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Scandinavian nobility (s.c.nordic FAQ-related texts)
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Scandinavian nobility

Norway

Nobility in Norway grew out of the old chieftain families; after the unification of the country under royal power from about 1000 A.D. the heads of those families went into royal service as the kings' representatives in the various districts; those were then called lendmenn. Somewhat later there evolved also a service nobility with basis in service at the court; those were called skutil sveiner. From about 1200 compulsory war service, mounted and in armor, went with the noble titles.

From 1277, the National Law of king Magnus Lagabøter (Magnus the law-mender) prescribed that lendmenn should be titled Barons and skutilsveins "Ridder" (Knight).

Norway lost its independence to Denmark/Sweden in the 14th century.

Due to the harsh climate, which seem to have made a turn for the worse in the 14th century, Norway was probably the country most adversely affected by the Black Death. In the centuries after this catastrophe Norway was very much impoverished, much arable land lay fallow, and the income of the land-owning nobility was thus dramatically diminished. The lower nobility (Riddere) sank down into the peasant class. The country could not sustain the higher nobility (the barons), and thus the families of this class died out, their sons and daughters marrying into Danish and Swedish nobility.

In the 16th and 17th centuries a new class of nobility did evolve, based upon Danish noblemen's marriages into Norwegian land-owning families; Norway being now a vassal state under Danish sovereignty. This nobility was granted a lot of privileges, but after absolute Royal rule was introduced in Denmark in 1660-61 it faded away rather soon.

From 1660 on, Norway was by the Danish king considered a Danish province on par with all other Danish provinces, as Jutland, Zealand, Funen etc. (and Iceland). The Danish Crown, in 1679, created a Norwegian nobility that was given seats in the country; the counties of Laurvig (where the counts of Danneskiold-Laurwig ruled), and Jarlsberg (where the counts of Wedel-Jarlsberg had its seat) together with one barony (Rosendal in Hardanger) were thus created. It must be realized that this nobility was exclusively of Danish/German extraction, that just happened to be given estates on Norwegian soil. The rights, privileges and obligations of this nobility were also equal to those of the Danish nobility, their only obligations being toward the (Danish) king.

When Norway became independent of Denmark in 1814, the new Constitution of May 17th this year in its 23rd article set down that no new nobility should be created. In 1821 all the titles and privileges of the nobility were abolished by law, the use of the titles were however allowed for those members born when the law was enacted. (Nevertheless, the late Norwegian diplomat Frederik (Fritz) Wedel-Jarlsberg used the title of baron till his death in the 1930s).

No Norwegian institution like the Riddarhuset in Sweden and Finland was ever established.

And Denmark?

The feudal system with the consequence of weakening the bands between the different parts of the realm was introduced during the 13th century as whole provinces were granted to sons of the kings as Principalities or Duchies.

After Frederik III (of Denmark and Norway) became absolute monarch in 1660, he abolished the fiefs (len). In 1671, Frederik III's successor Christian V reintroduced the term len, but now with a totally different meaning. If you owned enough land, you could get a royal patent declaring your land a "fief". This would give you more rights on your land than simple ownership. It would also mean that the entire fief would be inherited as a unit, not split among your several heirs.

With a fief came a title, either greve or baron depending on the size. Actually I think the original title was friherre, but it was often called baron, and eventually baron became the accepted term. If you call yourself a friherre today, any Dane would assume that it's a Swedish title.

Having introduced the titles, the kings started creating titular grever and baroner as honors. The "real" counts and barons considered themselves to be better than the merely titular ones. So the new terms lensbaron and lensgreve were introduced, meaning someone who actually owned a barony or a county.

In the constitution of 1849, all the privileges of the nobility were revoked. A fief was now like any other property, except that it was under entail. The constitution also prohibited any new entails. Those two clauses has been retained in all later Danish constitutions. In 1919, all entails were lifted by law. Lensgreve is now as meaningless as any other title.

"Russian" nobility in Finland

Until 1809 Finland was an integrated part of Sweden, covered below under the headline Sweden.

Finland also has nobility dating to the Russian period (1809-1917).

Traditionally the Adelskalender (list of Nobles) was printed in Swedish only, but the latest editions are bilingual (Swedish and Finnish), reflecting the social change. I read from the 1998 edition that the Finnish House of Nobles (Riddarhuset) has 148 families living in Finland, of which 4 countal (grevliga) and 25 baronal (friherrliga), and 26 living abroad (including 1 countal and 3 baronal).

What about Sweden?

The noble estate isn't abolished as in France (1848) or Germany (1918) but their privileged position has been weakened step by step from 1680 and forth. In contrast to the Benelux countries no hereditary titles or honors have been granted for almost 100 years.

(Actually Swedish ex-princes have used to direct their petitions for restoration of their glory to sovereigns of Luxembourg and Belgium in the not so few cases when princes lost disputes over suitability of wives; a kind of conflicts Swedish princes used to have with the crown and government during the first half of this century. For instance the father of Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN representative assassinated in Jerusalem 1948, had gained his countal status that way.)

The privileges in Sweden are nowadays limited to a protection of some additional part of the heraldic arms: the helm with open visor and the crowns marking the honor.

Terminology

Today three classes exists, in consistency of a reform in 1561 (restored 1719). They are distinguished by their titles and by the number of crowns they have in their coats of arms:
Högadliga or betitlad adel:
("nobility with hereditary titles")
  • Grevar         (Counts)    [ three crowns ]
  • Friherrar      (Barons)    [ two crowns ]
  • Lågadliga:			
    ("nobility without hereditary titles")
  • Obetitlad adel ("Gentry")  [ one crown ]
  • (The crowns are different both in number and looks.)

    In addition the untitled families (above called the gentry) are subdivided into two groups: kommendörsätter (commander nobility) and truly ordinary nobility.

    There are no perfect translation between English and Swedish terms, and for a Swede the English usage seems both confusing and blurred.

    For Swedes, maybe except the very peerage, the only important distinction is between noble families with titles ("betitlad adel" - högadel) and families without ("obetitlad adel" - lågadel).

    The archaic term "the frälse" includes also the clergy while referring to their exemption from tax.

    Since 1866 noble birth gives no political privileges, and since the begin of the 20th century also no precedence to any civil or military positions.

    Historical origin

    The nobility in Sweden and Finland dates back to 1280 when it was agreed that magnates who could afford to contribute to the cavalry with a horse-soldier were to be exempted from tax - at least from ordinary taxes -  as the clergy already had been. The background was that the old system of a leiðangr fleet and a king on constant travels in the realm became outmoded and in need of replacement. The crown's court and castles were now to be financed through taxes on land.

    Soon it was also agreed that the king should govern the realm in cooperation with a State Council where the bishops and the most distinguished among the magnates (i.e. the most prominent contributors to the army) participated. When troublesome decisions were necessary all of the frälse was summoned to diets.

    The Swedish nobility had no hereditary fiefs (län). I.e. in case they were appointed to a castle of the crown's then their heirs couldn't claim their civil or military authority. The lands of the magnates who constituted the medieval nobility were their own and not "on lease" from a feudal king. ...and if they by own means (including the suffering of the local peasantry) build a castle, and financed its troops, then the castle was theirs but the troops of course a part of the realm's army.

    During several periods the commander of Viipuri fief (Viborgs län) did in practice function as a Marquis (or Markgraf in German) keeping all the crowns incomes from the fief to use it for the defense of the realm's eastern border. But despite the heavy German influence during the medieval age the elaborate German system with also titles as Lantgraf, Reichsgraf, Burggraf & Pfalzgraf was never applied.

    An exception (of course there was at least one exception!) much, much later was when the combined civil and military commanders of the towns Malmö and Helsingborg were appointed Burgreve (Count to the Crown's fortification) during times when Denmark's will to regain the South-Scandinavian provinces seemed threatening.

    After the Engelbrecht rebellion 1434-36 four estates used to be summoned to diets: nobility, clergy, burghers and peasantry. Until the reformation the crown had not much lands except the different kings' private property. The clergy and the noble magnates were the most important land owners. The nobility was the same as the secular elite of the society. Formalized privilege rules were either unnecessary or self-evident. However, at the end of the 16th century, from 1568, privileges were arranged - particularly important for the untitled nobility which came to constitute the backbone of the civil service.

    During Gustav Vasa's reign (1521-1560) the cavalry became less prioritized; The connection weakened between wealth, military responsibilities, tax exemption and participation in the political decisions. Until Gustav Vasa the kings had been definitely dependent of the Swedish magnates - particularly dependent of the high-born men who constituted the State Council.

    Through the reformation 1527 the crown became rich enough to ensure independence against the magnates. And from 1544 the king used Diets (with both commoners and nobility represented) as a regular means to legitimize laws and taxes regardless of the noble opinion. With Gustav Vasa's national state a central civil service started to grow.

    See also section 7.3.3 of this faq regarding the situation during medieval times.

    Time of greatness

    At the coronations 1561 & 1569 a new type of nobility was constructed. After European model a dozen men were given noble titles. And for a hundred years positions as judges were a privilege for the nobility - at least on the paper. The number of interested noble men was not always sufficient.

    From 1611 the noble privileges are further outlined. Judicial processes against noble men are to be directed to the Svea Hovrätt - the court of appeal in the capital. It's also arranged that the highest state officials necessarily have to be noble: the drots (minister of Justice), marsk (commander in chief), admiral, chancellor, treasurer, fiscal office directors & the governors. This came to last until Gustav III's second revolution 1789.

    The 17th century was the golden epoque of the peerage. At the end of queen Christina's reign 1654 the twelve peers of 1625 had multiplied to 81 families; lots of counties had been granted in reward for duties in the 30-years' war, and thereby reducing the tax (and rent) incomes for the state. Not only were the lands and incomes of the nobility exempt from taxation, but with the raise to peerage followed often also grants of state-owned lands. Seemingly the wage-demands raised as much among higher state employee of the 17th century as at the end of the 20th.

    1611-1719 nobility is the prerequisite for careers in both military and civil service. Consequently nobilitation becomes the means to get the most competent persons promoted. The majority in the noble estate had been raised to their current rank in their own lifetime. Their solidarity & identification was not with the old rich nobility, but with the crown which had given them their position and often also with the commoners which they knew as friends and family.

    Politically the peerage secured a leading role 1626-1680 by the invention of a new noble class (23 families called the knighthood) between the 12 peerage families and the écuyers ("Swains" - Svenneklassen) of the untitled nobility. The new class consisted of descendants to prior members of the State Council, which again became very influential 1626-1672 as the kings and queens used to be under age or abroad in wars. At votings in the first estate the peerage, the knighthood and the untitled nobility had one vote each. 35 families got two votes against the one vote by the 90 families of the untitled nobility. Thirty years later it was two votes to 81 families and one vote for the other 600 families.

    1634 - 1845 the courts of appeal in the realm are required to have half of their judges appointed among noble men, and the other half among commoners.

    1650-1789 about 60 positions in the civil service were reserved for noble men.
    1723-1789 about 60 military positions were reserved too.

    Diminishing power

    King Karl XI took support by the three lower estates 1680, withdraw most of the granted land, and was made dictator. The State Council was however not abolished until Gustav III's second revolution 1789, confirmed in the constitution of 1809. The economic and politic supremacy of the peerage was however finished.

    Karl XII (the son of Karl XI) failed in his wars, and was followed by 53 years of parliamentarism during which the first estate was ruled by the poor untitled nobility earning their living mainly as state officials. The clergy was ruled by poor priests, the burghers in the third estate weren't yet rich and the peasantry wasn't either.

    1719-1772 the power to prepare laws (including tax-laws) is practically shared between the noble State Council and the parliament's secret standing committee, in which the noble estate appointed the half of the members, and the clergy and the burghers one fourth each. The peasantry was not trusted to handle matters of foreign policy, military plans and state finances, which were the official purpose of the secret standing committee.

    1719-1809 nobilitation is however restricted, and hence commoners come to be appointed to higher and higher positions in the civil service. The ambitious commoners came to lose both the faith in the legitimacy of the noble privileges and to lose their feeling of identification with the nobility as it became more and more impossible for them selves to get nobilitated. The socio-cultural abyss between nobility and commoners widened.

    Parliamentarians in all estates became notorious for their contentiousness and susceptibility to bribes. The rich peerage could maybe have been less corruptible, but they were far too few to have any influence in the majority decisions and the party strifes.

    The principle of peers in the State Council got less and less support until the council was definitely abolished 1809/12.

    In the 1860:s the first estate negotiated about its own abolition. Probably it could be argued that the liberals of the noble estate managed to save the nation from much societal disturbance through the acceptance of a compromise: hereditary political privileges were exchanged for political privileges to the rich and wealthy. However, it turned out that the farmers were rich enough to count, and Swedish politics at the end of the 19th century were dominated by the Agrarians' interests, rather than those of the upper and middle class.

    From the constitution of 1809 new peerages and knight-hoods are worn only by the head of the family. However, as the privilege of older noble families to title or nobility has not been touched, this concerns only the 40 men enobeled after 1809.

    20th century

    The last person to be nobilitated in Sweden was the explorer Sven Hedin in 1902. And his title was hereditary, too. Only he wasn't married, not taking too keen an interest in women, and thus concluded his own noble house. Some years before Adolf Fredrik Nordenskjöld, already a nobleman by birth, had received a baronage after the completion of the North-East passage.

    At the turn of the century there weren't many of the noble privileges left. The tax exemption was in principle abolished 1810, as was the requirement to appoint noble men to certain positions in the civil service. But still nobility according to the law was to be milder treated by the police and the courts, had wider right to beat their servants than commoners had, had some advantages over for other creditors in case the debtor lived on their land, and some remaining privileges regarding hunting. And judicial processes regarding inheritance and family matters were still to be started at the court of appeal in the capital, where it could be avoided to let commoners to judge noble men.

    Today there are 25'000 Swedes who belong to the nobility (in the wide sense). But since many live abroad the actual figure is less. [Source: Raneke, j. "Svensk Adelsheraldik", Corona 1990]

    There are 46 countal families, however not necessarily with a county of theirs; 122 families of baron's rank; and 441 families of the untitled nobility. In the Swedish system, all male members of a countal family nobilitated before 1809 are styled as counts, like all male members of the baronal families are barons.

    The head of each of these families has a seat in the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset), which used to be one of the four estates of parliament untill 1865. Therefore it would be a mistake to say that the untitled nobility is the same as British gentry.

    ...Oh, yes, "county" (grevskap) in this sense has nothing to do with the regional governmental units (the län) but stands for the lands over which the forefathers of the count once had certain privileges.

    The term grevskap (county as in a count's domain) has no judicial meaning since hundreds of years, but the word can still be heard among people who live there. The meaning is the area which is dominated by a count's manor (gods in Swedish), owning much of the land and/or being a major employer.

    Except for in the conquered but not yet incorporated provinces Halland and Scania the privilege to receive tax from the county was withdrawn in 1680. The privilege to appoint judges and priests were also abolished a long time ago (except in Scania and Halland), but in practice did the noble magnates of course continue to have a deciding influence ...and so had also the common magnates and industrialists well into the 20th century. ...Actually there remained also a few cases of noble lords who until the 1910s retained their old privileges to appoint priests in their "own" village churches.

    The southern provinces (Scania, Blekinge and Halland) were gained in the peace of Roskilde 1658 and contributed with a different culture. The commoners owned virtually no land, and the influence of the lords remained overwhelming for centuries. However small to their area these provinces represented a considerable increase in the number of Swedish citizens. Finally, in 1945, the agricultural manors were by law forced to improve the conditions for their employees, and hence the rural proletarians were converted to tenant farmers. The land is still owned by the countal manor, often converted to a company, and is rented on long terms, for instance on 20 years.

    How to address nobles correctly?

    Members of the nobility aren't usually recognized as such. When it's called to attention, it's more likely to serve as disparaging or ridiculing. Although the peerage might be correctly refereed to and addressed in gossip magazines.
    The title of barons is "Friherren" but in speech they are addressed as "Baron" (the baron). With counts and royals it's much easier: they are always "the Count", "the Prince", "the Queen" or "the King" (Greven, Prinsen, Drottningen & Kungen). Words as Ers nåd or Ers Kungliga Höghet (my Lord, your Lordship, Your Royal Highness) belong to the world of historic films and novels.

    ...well, of course there exists one exception. Of Sweden's 124 barons one actually has the hereditary title "Baron" and a Barony, the equivalent to an own county, (Baroniet Adelswärd) in south eastern Östergötland / north eastern Småland.

    In families enobeled before 1799, all members have the noble status with one exception (count Beck-Friis). In families enobled between 1799 and 1809 the head of the family and his oldest son according to the principle of primogenitur have the title. For families enobled after 1809, only the head of the family has the noble status (and the title) according to the 37th paragraph of the constitution of 1809.

    The king's right to award nobleship disapeard after the constitution of 1975. However, the Nobility was never abolished in Sweden as for instance it was in Germany or Norway. The legal basis of the Nobility are regulated in the riddarhusordningen last rewritten 1866.

    Foreign Nobility do not have Swedish noble status and are not represented at the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset), but there is an "association of unintroduced Nobility" in Sweden with 92 families of foreign descent represented. Frequently in the history, foreign noblemen have been made Swedish by the king through a process called naturalization. Looking in the adelskalendern (the catalogue of families represented at the House of Nobility) one can roughly estimate that at least 1/3 of the Swedish nobility have immigrated.

    It's now probably no surprise for the reader that the nobility of politicians as the former prime minister Carl Bildt or the late Social Democratic Cabinet member and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld never has been made a part of their image.


    Table of contributors:

    Klaus Ole Kristiansen <klaus@diku.dk>
    Leif Euren <leeu@celsiustech.se>
    Jan Alvar Lindencrona <janalvar.lindencrona@mailbox.swipnet.se>
    Charles Stewart <Charles.Stewart@SEN.CA.GOV>
    Hiski Haapoja <kisu@sci.fi>
    Hans C Hoff <hchoff@sn.no>
    Jan Böhme <Jan.Bohme@imun.su.se>
    Rolf Manne <Rolf.Manne@kj.uib.no>
    Johan Olofsson <jmo@lysator.liu.se>



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    - Is the text above really reliable?
    - See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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