Introduction and general information
Switzerland having the characteristic to be a confederation of states of which each one has its own history,
we can't speak about " Swiss nobility " in the singular but " Swiss nobilities " in the plural. Also remind that the
concept of nobility or noble class postulates the existence of a hierarchical society recognising the principle of the heredity
of a function or social status
In the Middle Ages we also find in the various Swiss cantons
only families of feudal nobility and some ennobled families abroad. We found through Switzerland a great number of families
of dynastes who were vassals of the Holy Empire, of the house of Savoy or of the Kingdom of Burgundy. This diversity
prevented the birth of a state with monarchical central authority
In Switzerland, since the XIVth century, we can distinguish, except the particular cases, three modes of
||the nobility acquired under the terms of the family right, i.e. by direct line (male and legitimate since
the XVIth century). |
|| the nobility resulting from a concession or a recognition of the Sovereign, which can be one monarch or a
collective Sovereign. This maybe individual, family or collective concession. The Sovereign can also recognize an ennoblement
conceded to one of his subjects by a foreign sovereign. Also there exists "reward's ennoblements" conceding only the possession
of a title.|
||the nobility acquired by integration [For example: Affry in XVth century, Reyff (1577) Pontherose (1443), Vevey
(1523), Vandel (1526), Hugues (1544) ]. This integration frequently results from a social rise and of one or more alliances
with families belonging already to the nobility. Sometimes that was accompanied by the
acquisisition of a noble domain (the seigniory of Mézières was bought in 1547 by Jost Freitag who was consequently qualified
The loss of nobility did not exist in Switzerland
where the social classes were closer than in other countries. Juridically there is neither misalliance nor loss of nobility
due to the manual work or to the trade. So Noble Jean Gambach was in 1442 manufacturer of scythe, and Noble Louis de Daguet
was a carter at the end of XVIIIth century. The only cases of loss of nobility were the illegitimate line or the voluntary
renunciation. This last case was met in Fribourg in order to be able to reach the load of banneret; it was in particular the
case for some lines of the families Fégely, Gottrau, Reynold, Reyff, etc..
Each state had its own constitution, its currency, its jurisdiction, its habits and customs, its history and
so its own nobility. So it's necessary to understand the Swiss nobilities to specify some nobiliary characteristics
of some "cantons".
BERNE, FRIBOURG, SOLEURE, LUCERNE
XVth century there was a power's increasing of the cities and their citizens and consequently there was an integration
of the feudal nobility into the middle-class of the cities. In some "cantons", as Bern, Fribourg, Soleure and Lucerne, the
political power belongs consequently to an upper class which is formed with noble families and new families proceeding from
the middle-class of the chief town of each state. These no noble families and the ancient noble families held the power with
an hereditary right to the governmental loads. This matter of fact increased gradually and ended towards 1600 to the
institution of a privileged class. In 1627 in Fribourg, this class was officialized by a letter known as "lettre des deux-Cents".
Then this class were constitutionally composed with the families eligible for the Sovereign Councils. In Fribourg this class,
the patriciat, was closed in 1684 and half-opened only at the end of XVIIIth century.
The Sovereign of each state was not a King but the Council and the subjects of each republic had only one
sovereign, who was a collective sovereign. These "patriciats" were renewed by co-optation and some of his families were ennobled
Some of these collective sovereigns granted ennoblements: In 1547 Bern set up the seigniory of Batie-Beauregard
in barony in favour of Jacques Champion; In 1665 Soleure granted letters of nobility to the brothers Marcacci of Locarno;
In 1712 Bern set up the seigniory of Bercher in barony in favour of Jean-Louis de Saussure.
In Fribourg at the end of XVIIIth century the privilege of eligibility to the governmental loads was the exclusive
prerogative of the patricians. In 1781 this "patriciat" is composed with four categories of families: 1°) noble families
with titles (Affry, Alt, Diesbach, Maillardoz, Castella de Berlens); 2°) noble families without title (Boccard, Fégely
de Vivy, Fivaz, Gléresse, Griset de Forel, Lenzbourg, Maillard, Praroman, of Prel, Reyff de Cugy, Reynold); 3°) the patricians
families of noble origin, but of which the nobility was not thought of (Fégely de Prez for example); and 4°) the patricians
families without noble origin (Buman, Castella, Reynold, Weck, Wild, etc...). Due to the constitution of 1404 the members
the first two categories of families were excluded from the loads of "banneret", "secret" (member of the secret
council) and "grand sautier" except if they renounced their nobility. Also there were in the canton some families who
were ennobled and who were not patricians and whose nobility was not recognised by Fribourg (Besson, Chassot, Gapany
and Tercier). In the "canton" of Fribourg the only still extant family of feudal nobility is the house of La Roche became
Schenewey who lost its nobility in the XVIth century.
In 1782 the Sovereign of Fribourg decided to standardise the situation of these families. He removed
all the titles except "noble", authorised all the patricians to use the nobiliary particle "de" (or "von"), and specified
that henceforth the loads of "bannerets", "secrets" and "grand-sautier" would be opened to all the patricians. By confirming
that all the patricians families were noble either by origin or by being member of the privileged class, this "Règlement relativement
à l'introduction de l'égalité des familles patriciennes et de leurs titulatures" (17th and 18th of July 1782) is not
really a collective ennoblement but the official confirmation of a state of things.
In Bern a constitutional law created in 1643 the privileged class of the eligible families to the Great Council.
Since 1731 the Sovereign prohibits to use titles of nobility conferred by foreign sovereigns; Since 1761 the patricians
were authorised to be called "wohledelgeboren"; Then on the 9th of April 1783 the patricians were authorised to uses the nobiliary
particle "von" (or "de")..
In Lucerne at the end of XVIIth century the patricians were named with the
title "Junker" and regularly made use of their nobility when they were abroad, particularly when they served in the
foreigner armies. Some families also received foreigner letters of nobility.
In Soleure the patriciat in fact was formed gradually. Some families set up the corporations to
be able to control the co-optation. So the capacity passed to a definite number of privileged families who then formed a noble
patrician whose members were qualified "Herren und Bürger". Numbers of these families accepted letters of nobility abroad,
particularly in France.
URI, SCHWYZ, UNTERWALD
In the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald, the political evolution from the Middle Ages to the
XIXth century was realised by a relatively similar way but really doesn't lead to the constitution of a "patriciat" but rather
to the formation of a relatively closed class of new families sharing the political power with the ancient noble families.
Some of the new families were ennobled abroad while others were incorporated to the Nobility by "integration".
The canton of Schwyz counted several families of ministériaux such Reding.
In 1400 the city of Zürich formally became autonomous with regard to the Holy Empire. Before this
date the only noble families were families of ministériaux. Quickly the political power came to the corporations while giving
a dominant position to the noble corporation of the "Constaffel" in which was constituted a "noble chamber" called "adelige
Stube zum Rüden Stübli". The members families of the Corporations were mainly in them by heredity
The members of Stübli used the title "Junker". In 1798 the Stübli did not count any more than eleven
familles. The Bonstetten family, the only still extant family of the nobility of Zürich, came to Bern in 1463. Some families
received foreigner titles such Hirzel, count in France in 1788.
In the cantons of Schaffouse and Zoug, the political power belonged to the corporations. So there was not
hereditary prerogative for the governmental loads.
In the canton of Zoug the few families who had received letters of nobility abroad are extinguished.
democratic system of this canton hindered a nobility expansion.
In the canton of Schaffhouse the noble families formed since the XIIIth century the "Herrenstube" which
became during the XVth century one of the twelve corporations. Some ancient families were extinguished and replaced in the
"Herrenstube" by new families of the "integration nobility". In 1864 these families were maintained in their right to
be buried in the "Junkernfriedhof", their last privilege..
VALAIS, THURGOVIE, TESSIN
In the cantons
of Valais, Thurgovie and Tessin, the former noble families were maintained and only some families were ennobled abroad.
The "patriciat valaisan" which provides in particular the bishops-princes, was formed with families of old
nobility but also with some families incorporated into the Nobility either by possession of a right of jurisdiction either
by membership to the "nobility of integration". Some of these families also accepted letters of nobility abroad. This
patriciat was not a patriciat of right but in fact.
Tessin, before becoming Swiss canton in 1803, did not form a political and administrative unit and there
is thus no "nobility of Tessin" in a strict sense, however there are some noble families originating from this area. In Locarno,
at the Reformation, two of the three great feudal families of capitanei: Muralto and Orelli emigrated in Zürich. A branch
of Muralt was established in Bern. The third great family, Magoria, remained in Locarno. The majority of the families of Tessin
ennobled abroad were it by the dukes of Milan.
In the Grisons there was a great number of families of dynasts and "ministériaux". From
the XIth or XIIth century, the dynasts owned seigniories on which they held power more in fact than by resulting of
a constitutional law. These families maintained their privileges until XVe century and some families preserved an important
situation, in particular Salis and Planta, while some others were ennobles abroad.
In 1794 the Leagues enacted the radical cancelling of the nobility, titles and particles. This prohibition
was confirmed in 1803 and 1848.
never had of nobility of right. However in Glaris there are some families ennobled abroad.
In these cantons the families descended from the "State's chief" and from the bailiffs formed
in fact a class of
This canton where is the castle of Habsbourg remained under the Austrian domination until 1415, when
it has been conquered by Bern and Zürich which divided it. The current canton born only in 1803. The ancient noble families
of Argovie were maintained in different cantons, such Mülinen and Hallwyl in Bern, or abroad such Reinach in Alsace.
The canton of Vaud, old county then country of Vaud,
depended successively of Burgundy, Zähringen, Savoy until 1536, then of Bern. In this canton there were some feudal
noble families, families of Savoyard nobility, families of the patrician nobility of Bern, and families of "integration
In the canton of Neuchâtel, Principality since 1643, the nobility increased by ennoblements of the Prince,
ennoblement letters were subject to be ratified by the Council of State. Neuchâtel became Swiss canton in 1815 and
staid paradoxically a Prussian Principality until 1848.
Since the Reformation the Republic of Geneva did not officially recognise the
nobility as an organised corps. There were families of old nobility, families of "integration nobility", families who
were ennobled abroad, and a great number of noble families refuge at the time of the Reformation.
However it should be noted that, contrary to the generally accepted ideas, the Republic
of Geneva made use of its capacity to ennoble. It is in particular what it did on August 20 1680 by ennobling with a title
of count the Noblet family.
In 1382 the constitution reserved
four seats of the Council for the noble families. From the next century the corporations and thus the town's citizens
took the power. The noble families of this time preferred to leave Basel which consequently will have a corporative system.
The nobility was then prohibited in Basel. An exception was made for the "barons Wieland" in 1816 under the condition that
they will not use their title in Basel. However there are some noble families whose nobility and titles are earlier
to their reception as citizen of Basel.
In St-Gall some powerful families formed a kind of patriciat whose members belong to the "adelige Stube zum
Notenstein". Some of these families consolidated their position by receiving nobility's letters abroad. In 1778 the
Council fixed the list of the seven families of the "Notenstein" which constituted in fact the nobility of St-Gall.
Some families which were not members of the "Notenstein" received nobility's diplomas abroad.
Since 1798 the nobility does not
exist any more as a privileged class but simply on the historical level. However there was an aristocratic restoration in
Lucerne and Freiburg 1814 to 1831.
Now there are about 450 noble families remaining in Switzerland, either of the one of the Swiss nobilities
or of a foreign nobility. By counting 15 people per family, we obtain a proportion of 1,06 °/oo of the population, which is
equivalent to the French noble density. However it's necessary to note the cantonal inequality of this density; the canton
of Appenzell having nearly anyone noble family while the canton of Vaud having more than one hundred.
Today the nobility not having legal existence in Switzerland, the titles of nobility appear neither
in the registry offices nor in the official instruments. Sometimes they are tolerated in some administrative documents and
in the professional life. to the social relations.