THE CONFLICT BETWEEN BRITISH AND CONTINENTAL CONCEPTS OF NOBILITY AND THE ORDER OF MALTA
© Guy Stair Sainty
The nobility of most of Western Europe had a common origin in the feudal system of early medieval society; the noble class being a relatively small group whose land tenure depended on providing services to their superior lord. The Scottish and Irish Nobilities developed within a tribal structure, descendants of the chiefs being considered noble. In feudal Europe the great magnates held their fiefs directly from the Crown, with lesser knights holding their land from an intermediate lord or minor sovereign. By the fourteenth century proof of descent in the male line from any knight or the possessor of a "knight's fee" came to be considered evidence of nobility, entitling such a person to enjoy the class privileges which had been conferred or confirmed by the Crown (and which varied considerably in different states). While nobles adopted Arms as the outward sign of nobility, distinguishing such Arms with Coronets according to their rank in the nobility, Arms were not a universal indication of nobility and were legally assumed by a much broader class including farmers, traders and shopkeepers. Only in England and Scotland was an effective heraldic jurisdiction established by Crown authority, and not until the beginning of the sixteenth century was this enforced by the appointment of Heraldic Visitations (the first in 1530).
European Sovereigns and Princes soon began to confer or confirm the status of "nobility" as a separate hereditary privilege, while the number of nobles providing personal military service as knights declined with the increasing importance of infantry as an effective weapon against mounted cavalry (the havoc wrought by English long-
By the later fifteenth century the right to hereditary arms was apparently considered to be the principle evidence of nobility for British postulants for membership of the Order of Saint John. Today it is considered to be the sole evidence thereof by the SMHOM, despite the fact that a right to arms is not necessarily proof of nobility and it is certainly not evidence that a particular family has enjoyed a leading role in society for the past century or more. Not all British nobles are necessarily armigerous. Of the extant titled British nobility there are fifteen hereditary barons (in the UK peerage)  and twenty-
When the British Association was founded in the mid-
For several members in the noble grades, including peers, proof of descent from the recipient of arms living more than three hundred or one hundred years ago (depending on the rank) has not in practice been treated as the absolute test of nobility. The families of several knights of Honor or Grace and Devotion are the first recipients of grants of arms, sometimes conferred retroactively on an ancestor on the basis that that ancestor would have been eligible for a grant if he had applied and to extend the grant to a wider range of members of that family. For some members a recent male ancestor, who was judged to have enjoyed the status of gentleman, may have been the first recipient of a new grant within much less than the one hundred year limit that is the technical requirement for entry into Grace and Devotion or the three hundred year limit for Honor and Devotion. 
In those countries in which the nobility enjoyed substantial privileges, the right to confer membership of this class was guarded jealously by the sovereign but, in England, the prerogative of recognizing nobility by according or confirming arms came to be delegated to the discretion of the Earl Marshal and Kings of Arms and, in Scotland, to the Lord Lyon King of Arms and his Court. Thus, while the conferral of a peerage, baronetcy or knighthood was the exclusive privilege of the English or Scottish Crown, it was never necessary to have received such an honor in order to apply to the Earl Marshal or Lord Lyon for a grant. Since 1964 it has actually become less common for those who have been ennobled by the conferral of life peerages, or who have received a knighthood or other such royal favor, to apply for grants, while many of those who have received grants over the past two centuries may never have received any notable mark of distinction or honorific directly from the Sovereign. Although the Earl Marshal holds his authority from the Crown and members of the College of Arms are officers of the Sovereign's household, the recognition of gentility by a grant of arms is not initiated by the Crown but is a privilege conferred upon the request of a petitioner, subject to the personal sanction of the Earl Marshal. The British Crown has never attempted to restrict entry to the gentry or lesser noble class, leaving it up to the Kings of Arms to define its extent, despite the considerable reluctance of every Monarch until George III to increase the size of the peerage.
Until the early sixteenth century, the spiritual peers were generally in the majority but Henry VIII, in order to ensure passage of his measures against the Queen and against the Church, considerably increased the size of the lay peerage. In 1523 twenty-
During the period from 1815 to 1964, the British peerage expanded nearly four times, although the number of British peers was proportionately always much less than the titled continental nobility, since a peerage accorded the right to a seat in the nation's parliament. The French Peerage founded in 1814/15 and which continued through the Orléanist Monarchy was of a comparable size and indeed established in imitation of the British. The lesser British nobility or gentry likewise increased enormously during the same period with the establishment of an entrenched upper class whose wealth derived from business or the professions rather than land and whose interest in petitioning for arms was stimulated by Victorian historical revivalism. No longer were hereditary titles conferred in recognition of a family's wealth, standing and power, however, but rather as tokens of regard for meritorious service. Thus the heirs of such titles no longer necessarily represented the leading elite.
Sixteenth and Seventeenth century English writers, as Sayer has demonstrated,  established a distinctive hierarchy in the English nobility. The privileges of a peer were always restricted to the peer himself while his sons (irrespective of the courtesy title and precedence they enjoyed as a result of their father's dignity) were by birth all “Esquires,” a title which would descend by male primogeniture to the descendants of the peer's younger sons. The same title likewise descends by male primogeniture to the eldest son of a knight or those who had received the title of Esquire from the Crown by investiture, and is born by right by the eldest son of a baronet until his succession. It later came to be attributed to other classes by virtue of office, but only for the duration of the office or lifetime of the holder.  All the other male descendants in the male line of peers, baronets, knights and esquires were simply “gentlemen,” a very precise term as interpreted by sixteenth and seventeenth century heralds in their visitations, recognizing the fact that such a person was entitled to use or, alternatively, qualified to petition for a grant of arms.
It may be observed that from the late seventeenth century it became increasingly rare for new knights to petition for a grant. Thus, while the descendant of such a knight would be entitled theoretically to the formal style of esquire or gentleman, he would be unable to prove nobility for the Order of Malta. Today the precise meaning of the titles of esquire and gentleman have been lost and they are commonly used without any relation to the armorial status of the person so qualified. 
In England and most of Europe from the fifteenth century the possibility of transmission of the right to arms through a female heiress was reduced to the right to quarter the arms, and thus was limited to persons already possessing the right to coat armor. In Scotland and Portugal the transmission unquartered was permitted through the female line (although in the case of Portugal the female arms had to be suitably differenced), but the Order of Malta has resisted recognizing that nobility, as opposed to arms, could be transmitted in this fashion. A case was made by officers of the Scottish Lord Lyon Court for the Order to recognize that "nobility" could be inherited from an "heraldic heiress" and three members of the British Association whose paternal lines were deficient, were treated leniently in the application of the rules because of their inheritance of ancient arms through the female line. Nonetheless, the SMHOM has more recently refused to recognize that proof of a right to Arms inherited from a female could entitle a postulant to claim nobility from the date of the original grant or recognition of those arms. Thus the Order does not automatically accept local nobiliary law when such law conflicts with the general standard (i.e. nobility only passing in the male line).  The British rules permit entry into the noble ranks of the descendants of families which have received grants relatively recently. Families which have received grants of arms within the last one hundred and twenty years (when the French Third Republic was instituted), have provided many high officers of the Association in the class of Obedience who would have been ineligible for this class had they been born French. It may be argued that this reflects a more balanced view of society and that there are many continental families which over four or more generations have maintained a status comparable to that of the English gentry.
The jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon King of Arms is more extensive than that of the College of Arms, in both the effect of the Lord Lyon's grant and the penalties that he can impose for improper use of arms. While the grant of arms in England is merely recognition of the gentility of the recipient, the grant or matriculation in Scotland “constitutes” the grantee as a member of the “noblesse”(although this may not be considered the equivalent of “conferring” nobility). As in England, a Scottish grant is made only following the petition of the would-
The authority given to the heralds to confirm and grant arms sometimes led, particularly during the Tudor period, to the confirmation of doubtful arms with fanciful descriptions of the confirmee's ancestors as noble and to increasingly frequent grants to deceased persons and their descendants.  To halt any possible abuses, a prerequisite to each grant came to be the warrant of the Earl Marshal, a consistent practice since 1673 which today does permit grants to deceased persons in exceptional cases with the assent of the Earl Marshal.  Even the Earl Marshal has to rely upon the honesty and impartiality of the officers of the College and this has not always been possible. Since a grant of arms is not of itself creation of nobility but rather recognition of gentility (i.e. of being a "gentleman"), it is logical that the descendant of a person whose immediate ancestor's status was that of a "gentleman", should be able to successfully petition for a grant of arms to that ancestor. This practice has been questioned by continental critics, however, who have misunderstood the fundamental difference between an English grant of arms and a European conferral of nobility. Merely because a person who fell into the definition of "gentleman" had not troubled to petition for arms, should not disqualify a descendant who had maintained the status of "gentleman" from claiming gentility. Such a subjective standard of determining "nobility" (gentility) in England requires careful judgment and creates direct conflict with the standard presently applied in the rest of Europe. But to insist on applying the Continental standard is to misrepresent the nature of the class which is defined as "gentry" in England. The pretense that it is possible today to define this class only by proof of a right to hereditary arms is simply not sustainable.
The English heralds were better organized and armed with greater authority than any of the comparable royal officers in continental Europe. Thus it was possible, through the Heraldic Visitations, to regulate the use of arms and identify the extent of the provincial nobility or gentry. The heralds not only had the right to remove or deface arms used improperly but denounce those who falsely used any title or dignity (other than the arms of peers, which were regulated by Garter King of Arms), including those of Esquire and Gentleman. All who described themselves as Baronet, Knight, Esquire or Gentlemen were summoned by the heralds to prove their right and those who could not prove their right to the style they claimed would be required to sign a disclaimer of arms and gentility (or, if otherwise eligible, petition for a grant) and their names would be published in the local shire town. This duty was taken seriously and the number of disclaimers could be very high -
By the mid-
The abandonment of Heraldic Visitations soon after the 1688 revolution was paralleled by a dramatic decline in the number of families petitioning for grants of arms, which it became customary to assume without authority, even though after 1783 new baronets were theoretically required to apply for arms. Thus between 1730 and 1760 there were only one hundred and sixty new English grants, increased tenfold over the next forty years. With eight thousand three hundred and twenty new grants during the nineteenth century and an even greater numbers in the twentieth (there are now approximately one hundred and fifty grants to individuals per annum in England alone), the size of the armigerous gentry has been expanding, while in the rest of Europe the nobility has been steadily decreasing.  After 1688, however, one could no longer define the elite of society, the landed gentry, by a universal right to coat armor. Since there was no compulsion for those styling themselves gentleman or esquire to apply for a grant, many of those who evidently enjoyed that status did not bother to do so just as many assumed Arms who could not properly be styled Gentleman. In the twentieth century a substantial proportion of applications for grants were made for historical or romantic reasons and neither the petitioner nor society saw the conferment of such grants as recognition of any particular social status.
This is particularly relevant since loss of social status did not deprive the descendant of an Armiger of a right to arms and. therefore theoretical membership of the lesser noble class, even if his standing in the community was no longer that of "gentleman". The social changes from the end of seventeenth until the mid-
Sixteenth and seventeenth century heralds required proof of a right to arms to qualify a person as an "esquire" or "gentleman" in order to ensure that persons entitled to this qualification would petition for a grant. But membership of the English class of "gentry" was defined in practice primarily by social and economic standing rather than the right to hereditary arms. An attempt to equate the British gentry with the continental nobility was made by the Stuart kings in exile, who issued many declarations or confirmations of nobility for their adherents to assist them in obtaining preferment for offices for which nobility was a qualification. While most of the recipients of such declarations were armigers, not all were and proof of a right to arms was not seen as a prerequisite for such a declaration.
During the seventeenth century the privilege of nobility came to be conferred almost as broadly in much of continental Europe as grants of arms were conceded in England, although the right to create nobles or confirm nobility in Europe was very rarely delegated to a third party. In the Italian and German city states and in certain Spanish cities, the right to recognize noble status was assumed by the local powers which, in Italy, were often Republican. But by the Reformation these jurisdictions had generally been overturned and replaced by a Monarchical structure, as when the Florentine Republic was succeeded by the Medici Duchy of Florence and Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Among the several ways in which the later nobility of continental Europe may be distinguished from the English gentry, defined by public achievements, occupation and social and economic standing, is the fact that they owed their status to royal favor. In France nobility was normally conferred or confirmed in a patent signed by the Sovereign himself. Tenure of certain offices, such as Secretaire du Roi, which could be acquired by purchase with the consent of the Sovereign, could also confer personal nobility or with some offices hereditary nobility when the office was enjoyed by three successive generations. This class of nobility, while treated before 1798 as a lower degree by the Order of Malta, was in law nonetheless a specific noble status, recognized by the addition of the particule to the name. Until Colbert's reformations, the responsibility of examining claims to nobility was consigned to the Juge d'Armes, but afterwards the responsibility was delegated to the Intendants of each province who, by confirming such claims, could occasionally authenticate the spurious; generally, however, the French nobility was carefully regulated and its privileges closely guarded.
Within the French privileged nobility there was a small hereditary elite, the Peers, who enjoyed the right to a seat in the Parlement of Paris (not a political assembly but a superior law court), and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries numbered between forty and fifty. Their numbers were considerably extended under the Restoration and July Monarchies (in the latter case being nominated for life), when they were given a similar function to the British House of Lords. In Spain, the "grandees of the first class" were likewise a specially privileged elite with precedence before all other titled nobles from the date of the grandeeship, but without political privileges. A politically privileged Sicilian peerage was established during the British protectorate but was abolished in 1815 and only revived briefly during the 1848 revolution. Both Austria and Prussia established different forms of peerages during the nineteenth centuries, but more akin to a nominated Senate.
Elsewhere in Europe, when a sovereign wished to buy support, nobility might be granted more widely. The quarrels between the Bourbons and Habsburgs over possession of the Two Sicilies insured that each side paid-
The Order's nobiliary authorities were generally keen to protect what was considered to be the "purity" of noble blood, and each Langue had different concerns. In France and Italy there was a continuing controversy over the acceptance of descent from noblesse de robe families in any of the required noble quarters, many knights considering that each quarter should be a noblesse de l'epée family.  The three French Langues, until the mid-
In Spain proof of nobility in four quarters for four generations  was required. Considering the size of the Spanish nobility, this was a much more modest standard than that prevailing in France and Germany, but an additional requirement was that none of the four families could have been of non-
The French Revolution marked the beginning of an end of a privileged noble class in most of Europe, but the conferment of noble titles actually increased dramatically, since nobility no longer carried any significant prerogative (such as exemption from taxation) but was an inexpensive means for sovereigns to reward their prominent subjects. The new nobility was no longer an identifiable class, however. With the exception of the hereditary lay peerage in Great Britain and its short-
The differing numbers of the nobility as a proportion of the population and the disparity in relative status in the formerly sovereign states that compose united Spain, Italy and Germany, has led to some strange anomalies where similar regulations for noble proofs apply to all. There are far fewer noble families in northern Italy than in the south, making the proofs more arduous for some than others. A typical anomaly resulting from the varied histories of different parts of the same country is that one of Italy's most prominent and distinguished citizens, Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli, whose mother was born a Bourbon del Monte of the Princes of San Faustino and whose paternal family's position in early 19th century Piedmont would certainly have been recognized by ennoblement in southern Italy (two later nineteenth century ancestors declined offers of noble titles from the Savoy kings). Nonetheless he was only entitled to be admitted to the Order in the rank of Magistral Grace, in which he holds the grade of knight.
The disparity in the rules between different national associations has meant that two members of the Stagno dei principi di Alcontres family, noble in the direct male line since the 14th century, the hereditary Prince of Oettingen-
In Spain a higher proportion of northern than southern families and all Navarre families established before a certain date are technically noble (although this class of nobility is unrecognized by the four military Orders), while in some German states nobility was more common than in others. In the Netherlands it is necessary only to prove nobility in the paternal line for one hundred and fifty years to be eligible for Honor and Devotion, while in Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland that would be insufficient for Grace and Devotion. Being a noble in Sicily generally meant something very different to being a noble in much of northern Europe, just as most Sicilian princes rarely enjoy the same prestige, status and wealth, even in Sicily, as the heads of German mediatized princely houses or French or English dukes do in their countries.
 Amwell (1947), Archibald (1949), Burden (1950), Hemingford (1943), Kershaw (1947), Lindsay of Birker (1945), Macandrew (1959), Marley (1930), Moran (1943), Morris of Kenwood (1950), Morrison (1945), Shepherd (1946), Silkin (1950), Simon of Wythenshawe (1947) and Strang (1954)
 Including several eighteenth and nineteenth-
 The nobility of one high ranking member of the Association, presently in the category of Obedience but admitted to membership as a knight of Grace and Devotion in 1971, then subsequently transferred to Honor and Devotion, is an interesting case in point. Of his four grandparents, the paternal line did not receive a grant of arms until 1929 (from Lord Lyon), the same year as this gentleman's birth and that grant was to a collateral, not a direct ancestor. This individual is, through his father's mother, the representative of a collateral line of an ancient Scottish family. In no European Association would such proofs be sufficient even for Grace and Devotion without a special allowance for the antiquity of this second quarter, as it is the antiquity of the nobility in the paternal line which is considered of primary importance. Two other members of the Association, one in Honor and the other in Grace and Devotion, also claimed these ranks by virtue of proving the antiquity of their maternal rather than the paternal lines, which would not have qualified them for the nobiliary grades. Theoretically, as the British Association rules required four quarters, it was possible for a non-
 J. Horace Round, MA, Studies in Peerage and History, pp. 330-
 M. J. Sayer, MA, English Nobility, the Gentry, Heralds and the Continental Conflict, Norfolk Heraldry Society, 1970, p.4.
 Sayer, Op.cit., p.9, lists such offices as those of High Sheriff, Justices of the Peace, Heralds, Serjeant-
 The right to bear hereditary arms, differenced by a label for each cadet branch of the family, was proven (in the sixteenth and seventeenth century) either by descent in the male line from a grantee, from someone whose right to arms had already been recorded, or, if the person concerned showed evidence of a public position which would have entitled him to a grant, by prescriptive use for more than eighty years.
 For a fuller discussion of the descent of nobility through females, see Sayer Op.cit., p.6.
 For a broad discussion of various invented pedigrees and the activities of sixteenth and seventeenth century heralds in this regard, see Round, Op.cit.
 See Sayer, Op.cit., p.7.
 Sayer, Op.cit., p.9.
 See Sayer, Op.cit., pp.13-
 A significant limitation to this is the strict standard now demanded by the College of Arms in proving descent from a recorded Armiger. With many parish records missing and no alternative source (wills, etc) for families at the bottom of the social scale, those families which did lose their status as gentry do, in practice, find it harder to prove such descent.
 Vertot, Op.cit., Vol IV, Dissertation, pp.9-
 See Bertini Frassoni, Il Sovrano Militare Ordine di S. Giovanni di Gerusalemme, detto di Malta, Rome 1629, p.64. These alternative standards are still retained by the French Association, but with some flexibility regarding quartering substitution.
 For a fuller discussion of the noble proofs of each Langue, see Bertini Frassoni, Op.cit., pp.63-
 In this context it is worth noting that of the sixty-
 There were some slight variations within the Spanish Langue in different provinces. See Bertini Frassoni Op.cit., p.64.
 This rule, and the measures taken against the Jews in 1492, have been interpreted as evidence of Christian intolerance but should be better understood as the inevitable result of militant nationalism. Spanish Christians had for centuries lived in fear of the Moors, who in the eleventh and twelfth centuries had been ruled by a fanatical Moslem fundamentalist dynasty bent on the destruction of Christian civilization in Spain. This had encouraged a form of ardent nationalism whose triumph was finally marked by the surrender of the Moorish king of Granada at the end of the fifteenth century. The Spanish quickly persuaded themselves that their security depended on total homogeneity under a centralized Crown and accordingly instituted harsh laws designed to bring about the conversion of all to Christianity. The rules of the military Orders, which had provided the bravest and most determined crusaders, had been designed to ensure that there was no possibility of a family relationship with anyone who could possibly be numbered among the enemies of a united Christian Spain and hence excluded the descendants of non-
 See Bertini Frassoni, Op.cit., p.64.