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Nobiliary Law and Succession
This article is a combination of two short articles by Jan-Olov von Wowern---"Nobiliary Law. What is it?" and "Rules of Noble Succession." Mr. von Wowern lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is the head of the Swedish branch of the von Wowern family, dating back to its founder who was born around 1090 and made a Marquis in 1141. He is active in European charitable and nobiliary work.
I have elsewhere defined nobiliary law as "national legislation, or international or national customs, regulating nobiliary issues. In many cases this is not codified, but rather a set of rules and traditions having gained acceptance" (see my book at www.findyournobleancestors.com).
Examples of some of the more important issues regulated by nobiliary law are:
- claims to nobility (surname, coat of arms, title) by non-noble persons. This could, but must not, include: children with one or two noble parents but born out of wedlock; stepchildren to noble parents; children to a noble lady in an agnatic family, etc.
- claims to nobility by noble persons, where the claims cannot be automatically verified. This could be e.g. the inheritance of a noble title in a junior line of the family when the senior line becomes extinct.
- borderline cases, such as which among the ancient patrician families were, and were not, to be numbered among the nobility. Or the reactivation of a family's nobility after some time of voluntary or involuntary loss of nobility (usually because one or all of the nobiliary qualities has not been used for two or more generations).
- the naturalisation of foreign nobility, that is the assimilation of immigrant nobility into the domestic nobility, usually with the purpose of ensuring the foreign nobility the same privileges as the domestic.
- heraldry, and more specifically the use of certain symbols usually reserved for the nobility, such as coronets of nobiliary rank, the use of supporters, etc. Also marshalling of arms, that is the proper combination of two or more coats of arms due to marriage between two noble families, and similar issues may be regulated.
In some countries the nobility is a subject of public law (Belgium, Finland, Netherlands, and in Spain only regarding the titled nobility). In other countries this is not the case, and then the nobility may have organised itself in one or more associations in order to have an institution to handle nobiliary issues such as those mentioned above. It is therefore of the utmost importance for every noble family to define and clarify under which legislation, or under which set of rules or regulations whether codified or not, they are a subject.
Nobiliary law is a complex and multi-faceted subject. It is often necessary to do extensive research in order to establish which rules apply to a specific noble family. A starting place can be to collect relevant literature from (or about) the country where the family is known (or believed) to have been ennobled (or first recognised as noble). This may be done by searching the many antiquarian bookshops available on the Internet, for keywords such as "nobility" or "nobiliary" in the book title. Sometimes a specific Internet site will be dedicated to nobiliary law (such as the Italian www.dirittonobiliare.com).
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about nobiliary law is that it is not the same as public law. It may well be possible, according to national legislation, for a non-noble person to assume a noble surname, but this does not make them members of the nobility. A person can only be a member of the nobility if they are so according to nobiliary law, whether this is in harmony with the public law or not.
Rules of Nobiliary Succession
Let me first say that the rules of noble succession, as they apply to a specific noble family, can normally not be changed. They are determined either by:
(1) the rules of succession laid down in the letter patent which was given to the family member who was first ennobled (for patent nobility)
(2) the rules of succession in use at the time and the place where the family was first recognised as noble (for original nobility)
It follows that in the case of patent nobility the rules of succession could only be changed by the conferring authority, the reigning Monarch or his or hers successors (if the constitution would allow for such changes).
In the case of the original nobility in my opinion the rules of succession cannot ever be changed, not even by a successor of the reigning Monarch who once recognised the family as noble, because the rules of succession were in most cases not at the Monarch's disposition to change. Hence, for all practical purposes and certainly for the study of genealogy, we may assume that noble families are bound by certain rules of succession that must be adhered to.
When we discuss succession, we should define whether we mean the succession to the nobility (that is, which family members in the next generation will inherit the name, the arms and the quality of continuing the family line), and the succession to the headship of a noble family. As implied by the title, in this article I will mainly discuss the succession of nobility in the general and collective sense.
Noble succession is either agnatic or cognatic. In my genealogy book Find Your Noble Ancestors!, I have defined those terms as follows: "Agnatic succession: succession to the nobility . . . continues only on the spear (male) side, from father to son." "Cognatic succession: in many countries this was the original form of succession among the ancient nobility, meaning the nobility . . . continued on both the spear (male) and distaff (female) side in parallel lines."
The vast majority of all noble families have agnatic succession, meaning both sons and daughters of a noble father are noble, but only the grandchildren of the sons (and not of the daughters) are noble. Certainly in most families created noble by means of a letter patent issued by a Monarch, this is by far the most common rule of succession.
Cognatic succession is, for practical genealogical purposes, only relevant in a few cases where it can be shown that this was indeed the original form of noble succession of the family, and there is an unbroken chain of succession from these (ancient) times down till today.
If we were to discuss the succession to the headship of a family, it would be necessary to distinguish between the two variants of cognatic succession, true and false. True cognatic succession means the firstborn child, whether a son or a daughter, has the best claims. False cognatic succession would mean any son would inherit before a daughter regardless if he was younger, but in the absence of sons the oldest daughter would have the best claims.
The kingdom of Sweden today has, according to its constitution, true cognatic succession, that is the firstborn child of the Monarch has the best claims to the succession to the Throne. Some other Monarchies also have this system.
If, for genealogical purposes, you want to find out if a certain noble family as agnatic or cognatic succession, you need to either look at the letter patent by which the family was created noble, or, in the case of the original nobility, establish the terms and conditions for noble succession in use at the time and place where the family was first recognised as noble. In most cases, the family members living today will be able to tell you which form of succession they have.
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