According to this list, how were nobles promoted? For instance, Baron to Viscount, and Duke to Archduke? If ranks are hereditary, were there only a specific number of each rank given out in each country? Is there a record of this? For instance, does England's Parliament have a document outlining these numbers?

Otherwise, Google is somewhat sparse.

And seems like a better tag than .

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    I believe you'll find that it was much less systematic and rule-based than you seem to imagine, and certainly very different in different countries and time periods. Commented May 7, 2014 at 20:31
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    This question relies on the false assumption that nobles were promoted, or that the system of nobility and titles had any underlying design/theoretical basis. This is a decent example of how a false assumption can still generate a good question and lots of good answers.
    – MCW
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 23:12
  • I didn't assume that nobles were promoted. I knew that nobility was essentially legalized brutality but I wanted to know how a noble could go from principally being called 'Duke' to 'Archduke' amongst his peers (such as dinner with the King, what he would be called). That's why I said 'promoted' in quotes, because that was the best way of understanding it from a present-day perspective. Commented May 11, 2014 at 2:06
  • It isn't necessarily a promotion, as a noble can hold his minor title as well as the major one. So becoming the Duke of X could mean that he is still the Earl of Y, and could thus grant that title to his son like the Prince of Wales gets a title.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 20:03
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    Mark C Wallace, unless the words mean something different to you, nobles were certainly promoted. Arthur Wellesley, who as the 1st Duke of Wellington commanded one of the 2 armies that beat Napoleon at Waterloo, in recognition of his victories, was made both a Baron and Viscount Wellington (the 2 lowest titles of nobility) in 1809, promoted to Earl of Wellington in 1812, later the same year to Marquess of Wellington, finally Duke of Wellington in 1814. The British system was and is that the King granted him these titles, on the advice of the Prime minister.
    – Timothy
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 21:12

5 Answers 5


Firstly, there is the distinction between inherited versus conferred titles. Inherited titles passed more or less automatically from parent to child, e.g. King, Duke, Baron, Viscount.

Conferred titles were granted as rewards for merit -- e.g. knight or as temporary offices -- or powers -- e.g. viceroy (in the stead of the king).

Inherited titles were attached to land or, very rarely, some other kind of economic asset like a harbor or fishing rights. Our current use of the word "title" to mean proof of ownership comes directly from the titles of aristocrats. Just to confuse things, titles could be bought and sold, might be seized by the king because of some real or fictional offense, or won or lost in battle.

Titles were so important that they became an individual's legal and cultural formal identity, e.g. the Earl of Essex. All obligations of fealty, military service, taxes, protocol, etc. attached to the title, not the individual. Any particular individual could have a vast array of titles. In fact, one could argue that "collecting titles" was the primary occupation of nobles.

To the extent that noble titles had actual ranks, they expressed the degree of fealty the holder is required to give to another noble, usually the king, in the form of military service. The granting of fealty was very much a business deal and really had no defined hierarchical structure. Most nobles owed fealty and its military service to the King because the King was the strongest noble around, but they might also pledge or inherit fealty to another noble for various reasons. Fealty was not always hereditary in theory, much less practice.

Since fealty really established chain of military command, ranks and deference depended on fealty instead of title. So, if a Duke also held the title of Baron of some little backwater and that that title of Baron came with an obligation of fealty to a Count, then the Duke would be obligated to follow the orders of the Count and to defer to him in matters of status and protocol... in theory. In reality, Dukes were usually richer and more powerful than Counts and the Count wouldn't bring the matter up.

Dukes held titles that, in legal theory, made them independent of the King but they pledge their fealty anyway...sorta, kinda, maybe on a good day. Earls, Counts and Barons started out as various Germanic military ranks with lesser grants of conquered land. However, by the medieval era, this had become all muddled and a Baron might have more land, wealth and military power than an Earl.

Secondly, as for promotions, since titles weren't really ranked, there weren't any. Most nobles lived and died with their inherited titles. The only situation analogous to promotion occurred when a King or other high noble found themselves holding titles because of conquest, treason or because a line had died out. (One of the special powers of the English crown was that titles "reverted" to the crown if there were no male heir.)

Kings could parcel out or recombine these titles and their associated lands to "create" a new title of nobility and confer that title on this or that individual.

It might look like a promotion to modern eyes to read that a the Baron Strange was created by King Henry the Nth, the Earl of Nonsuch, for services in the Third Bloody Stupid War of Godforsaken, but really he was just being paid for service in land. The individual was still Baron Strange, but now he had that nice piece of Nonsuch as well. If the title of Baron Strange owed fealty to Count of Down, then, even though the individual now also held the title of Earl, would in his persona as Baron Strange, still have to demonstrate the rituals of fealty to the Count of Down.

Still, as lineages rose in power, the size of their titles usually rose and fell in tandem. That would also look somewhat like promotion and demotion to modern eyes but since titles were land and land was wealth, it was really just their bank accounts rising and falling. (Only in later times, when noble titles began to lose their real practical power, did you find ruined nobility with titles but no wealth.)

But all of this is just rule-of-thumb stuff. You have to remember that this was a constantly evolving system that grew over the course of a thousand years and crossed over numerous political, legal and cultural lines (even in relatively isolated England.) As such, the rules for handling titles were constantly in flux and depend strongly on what particular when and where you examine.

More importantly, legalism and custom were often merely fig leafs for brute force, murder and bribery. Every single "noble" title traces back to a successful act of violence. As long as titles had real economic and military force, they continued to be apportioned largely by implicit or explicit threats of violence. There never was any real system of law, as we would understand law today, controlling who had what title. Political marriages, battlefield victories and the odd poisoning or infant strangling, led to more "promotion" than any "noble" deed.

Despite all our romantic associations, at their heart, the aristocrats were never anything but a caste of thuggish killers who trained for warfare incessantly, fought wars purely for profit and oppressed the great majority of the population cruelly. If we weren't the inheritors of centuries of pro-noble propaganda, bought and paid for by nobles, the word "noble" would have connotations of "drug dealing mob thug" instead "representing highest virtue."


Until the Glorious Revolution and the installation of William the III of Orange by parliament on the English throne, even the politics of merry old England look distinctly lawless and more like the revolving series of coups in the 3rd world today. It was not until the "commoners" finally rose up and gutted the power of the aristocracy did titles of nobility acquire some sort of moral legitimacy by modern standards.

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    Welcome to the site! +1 for a great answer (best one in this thread so far, imho). Commented May 8, 2014 at 7:41
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    If the Dune universe followed the medieval practice closely, the names of the characters would be the names of the planets, which themselves would have the name title e.g. Duke Leto Atreides would be Duke Caladan or less formally Leto Duke of the Duchy of Caladan. Harkonnen would Baron Giedi-Prime, Count of Lankiveil and probably Viceroy of Arrakis. The later because the Emperor assigned different families to govern the planet.
    – TechZen
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 15:37
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    @TechZen: Horse hockey! Where in Europe, at any time, were there tracts of land named any of Bourbon, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, or Romanov. In the late seventeenth century thee were a dozen land-and-title-holding noble families named Nassau, none of whom any longer owned the County of Nassau because Louis XIV had made it a personal property of the French crown. Those families named Nassau did however rule both England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, amongst other possessions scattered across what is now Western Germany. Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:06
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    -1 Complete mish-mash of different (and often wrong) traditions and assumptions, conflating about 500 years and dozens of countries! Can't believe it is the accepted answer!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 19:30
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    It's worth emphasizing that much of this is basically not true of England post-1066 (and really not before that). To be the Earl of X or Duke of Y did not in itself in general create any specific legally enforceable obligations. Ownership of land did that. Being the Earl of Cambridge (say) might start off with land in Cambridgeshire, but that land could be alienated (given away in various ways) and with that land went the feudal duties. Yes, there are odd exceptions (Chester, Cornwall) but they are rather special. Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 16:23

You don't usually get promoted. You either are or you aren't. Titles are additive. So if you are the Baron of Butterscotch, and the king decides to make you the Duke of Diddlysquat, you don't stop being the Baron, you become both a Baron and a Duke.

Medieval titles of nobility are almost always associated with land. The more land, the bigger the title. In general, you get the land first, then the title after. If you were rich enough, you could become titled, just by buying enough land. Usually you would get a title from warfare. This can happen in one of three ways:

(1) Working for the king. You fight for the king. He conquers new lands. He appoints you the ruler of the new lands. You get the title associated with the new lands.

(2) Working on your own. You gather a bunch of men. You attack and conquer some land with your men. You then make a deal with the king: recognize my ownership of this land and I will pledge fealty to you. You then get a title.

(3) Inheriting the land from a previous empire. Your family owns the land from the past. A new king comes and conquers everything. You make a deal with the king same as #2. The only difference is your family already owned the land, it didn't conquer it.

To answer your final question: there are no numbers. The titles go with land, roughly in accordance to size, but also tradition. For example, one plot of land might be a "baronage", but another of exactly the same size might be a "duchy". It depends on the history of the land. Duchies were more Roman things. Earldoms were vikingish land. Baronages were continental German (like Saxons and people like that).

Note that knights are not nobles. They are the equestrian order (horse owners).


Nobles don't get promoted, they gain titles

Someone may obtain a title 'Duke of Someplace'. If he wasn't a duke before, that event might be treated like a 'promotion'. Do note that it always involves gaining that Someplace together with it - a duke doesn't get more respect than a baron because he has a fancier title; a duke gets respect because he owns a duchy and the barons don't. This also is the limit of the number of ranks. There can be no more counts than there are counties, and there can be far less as some people hold multiple counties/count titles.

You can get a title over the previous holder's cold, dead body

There are two ways to get a title - either you inherit it from the previous holder, or you take it by force and ensure that others recognize it. The second way doesn't neccesarily require the previous holder to die, but it helps if you want him to leave it that way. Both ways are really not similar to a 'promotion'. In large conquests, a winning leader might distribute large lands to his war companions which is a bit like a promotion - but only in the very rare large-scale conquests the higher titles would be distributed that way, those were the exceptional cases that most generations didn't see.

Your father might promote you

The only reasonably common 'promotion' case is the situation where father grants some of his lands and the relevant lower titles to his adult sons. Thus, the eldest son might be given some duchy or county already "in advance", and become a king some time afterwards when the inheritance happens.

  • Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor... Commented May 7, 2014 at 23:44
  • There are also offices,e.g. sheriff, were powers and revenues can from being the office holder, often substainally adding to the power and revenues of the noble in question, and sometimes the office is covered over the years to a heredity office rather than by appointment,
    – pugsville
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 5:23
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    "a duke doesn't get more respect than a baron because he has a fancier title; a duke gets respect because he owns a duchy and the barons don't." Not really true - The duke of cambridge is of a higher rank than many earls, barons etc, that have lands, he does not own lands in cambridge because of this title. "There are two ways to get a title - either you inherit it from the previous holder, or you take it by force" there is a third way - the queen can grant noble titles by letters patent, (see the Duke of Cambridge) eg. the prince of Wales does not inherit the title, but is granted it. Commented May 8, 2014 at 8:16
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    @StevenWood It depends on the time period, the customs of 12th century and 19th are incompatible in that regard, where the same words are used but they mean different things. A [more] consistent answer might be possible if the question specified the relevant time.
    – Peteris
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 12:28
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    Note that some feudal titles were or are inheritable by multiple people. Often German titles would go to all male-line descendants and the House of Saud has an incredible number of Princes, most of whom will never be considered head of the family or the country. So title-holders do not always have to be singular and mutually exclusive.
    – NL7
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 14:41

I do not dispute the other answers, but I did want to point out that George Robinson, Earl de Grey, was raised to the 1st Marquis Ripon as a result of his success in negotiating the Treaty of Washington, which ended the US/British conflict over the (American) civil war.

The British were in a precarious position because of the Alabama claims. Had events turned out different, the Americans could have made a case that the British were co-belligerents with the Confederacy. The US negotiator was instructed to get Canada in recompense for the British actions, and to accept Jamaica if Britain refused to hand over Canada.

So Ripon managed to not only save Canada, but to create an Anglo-American alliance that is arguably the most successful in modern history.

This is an example of a modern (1859) "promotion" in recognition of service to the crown.

(Aside: Although I can't find the citation at the moment, it also resulted in the removal of the last unit of British troops from American soil - a clause that the British had agreed to in the Treaty of Paris, but had never actually withdrawn the troops. So in reality, the Treaty of Washington ended the American Revolutionary war and started the Anglo-American Alliance.)

(Second aside: Ripon was successful where his predecessors had failed in part because he capitalized on his Masonic ties to the US negotiators. Conspiracy nuts are now permitted to don their tinfoil hats. I on the other hand, choose to admire a skillful negotiator.)


Several answers say that there as never any promotion for titled nobles, that their titles were all derived from possession of land and gaining more land gained the title that went with it. Some say that the only way to get a new title was by force.

But of course what we call titles of nobility have existed for about 1,500 years until the present and thus their status and methods of acquiring them have greatly changed.

In some times and places a duke, for example, was the elected war leader of a tribe, in others a rank of Roman general, in others a royal official that the king could appoint and remove at will, in others a powerful hereditary governor of a large area (the original duchies in Germany were larger than most medieval kingdoms), in others a titled aristocrat with a vote in his kingdom's legislature, in others the hereditary monarch of a small semi or fully independent realm, in others merely the possessor of a title of honor.

And in some times and places a duke had an intermediate status being a combination of two or more of the above.

After the development of feudalism in western Europe in the 9th century AD the possessor of a noble title was the more or less hereditary holder of the land mentioned in the title as a fief with considerable financial and judicial and military powers within that fief.

But centuries later in the later middle ages and in modern times, it became common for monarchs to grant titles of nobility without any power over the lands mentioned in the titles. So if a minor noble without a title was made a baron or a lord that could be considered a promotion. And if a baron was created a count that could count as a promotion.

When nobles no longer necessarily ruled over the lands mentioned in their titles, it became possible to grant victory titles to victorious generals and admirals even if the titleholder and his monarch did not rule over those regions. Napoleon, for example, granted some of his marshals victory titles for victories in lands that Napoleon never ruled - Prince de la Moskowa and Prince de Wagram, for examples.

And there are many examples of nobles of various types seeking higher titles from their monarchs even if they didn't come with more lands. For example, in 1495 count Eberhard V of Wurttemburg was promoted to Duke Eberhard I of Wurttemburg.

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    Although these examples are true, there is no "system" for promoting nobles
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 15:43

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