Ancestors Among the French Nobility
15 October 2011
Some of you, dear readers, may have noticed that, in the short two and a half years of this blog's life, there has been no mention of the nobility. We do not like the idea of them. A follower of Mark Twain, we are a lover of democracy and hold no truck with the so-called nobility or aristocracy. Nobility of mind, nobility of heart, nobility of soul, we yearn for and admire; but the pseudo-nobility of blood or property we scorn most heartily.
Nevertheless, many of those of the French noblesse had children, not all of whom lost their heads in the Reign of Terror, and they have descendants to this day, seeking to know their ancestry. We have decided that it would be unjust to continue to ignore the genealogy of the French nobility, even though it is probably the best documented sector, in terms of genealogy, of the population.
The French nobility must first be considered in two groups: those ennobled before the French Revolution and those afterward, "the nineteenth century nobles", as they are known. According to Gildas Bernard in his Guide des recherches sur l'histoire des familles, the two groups combined add up to about 4000 noble families.
Excluding the royal family, only three pre-Revolutionary families could trace their lines back to the eleventh century, only three hundred could trace their lines to the fourteenth century, and about 1000 families could find their ancestors prior to 1550. These are the bluest of the blue-bloods. There were also those ennobled by lettres patentes and those given titles as reward for military or civil service. All together, these were the 4000 noble families before the Revolution. On the 19th of June, 1790, their nobility and their titles were abolished.
After the Revolution, during the nineteenth century, there were a number of governments, a restoration of the crown, more revolutions, something of a wild ride for nobles and the general citizenry alike. Some old titles were reinstated, new titles were handed out "like medals", some hereditary and some not.
Many in the New World who are researching their French ancestors hope to find a family crest as proof of nobility. Give it up, says Bernard. Anyone could have had one, even peasants, if they coughed up twenty livres. The family crest, le blason, is no mark of nobility. The only certain way to know if one's ancestors were of the nobility is if their names appear in one of the thirteen surviving head tax lists, les registres de capitation, of the eighteenth century. These are found in the Departmental Archives.
We recommend that your research into the family's nobility begin with one of the hundreds of excellent books on the subject, a few of which we give here:
- Abbé Bévy. Dictionnaire de la noblesse...de 1338 à 1515. In the Archives nationales
- La Chenaye des Bois and Badier. Dictionnaire de la noblesse. 19 volumes.
- Père Anselme. Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la Maison Royale de France.... Found on both Gallica and Ancestry.com . Perhaps, like Brooke Shields, you are descended from a French king and did not know it.
- d' Hozier, Louis Pierre. Armorial général de France. 10 volumes. Various volumes found on the Internet Archive.
- d'Hozier, Louis Pierre. Armorial général ou registres de la noblesse de France...
- Jougla de Morénas. Grand Armorial de France. 7 volumes.
- A. Révérend. Titres, anoblissements et pairies de la Restauration (1814-1830). 6 volumes.
There are many, many more. The Archives nationales give a good list of books and procedures useful to researching French heraldry. The Librairie de la Voûte sells many books giving the genealogy of specific noble families.
The resources are innumerable; as are the online hucksters and purveyors of faux-noble ancestors. Good luck but beware!