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Elevation to the Nobility

While royal dynasties used to originate from noble families, noble dynasties in turn had their roots in commonalty, royalty or other nobilities (Bush 1988, 59). The ennoblement of royalty was a minimal source of recruitment into the nobility (Bush 1988, 60). This kind of downgrading usually happened when a royal prince married a non-royal woman without the king’s consent—or consent was granted in the manner described in Chap. 2 as four younger Swedish princes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries renounced their right to the throne and royal status in order to marry noblewomen or commoners. Initially these younger sons remained without titles, but they were later ennobled as Counts of Wisborg, although this dynasty was not naturalized in the Swedish nobility. At the same time several Danish princes were more fortunate in this respect: as a result of their marriages to non-royal women they were downgraded into Counts of Rosenborg, a noble dynasty that was naturalized in the Danish nobility (Aronson 2014; Bisgaard and Jensen 2015, 365-8). Three of these princes were sons of King Christian IX’s youngest son, Valdemar, who was part of the royal family that cultivated domesticity in the late nineteenth century.

My survey of entries into the nobility comprises noble dynasties that were introduced into the Swedish nobility between 1600 and 1800, but later on, in 1818, naturalized in the Finnish nobility due to their being domiciled in Finland[1]. In this nobility, which I call the Finnish nobility, the single largest group were noble migrators, accounting for one-quarter of noble parvenus between 1600 and 1800. They had been ennobled far back in history outside Sweden, mostly in Baltic or German states but also in Russia, France, England, Scotland or Ireland. Nobles circulated widely around Europe, and this often proved rewarding: ennoblement in one realm provided a good reference for ennoblement in another realm, if the monarch was satisfied with the services he received (Bush 1988, 59-61; Melton 1995, 115, 136; Donati 1995, 256). In Denmark, some 65 per cent of all new noble families between 1536 and 1660 came from abroad, most of them from German principalities (Jespersen 1995, 64). Part of the migration to Sweden was the result of territorial annexations, which prompted ambitious noblemen to leave their occupied homeland and move closer to their new lord, since career opportunities were far better in the ruler’s proximity. Such migrators to Sweden included the von

Fersens, whose ancestor was ennobled in Estland in the twelfth century (Norrby 2014, 16). When Estland was conquered by the Swedish army and incorporated into Sweden in 1561, some von Fersens entered the service of Sweden’s victorious monarchs (Norrby 2014, 80-167). In fact, over half of all Swedish officers at the time were recruited from Estonian and Livonian nobilities (Norrby 2014, 20-53). Moreover, some noblemen were forced to leave their country because of religious or political hostilities, common reasons for the shifting of loyalties from one ruler to another. Protestant nobles moved in vast numbers from Austria (Melton 1995, 110-14) and Huguenots from France. The Finnish Baron Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt (Tiihonen 2015, 39-42) moved for political reasons. He had been King Gustav Ill’s courtier and adviser, but after his involvement in the failed coup against the king he moved in 1811 to the Russian emperor’s service, where his career in state administration took off.

Some of the migrators were noblemen’s younger sons who, while having relinquished their opportunities to advance accordingly, tried their luck in another monarchy. One such younger son was the French Pontus De la Gardie (c. 1520-85), who started his career in the French army but then moved to Denmark. However, when captured by Swedish troops in 1565, he went over to the Swedish side and served two kings of Sweden with success. Just before his death, he was appointed riksrad, councillor of the realm. His marriage to King Johan Ill’s illegitimate daughter in 1580 was also a reward, a typical matrimonial arrangement at the time (Norrby 2014, 342; Collins 2009, 31). But among the migrators there were also adventurers, as Eriksson (2011, 216; see also Melton 1995, 115) calls those who came from half-noble or bourgeois families and who joined the Swedish army and excelled at war in the hope of being ennobled by the king. A similar flow of adventurers, climbers and opportunists headed for the vicinity of Russian emperors. Those who managed to win the emperor’s favour had a good chance of creating a noteworthy career in the service of the emperor (Tiihonen 2015, 18).

That there were such a large number of noble migrators indicates that nobles were cosmopolitans who made themselves at home in any monarchy. It was quite easy to shift allegiances between monarchs, but loyalty was presumed when in the service of a monarch. Yet in most monarchies the largest part of the nobilities came from national backgrounds.

The largest group of all, accounting for one-fifth of all parvenus of the Finnish nobility, consisted of those whose fathers were non-noble officers, mainly lower-ranking and non-commissioned officers. Even though officers were often ennobled (Upton 1995, 30), in these particular cases it was their sons who gained this advantage according to their own deserts at war. There was a similar close social connection between father and son in the case of those 5 per cent of sons whose fathers were owners of tax-exempt estates fralsebonde). It used to be quite common to elevate them to the nobility, but this right was relinquished in Sweden during the seventeenth century. They subsequently formed the upper layer of the peasantry, rusthallare (Upton 1995, 16; Eriksson 2011). So while migrators accounted for one-quarter of noble newcomers, another quarter had, in a way, been on the threshold of the nobility: their fathers held occupations that made them almost equal to the lower layers of the nobility, yet they lacked a title, which was eventually acquired by their sons. For the remaining entrants into the nobility, half in all, elevation was a more remarkable social leap. A 10 per cent minority comprised those whose fathers were magistrates or mayors, that is, town burghers. Theirs was an elevation from the bourgeoisie to the nobility, as was true of those whose fathers were owners of iron works. They accounted for 5 per cent. Moreover, 5 per cent of the parvenus’ fathers were vicars. In their case elevation in the next generation advanced from the clergy to the nobility. The rest of the parvenus’ fathers were a socially diverse group, many of them civil servants, including lower-ranking civil servants such as county sheriffs, clerks and bailiffs. However, it was impossible for the sons of the lowest-ranking fathers, including the peasantry, to be upgraded to the nobility.

The percentages for Finland are not meant to represent entries into European nobilities more generally, but to give an approximate picture of the social backgrounds from which it became possible for sons to rise to the nobility. Excluding those ennobled earlier in other monarchies, the fathers of parvenus were officers, landowners, middle- or lower-ranking civil servants, burghers or manufacturers and, moreover, clergymen, indicating that social climbing normally was a step-by-step process. In families where fathers had already advanced in status, it was easier for sons to progress and move up the ladder. The final step was of course the most decisive one, because a noble status was an extremely privileged bestowal: it provided access to the highest offices in state administration, the army and court. In this respect, nobility was incomparable with any other status. Two types of achievements were the best preparation for advancement into the nobility, that is, service in the army and state governance, the two citadels of the state apparatus. In my Finnish materials between 1600 and 1800, almost one-half of all noble entrants were civil servants, the other half were officers, and the rest, a tiny minority, were manufacturers and professors. These findings suggest that ennobling was strongly bound up with the state; other credentials were of minuscule importance.

  • [1] The family background of noble parvenus has been determined on the basis of a 50 per centsample of noble families domiciled in Finland and ennobled before 1800 by Swedish monarchs(Wasastjerna 1879, 1880; Carpelan 1954, 1958, 1965). The lower nobility were without a nobletitle; the higher nobility consisted of counts and barons. No higher titles were granted in Swedenand Finland. Dukedom was reserved for members of the royal family.
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