"Chevalier" in the French nobility

Contents

Introduction

The word "chevalier" originally means "knight," that is, horse-riding warrior (from Latin caballus, horse). It came to take a number of different meanings that are easily confused.

"Chevalier" as grade of nobility

Originally, knighthood was an induction into a body of professional soldiers, trained in specialized combat and bound by certain rules of conduct. THe first stage of apprenticeship led to the status of "ecuyer" or esquire, after which one could become a knight after a particular ceremony, whose details varied.

By the time knights ceased to be an effective part of warfare in the 16th c., the ceremony had ceased to be practiced, and the term had become honorary. What exactly it meant, and who could use it, is a little unclear. An ordonnance of 1629 prohibited anyone from using the style of knight "who have not received it from our predecessors or ourselves, or who do not deserve it by the eminence of their quality" ("deffendons à tous non-Nobles d'en prendre la qualité, de se dire Escuyers, ny porter Armoiries timbrées; & à toutes personnes de prendre la qualité de Chevalier, s'ils ne l'ont obtenuë de nos predecesseurs ou de Nous, ou que l'eminence de leur qualité ne la leur attribuë"). In the mid-18th century, Diderot's Encyclopédie defined the term as "signifie proprement une personne élevée ou par dignité ou par attribution au-dessus du rang de gentilhomme" (s.v. chevalier), and lists as first privilege of the nobility "à pouvoir prendre la qualité d'écuyer ou de chevalier, selon que leur noblesse est plus ou moins qualifiée, & à communiquer les mêmes qualités & les privileges qui y sont attachés à leurs femmes quoique roturieres, & à leurs enfans & autres descendans mâles & femelles" (s.v. noblesse). It also defines "noblesse de chevalerie"as "celle qui provient de la qualité de chevalier, attribuée à quelqu'un ou à ses ancêtres, en lui donnant l'accolade" (s.v. noblesse de chevalerie).

Jurists differed on whether the style was hereditary. La Roque ( Traité de la Noblesse, 1678; p. 344) thought not: "c'est un abus que de faire deux degrés de Noblesse, l'un de Chevalier, l'autre d'Ecuyer: et la Chevalerie ne vient point de la naissance, mais dépend absolument de la grace du Prince." For him, the title was ad personam and could only be granted by the king, either by ceremony or through the grant of "lettres de chevalerie", for which Lar Roque provides examples from 1315.

"Chevalier" as member of an order of knighthood

Chevalier was also a title attached to members of the orders of knighthood: these were, of course, purely ad personam. Note, however, that by an edict of 1750, three consecutive generations of officers who were recipients of the order of Saint-Louis and who met certain requirements on duration of service endowed the issue of the 3d member with hereditary nobility (but not knighthood; see more details).  This feature was recalled in an ordonnance of 1814 discussed below.

No French order of knighthood conferred nobility per se, so these knights were not noble.

"Chevalier" as title

Generally speaking, "chevalier" was not a French title of nobility. There are, however, a number of exceptions. The first one dates to the time of Louis XIV. The second exception, the most complex, dates to the time of Napoleon and the Restoration.  Much of what follows comes from Alain Texier: Qu'est-ce que la noblesse? Paris: 1987, Tallandier. pp. 357-372.

"Chevalier" under the Old Regime

Traditionally, chevalier was not a title of nobility in France. It was, however, in certain French-speaking countries neighboring France, in particular in Franche-Comté and Flanders, both under Burgundian and later Spanish domination. Paul Janssens (Evolution de la noblesse belge depuis la fin du moyen âge. Brussels: 1998, Crédit Communal).  Initially prized as marking, as in France, ancient nobility, it was bestowed freely to newly ennobled in the 17th c.  The bulk of the grants were made between 1600 and 1660.  Janssens says (p. 386) there were 8 conferrals of "lettres de chevalerie" from 1401 (really from Charles V) to 1587, 1170 from 1588 to 1709, and 144 from 1710 to 1794.  Of those, 218 were made in the provinces that were annexed by France in the late 17th century (Artois, the Lille-Douai-Orchies parts of Flanders, the Tournaisis part of Hainault, and Franche-Comté).  However, until 1765 all titles of chevalier granted in the Netherlands were ad personam.  It was only under Austrian rule that the title was granted to all descendants in male line (male and female!), as in the Holy Roman Empire.

Louis XIV gained parts of Flanders in 1668 and Franche-Comté in 1678; he continued the practice of issuing lettres de chevalerie  (although La Roque (Traité de la Noblesse, 1734, p. 69) cites (French?) examples from 1315 to 1605).  Bouly de Lesdain, in Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et des Curieux, Nov. 1965, col. 1043, cites creations by Louis XIV in 1660 in Artois, 1669-71 in French Flanders and Hainault. More importantly, in November 1702, at the onset of the War of Spanish Succession, Louis XIV promulgated an edict creating 200 hereditary titles of chevalier, which could be obtained for a fee by any untitled member of the nobility of Flanders, Artois, and Hainault. The title was transmissible to all male descendants of the grantee.  Not all letters had been sold by 1789.  See the text of one such letter below.

These titles are highly unusual, in part because of their explicit geographical limitation.  They are also a departure from the normal forms for titles in pre-1789 France, because  the title didn't seem to be attached to land: no fiefs were raised to a "chevalerie".  That is not the only such departure, as the king had started granting purely nominal hereditary titles (such as marquis).

The case of Chambge de Liessart

Séraphin du Chambge, a resident of Flanders, received the title of chevalier ad personam from Philip IV of Spain on 6 Oct 1662 (Janssens).  He became French with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668. He received letters confirming his nobility from Louis XIV on 1 October 1673, a requirement in order to enjoy the status of noble in France after the annexation of their home-town. But he received separate letters patent or "lettres de chevalerie", on 29 Oct 1673, conferring on him the title of "chevalier". These letters were issued by Louis XIV, and are therefore a French title.

That the family became part of the French nobility is without doubt. They appear in Jougla de Morenas, Woëlmont de Brumagne and even Saint-Simon and Séréville, even though they are extinct since 1872 according to Woëlmont de Brumagne. Four members of the family showed up when the nobility of Flanders was called to elect its representatives for the Estates General of 1789. Two of them (Pierre-Ernest-Joseph, seigneur de Noyelles and Charles-Louis-Philippe, seigneur de Douay) are styled "chevalier" in the rolls (La Roque & Barthélémy: Liste des Gentilhommes ...). The other two, as it happens, were elected representative and deputy-representative: Louis-Séraphin du Chambge, baron de Noyelles (1732-94) who resigned in December 1789 because of his dislike of the Revolution, and his replacement Pierre-Joseph du Chambge, seigneur d'Elbecq (1733-93), an army officer who was a strong supporter of the Revolution (he resumed active service in 1792 and was sent to the Pyrenees front where he died of natural death).

The Liessart branch, settled in Lille, continued to use the title of chevalier, and the death certificate of one of them, dated 1825, also uses the title. The problem that the letters patent of 1673 were not explicit about the mode of transmission. So, in 1852, when they tried to change the spelling of their name from Duchambge to Du Chambge de Liessart and insert the title of "chevalier" in the Etat civil, they failed in the civil courts (they did get the spelling change). Hence their recourse to the Conseil du sceau, who confirmed their hereditary title of chevalier by decree of 25 Jun 1860 (case reported in Recueil Sirey 1852, part 2, p. 102).

There are other examples of surviving hereditary titles of chevalier.  Perusing Woëlmont de Brumagne's volumes on La noblesse subsistante, one finds a grant of lettres de chevalerie to the family de Perrey in Franche-Comté, in 1720.  The other examples are all from Artois, Flanders and Hainaut, which can be checked in Séréville and Saint-Simon (those missing in the latter are marked "extinct?"):

  • Couronnel: chevalier, Philip IV 10 June 1655 (not in Janssens); lettres de chevalerie July 1725, marquis 1771 (extinct 1924)
  • Enlart de Grandval: February 1787 (extinct 1930)
  • Hauteclocque: lettres de chevalerie 1752 (famous for one descendant, general Leclerc de Hauteclocque)
  • Le Clément de Saint-Marcq: chevalier héréditaire by letters of Dec 1692, registered 11 Aug 1693; also in Belgium with the title of chevalier 1827
  • Le Sergeant d'Hendecourt: lettres de chevalerie 3 Aug 1679
  • Le Vasseur de Bombecque-Mazinghem: lettres de chevalerie héréditaire Jul 1776
  • d'Oresmieux de Fourquière: letters of chevalerie June 1750, registered 10 Aug 1751 (extinct?)
  • Quarré de Boiry: lettres de chevalerie 28 Feb 1723
  • du Rietz: chevalier letters patent of Louis XIV Aug 1660, registered 12 Nov 1660 (extinct?)
Several French noble families were listed as having received the title of chevalier from the Habsburg rulers of the Low Countries, but with no indication of a confirmation by French kings.  If Janssens is to be believed, none of those grants could have been hereditary, so the titles (absent a French grant) are doubtful.
  • Calonne (Caloen) de Beaufait: chevalier, LP of 8 Apr 1623 (in Janssens, p. 427) (extinct?)
  • Le Boucq de Castro: chevalier, LP 10 Nov 1659 (in Janssens, p. 424), viscount 1817; resident in Belgium
  • Sars: chevalier héréditaire, LP of 22 Jul 1691 (Woëlmont) or 1671 (Séréville and Saint-Simon) (not in Janssens, who only has letters of ennoblement 24 Dec 1656; S and S-S claim these were cancelled at the grantee's request)
  • Scherer de Scherbourg: chevalier héréditaire, LP 16 May 1710 by Philip V (not in Janssens) (extinct 20th c.)

"Chevalier" under Napoleon

Under Napoleon, "chevalier" became a full-fledged title of nobility. It was originally bound with the Legion of Honor, and the legislation that governed it was complex and confusing.  There are 5 different ways in which a chevalier could be created.
 
  1. Under Napoleon, a member of the Legion of Honor (created in 1802) was a légionnaire, not a chevalier.  However, when Napoleon created titles of Nobility by the decree of 1 March 1808, he gave the title of "chevalier de l'Empire" ad personam to all members of the Legion of Honor without any formality (art. 11). Anyone one of them could style himself "chevalier N" or "N, chevalier de l'Empire."  Furthermore (art. 12), those who could prove they had at least 3000F of revenues (no majorat was required) could receive letters patent that made the title "transmissible", that is, conditionally hereditary: a decree of confirmation was required at each generation, failing which the title was not transmitted (the requirement was not vacuous, as there is a known example of a confirmation refused).  It was thus not purely hereditary. It passed by male primogeniture to legitimate or adoptive descent in male line.  

    This restriction was weakened by a decree of 3 March 1810 which declared that the confirmation was required only of heirs of the original grantee up to the 3d generation (unless they happened to be members of the Legion of Honor), but that after 3 such confirmations, no further confirmations would be necessary, and the title became purely hereditary. This implied that if the original grantee was succeeded by a son and a grandson who were also members of the L of H (and thus did not need confirmation) the title was automatically hereditary starting with the 4th generation. 

    1088 such letters patent were issued.
  2. For a brief period, from September 1809 to May 1810, several members of the Legion who were also recipients of large endowments (dotations) were assimilated to holders of titles with majorats; in such cases (116 titles in all), the title of chevalier was hereditary from the moment of issue of letters patent, without any further confirmation needed. From May 1810, all letters patent conferring the transmissible title of chevalier included a clause requiring 3 successive confirmations before it became hereditary.
  3. From April 1810 to 1814, Napoleon also created motu proprio (on the basis of art. 13 of the decree of 1 March 1808) 240 titles, for whom the income minimum requirement was waved, at least for the grantee.  They were subject to the 3-confirmations requirement.
  4. Members of the Order of the Reunion, created in 1811, were given the same rights to the title of chevalier by decree of 12 March 1813 (50 cases).   They were subject to the 3-confirmations requirement.
  5. A decree of 26 Aug 1811 allowed members of nobility in annexed territories to sollicit titles of nobility; as a result, 8 titles of knights were created. They were subject to the 3-confirmations requirement.
All told, 1511 letters patent were issued.

"Chevalier" under the Restoration and after

The earlier legislation was not abrogated, but it ceased to be used (only one case of a 2d generation confirmation under the Napoleonic statutes, case 2 above, is known under the Restoration).    Instead, an ordonnance of 8 Oct 1814 allowed for the further issue of letters patent, but at the king's pleasure only, conferring the title of knight ad personam to members of the Legion of Honor (or of the order of Saint-Louis); also, it stated that when a man, a son, and a grandson had been members of the Legion (or Saint-Louis) and had received the title of "chevalier", the grandson was automatically noble and transmitted his nobility to all his male-line descendants; it also appears that the title of chevalier became hereditary (not explicitly stated in the ordonnance itself, but implied by the accompanying schedule of fees).  The Conseil du sceau took the view that the title descended by male primogeniture.

In all, the king granted 104 new titles of chevalier to members of the Legion of Honor, 4 to members of the order of Saint-Louis, and 5 titles to 2d generation members of the Legion of Honor.  He also granted 144 titles to members of the Legion of Honor who had already received the title under Napoleon, at their request.

Under the July monarchy (1830-48), the minimum income requirements became moot; no further grants of 1st-generation chevaliers were made in France after 1830.  A total of 5 2d-generation confirmations were made.  Under the Second Empire (1852-70) 24 confirmations were made, variously under the Napoleonic statutes or under the ordonnance of 1814.  One unique case is that of Chambge de Liessart, discussed above.  After 1870, only two confirmations have been made, including the only known case of a 3d generation confirmation under the statute of 1814 (Flury-Hérard, granted 30 Jan 1811, confrimed 25 Nov 1814, 23 May 1866, 25 Sept. 1874): this would be the only fully hereditary title of chevalier surviving in France, at least under the post-1808 statutes.
 

Letters granting the title of Chevalier (1748)

(Arch. départementales, Lille; cited in Alain Texier: Qu'est-ce que la noblesse? Paris: 1987, Tallandier. p. 150)

LOUIS...

Nous avons toujours à l'exemple des rois nos prédécesseurs jugé convenable au bien de l'Etat et à la gloire de notre règne, d'accorder des distinctions particulières à ceux de notre noblesse qui se trouvent les mériter, tant par l'ancienneté de leur origine que par leurs services et ceux de leurs ancêtres, et pour cet effet de leur départir des titres d'honneur, qui, passant à leur postérité, pussent perpétuer leur affection pour notre personne et notre état à cette noble émulation qui conduit à former de grands hommes, tant dans la robe que dans l'épée, et voulant donner à Sieur G... escuier, sieur de Couchy et autres lieux, noble d'extraction ; issu de l'ancienne et noble famille du nom de Grenet, originaire de notre Province d'Artois, établie depuis plusieurs années ès pays de Flandres et Cambrésis, et à ses descendants nés et à naître en légitime mariage, des marques de la satisfaction et récompense des services qu'il nous a rendus à l'exemple de ses père et ayeuls... (rappel des services rendus)... nous avons estimé que nous ne pouvons rien faire qui soit plus digne de notre grandeur et de notre authorité, et plus conforme à nos désirs et au bien de notre Etat, que de décorer ledit sieur G... et ses descendants mâles du titre de CHEVALIER.

A ces causes, voulant donner audit sieur G... des marques de notre bienveillance et de l'estime particulière que nous faisons de sa personne par un titre qui l'oblige de plus en plus, ainsy que sa postérité, à notre service et à celui de notre Etat, Nous, de notre grâce spéciale, pleine puissance et authorité royale, avons par ces présentes signées de notre main, fait et créé, faisons et créons ledit G... chevalier, ses enfants et descendants mâles nés et à naître en légitime mariage, pour dudit titre de CHEVALIER, droits, honneurs, privilèges prérogatives et prééminences y appartenans, jouir pleinement et paisiblement et à toujours tant en fait de guerre ès armées et assemblées qu'en jugement et hors de jugement et partout ailleurs où besoin sera, tout ainsy qu'en jouissent les autres chevaliers dans toute l'étendue de notre royaume, pays, terres et seigneuries de notre obéissance. Si donnons en mandemant à nos amés et féaux conseillers, les gens tenant notre cour de Parlement de Flandres à Douay, Conseil provincial d'Artois et autres nos officiers et justiciers qu'il appartiendra, que ces présentes ils aient à faire registrer, et de tout le contenu en icelles faire jouir et user ledit Sieur G... et ses enfants et descendants masles nés et à naître en légitime mariage, Pleinement, paisiblement et perpétuellement, cessant et faisant cesser tous troubles et empêchements, nonobstant tous règlements, dispositions et autres choses à ce contraires, car tel est notre plaisir. Et afin que ce soit chose ferme et stable à toujours, nous avons fait mettre notre scel à des présentes.

Donné à Versailles...

According to Texier, there are still potential hereditary knights: descendants of the grantees of 1702, members of the L of H who received letters patent and were succeeded by 2 generations of members of the L of H (he cites the example of the Vignon family), and descendants of the 116 grantees of hereditary titles between 1809 and 1810.


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Last modified: Aug 21, 2002