Who is considered noble?

How nobility is passed down from one generation to the next

The person who belonged to a noble, baronial or countly lineage was a matter for his Royal Majesty until 1809. After that, the matter was regulated directly in the 1809 Instrument of Government until it was replaced by the current Instrument of Government in 1974. Nowadays there are no provisions on ennoblement, and the monarch no longer has the right to confer knighthood. This means that new families cannot be added, and the House of Nobility is thus a closed organisation.

Provisions are contained in the letters patent

Prior to 6 June 1809, provisions on the transfer of nobility from one generation to another were given in the letters patent signed by the king. These documents are acts of state, bearing the great seal of the king. The provisions, created in the period leading up to 1809, are the same in all Swedish letters patent, with few exceptions. They adhere to a continental European tradition of transferring nobility through the male line, the agnatic principle.

Nobility transferred through the male line

When someone was knighted or elevated to baron or count, his children born in wedlock could thus partake of their father’s dignity as a noble, sons as well as daughters. After him, however, nobility is passed on only through the sons of each subsequent generation.  Daughters cannot pass on their dignity to their children; instead, the daughters’ children are counted as belonging to their father’s lineage. Thus, there is no double form of nobility with one title from the father and one from the mother.

Only for children born to married parents

According to the letters patent, nobility is only passed on to children born in wedlock. In Sweden, marriage of the parents after a child is born entitles the child to be considered as born in wedlock. Thus, the act of marriage has retroactive validity. Although this is not the case in all countries, it is regulated by civil law regarding the birth of a child. Today, the term “legitimate birth” does not exist in family law. These grounds have their counterpart in Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Swedish Parental Code, which states that if the mother is married at the time of the child’s birth, the husband by marriage is regarded as the child’s father unless certain criteria as stated in Section 2 are met.

Children of cohabitants or adopted children do not qualify

In practical terms, today’s letters patent provisions mean that children of parents in a cohabitant relationship cannot become noble, even if their biological father belongs to a noble family. This is in accordance with the previous practice that children born out of wedlock did not become noble, even if their biological father was. Nobility is not transferable by civil adoption either.

A birthright for life

A woman who is born noble retains her own birthright privileges throughout her life, even if she marries. According to ancient tradition, a woman who marries a noble man is also considered to be part of his family during the course of the marriage, even as a widow as long as she does not remarry. However, she still does not acquire a noble status, or become a baroness or countess, through marriage; this is rather a feature of old-fashioned thinking that the wife should enjoy the husband’s privileged position. In the event of divorce, this tie is broken. A woman who is a commoner and has been married to, for example, a baron does not, following a divorce, have the right to receive financial assistance or scholarships reserved for families introduced into the House of Nobility, even if she continues to call herself a baroness.

The letters patent specify how nobility is inherited.

Under Paragraph 37, only one person at a time can be noble

With the 1809 Instrument of Government came a new order for transferring noble status from one generation to the next. It had some similarities to the British scheme and established that only one person at a time within the same family can hold the noble title of baron or count. These provisions were contained in Paragraph 37 of the instrument, and the families ennobled under this new scheme are often referred to as Paragraph 37 families. Whoever is ennobled or elevated in status according to that scheme remains the only one in his family to possess that dignity until his death. The dignity then passes to the person in line to becoming the family head, firstly to the deceased’s eldest son. The rest of the family is thus not noble. However, according to tradition, they are recorded in the Swedish Peerage Book. If there was no son or male descendant of any son of the first ennobled man, the line became extinct.

Lateral inheritance

These days, when there can be several generations of family members descended from the first ennobled or elevated person of noble status, the dignity may also pass laterally, for example to a brother of the deceased family head. This takes place in the sequential order prescribed by the Instrument of Government and given in the letters patent. Sometimes his Royal Majesty might have knighted both a father and his son at the same time under the new scheme, hence the misunderstanding that two generations are always noble at the same time. This is not the case, for according to the Instrument of Government, an inherited noble title extinguishes whatever one had before, except in cases in which the previous title involved a higher rank. Thus, when the father died, the son inherited the father’s noble status and his own extinction, except if the son had gained a higher rank and thus himself had become the head of a new line of his own.

For a short time prior to 1809, his Royal Majesty could limit the elevations in rank to baron or count in the manner that then took effect in the 1809 Instrument of Government.

Written by: Erik Tersmeden