July Revolution of 1830. In the Revolution of 1848, the Chamber of Peers was disbanded and the peerage of France was abolished definitively.

Peerage of Jerusalem

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, the only crusader state equal in rank to such European kingdoms as France (the origin of most of Jerusalem's knights) and England, had a peerage modelled on the French and using the French language.

Charlemagne's twelve peers

In the medieval French chansons de geste and material associated with the Matter of France that tell of the exploits of Charlemagne and his knights -- such as The Song of Roland -- the elite of the imperial army and Charlemagne's closest advisors were called "The Twelve Peers". The exact names of the peers vary from text to text. In The Song of Roland (Oxford edition), the peers are: Roland, Olivier, Gerin, Gerier, Berengier, Oton, Samson, Engelier, Ivon, Ivoire, Anseïs, and Gérard de Roussillon[3] (Charlemagne's trusted adviser Naimes and the warrior-priest Turpin are, however, not included in the 12 peers in this text; neither is Ganelon the traitor). The number of peers is thought to parallel the twelve apostles.[3]

See also

Sources and references

  • Richard A. Jackson, "Peers of France and Princes of the Blood", French Historical Studies, volume 7, number 1 (Spring 1971), pp. 27–46
  • La Chanson de Roland, edited and translated by Ian Short, Paris: Livre de Poche, 1990, ISBN 978-2-253-05341-5
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  1. ^ In addition, the English peerage would share in the growing power of Parliament, while French pairs had no collective political role before the nineteenth-century creation of a Chamber of Peers.
  2. ^ Such is the view of, for example, François Velde.
  3. ^ a b Chanson de Roland, p. 265.

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