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Graf (male) or Gräfin (female) is a historical title of the German nobility, usually translated as "count". Considered to be intermediate among noble ranks, the title is often treated as equivalent to the British title of "earl" (whose female version is "countess").
The German nobility was gradually divided into high and low nobility. The high nobility included those counts who ruled immediate imperial territories of "princely size and importance" for which they had a seat and vote on the count's benches of the Reichstag.
The comital title of Graf is common to various European territories where German was or is the official or vernacular tongue, including Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Alsace, the Baltic states and other former Habsburg crown lands. In Germany, all legal privileges of the nobility have been officially abolished since August 1919, and Graf, like any other hereditary title, is treated as part of the legal surname.In Austria, its use is banned by law, as with all hereditary titles and nobiliary particles. In Switzerland, the title is not acknowledged in law. In the monarchies of Belgium, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, where German is one of the official languages, the title continues to be recognised, used and, occasionally, granted by the national fons honorum , the reigning monarch.
From the Middle Ages, a Graf usually ruled a territory known as a Grafschaft (county). In the Holy Roman Empire, many Imperial counts ( Reichsgrafen ) retained near-sovereign authority in their lands until the Congress of Vienna subordinated them to larger, neighboring monarchs through the German mediatisation process of 1815, preserving their precedence, allocating familial representation in local legislatures, some jurisdictional immunities and the prestigious privilege of Ebenbürtigkeit . In regions of Europe where nobles did not actually exercise Landeshoheit over the populace, the Graf long retained specific feudal privileges over the land and in the villages in his county, such as rights to peasant service, to periodic fees for use of common infrastructure such as timber, mills, wells and pastures.
These rights gradually eroded and were largely eliminated before or during the 19th century, leaving the Graf with few legal privileges beyond land ownership, although comital estates in German-speaking lands were often substantial. Nonetheless, various rulers in German-speaking lands granted the hereditary title of Graf to their subjects, particularly after the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Although lacking the prestige and powers of the former Imperial counts, they remained legal members of the local nobility, entitled to whatever minor privileges were recognised at the ruler's court. The title, translated as "count", was generally accepted and used in other countries by custom.
Many Continental counts in Germany and Austria were titled Graf without any additional qualification. Except in the Kingdom of Prussia from the 19th century, the title of Graf was not restricted by primogeniture: it was inherited by all legitimate descendants in the male line of the original titleholder, the males also inheriting an approximately equal share of the family's wealth and estates. Usually a hyphenated suffix indicated which of the familial lands a particular line of counts held, e.g. Castell-Rudenhausen .
In the medieval Holy Roman Empire, some counts took or were granted unique variations of the gräfliche title, often relating to a specific domain or jurisdiction of responsibility, e.g. Landgraf , Markgraf , Pfalzgraf (Count Palatine), Burggraf , Wildgraf, Waldgraf, Altgraf, Raugraf, etc. Although as a title Graf ranked, officially, below those of Herzog (duke) and Fürst (prince), the Holy Roman Emperor could and did recognise unique concessions of authority or rank to some of these nobles, raising them to the status of gefürsteter Graf or "princely count". But a grafliche title with such a prefix did not always signify a higher than comital rank or membership in the Hochadel. Only the more important of these titles, historically associated with degrees of sovereignty, remained in use by the 19th century, specifically Markgraf and Landgraf.
For a list of the titles of the rank of Count etymologically related to Graf (and for other equivalents) see article Count.
The word Graf derives from Middle High German : grave, which is usually derived from Latin : graphio. Graphio is in turn thought to come from the Byzantine title grapheus, which ultimately derives from the Greek verb γρᾰ́φειν (graphein, "to write"). Other explanations have been put forward, however; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, while still noting the potential of a Greek derivation, suggested a connection to Gothic : gagrêfts, meaning "decision, decree". However, the Grimms preferred a solution that allows a connection to Old English :gerēfa (reeve), in which the ge- is a prefix, and which the Grimms derive from Proto-Germanic *rōva, meaning number.
Some are approximately of comital rank, some higher, some lower. The more important ones are treated in separate articles (follow the links); a few minor, rarer ones only in sections below.
|Markgraf|| Margrave (only continental) |
|Mark = march (border province) + Graf. Exercised authority over territory on the border of the Empire.|
|Landgraf||Landgrave||Land (country) + Graf. Exercised authority over an entire province.|
|Reichsgraf||Imperial Count||Reich , i.e., (the Holy Roman) Empire + Graf. Imperial count, whose title was granted or recognised by the Emperor.|
|Gefürsteter Graf||Princely Count||German verb for "made into a Reichsfürst " + Graf.|
|Pfalzgraf|| Count Palatine |
or Palsgrave (the latter is archaic in English)
|Pfalz (palatial estate, Palatinate) + Graf. Originally ruled "with the authority of the Imperial Palace"; later, ruler of the "Palace-land", i.e., the Palatinate.|
|Rheingraf||Rhinegrave||Rhein (river Rhine) + Graf. Ruled territory bordering the Rhine River.|
|Burggraf||Burgrave||Burg (castle, burgh) + Graf. Ruled territory surrounding or dominated by a fortified castle.|
|Altgraf||Altgrave||Alt (old) + Graf. A count whose title pre-dated Imperial grants of the comital title. Unique to the Salm family.|
|Freigraf||Free Count||Frei = free (allodial?) + Graf. Both a feudal title of comital rank and a more technical office.|
|Waldgraf||Wildgrave||Wald = forest + Graf. Ruled a heavily forested area.|
|Raugraf||Raugrave||Rau (raw, uninhabited, wilderness) + Graf. Ruled territory centered on an undeveloped area of land.|
|Vizegraf||Viscount||Vize = vice- (substitute) + Graf.|
A Reichsgraf was a nobleman whose title of count was conferred or confirmed by the Holy Roman Emperor, and meant "Imperial Count", i.e. a count of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the feudal era, any count whose territory lay within the Empire and was under the immediate jurisdiction of the Emperor with a shared vote in the Reichstag came to be considered a member of the "upper nobility" (Hochadel) in Germany, along with princes ( Fürsten ), dukes ( Herzöge ), electors, and the emperor himself.A count who was not a Reichsgraf was likely to possess only a mesne fief ( Afterlehen ) — he was subject to an immediate prince of the empire, such as a duke or prince elector.
However, the Holy Roman Emperors also occasionally granted the title of Reichsgraf to subjects and foreigners who did not possess and were not granted immediate territories — or, sometimes, any territory at all.Such titles were purely honorific.
In English, Reichsgraf is usually translated simply as count and is combined with a territorial suffix (e.g. Count of Holland, Count Reuss) or a surname (Count Fugger, Count von Browne). Even after the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Reichsgrafen retained precedence above other counts in Germany. Those who had been quasi-sovereign until German mediatisation retained, until 1918, status and privileges pertaining to members of reigning dynasties.
Notable Reichsgrafen included:
A complete list of Reichsgrafen with immediate territories as of 1792 can be found in the List of Reichstag participants (1792).
A Markgraf or Margrave was originally a military governor of a Carolingian "mark" (march), a border province. In medieval times the borders of the Holy Roman Empire were especially vulnerable to foreign attack, so the hereditary count of these "marches" of the realm was sometimes granted greater authority than other vassals to ensure security. They bore the title "margrave" until the few who survived as sovereigns assumed higher titles when the Empire was abolished in 1806.
Examples: Margrave of Baden, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. Since the abolition of the German Empire at the end of World War I, the heirs of some of its former monarchies have resumed use of margrave as a title of pretence, e.g. Maria Emanuel, Margrave of Meissen and Maximilian, Margrave of Baden.
A Landgraf or Landgrave was a nobleman of comital rank in feudal Germany whose jurisdiction stretched over a territory larger than usually held by a count within the Holy Roman Empire. The status of a landgrave was elevated, usually being associated with suzerains who were subject to the Holy Roman Emperor but exercised sovereign authority within their lands and independence greater than the prerogatives to which a simple Graf (count) was entitled, but the title itself implied no specific, legal privileges.
Landgraf occasionally continued in use as the subsidiary title of such minor royalty as the Elector of Hesse or the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who functioned as the Landgrave of Thuringia in the first decade of the 20th century. The jurisdiction of a landgrave was a Landgrafschaft or landgraviate, and the wife of a landgrave was a Landgräfin or landgravine.
Examples: Landgrave of Thuringia, Landgrave of Hesse, Landgrave of Leuchtenberg , Landgrave of Fürstenberg-Weitra . The title is now borne by the hereditary heirs to the deposed monarchs of Hesse (Donatus, Landgrave of Hesse and Wilhelm, Landgrave of Hesse-Philippsthal-Barchfeld), who lost their throne in 1918.
A gefürsteter Graf (English: "princely count") is a Reichsgraf who was recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor as bearing the higher rank or exercising the more extensive authority of an Imperial prince ( Reichsfürst ). While nominally retaining only a comital title, he was accorded princely rank and, usually, arms by the Emperor.
A Burggraf, or Burgrave , was a 12th- and 13th-century military and civil judicial governor of a castle (compare castellan, custos , keeper) of the town it dominated and of its immediate surrounding countryside. His jurisdiction was a Burggrafschaft, burgraviate.
Over time the office and domain to which it was attached tended to become hereditary by Imperial grant or retention over generations by members of the same family.
Examples: Burgrave of Nuremberg, Burgrave of (Burggraf zu) Dohna-Schlobitten
Initially burgrave suggested a similar function and history as other titles rendered in German by Vizegraf, in Dutch as Burggraaf or in English as Viscount [ citation needed ] (Latin : Vicecomes); the deputy of a count charged with exercising the count's prerogatives in overseeing one or more of the count's strongholds or fiefs, as the burgrave dwelt usually in a castle or fortified town. Some became hereditary and by the modern era obtained rank just below a count, though above a Freiherr' (baron) who might hold a fief as vassal of the original count.
Unlike the other comital titles, Rhinegrave, Wildgrave (Waldgrave), Raugrave, and Altgrave are not generic titles. Rather, each is linked to a specific countship, whose unique title emerged during the course of its history. These unusually named countships were equivalent in rank to other Counts of the Empire who were of Hochadel status, being entitled to a shared seat and vote in the Imperial Diet and possessing Imperial immediacy, most of which would be mediatised upon dissolution of the Empire in 1806.
The corresponding titles in Scandinavia are greve (m.) and grevinna (f.) and would commonly be used in the third-person in direct address as a mark of courtesy, as in grevinnan.
German nobility, although not abolished (unlike the Austrian nobility by the new First Austrian Republic in 1919), lost recognition as a legal class in Germany under the Weimar Republic in 1919 under the Weimar Constitution, article 109. Former hereditary noble titles legally simply transformed into dependent parts of the legal surname (with the former title thus now following the given name, e.g. Otto Graf Lambsdorff ). As dependent parts of the surnames (nichtselbständige Namensbestandteile), they are ignored in alphabetical sorting of names, as is any nobiliary particle, such as von or zu, and might or might not be used by those bearing them. The distinguishing main surname is the name following the Graf, or Gräfin, and the nobiliary particle if any. Today, having lost their legal status, these terms are often not translated, unlike before 1919. The titles do, however, retain prestige in some circles of society.
The suffix -graf occurs in various office titles which did not attain nobiliary status but were either held as a sinecure by nobleman or courtiers, or functional officials such as the Deichgraf (in a polder management organization).
Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was a principality in southwestern Germany. Its rulers belonged to the senior Swabian branch of the House of Hohenzollern. The Swabian Hohenzollerns were elevated to princes in 1623. The small sovereign state with the capital city of Sigmaringen was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1850 following the abdication of its sovereign in the wake of the revolutions of 1848, then became part of the newly created Province of Hohenzollern.
A count palatine, also count of the palace or palsgrave, was originally an official attached to a royal or imperial palace or household and later a nobleman of a rank above that of an ordinary count. The title originated in the late Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages especially and into modern times, it is associated with the Holy Roman Empire.
Burgrave also rendered as Burggrave, was since the medieval period in Europe the official title for the ruler of a castle, especially a royal or episcopal castle, and its territory called a Burgraviate or Burgravate.
Count is a historical title of nobility in certain European countries, varying in relative status, generally of middling rank in the hierarchy of nobility. The etymologically related English term "county" denoted the land owned by a count. Equivalents of the rank of count exist or have existed in the nobility structures of some non-European countries, such as hakushaku during the Japanese Imperial era.
Margrave was originally the medieval title for the military commander assigned to maintain the defence of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or of a kingdom. That position became hereditary in certain feudal families in the Empire, and the title came to be borne by rulers of some Imperial principalities until the abolition of the Empire in 1806. Thereafter, those domains were absorbed in larger realms or the titleholders adopted titles indicative of full sovereignty.
Fürst is a German word for a ruler and is also a princely title. Fürsten were, since the Middle Ages, members of the highest nobility who ruled over states of the Holy Roman Empire and later its former territories, below the ruling Kaiser (emperor) or König (king).
Landgrave was a noble title used in the Holy Roman Empire, and later on in its former territories. The German titles of Landgraf, Markgraf ("margrave"), and Pfalzgraf are in the same class of ranks as Herzog ("duke") and above the rank of a Graf ("count").
Freiherr, Freifrau and Freiin are designations used as titles of nobility in the German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire, and in its various successor states, including Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, etc. Traditionally it denotes the titled rank within the nobility above Ritter (knight) and Edler and below Graf and Herzog (duke). The title superseded the earlier medieval form, Edelherr.
Friedrich Heinrich Reichsgraf von Seckendorff was a Franconian field marshal and diplomat, in the service of the imperial Habsburg monarchy of Austria. Later he served as commander of the Bavarian army and fought Austria.
An Imperial State or Imperial Estate was a part of the Holy Roman Empire with representation and the right to vote in the Imperial Diet. Rulers of these Estates were able to exercise significant rights and privileges and were "immediate", meaning that the only authority above them was the Holy Roman Emperor. They were thus able to rule their territories with a considerable degree of autonomy.
Comes, plural comites, is the Latin word for "companion", either individually or as a member of a collective denominated a "comitatus", especially the suite of a magnate, being in some instances sufficiently large and/or formal to justify specific denomination, e.g. a "cohors amicorum". "Comes" derives from "com-" ("with") and "ire" ("go").
The Austrian nobility is a status group that was officially abolished in 1919 after the fall of Austria-Hungary. The nobles are still part of Austrian society today, but they no longer retain any specific privileges. Austria's system of nobility was very similar to Germany's, as both countries were previously part of the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806).
The German emperor was the official title of the head of state and hereditary ruler of the German Empire. A specifically chosen term, it was introduced with the 1 January 1871 constitution and lasted until the official abdication of Wilhelm II on 28 November 1918. The Holy Roman emperor is sometimes also called "German emperor" when the historical context is clear, as derived from the Holy Roman Empire's official name of "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" from 1512.
The German nobility and royalty were status groups of the medieval society in Central Europe, which enjoyed certain privileges relative to other people under the laws and customs in the German-speaking area, until the beginning of the 20th century.
Prince of the Holy Roman Empire was a title attributed to a hereditary ruler, nobleman or prelate recognised as such by the Holy Roman Emperor.
Hochgeboren ) is a form of address for the titled members of the German and Austrian nobility, ranking just below the sovereign and mediatised dynasties.
Salm was a Lotharingian noble family originating from Salmchâteau in the Ardennes and ruling Salm. The dynasty is above all known for the experiences of the Upper Salm branch which came to be located at Château de Salm in the Vosges mountain range and over time came to rule over a principality whose capital was Badonviller then Senones.
Imperial Count was a title in the Holy Roman Empire. In the medieval era, it was used exclusively to designate the holder of an imperial county, that is, a fief held directly (immediately) from the emperor, rather than from a prince who was a vassal of the emperor or of another sovereign, such as a duke or prince-elector. These imperial counts sat on one of the four "benches" of Counts, whereat each exercised a fractional vote in the Imperial Diet until 1806.
Bassewitz is a German family of ancient nobility whose roots come from the Mecklenburg region. According to tradition, the family was named after the village of Basse. In German hunter-language, Basse refers to a tusker or adult male wild boar. A Tusker Courant is the family's heraldic animal.
A Grafschaft was originally the name given to the administrative area in the Holy Roman Empire over which a count, or Graf, presided as judge. It is often, therefore, translated as 'county'. The term has survived as a placename in German-speaking countries, for example, in Germany and in Switzerland.