French nobility is generally divided into the following classes:
- Noblesse d'Épée: The traditional or old nobility.
- Noblesse de Chancellerie: A person made noble by holding certain high offices for the king.
- Noblesse de Lettres: A person made noble by letters patent.
- Noblesse de Robe: A person or family made noble by holding certain official charges
- Noblesse de Cloche: A person or family made noble by being a mayor or échevin or dean of guilds in certain towns.
- Noblesse Militaire: A person or family made noble by holding military offices, generally after two or three generations.
Nobles sometimes made the following distinctions based on the age of their status:
- Noblesse Chevaleresque: nobility from before the year 1400.
- Noblesse d'Extraction: nobility for at least four generations.
Commoners were referred to as roturier. Magistrates and men of law are sometimes called robins.
The acquisition of titles of nobility could be done in one generation or gradually over several generations:
- Noblesse au Premier Degré: Nobility awarded in the first generation, generally after 20 years of service or by death in one's post.
- Noblesse Graduelle: Nobility awarded in the second generation, generally after 20 years of service by both father and son.
During the Ancien Régime, there was no distinction of rank between titles, except for the title of Duke, formerly given to previously sovereign rulers and therefore keeping precedence over other nobles.
The hierarchy within the French nobility was based only on seniority
- For example, a Comte whose family had been noble since the 14th century was higher-ranked than a Marquis whose title came from the 15th century. Precedence at the Royal Court was based on dignities and offices.
There is a difference between ranks and titles. Ranks were what gave nobles precedence at court.
- Duc/Duchesse: Possessor of a Duché and recognized as Duke by the king.
- Marquis/Marquise: Possessor of a Marquisat or merely assumed by ambitious families
- Comte/Comtesse: Possessor of a Comté or merely assumed by ambitious families
- Vicomte/Vicomtesse: Possessor of a Vicomté
- Baron/Baronne: Possessor of a Baronnie
- Prince/Princesse: Possessor of a Principauté (See below for further detail)
- Fils/Fille de France: Children of the King
- Petit-fils/fille de France: Grandchildren of the King
- Prince du Sang: Any legitimate male-line descendant of a King of France.
- Prince Étranger: Members of foreign royalty or princely families at the French court
- Pair de France: The oldest members of the nobility were honoured with this rank, giving them greater precedence at court
- Chevalier: Rank assumed only by the most noble families and the possessors of certain high dignities in the court.
- Écuyer: Rank of the vast majority of the nobles. Also called valet or noble homme in certain regions.
Excluding the ranks of Prince du Sang and Prince Étranger, there are three other ranks of Prince
- Sovereign Princes which rule over their principalties on the borders of France, they have precedence above a Marquis, but below a Duc (Dombes for example; a fictional example is Fénétrange)
- Feudal Princes which are lords with lands styled as 'Principauté', they have precedence below a Baron (Talmont for example; a fictional example is Tancarville)
- Princes that were created later on, which have no lands attached to them and are usually possesed by a Duc, who usually gives the title to his heir as courtesy, therefore they are assumed to be ranked below a Duc and above a Marquis (Carpègne and Amblise for example)
Styles are the way in which members of the nobility should be addressed as.
Fils/Fille and Petit-fils/fille de France:
- Monseigneur le Dauphin/Madame la Dauphine - HRH/SAR
- Comte/Comtesse de Provence - Monsieur/Madame - HRH/SAR
- Madame Royale - HRH/SAR
- Madame Adelaide/Victoire/Sophie - HRH/SAR
- Your Royal Highness/Votre Altesse Royale - HRH/SAR
Prince/Princesse du Sang:
- Duc/Duchesse d'Orleans - Monsieur le Prince/Madame la Princesse - HSH/SAS
- Duc/Duchesse d'Enghien - Monsieur le Duc/Madame la Duchesse - HSH/SAS
- Your Serene Highnesse/Votre Altesse Sérénissimee - HSH/SAS
- Your Highness/Votre Altesse - HH/SA (Often ignored by peers, and therefore by the lower nobility)
Duc/Duchesse: Your Grace/Votre Grace - HG/SG
Prince/Princesse: Your Excellency/Votre Excellencé - HE/SE
Marquis/Marquise: Your Magnificence/Votre Magnificence - HM/SM
Comte/Comtesse: Your Greatness/Votre Grandeur - HG/SG
Vicomte/Vicomtesse: Monsieur le Vicomte/Madame la Vicomtesse
Baron/Baronne: Monsieur le Baron/Madame la Baronne
Cardinal : Your Eminence/Votre Éminence - HE/SE
Archbishop/Archevêque: Your Excellency/Votre Excellencé - HE/SE
Bishop/Evêque: Your Greatness/Votre Grandeur - HG/SG