Military-Monastic Orders in France

The famous Middle-Eastern orders had branches or priories in France since the Middle Ages. The following orders still maintain a presence in France: Malta, Holy Sepulchre, others?

On Malta, see the separate article on the Order of Malta. As far as France was concerned, three of the seven “Langues” of the order (Provence, Auvergne and France) were within the kingdom of France. Each langue was headed by a Pilier (pillar), the pillar of Provence was grand-commander, the pillar of Auvergne was grand-marshal, and the pillar of France grand-hospitaller. Each langue was divided in grand-priories and commanderies (89 in Provence, 40 in Auvergne, 134 in France). The nobiliary requirements in the French langues were four generations of nobility on both paternal and maternal side. The Maltese cross as worn by French knights had fleur-de-lis between the branches, and the ribbon was black.

The case of the Ordre de Saint-Lazare is particular. After leaving Palestine, the order survived in obscurity in several places, including Italy and France. In 1572 the order was placed under the protection of the duke of Savoie and merged with that house’s Order of Saint-Maurice, and became one of the dynastic orders of Savoie and later Italy, bestowed to this day by the head of the house of Savoie. The French branch, however, refused to obey the Papal bull and continued in existence. It was amalgamated in 1608 with the newly created order of Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel (founded by Henri IV in 1604 to publicize his conversion to Catholicism) with the Pope’s approval in 1668. Louis XIV merged into this order the order of Saint-Esprit de Montpellier (1711), and the fraternities of the Saint-Sépulcre (founded in 1317 by Louis de Bourbon) and Saint-Antoine. The Order of Saint-Lazare et Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel was placed in 1757 under the French king’s protection, who made himself sovereign head, and made his 3-year old grandson the duc de Berry (future Louis XVI) grandmaster; later, in 1773. another grandson, the comte de Provence (future Louis XVIII) became grandmaster at the ripe age of 16. Under French kings, the order was mainly used as a source of appointments to plum positions, much as abbés-commenditaires who were abbots only in name and in collecting the revenues of their abbeys. Both orders ceased to be bestowed after they were abolished on July 30, 1791 and their estates nationalized.

Elsewhere I discuss the 20th century revival of the Order of Saint-Lazarus.

As a French order (1608-1791), the insignia of the united order was as follows. The ribbon of Saint-Lazare was purple (amaranth) and the Maltese cross or. For Carmel, the ribbon was brown and the cross purple. The arms of the the combined orders were Argent a cross quarterly vert (Saint-Lazare) and purpure (Mont-Carmel).

Arms of a knight grand-cross of Saint-Lazare and Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel. Notice the chief argent bears a cross quarterly vert and purpure. The cross behind the shield is vert fimbriated or, as is the insignia hanging from the collar.

There is more information on the Order of Saint-Lazarus.

The Ordre du Saint-Esprit de Montpellier was founded in 1195 and given a religious, hospitaller and military status in 1198. It was suppressed by Louis XIV in 1672, then recreated in 1693 and finally merged with Saint-Lazare in 1711.

Source: heraldica.org

Recognition of Nobility

As should be clear by now, there is no nobility in France, therefore there is no way to authenticate one’s noble status.

However, there exists a prestigious private institution that can certify one’s descent from noble ancestors by virtue of the original rules of transmission of nobility (ascendance noble).  The Association de la Noblesse Française (ANF) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1932 and “reconnue d’utilité publique” in 1967. Its current president is the marquis de Vogüé. It has about 2,000 families on its roster, about two thirds of the eligible number of families. Its committee on proofs applies criteria very strictly. The only eligible members are those who would be noble under the rules of the Old Regime or the regimes that followed and recognized nobility.

Source: heraldica.org

Usurpation of Titles and Criminal Law

Usurping a title exposes one to civil suits by the injured parties.  But it also is a breach of criminal law, which can result in a suit in criminal courts, either brought by the public prosecutor, or more commonly by an aggrieved private party (partie civile dans une action publique).  The case is then usually brought before a criminal court.

The 1810 edition of the Penal Code included article 259 which stated: “Toute personne qui aura publiquement porté un costume, un uniforme ou une décoration qui ne lui appartiendrait pas, ou qui se sera attribué sans droit un titre impérial qui ne lui aurait pas été légalement conféré, sera punie d’un emprisonnement de six mois à deux ans et d’une amende de 500 à 5000F.”  The article was dropped in 1832.  It took a law of 28 May 1858 to revive it and it remained in the Penal Code until 1993, in the following form:

Art. 259.§3.  Sera puni d’une amende de 1800F à 60000F, quiconque, sans droit et en vue de s’attribuer une distinction honorifique, aura publiquement pris un titre, changé, altéré ou modifié le nom que lui assignent les actes de l’état civil.”

According to the jurisprudence, this article did not only punish those who usurp a nobiliary title but also those who, by modifying their family name, try to give it an honorific appearance.  The use of a “particule” and of a famous name necessarily fall into that category.

“les prévenus avaient pour but, par ostentation, de s’attribuer, à la faveur d’une équivoque, l’apparence de la noblesse [...] l’article 259 du code pénal ne punissant pas seulement ceux qui prennent sans droit un titre proprement dit, mais aussi ceux qui, par une altération ou une modification de leur nom patronymique, entendent lui imprimer une apparence honorifique.” (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 janv. 1959; Gazette du Palais 1959 1.220)

“l’adjonction, sans droit, d’une particule et d’un nom illustre caractérise nécessairement le but d’acquérir une distinction honorifique” (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 févr. 1957; Gazette du Palais 1957 1.353)

The usurpation had to be public: this publicity could result from the use of the usurped title in all social and commercial intercourse.  The usurpation had to be intentional: the intention could be evidenced by the refusal to desist when warned.
“[... les prévenus] n’ont cessé depuis lors de l’utiliser [le nom] dans tous les actes de leur vie sociale, commerciale et mondaine [...] il s’ensuit de là que la publicité de l’usurpation a été constatée [...] la persistance des prévenus à faire usage de ce nom, malgré les invitations, et en dépit même d’une mise en demeure notifiée le …, établit qu’ils n’étaient pas de bonne foi” (Cour de Cassation, ch. criminelles, 14 janv. 1959; Gazette du Palais 1959 1.220)

There was in fact a fair amount of precedent in the matter: case of a man who called himself d’Aigueperce; case of a man who added the name of his wife to his own, misspelling it so as to add a particule; case of a man who had added the particule to his name on his doorplate and in the marriage contract of his daughter; case of a man who had added a particule to his name while registering a company (see Répertoire général, code pénal).

In 1936, a certain Philippe Dissandes de la Villatte claimed to be “duc de Saint-Simon” (a title he claimed to be Montenegrin), wore a number of decorations (including St. George of Burgundy) and went around in public in a uniform of Italian general.  He received a suspended sentence of 8 days of jail and a fine of 500F (Trib. correct. de la Seine, 9 déc. 1936; Recueil Sirey 1937, 2.133).

The present form of the law in the Penal Code (since 1993, except for the conversion of francs to euros) is as follows: “Article 433-17. L’usage, sans droit, d’un titre attaché à une profession réglementée par l’autorité publique ou d’un diplôme officiel ou d’une qualité dont les conditions d’attribution sont fixées par l’autorité publique est puni d’un an d’emprisonnement et de 15000 euros d’amende.

Article 433-19. Est puni de six mois d’emprisonnement et de 7500 euros d’amende le fait, dans un acte public ou authentique ou dans un document administratif destiné à l’autorité publique et hors les cas où la réglementation en vigueur autorise à souscrire ces actes ou documents sous un état civil d’emprunt :

  1. De prendre un nom ou un accessoire du nom autre que celui assigné par l’état civil ;
  2. De changer, altérer ou modifier le nom ou l’accessoire du nom assigné par l’état civil.

Source: heraldica.org

Disputes over Titles in Civil Courts

Two separate jurisdictions exist, civil courts and administrative courts. The jurisprudence has established that civil courts can only draw the legal consequences of a title recognized by the Conseil and uncontested.

“Les tribunaux de l’ordre judiciaire sont incompétents pour connaître de contestations entre particuliers sur l’existence et la sincérité de titres nobiliaires; ils ne sont compétents que pour tirer les conséquences juridiques des titres nobiliaires dûment reconnus par les autorités compétentes ou non contestés.”  Cour de Cassation, 17 Nov 1891. Sirey 1893, 1.25.

For example, it can require inclusion of the title on a birth certificate (in 1910, the duc de Rivoli got the courts to allow the inclusion of the title “comte de Rivoli” on the birth certificate of his son). It can protect the title from usurpation (in 1898, a duc de Montebello sued a partnership formed by his uncles for use of his name and arms on wine labels; in 1936, the duc de Noailles sued his nephew to prevent him from using the title of marquis de Noailles). However, if the dispute is over the title itself: the validity, the meaning or the applicability of the acts which created or confirmed the title, then the administrative authority (the Conseil d’administration) has full authority, with appeal to the administrative court of Paris and then to the Conseil d’État, which is the administrative supreme court. Thus, the Conseil d’État has the final word on titles.

Disputes over titles were not uncommon in the late 19th century, but are now rather rare. Recent examples include the complex case of baron d’Huart in 1983 (Conseil d’Etat, Feb. 25, 1983) and the famous case of the title of duc d’Anjou (Paris court of appeals, Nov. 22, 1989).

Source: heraldica.org

Current Status of Titles of Nobility in France

At present, titles have not been abolished. The final establishment of a Republic in 1875 left them in a kind of limbo, and it took a succession of court cases to define the jurisprudence, which is now well established. The President has ceased to confer or confirm titles, but the French state still verifies them,  civil courts can protect them, criminal courts can prosecute their abuse.

Titles as Part of the Name

Titles, to the degree that they exist in French law (that is, represent enforceable rights and obligations), exist as part of the family name or patronym, and get the same protection in civil courts as the latter.
“Les titres nobiliaires, dépouillés aujourd’hui de tout privilège féodal et même de tout privilège de rang, n’ont plus qu’un caractère personnel et honorofique et ne peuvent même plus être considérés, du point de vue juridique, que comme un complément du nom patronymique permettant de mieux distinguer l’identité des personnes, tout en perpétuant de grands souvenirs; si, en vertu de cette sorte de lien de subordination entre le titre nobiliaire et le nom patronymique, il est dû la même protection au titre qu’au nom, on ne lui doit pas une protection spéciale et privilégiée.” Paris, 2 Jan 1896. Dalloz 1896 2.328

Titles are not a full part of the family name, however, for a variety of reasons: they are not inherited by all children equally, but rather follow the rules of inheritance determined by the original grant or act of creation. Also, no one can be forced to use his title. Titles are, however, accessories of the family name, complements which help to distinguish among members of a family. As such, they are entitled to the same legal protection from usurpation as the family name.
“Si le titre de comte comme tout autre titre quelconque ne fait pas partie intégrante du nom patronymique puisque les titulaires ne sont pas tenus de l’ajouter à leur nom en vertu de la maxime “n’est titré qui ne veut”, du moins ce titre se rattache au nom comme un complément permettant de mieux distinguer l’identité des personnes.  Par suite, ce titre doit bénéficier de la même protection légale que le nom lui-même, ceux qui en sont investis ayant intérêt tout à la fois à en défendre la propriété et à prévenir des confusions préjudiciables”; Tribunal de Paris, 18 juillet 1893; Dalloz 1893, 2.7
“…à la vérité, le titre ne se confond pas avec le nom et ne forme pas avec lui un tout indivisible; des règles particulières président à la transmission du nom qui passe avec le sang à tous les descendants indéfiniment, sans distinction du sexe, tandis que le titre ne se transmet qu’aux descendants mâles, par ordre de primogéniture, suivant la loi de son origine” Paris, 2 Jan 1896. Dalloz 1896 2.328
“Doivent être respectées pour un titre les conditions de transmissibilité qui lui sont imposées par l’acte de création.”  Trib. Civil Seine, 25 Jan 1928.
“Si les titres nobiliaires n’entraînent plus de privilèges d’aucune sorte, ils n’en doivent pas moins être maintenus dans le caractère qui leur a été donné à l’origine, en tant qu’il est compatible avec l’ordre social, et dans les conditions de transmissibilité qui leur ont été imposées par l’acte de création.”  Cour de Cassation 25 Oct 1898. Dalloz 1899 1.168

Although some pre-1789 titles could be inherited in female line, the courts have decided that this cannot take place anymore.
“La transmission des titres ne se fait plus, dans le droit moderne, que de mâle à mâle.”  Trib. Civ. Falaise, 21 Fév 1959.

Under the pre-1789 regime, it was not uncommon for a M. X, owner of a lordship called Y, to have himself called “M. X de Y” (whether or not he was noble).  It is still possible today for a French family to have such an addition to its family name, but only on the basis of ancient, public and continuous usage prior to the French Revolution (Angers 29 juin 1896, Dalloz 1898, 2.217).
“L’usage établi avant 1789 d’ajouter aux noms de famille des noms de terres nobles ou de fiefs ne peut créer un droit que s’il est estayé d’une possession ancienne publique, acceptée par tous et régulièrement constatée.  Il est nécessaire d’ailleurs que le nom de famille précède le nom noble.  Une personne ne doit pas être admise, pour établir son droit d’ajouter à son nom patronymique, à se prévaloir d’une possession accidentelle et intermittente de ce nom que ses auteurs n’ont jamais considéré que comme un titre ou une dénomination honorifique qu’ils n’entendaient ni substituer ni incorporer à leur nom d’origine.”  Angers, 12 août 1901.

The only way to acquire a title is to inherit it according to its original rules of transmission.  In particular, it cannot be acquired prescriptively by usage.
“si le titre nobiliaire suit, en général, les règles du nom patronymique, il ne s’acquiert pas, comme lui, par le simple usage, même prolongé; il lui faut, à l’origine, une investiture émanant de l’autorité souveraine” Civ. 11 mai 1948, Dalloz 1948 335.

Verification of Titles: the “Conseil du Sceau des Titres”

Establishing the right to a title can only be done by a branch of the executive.  The courts cannot establish the right to a title (but they can protect it).
“L’autorité judiciaire est incompétente pour reconnaître ou dénier à une personne le droit de porter un titre nobiliaire.”  Angers, 28 juin 1896. Dalloz 1898, 2.217

The basic principle behind all this is the French version of the separation of powers. Titles of nobility essentially arise from the exercise of the sovereign’s prerogative; and, in that respect, the executive branch (as represented by the ministry of Justice) is the heir of sovereigns past.  So questions arising over the meaning and intent of these sovereign acts should be resolved by the sovereign or his modern equivalent.  There is appeal from such decisions to the administrative courts only to ensure that the executive branch has acted coherently and in conformity with its own rules, but the ordinary courts have nothing to say because this is not a matter of justice, but a matter of grace, so to speak.

The agency in charge of this was originally the Conseil du Sceau des Titres, created by Napoleon in 1808.  At the time, its purpose was to advise the sovereign on requests to create a majorat, the landed endowment to which Napoleon’s hereditary titles were attached, and to supervise their administration.  In particular, it delivered all letters patent related to nobiliary titles.  (See the article on Napoleonic nobility and on majorats).  When the monarchy was restored in 1814, it replaced the conseil du Sceau des titres with a commission du sceau at the ministry of Justice,staffed by high-ranking civil servants and chaired by the Minister of Justice as Keeper of the Seals (ord. 15 July 1814).  Later, this commission was abolished, its offices formed the division du sceau in the ministry of justice, and its decision-making powers transferred to the conseil d’administration of the ministry (ord. 31 Oct 1830).   The conseil du sceau as a separate entity was recreated by Napoleon III (decree 8 Jan 1859).  At that time, however, majorats had been abolished (in 1835), so the functions could not be the same.  Instead,  the decree of 1859 therefore made changes to its purpose.  It gave the conseil two functions:

  1. to advise the sovereign on requests for grants, confirmations or recognition of titles (demandes en collation, confirmation et reconnaissance de titres), final decision resting with the sovereign;
  2. to “verify” any title upon request by any citizen.

Finally, the conseil was again and finally abolished on Jan 10, 1872, and its offices and functions transferred to the ministry of Justice as in 1830.  This is the current situation.

Since an administrative decision taken in 1875 by the president of the Republic to cease grants, confirmations and recognitions, the first activity set out in the decree of 1859 is not exercised.  The second activity, however, remains.

To verify claim to a title, one must therefore contact the Conseil d’administration du ministère de la Justice, and present evidence relating to the creation of the title in full accordance with the laws in force at the time of creation (before 1789: the king, by letters patent; 1808-1815: by Imperial decree; 1815-1848: by Royal letters patent; 1852-1870: by Imperial decree; 1871-77: by presidential decree) and proof that he is the individual designated by the applicable rules of transmission to bear the title at present.  The office in charge was until 1947 the “bureau du sceau de France”; since then, the office has changed within the ministry of justice.  At present, the “bureau du droit civil général”, an office in the sous-direction de la législation civile, de la nationalité et de la procédure carries out the duties (direction des affaires civiles et du sceau – Sceau de France; 13 Place Vendôme 75 042 Paris, France).

It prepares a report to the conseil, which then transmits its opinion to the Minister of Justice, who may then issue an arrêt authorizing the inscription of the individual on the Registre du Sceau (at a cost of 2000F). The individual can then use this document to obtain insertion of his title on any legal document, including birth certificate, identity card, passport, etc.  The procedure must be repeated at every generation, because the arrêt is valid ad personam.

This procedure is necessary in order to establish a claim beyond doubt.  It does not mean that the right to a title does not exist until such time.  Nor does it mean that the legal consequences of a right to a title cannot be sought in ordinary courts or from certain government officials.  In fact, there is ample jurisprudence to show that one can obtain the insertion of a title in the registry of the Etat civil or defend a title against usurpation based on a court decision alone, without verification by the conseil (see the cases cited in the note Pr. André Ponsard, Répertoire Dalloz 1958 283).  Since an administrative memorandum of the interior ministry of 1966, however, officers of the Etat civil are instructed to refuse insertion of titles in birth, marriage and death registrations without a verification.  There is no legal basis for that decision.

All confirmations of titles can be found:

from 1830 to 1908
Révérend, Albert, vicomte: Titres et confirmations de titres: monarchie de juillet, seconde République, Second Empire, Troisième République. Paris, 1908 (2 vol.; reprint Paris, 1974, 1 vol.).
from 1908 to 1958
Descheemaeker, Jacques: Les titres de noblesse en France et dans les pays Étrangers; Paris, 1958, Les Cahiers Nobles.
from 1958 to 1987
Texier, Alain: Qu’est-ce que la noblesse?; Paris, 1987, pp. 407-10.

From 1872 to 1992, 407 arrêts were issued (190 since 1908).

From 1958 to 1987 there have been 53, roughly twice a year on average.  If one counts about a thousand titles in existence and an average of 35 years between generations, then this means that only about 6% of those who could ask for a confirmation of title do so.  This is small, but not negligible.

Source: heraldica.org

Current Status and Recent History

  1. There is no such thing as nobility in France today. French courts have held that the concept of nobility is incompatible with the equality of all citizens before the law proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, which is legally part of the Constitution of 1958.
  2. However, there are titles, which are considered part of the legal name, and entitled to the same protections in French civil and criminal courts, even though they give no privilege or precedence (the way they do in Great Britain). Regulation of titles is carried out by a bureau of the Ministry of Justice.

This seeming paradox is disconcerting.  It stems from several facts:

  1. the abolition of feudalism and privileges in 1789, which did away with the legal status of nobility,
  2. the restoration of titles in 1808 by Napoleon, and their confirmation by the successive monarchical regimes until 1870
  3. the fact that the successive republican regimes have never passed any laws on the subject of titles.

The Revolution did away with nobility and titles, titles were restored (not nobility), and the Republic has not done anything about titles.  How to reconcile these facts?   The kings and successive governments did not resolve the problem with very explicit laws.  The courts were left to resolve it on their own, through a process of jurisprudence.  Thus, French nobiliary law is mostly based on court cases.

Source: heraldica.org