What is a prince? What is a duke?

When reading about someone who is the prince of this or the duchess of that, most people immediately conjure up an image of someone who is very grand, an elite part of the old aristocracy of Europe. But I am very often struck by how frequently historians, including professional academic historians, regularly use noble titles indiscriminately and interchangeably, and when asked to clarify whether the person being referred to is a count or a duke or a baron they say ‘it’s all the same, right?’ This short introductory piece will explain how they are not the same, and will focus on the top two titles in the system of noble titles: the prince and the duke.

The aristocracies of Europe have a wide range of variations in their composition, nomenclatures and customs, but there are also certain similarities across the Continent—for example, most have some form of the titles ‘prince’ or ‘duke’, both deriving from Latin words for command or leadership. There are exceptions, like in Germanic and Slavic languages, which use non Latin-based words, but with similar meanings. Most European countries went through a period of monarchy at some point in their history, some briefly while others maintain it still, and all of these monarchies created a system of hereditary nobility to assist them at first in defending the country and later in governing as well. The base-level nobles, the vast majority, were called lords or barons, but those who were given greater responsibilities, usually in a particular region, were created ‘counts’ (earls in English) or viscounts (‘vice-counts’), from the Latin word for companion (comes). This system emerged about the time Europe was reorganising itself under the Carolingians (the family of Charlemagne) in the 9th and 10th centuries. Higher up the hierarchy still, members of the ruling dynasties were called ‘prince’ (from princeps, the ‘first one’), which indicated they shared some of the authority of the head of their family, the monarch. Princely status from its earliest emergence was therefore something that is given to all members of a ruling family, by right of birth, not merit or achievement. This issue came up again just this year, when people asked whether Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, could have his status as prince removed. Back in the age of the Carolingians, some princes were given larger territories to govern, as autonomous rulers, with the title ‘duke’ (from dux, or ‘leader’). Often these leaders were supplied by the tribal chiefs of the ethnic groups being incorporated into the wider Imperial whole, like the dukes of the Saxons or the Bavarians east of the Rhine, or the dukes of the Gascons in southwestern France. The German term for duke is herzog, loosely from heer and ziehen, ‘puller’ or leader of the fighting men. In Slavic languages a similar term is voivode, ‘war leader’.

For much of their history, the titles prince and duke were restricted to royalty or semi-royalty only. As Europe’s kingdom’s evolved into more centralised territorial bodies, dukedoms were still given to younger sons to rule as ‘junior kings’ in what are called apanage territories, and these could be ruled with a certain degree of autonomy, but ultimately remained part of the kingdom as a whole. Well known examples in France include the duchies of Anjou, Orléans or Burgundy, or in England the dukedoms of Cornwall, Lancaster and York, but similar apanages existed in most countries: the duchy of Styria for junior Habsburgs in Austria, the duchy of Coimbra in Portugal, the duchies of Halland and Södermanland in Sweden, and so on. This predominance of royal-only dukedoms started to shift in the fifteenth century, as certain magnate families established so much power they had to be recognised as power-sharers in their own right within the kingdom. There were non-royal dukes in Germany and Italy from the 13th and 14th centuries (Brunswick, 1235; Mecklenburg, 1348; Milan, 1395), and these maintained such a degree of autonomous authority that we might call them semi-royal anyway. The same is true in Russia and Poland, where the word kniaz can be translated as either duke or prince (and seems to be a derivative of the early Germanic word for king). But the western monarchies of France, Spain and England did not have their first non-royal dukes until much later.

Early French non-royal dukedoms were given to powerful semi-autonomous magnates such as the Count of Armagnac (Duke of Nemours, 1461), important Italian allies (Valentinois for Cesare Borgia, 1499; Nemours for the Medici, 1515), then for representatives of foreign dynasties settling in France (Cleves, Lorraine, Savoy), and finally for some ‘native’ French noble families (Gouffier, Brosse, Montmorency) by the middle of the sixteenth century who had strong connections, personal or by marriage, with the royal family. Across the Channel, for the Plantagenets, aside from the early anomaly of the ‘duke of Ireland’ (Robert de Vere, 1386, for life only), the first non-royal dukedoms were created for nobles with close blood relations with the royal family: Norfolk for Thomas de Mowbray, 1397; Buckingham for Humphrey de Stafford, 1444; Suffolk for William de la Pole, 1448. Only a handful were created in the Tudor era (restoring the Howards, and new dukedoms for royal favourites Charles Brandon, Edward Seymour, and John Dudley), so it was not until the 17th century that the numbers began to increase in England (and the first Scottish dukedoms as well), with a similar large-scale increase in France as well.  Still, overall numbers of dukes in France or Britain were never more than 20 or so at a time (today there are about 25 in the United Kingdom, and about 40 in France).

a French ducal coronet

Looking further south, we see Spanish non-royal dukedoms emerging in the mid-15th century for grandee families like Luna, Guzman, Osorio, La Cueva, Alvarez de Toledo and Zuñiga. Portugal had only one non-royal dukedom this early, Bragança, and that was created for an illegitimate member of the dynasty (ie, his mother was not the queen), and Portugal never had more than a handful of dukedoms, royal or non-royal. In Spain, in contrast, by the 17th century, there was an ever-growing number of dukedoms (already about 40 by 1600), and, even more spectacularly, the kings of Spain began to reward loyalty in their overseas territories in Italy (Naples and Sicily) with dukedoms so these began to proliferate, literally into the hundreds by the 18th century.

To separate out some of these families, the higher title of ‘prince’ was introduced, but this too grew to exorbitant numbers in southern Italy until a principality came to mean little more than a particularly large feudal estate. In the Holy Roman Empire as well, a new title was introduced in the 17th century to distinguish certain grandee families, usually with strong connections with the Imperial court: there already were the territorial dukes (Saxony, Bavaria, etc), so instead these were called fürsts or ‘princes’—in German, a distinction can be made between the word prinz which generally refers to members of  those older ruling families, and fürst, a ‘ruling prince’ (from the same root word as the German führer, leader) who is not royal and not a duke. Well known princely families like these include the Liechtensteins, Fürstenbergs, Dietrichsteins and Schwarzenbergs. Their ‘rule’ was only personal until they acquired a fief that was held from no other prince besides the emperor (known as an ‘immediate fief’) and they then were allowed to join the top governing body of the Empire, the Council of Princes which acted as the upper house of the Imperial Diet. Liechtenstein is the only one of these tiny immediate territories that survived into the modern age as a sovereign state, a principality, not a kingdom—and ironically, until the 19th century, the estates around the castle at Vaduz in the Alps were not really considered an important part of the family’s landholdings, which were mostly concentrated in Austria nearer to Vienna, or in Bohemia. A few of these non-royal princely titles were granted in the Habsburg-governed Netherlands as well, for the magnate families like Ligne, Epinoy, or Croÿ. The most famous prince in the Low Countries, the Prince of Orange, was of a different kind, however, as a ruler of a sovereign territory in southern France, not too far from another sovereign family, the Princes of Monaco (sovereign meaning at least nominally outside the control of any other power). These micro-sovereignties were mostly self-proclaimed, and sometimes their status was recognised by their larger royal neighbours, and sometimes they were not.

a princely crown from the Holy Roman Empire

So there are different kinds of prince, royal, non-royal, sovereign prince, imperial prince, and a very uneven distribution, from hundreds in Sicily, to none at all in England.  France had almost no creations of non-royal princely titles, but those that were formed a peculiar category called the ‘foreign princes’, which included the dukes of Guise, princes of the House of Lorraine, and were the subject of my doctoral research. These families were considered to be princely because they were members of foreign sovereign dynasties, but their native titles had no legal standing within France—so all of them were granted dukedoms in France to maintain their elevated dignity and status, and, I would argue, to boost the prestige of the French court. French kings could point to their courtiers and show that they ruled over not only the subject nobility but also the higher princely clans of Europe—a sort of hearkening back to the ancient world’s concept of ‘king of kings’—and allowed them to compete in prestige with their rivals, the emperors in Vienna.

If you’d like to read a recent academic piece of mine on this topic, here is a chapter I published in Adel und Nation in der Neuzeit: Hierarchie, Egalität und Loyalität 16.-20. Jahrhundert, Martin Wrede and Laurent Bourquin, eds (Thorbeke Verlag, 2017)–don’t worry, it’s in English:

The chief difference between princely status and ducal status in most of these countries was in the differences of inheritance systems. All members of the house of Lorraine, for example, were princes and princesses by birth, but only the senior male in France was the duke of Guise. This reflects the two basic systems of inheritance and succession that operated in medieval and early modern Europe: partible inheritance and primogeniture. Germanic custom leaned more towards partible, that is equally divided, inheritance, so all children got a portion of their parents’ wealth: all of the children of a duke of Saxony were called duke or duchess of Saxony, though in terms of actually ruling, men were (no surprise) favoured. But this is why Germany so famously saw ever increasingly tiny dukedoms in the late middle ages, until primogeniture was imposed, often by force, in the early modern period. Primogeniture, in which the firstborn gets everything, had been the more favoured system in the Roman world, and gradually took hold in the Germanic kingdoms once it became clear that, while seemingly unfair to younger sons, avoided quite a lot of bloodshed, fratricide and civil war.  Primogeniture mostly favoured males, and this is true for principalities and dukedoms as well as for royal thrones, but not always, and there are certainly instances where, in default of a son, a throne passes to a daughter, even if there male cousins—though this was almost always a source of strife and legal deliberation. At one end of the scale, German dukedoms never passed to a woman, and this is (mostly) true for England and France as well, though there are some exceptions. In these kingdoms, dukedoms were created, existed for a few generations, then became extinct through lack of a male heir. At the other end of the scale, Spain allowed for almost universal succession, so it is the one place in Europe where hereditary titles never become extinct, and certain aristocratic clans simply accumulate more and more, resulting in extreme cases like the Duchess of Alba, who died in 2014, and was the possessor of about 40 titles, eight of them dukedoms, the most titled person in the world according to the Guinness World Book of Records.

There are also a good deal of other variants in the two titles of prince and duke. Some dukes were deemed to be of higher status than others, so they were called ‘grand dukes’, first with the Medici of Tuscany in 1569—which annoyed the neighbouring dukes of Savoy and Mantua and Ferrara very much, whose ruling families saw themselves as older and grander, even if they had less wealth. Many more grand duchies were created in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars: Luxembourg, Mecklenburg, Baden, etc. In keeping up with the Joneses, the Habsburgs wanted to ensure that everyone knew their dynasty was of higher rank than anyone else in Europe, so invented the title of ‘archduke’ for their sons and daughters in 1358. Because the language of eastern Europe makes duke and prince fairly interchangeable, the early rulers of Poland were called grand dukes or grand princes before they were fully recognised as kings at the end of the 13th century. The same is true for Russian grand princes of Kiev, Moscow, Vladimir, Tver and so on, until the line of Moscow adopted the title of tsar (‘caesar’ or emperor) in the 16th century.  From this point, grand duke and grand duchess began to be used for all members of the Russian imperial family. All of the magnate families who could claim descent from the original rulers of the various Russian principalities began to use princely titles, and by the 19th century, these numbered in the hundreds. Other rulers in the east in the early modern era were referred to as prince or grand prince—Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia, Serbia—in part to show their simultaneous autonomy and subservience to a greater power, whether Byzantine, Ottoman or Habsburg. On the other edge of Europe, the title of prince was sometimes used by Celtic families in Ireland or Wales to indicate descent from a family that had been formerly sovereign before the coming of the English, for example the O’Donnell princes (or flatha) of Tyrconnell or the MacCarthy princes of Desmond.  Some would say the title ‘prince of Wales’ used today is a bit of an insult to those princes of Gwynedd and Powys who were genuinely Welsh.

Besides the hereditary principalities and dukedoms, there were also those (rare) given for life only—as a reward for a great victory or peace accord—and there were those held by churchmen. Ecclesiastical titles originally were part of the means for making the church independent of the state, by allowing bishops to rule a particular territory and generate their own income, but later they became a means for honouring senior prelates. In France, the earliest of these were the ancient Frankish bishops who were central to coronation rituals: the archbishop of Reims was considered a duke and a peer of the realm (see below for what it means to be a peer), as were the bishops of Laon and Langres. Later (1674) the archbishop of Paris was similarly honoured with the title duke of Saint-Cloud, but it didn’t have the same sense of territorial rule over the lands in his diocese. Imperial bishops started out with much the same powers, but as Germany increasingly decentralised (as opposed to France increasingly centralising) their powers as territorial rulers were strengthened and they became known as prince-bishops. The top three were the prince-archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier, and they controlled vast territories in the Rhineland and central Germany as virtual sovereigns. Some of the largest of these territories were formally recognised as duchies: Bremen, Magdeburg, Würzburg (aka ‘duke of Franconia’), and Westphalia (ruled by the archbishops of Cologne). There were also several large abbeys that enjoyed princely status, such as Fulda or Corvey, and some for women, like Essen or Quedlinburg. Being a princess-abbess was just about the best job you could get if you were a woman in pre-modern Germany and you didn’t want to rule as simply a consort to a duke or prince. The main thing that connected all of these ecclesiastical princes was of course that they were non-hereditary (at least in theory; in practice some families treated them as their own personal fiefs, most notably the Wittelsbachs in Cologne).

The other thing that connects together all of the hereditary and non-hereditary princes and dukes, at least in the pre-modern world, was their formal role in creating their monarchs, and in holding them to account if necessary. These magnates were thus known as ‘peers’ in that they were equal (from pair in French) to each other, and in the early days of the history of monarchy, equal to the prince before his coronation (or sacralisation once the Church got involved)—they liked the use the phrase primer inter pares, the ‘first amongst equals’, to describe this semi-tribal tradition, and to remind monarchs that they were made and could thus be un-made. Those responsible for choosing or electing (or perhaps merely acclaiming) the monarch were called peers, formally codified into peerages in England and France, and only informally in Spain or Portugal (where they were called ‘grandees’), and they developed even further in the Holy Roman Empire into ‘electors’. By the mid-14th century there were seven electors in Germany, three sacred and four secular. Not all of these were dukes: only the elector of Saxony was a duke (and arguably the archbishop of Cologne), while the others were the king of Bohemia, the margrave of Brandenburg and the count palatine of the Rhine, though all of these ranked as territorial princes. In France, the original six lay peers entrusted with the coronation ceremony included three dukes (Normandy, Aquitaine and Burgundy), but also three counts (Flanders, Champagne and Toulouse), and when new dukedoms were created, they were also called peers (mostly; some were not), which did not affect the coronation rites, but it did reflect their other role which was to act as a supreme court for the Kingdom, as members of the Parlement of Paris. Similarly, in England, the peers of the House of Lords acted as a supreme court, a job they retained until 2005. Of course, there are a lot of peers in England who are not dukes (barons have been peers since the earliest days of the English peerage), which underlines that much of this history is imprecise and hard to put into firmly delineated categories.

Charles VII of France sitting with some of the Peers of the Realm in the Parlement of Paris

So to conclude this introductory essay, we can see that there are a lot of overlappings and variations of definitions, systems, practices. The peerage does not always mean the dukes; and the titles duke and prince are often overlapping (in fact, in the early modern period, most dukes in England are referred to as ‘high and mighty prince’ in formal documentation). This is why I am treating them together here on this website. There is quite a large chronological and geographical spread to be covered, so I have made some dangerous generalisations above. In England, there are generally only two kinds of dukes, royal and non-royal, though they can be divided into separate peerages for England, Scotland and Ireland. In Germany and Italy they can be ruling and non-ruling (like Mantua for the Gonzagas versus Bracciano for the Orsini). In France the scene is much more complex, with ancient dukes like Aquitaine or Burgundy wielding essentially sovereign (or ‘regalian’) rule, ancien-régime (that is, before the Revolution), dukes acting as peers in the Parlement, then Napoleonic, Restoration and Second Empire dukedoms being created mostly as purely honorific titles. And then there are the countries that have virtually no non-royal princely or ducal titles (like Denmark or Sweden), and those where princely and ducal titles run into the hundreds, like Russia or Naples. There is also a lot of confusing and sometimes contradictory information out there, so hopefully, I can help navigate these complexities to provide some interesting history!

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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