Sunday, March 4, 2012

What's the use of having a noble title?

When reading this question, many of you will surely reply: “no use at all, noble titles belong to the past”. And it’s true: nobility no longer entitles you to a long list of privileges. But noble titles still exist, and they are acknowledged by European monarchic states. Contrary to other private titles (like Miss Universe, the Bishop, or the King of Pop), there are some public organisms in charge of preserving nobility. With law in hand, nobles have no more privileges, but it is not always like this.
To check it out, just take the case of Spain as an example that can be extrapolated to many other European countries with monarchies. Noble titles are as old as monarchies, so there have been nobles for many centuries. However, current noble titles usually come from the Middle Ages. But this post is not meant to go that far back analysing the privileges of former dukes, counts or barons. We will only go back to 9 December 1931, when the Second Spanish Republic was constituted. In its article 25, noble titles were abolished with the argument that “there should be no privilege granted for nature, paternity, gender, social status, wealth, political ideas or religious belief”. But this article did not last long, as the Spanish Republic perished soon: in 1947 General Franco restored nobility… until today. With the approval of the in-force Spanish Constitution, it is made clear that the Spanish King can grant honours and distinctions (article 62), so noble titles are accepted in the Spanish democratic system, and subsequent Royal Decrees (like RD 602/1980) just made noble titles legal again.
Now let’s analyse the figures. In 1980, the Spanish Ministry of Justice (not joking, this Ministry is in charge of nobility) published the Spanish Official Guide of Nobility and in 2011 we got an updated edition. There were 2,601 titles in 1980 belonging to 1,940 people (some nobles have more than one title: the Duchess of Alba is the person with the most titles in the world, accounting for more than 50). I have not been able to check the 2011 update (it is not available in the libraries and I’m not willing to pay 20 € for a hefty wad of about one thousand pages) but in the 2004 edition there were 2,833 titles, that is, 232 more than in 1980. In other words, the Spanish King loves granting new noble titles to pay favours, sympathies or friendship. For instance, the manager of the Spanish national football team Vicente del Bosque was granted the title of Marquis del Bosque when his team won the World Cup. Or the writer Mario Vargas Llosa was appointed Marquis too when he was awarded with the Nobel Price. Therefore, noble titles do not belong to the past, just the opposite: we have more and more nobles every day.
And now let’s analyse the other issue about current nobles: privileges. People assume that nobles no longer have privileges, but this is not true. In 1812, at Cadis Cortes, Spain abolished the former privileges of nobility (not paying taxes, not going to prison for debts, etc.) but the Spanish modern Constitution still admits one of the main privileges of nobility: nobles are still the owners of lands and real estates plundered to common people under their jurisdiction. Whenever this issue arises, people who advocate and benefit from this former plundering appeal to their sacred right of private property, as if those who complain were just jealous. Curiously enough, this former plundering from feudal times does not differ much from the Nazi plundering, but it seems that if it happened more than one hundred years ago, then it is legitimate. And the current nobles, often descendants of former plunderers, are not ashamed but defend their ancestors with pride.
But this is not their only privilege. Those privileges granted by the State are no longer in force, but those granted by nobles to each other are still valid and unbeaten. For instance, all Spanish lords and ladies (the so-called Grandee) have the right to request an audience with the King whenever they want. This may seem rather useless, but it is not: after the Spanish dictatorship, when democracy was restored, many political parties tried to have a noble as a politically-active member of the party in order to be heard by the King. Hence, José Luís de Vilallonga, marquis of Castellbell, played an important role within the socialist party, allegedly for his wits, but some historians report otherwise: the socialist party needed him to be heard by the King.
Those who advocate in favour of noble titles argue that there are no privileges any more. Nobles just make up a private club, like many others. But private clubs do not need the Ministry of Justice (paid with our taxes) to make their accounts, and no other private club has its president as Head of State. 
Since 1997, the writer Javier Marías appointed himself king of Redonda Islet, a bunch of rocks in the middle of the Caribbean. Since then, he grants noble titles to his friends and other celebrities. True nobles may consider that he is too eccentric and he is just playing a silly game. But they do not realise that Javier Marías (King Javier I of Redonda) is just doing the same as their ancestors and he has the same rights to grant noble titles as King Juan Carlos I. And at least, Redonda nobles have never plundered.

  1. Constitution of the Second Spanish Republic, abolishing noble titles (art. 25):
  2. The current Spanish constitution (art. 62f):
  3. Royal Decree 602/1980 modifying previous acts in terms of noble titles (Spanish):
  4. Spanish Official Guide of Nobility published by the Ministry of Justice (Spanish):
  5. Vicente del Bosque and Mario Vargas Llosa, new marquis (Spanish):
  6. Cadis Cortes abolishing the privileges of noblemen:
  7. Former privileges of nobility:
  8. Spanish Grandee:
  9. Redonda kingdom:
  10. Redonda nobility (Spanish):

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