"Heraldry And Nobility In The American Context"

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by Guy Stair Sainty
Remarks delivered on Tuesday, January 25, 2005
at a meeting sponsored by the College of Arms Foundation
and the Committee of Heraldry of the NYG&B
© 2011 The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
All rights reserved.

The United States Constitution adopted on 17 Sep 1787 came into effect on 4 March 1789. Article I, Section 9 [Limits on Legislative Power], Paragraph 8 reads:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

As if this was not clear enough. Republican Senator Philip Reed in January 1810, introduced an amendment that, after twice being considered by a committee, was approved by the Senate by a vote of 19 to 5 on April 26, 1810. The House then on May 1, 1810 approved the amendment by a vote of 87 to 3. This read:

If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.

This proposed amendment was ratified between December 1810 and December 1812 by Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, and rejected between March 1812 and September 1814 by Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island; South Carolina simply did not present it to the vote. Virginia neither presented the amendment to the voters nor even bothered to reply to the Secretary of State when he asked what had occurred there. At least three fourths of the states’ consent was required, which meant that thirteen states needed to ratify it when the amendment was submitted in 1810, but as Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1811 this increased the required number to fourteen, Indiana joining in 1816 raised it to fifteen and, although the number was unchanged when Mississippi was admitted in 1817, Illinois’s admission raised the bar to sixteen.

In 1815 this alleged thirteenth amendment was actually included among the Laws of the United States of America, From the 4th of March, 1789, to the 4th of March, 1815 prepared for Congress but there were immediate doubts a to its validity and, by a resolution of Congress of December 1817, the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, whom one may claim himself benefited to some degree from hereditary privilege, was asked to request answers from each of the states. He reported on 27 February 1818 that, as this had failed to obtain the consent of three fourths of the states, the amendment was lost. Because of the length of time that it took and the confusion about what was required – did a state have to explicitly reject it, for example – the amendment appeared in several publications on the constitution throughout the 19th century; these were simply wrong.

Of course there was to be a thirteenth amendment, one of far greater import for this country; the formal abolition of slavery that was ratified on 6 December 1865 – although it is interesting to note that Delaware (having rejected it in 1865), did not ratify it until 1901 and Kentucky did not do so until 1976 while Mississippi has never ratified this article.

Why was there such deeply felt opposition to the granting of titles to citizens? Did this have any relevance to either heraldry or knighthood?

Article One, Section 9, Paragraph 8, was actually a formal statement of a prohibition which already existed in practice in Great Britain; since the reign of Elizabeth I the state had refused to recognize foreign titles and foreign orders of knighthood could not be worn without royal assent. Elizabeth is quoted as not wanting “her dogs” to wear any collars but her own. In the 18th century, with the interchange between the King and his German subjects, the Sovereign began the process of granting royal licenses to use foreign titles and this practice continued until being abandoned in 1936; there is now no means by which a foreign title can be recognized or used in anything other than a private, social sense in the United Kingdom. Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States, however, has ever actually prohibited the private use of foreign titles in society; neither is there a legal prohibition against the private use of the insignia of foreign orders.

Theoretically, British requirements are even stricter and more limiting than the United States as every citizen must obtain written permission from the Sovereign, granted through the Foreign Office, to accept and wear a foreign order. It would seem to be clear that a foreign order is not of itself an “Emolument, Office, or Title,” unless it confers a pension, a special rank in the country conferring it or a title of some kind; even British knighthoods, which for British subjects bring automatically the title of Sir or Dame, and Lady for the wives of the former, do not confer any title on foreign recipients,. Thus the conferral of knighthoods would not seem to fall within the scope of Article 1, 9, paragraph 8 of the constitution. No officer or other ranks of the British armed forces, nor of the United States armed forces is allowed to wear the insignia of a foreign order without the authorization of the Crown through the Ministry of Defense, or in the case of the US through the Departments of the Army, Navy or Air Force; and were any to do so he or she would attract an immediate reprimand and be subject to military disciplinary measures. This prohibition would continue to apply to officers of the reserve or retired officers when wearing uniform if so entitled. Surprisingly, I have seen photographs of retired US military officers wearing the insignia of self-styled orders that are certainly not authorized and they have apparently escaped any censure.

Similar prohibitions exist in most European states, and indeed France’s prohibitions against the use of unauthorized orders extends to criminal penalties. France, despite its republican form of government, in fact recognizes titles as an attachment to the name, not in the sense that Germany does where the title then passes as part of the name, but French law applies the rules of descent of the original patent, as modified post 1815 when female succession was effectively eliminated. French citizens who duly establish such a right may then use their title on all civil documents; once this is established to the satisfaction of the departmental prefect, an eldest son may usually receive the same benefit purely on production of proof of being the primogeniture heir of his father. France allowed this provision, at a time when republican sentiments were at a low ebb, by not abolishing these aspects of the prerogative powers with the advent of the Third Republic; and there was a monarchist majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Thus the institutions of the Second Empire, including the authority of the Garde des Sceaux to affirm the succession of titles, were maintained and no one has seen reason to abolish this authority since, nor the right to use titles. Indeed, in 1962, as President of the Fifth Republic General de Gaulle employed his presidential prerogative to authorize the use of a foreign title, that of Duke of San Fernando Luis, for an old companion in arms, the Marquis de Levis-Mirepoix, who was heir to this Spanish grandeeship. I mention this to demonstrate that there is not necessarily a conflict between republican government and the recognition of noble titles.

Most Americans would agree that this country has no such nobiliary traditions, even before Independence but, in addition to the peculiarity of the establishment of a herald and system of titles of nobility in Carolina, then a single province, there was in fact a substantial royal nobiliary jurisdiction in certain of the states before they acceded to the Union covering a vastly larger geographical area than just the Thirteen original colonies. We may consider that the adoption of Article 1, 9, paragraph 8 of the constitution is not of itself something particularly American nor can one consider it an unreasonable constraint upon personal liberty. But of far greater significance was the breadth of the penalties envisaged in what would have become the thirteenth amendment if it had been successfully adopted. Why was such an extreme measure, leading to the loss of citizenship, proposed? There is no definitive answer to this question since there records of the debates are sketchy and merely one enigmatic statement survives, against the establishment in the United States of a branch of the Legion of Honor, perhaps flowing from the then association of convenience between the United States and France that was to lead to the war of 1812. Later in the 19th century some claimed that the title of Esquire used by convention by American lawyers was a British title; and thus somehow flowed from a foreign Crown – this was of course absolute nonsense and those who claimed this were merely trying to undermine the status of all lawyers in an attempt to render court judgments flawed.

We do know that there was hostility to the formal adoption of any kind of heraldic administration in the United States. Most of you will be familiar with a quotation attributed to George Washington:

It is far from my design to intimate an opinion, that Heraldry, Coat-Armor, etc. might not be rendered conducive to public and private use with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of Republicanism. On the contrary, a different conclusion is deducible from the practice of Congress, and the states; all of which have established some kind of Armorial Devices, to authenticate their official instruments.

Although this quotation is widely used by those writing on American heraldry, the earliest record I have found is in Crozier’s General Armoury of 1904, but Crozier does not cite a source. I take it on trust that President Washington did indeed make this statement and do not quarrel with either its content or the sentiments.

Why was there such apparent resistance to the official recognition of private arms in the early years of the Republic by others among the founding fathers? I suspect that it is probably the association between heraldry and gentility made by the English College of Arms and between heraldry and nobility, or noblesse as it is quaintly described in modern patents issued by the Lord Lyon Court, which gave rise to a sense of republican outrage at the use of symbols conjuring up specters of decadent European aristocrats attempting to corrupt the worthy citizens of the new Utopia.

In continental Europe, possibly with the singular exception of the kingdom of Navarre (but even this is disputed by some), the right to arms is not confined to any particular social class. Anyone could in practice legally adopt arms and, if so inclined, did so. The only generally accepted prohibition was against adopting someone else’s arms and several republics, notably France, and monarchies, for example Belgium, make it possible to protect unique family arms from usurpation – such right being proved by evidence of earliest legal use or registration. While it was reasonably assumed that all continental nobles used or possessed a legal right to arms, their status as noble arms was theoretically evidenced when displayed by the use of coronets and helms; thus for the knowledgeable it was usually possible to tell whether the bearer was claiming nobility thereby – although because of the assumption of such symbols without authorization or legitimate claim to nobiliary status such display may certainly not be considered “proof” of nobility.

On the continent non-noble armigers vastly outnumber the numbers of families who may claim nobility, as most European states allowed or tolerated the adoption of arms by anyone. Adoption, however, meant use and display, and there was no point in adopting arms without a place and occasion to display them, so most of the citizenry did not bother; but those who did so may have been tradesmen, lawyers, bankers, or government bureaucrats and certainly not necessarily grandees or nobles. Continental governments did attempt to restrict the use of arms to the nobility on occasion – there were several attempts to do so in France, for example, but these generally failed. The Franco Dutch war of the 1690s and the War of the Spanish Succession from 1700-1713 so devastated royal finances that every means was used to raise cash including the granting of nobility (with subsequent cancellation of such patents and the demand for further payments to re-register them as a desperate fund-raising device), and the requirement to register all arms with the royal Kings of Arms, for a fee. This proved an opportunity for the bearers of non-noble arms to obtain some form of public recognition of their right and more than 110,000 arms were registered between 1696 and 1709, some voluntarily, others because they had displayed arms at some time or even, in some cases, because of pressure by the pursuivants sent out to the provinces to chase up revenue. At the time France had between 6,000 and 8,000 extant noble families and a population of approximately 24 million, so one may see that the number of non-noble armigers was between twenty and twelve times the size of the nobility, but under one half of one percent of the population (at this same date, approximately ten per cent of the population of Poland were part of the lower nobility). In England, in contrast, it has been estimated that with a population of about 8 million there were some 8000 armigerous families in 1688 – a number that has been diminishing as a proportion of the population ever since.

The use of arms, however, was certainly perceived as some kind of privilege nonetheless, and in France heraldry was abolished along with titles and the royal orders in June 1790; this was just three years after the US Constitution and suggests that, for the late eighteenth century republicans, the display of arms had an undesirable connection with nobility and social inequalities. Perhaps there is a direct connection between this decision of the French reformers and the framers of the US Constitution and the legislators who proposed the 1810 amendment to prohibit titles and arms; in any case, one may certainly make a connection between the egalitarian sentiments that inspired them but which was nonetheless, in the case of the 1810 proposal, almost tyrannical in its excess.

There is little doubt that the belief that personal arms were somehow connected to nobility was the direct result of government regulations which, at various times, sought to make it so. Clearly there was no objection to heraldry per se; the United States itself adopted arms in an Act of Congress of 1782 and all the states at some point thereafter did likewise, as have many cities. In 1960 the US Army Institute of Heraldry was instituted to provide heraldic services to the armed forces, the Office of the President and other government organizations. It took almost two centuries before such a body was established in the US; however, while one may observe that the European republics that have sprung from the constricting embrace of the Soviet Union have almost all established some similar body within a few years of their release, and the Russian Federation itself has an Heraldic Council to the President, two of whose members are already well-known to those interested in the study of international heraldic traditions.

None of these new republics, however, have established any official body to regulate personal arms. For the founding fathers the barrier to so doing was almost certainly the recollection of the demand that those who claimed to be gentlemen or who used arms without authority must record them at the College of Arms which, while it certainly insured an income for the heralds and their pursuivants, associated the use of arms with gentility in a way that some found offensive and somehow inappropriate in a republic founded on ideals of the equality of all citizens.

In England the link between the right to bear arms legally and gentility was established relatively early and firmly instituted as a founding principle when the College of Arms was formally organized in 1483 and commissioned to send “visitations” into the counties. Even though Dugdale in 1668 stated he would recognize and register arms that had been born successively for a century or more, such a generous principle has long been abandoned by the College. The distinguished US Senator Claiborne Pell found this to his cost when in 1958 he sought confirmation from the English College of Arms used by his family since his direct male ancestor had been granted the Lordship of Pelham Manor in 1661. Thomas Pell, the first Lord of the Manor, was the nephew of Cromwell’s envoy to the Swiss Confederation who had himself used these same arms in the context of his diplomatic mission, without apparent objection. Yet in 1958 the claim by the Senator was dismissed simply on the basis that Thomas was not (as far as could be proved to the satisfaction of the College) genealogically connected to the same Pell for whom these arms had been recorded in 1594. I can think of few Americans of the present era who could be more clearly identifiable as a gentleman, of an historic family of the first rank; in the end Senator Pell capitulated and paid the College its fee for a new grant of slightly differenced arms.

I have found no record of a resident of the thirteen colonies applying for a grant of arms before 1776. Until 1688 almost all petitions to the Earl Marshal (or more often his deputy) were made as a result of the visitations by the heralds to the counties, when failure to pay the necessary fee would mean the humiliation of one’s name being posted in the county town as being refused the title of gentleman or esquire. There was never a visitation of the colonies, however; perhaps because too much effort was required with the thought that there would be little result; and I know of no instance of a resident of the colonies applying to record his arms before 1776. Nonetheless, generations of Americans have used personal arms from the seventeenth century onwards, many of them simply assuming new designs or the arms of families of similar names.

Once the English heraldic visitations were abandoned in 1688 the number of petitions for personal grants fell dramatically, with only about 150 new grants in the entire eighteenth century. Assumption of arms became more and more common and, indeed, this has accelerated apace ever since across the British Isles. In nineteenth century America the foundation of hereditary societies commemorating the past status or achievements of American ancestors became closely associated with genealogical research and this was often accompanied by the assumption of arms of families of similar name in Great Britain or the invention of new arms. In the minds of many, these assumptions often represented an association with gentility, which, while it may have reflected the life style of the nineteenth century gentleman, may not have had any basis in the actual history of the family. Equally, many families whose immigrant ancestors had been distant cadets of armigerous families, but who arrived in the colonies with little means, abandoned such pretensions altogether and it has only been their later nineteenth or twentieth century descendants who have researched their histories and discovered these links. I am sure none among us would deprecate such modest vanities and most would applaud the research efforts required.

I want to touch briefly on the exception to the general rule that the colonists made no attempt to apply for, or regulate the grant of arms, and that is the peculiar case of Carolina, then a Province which in 1705 established the post of Herald and a new class of titles nobility. The Province had been granted as a County Palatine held directly from the Crown by Charles II as a reward to several of those who had played the most prominent part in his restoration in 1660, with the title of Lords Proprietors, and of whom the first among them enjoyed the special title of Lord Palatine of Carolina. These were mostly men of new wealth and modest ancestry who rose to great heights, very much the American way, and included:

  • General George Monck, also rewarded with the title of Duke of Albemarle, who had brought about the restoration of Charles II but whose only son and successor in the title died in a pub in 1688 (I am not sure who would have inherited his share of the Province in 1705);

  • Edward Hyde, the wily lawyer appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer at the age of 33, who had stuck loyally to Charles II in 1649 - Hyde was elevated to Lord High Chancellor by the exiled King in 1658 and at the restoration was created by him Earl of Clarendon. (Clarendon’s daughter married James, Duke of York, future King James II as his first wife and was the mother of Queen Mary II and Queen Anne – in 1705 the 2nd Earl of Clarendon, uncle of the Queen, was one of the then Lords Proprietor.)

  • William Craven, whose father had risen from humble tailor to Lord Mayor and whose vast fortune he had inherited, was raised to the peerage as a baron after demonstrating surprising skills as a young officer in the Thirty Years War assisting the King’s sister, the so-called Winter Queen whose grandson became late King George I. Craven not only subsidized the Queen when she lost her throne, but also stayed with Charles II throughout his in exile in the Hague and financing him to the tune of £50,000 – the equivalent today of about $10 million - on the restoration he was elevated as Earl of Craven. His title and fortune passed by the special remainder in the original patent to a first cousin three times removed who died very young in 1711 – while the Albemarle and Clarendon titles have been long extinct, that of Craven is still extant although the fortune has been lost.

  • John, 1st Lord Berkeley of Stratton, who actually descended from the ancient gentry family of Berkeley of which a branch still lives at Berkeley Castle, famous as being the place where Edward II was brutally murdered in a fashion too indelicate to describe here, but who had also been a faithful supporter of the King in exile, who had raised him in 1658 even while still a deposed monarch to the peerage – I should say here that such peerages were recognized after the restoration from the dates of their creation, and provide a useful precedent for the claim that titles granted by deposed monarchs, provided they had the authority to do so and maintained the proper forms, could be considered legitimate. Berkeley became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Ambassador to France but by 1705 had been succeeded in his Carolina properties by the third of his sons to succeed to the peerage – the Berkeley properties were eventually ceded to the Earls of Berkeley.

  • Anthony Ashley Cooper had been a leading Cromwellian, but was of the 12 MPs who had presented the formal invitation to Charles II to return and quickly became a loyal supporter of the King, being rewarded with the title first of Lord Ashley and then Earl of Shaftesbury – the present Earl has recently been the subject of an international manhunt after mysteriously disappearing two months ago [in November 2004] and is presumed kidnapped and probably murdered.

  • Sir George Carteret, Baronet, was another leading royal loyalist who was created Lord Carteret in 1681 but had been succeeded by his infant son in 1690; as Lord Carteret was only fifteen in 1705 his affairs were handled by his mother, a great heiress in her own right.

  • John Colleton, whose father made a City fortune which he had enlarged, had had his estates sequestrated by the Cromwellian regime and gone to Barbados where he further increased his fortune – he was first created a baronet in 1661, and then not only made in 1663 one of the Lord Proprietors of Carolina but also of Georgia and in 1667 was made Sovereign Proprietor of the Bahamas. His son, the second holder of the Colleton baronetcy, in 1694, was inheritor of his properties. The last and final commissioner was a cousin of Lord Berkeley.

The establishment by the Lords Proprietors in 1705 of a heraldic jurisdiction was based on the authority so granted by Charles II to grant:

Titles, Dignities and Honours… to Men well deserving the same Degrees to bear, and with such Titles to be Honoured and adorned, AND WHEREAS by our form of Government It was by our said Predecessor Established and Constituted, and is by us and our Heires and Successors for ever to be observed, That there be a certain Number of Landgraves and Cassiques who may be and are the perpetual and Hereditary Nobles and Peers of our said Province of Carolina, and to the End that above Rule and Order of Honor may be Established and Settled in our Said Province.

The titles they established were deliberately chosen to avoid parallels with the British peerage and were given the unusual names of landgrave (similar to an ancient German and Danish title) and cassique with the appointment of a herald to administer this. In the end nothing much came of this ambitious plan and the whole of the Carolinas were sold back to the Crown by Act of Parliament in 1728. The Carolinas, Georgia and Maryland, which had each been granted as fiefs of the Crown to develop and encourage immigration, were far too redolent of monarchical power to have survived in this form after independence, even if they had not been taken back under direct royal control long before 1776.

Those of us inclined to an Anglo-Saxon bias – and mine is surely obvious – whether or not we are armigers, or whether or not such arms derive from the English or Scottish jurisdictions – do not denounce the association with gentility or “noblesse”, the modern fiction attached to arms matriculated in Scotland. Few of us would demand that our possession of arms be firmly disassociated with such romantic pretensions – even if we are well aware that the standard applied to judge the worth of a petitioner for a grant is realistically divorced from his or her status and is more dependent on his or her willingness to pay the rising fees.

This Anglo-centric bias has resulted in a singular lack of interest on the part of American writers on heraldry in the historical reality that, during the entire colonial period, there was an active heraldic and nobiliary jurisdiction in what is now the United States, and that this covered a geographical area far more extensive than that ruled by the British Crown. Settlers from California to New Mexico and across Texas and Louisiana into Florida and north up the Mississippi to Missouri and Illinois were, at various times from the middle of the sixteenth century until the end of Spanish rule in Florida in 1819 and Mexico in 1819, subjects of the Spanish Crown. Throughout this period, Spain, either directly through the Crown in Madrid, or through her viceroys and governor-generals, created titles, ennobled her subjects and confirmed their arms. This aspect of American heraldic history has been almost entirely ignored, just as the crucial role played by Spain in providing Spanish arms and gold and engaging the British militarily in Illinois, and West and East Florida (the former now Alabama and Mississippi) has been ignored or minimized by historians of the Revolutionary War. It should also not be forgotten that from its discovery by Russian hunters and incorporation into the Empire in 1741, until its acquisition by the United States in 1867, it too was theoretically subject to a monarchical jurisdiction with its own particular heraldic and nobiliary traditions. I am not sure what if any, heraldic or nobiliary jurisdiction the Hawaii kings may have enjoyed or claimed but they were certainly violated with the forced annexation of their kingdom in 1893. One may consider, in any case, that the pre-Independence or pre-state traditions of the Republic of the United States extend far more broadly than to those of Great Britain.

None of the Spanish colonial successor states perpetuated this heraldic or nobiliary legacy, even though the early leaders of the nations that emerged in the years following the independence movement in Central and South America were in almost all cases from noble families and had embraced the cause for independence – originally out of hostility to the Bonapartist usurpation of the Spanish throne, but also from an ideological sympathy with the aims of the original French revolutionaries. The Spanish Kings of Arms authority used to be more extensive and included the entire Spanish Empire, with authority over the presentation of genealogical proofs and proofs of nobility; but several scandals in the early 20th century led to a diminution of their authority and a limitation to the right to confirm arms.

I must now ask your indulgence to delve into one of these scandals because it serves to demonstrate that, even in our times, what one might hope to be an exemplary standard of scholarly excellence is not always the most notable characteristic of official heraldic bodies. On 31 August 1911 a Spanish King of Arms, either out of naivety or perhaps venality, was persuaded to record the spurious pedigree of a Russian nobleman (that at least he was), Vassili Durassow, who produced a wealth of documentation, largely forged and written in Cyrillic, which purported to prove his descent from an Angevin king of Naples. That this alleged ancestor was well-known to have perished in battle some 600 years earlier without leaving issue was apparently unworthy of consideration both to the Spanish herald and, it would seem, subsequently, to the English College of Arms which, after Mr Durassow purchased a lordship of the manor, on 6 March 1914 duly recorded his pedigree in the same form as it had been recorded in Spain. On the strength of this improbable fantasy Durassow’s bogus history was now included from 1915 in the Almanach de Gotha, appearing there until 1936; and this gentleman who had begun life as plain Vassili Alexievich Durassow was now publicly elevated to His Highness Basil (Vassili) d’Anjou-Durazzo Durassow, Prince of Anjou, Duke of Durazzo (Dures in modern Albania), Count of Gravina and Albe, and Lord of the Honour of Mount Saint Angel – surely the first lordship of the manor to appear listed in the Gotha.

There is a general sense that a grant from the English College of Arms, whether of recent or ancient vintage, is superior to all other – not only in price but in quality. This view has no doubt been encouraged by the College of Arms itself, and in United States by its Anglo traditions and heritage along with an historical bias against Spain, which was of course Catholic, a colonialist monarchy that had been soundly defeated by the forces of freedom and liberty between 1810 and 1830, and which had remained in the enemy camp until defeated by an imperialist United States in the Philippines and Cuba at the end of the 19th century. Even now in enlightened circles there is thought to be something vaguely backward about a country which allows bull-fighting and public self-flagellation on religious holidays.

We may see, however, that both Madrid and London proved equally gullible when Mr Durassow presented his credentials for inspection. As an amusing coda to this story it is worth briefly touching on the sorry career of Alexis Brimeyer, born in the Belgian Congo the son of a Luxembourg storekeeper who had established his business in the “dark continent.” He began serving the cause of entertaining imposters with the assumption of the name Romanov-Dolgorouky, on the strength of a pretended secret romance between the third daughter of the unfortunate Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Maria Nicolaievna, whom Brimeyer alleged had escaped the massacre in the Ipatiev house to marry one of the young Princes Dolgorouky, who every reliable published source showed had been executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. This couple, according to Brimeyer, had escaped, secretly married and then been elected King and Queen of the Ukraine, without the outside world or any as yet identifiable Ukrainian learning of this fact. The “royal” couple apparently left a daughter who, looking for a husband, had traveled of all disagreeable places to the Congo, where she struck upon Mr. Brimeyer’s store, choosing him as her mate and where the future Ukrainian pretender was born. Brimeyer managed to persuade some exarch or other of the Ukranian Church of the truth of this strange story to introduce him as the exiled monarch and he briefly attracted a following among Canadian Ukrainians. Brimeyer’s story and the College of Arms interacted, however, when he found himself dissatisfied with having a stab at the Ukranian throne – and who can blame him when we read about events surrounding the recent election – and in 1973, shortly after the death at a great age of Prince Vassili d’Anjou Durazzo-Durassow, he re-emerged with another version of his life story.

It now turned out that his mother, the Princess Dolgorouky-Romanov or vice-versa, had in fact divorced Mr. Brimeyer before Alexis’ birth, and had married Prince Vassili. The latter, who had had a rather magnificent apartment in Rome, by all accounts, but who had never throughout his life shown any interest in the opposite sex, had, it seemed, in his twilight years decided to try something new and, like the heiress to Ukraine, traveled to the Congo to find a bride. There he married this same Princess and less than one year later the young Alexis was born – or born again, one might say. I bring this story up because Alexis, now possessed of some absolutely genuine documents recording his purported parent’s marriage and his own birth, which were perhaps more easily extracted from officials of the Congo civil service than they might have been in a more temperate climate, turned up in London. Boldly marching into the College of Arms, he now asked that his genealogy be attached to that of the illustrious Prince Vassili. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that there was no further check made of the records back in the Congo; such delicate and dangerous research might have proved a little too challenging for an over-lunched herald, and who can blame the College when Prince Vassili’s own interesting story was already inscribed in its records of foreign arms. I believe that this has now been corrected and, of course, I must immediately emphasize that such errors are exceptional rather than the rule and that, in its knowledge of British genealogies and arms, the College’s expertise is unmatched.

It only remains to recount how Prince Alexis brought great happiness to a number of Americans, mainly living on the West Coast, whom he allowed the extraordinary privilege of being invested into the Order of Saint John, of which, it turned out, he was the hereditary high protector and eventually grand master. He also granted a handful of splendid titles to Americans and Spaniards, including that of Duke of Branagh upon the enterprising founder of a university degree mill, a certain Dr. (or perhaps not Dr.) John Walsh, of University of Greenwich, situated in the far-off Norfolk Islands.

From this outpost of lunacy I must come back to the more serious subject of my talk; and I can safely assert that there would have been few, among those who chose to throw their lot in with the American Revolution in 1775, who would have for one moment given any time to some Euro-trash princelet dishing out bogus titles. Nonetheless, the fear that someone might confer such titles was clearly a real one in 1810. Was it the Bonapartist connection, already cemented by the marriage between Napoleon’s brother and Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore – a marriage that so outraged the Emperor that he declared it null and void? Was it the fear that the Legion of Honor itself, which conferred on the third male line recipient of this distinction the hereditary title of chevalier (provided it was conferred by letters patent)? Was it the fact that France’s ally, Spain, then also ruled by a Bonaparte still nominally controlled territories which were to become substantial areas of the United States – even after being forced to return greater Louisiana to France for her to sell it to the US – and that Spain still maintained a nobiliary jurisdiction even under the Bonapartist tyranny? Or was it the fear that the British king would try to recover the loyalty of his former subjects by the conferral of titles and honors?

There is absolutely no requirement that Americans register their Arms with anyone for them to be used properly; but there is no provision in US law for their protection unless they are registered as trade marks or somehow copyrighted. Most would probably agree with me that this is an inappropriate route to take. While there is no doubt that the quality of the work and the superbly illuminated diplomas that accompany an English grant are splendid instruments, anyone who believes that receipt thereof implicitly catapults them into the English gentry will be disappointed; what for the English gentleman defines another one of this species is far from being quantifiable in a grant of arms. Similarly the careful, and subtle, extension of the powers of the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland to granting noblesse along with arms might perhaps even be considered a usurpation of the Royal prerogative, since such a right cannot be found in the statutes that established the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon Court. Nonetheless, that arms are witness to noblesse is firmly stated in several quasi-official sources; and since this has no import in modern British law, because membership of the noblesse confers no special privileges or rights, one may consider that has been “accepted” – but whether or not such a privilege could be extended to the citizens of another state is beyond my knowledge.

The Spanish confirmations of assumed arms are just that; they confer no status but of course implicitly recognize the longstanding right of subjects of the Spanish kings to adopt arms, alongside the need for their confirmation if they want to protect them – at least in Spain. The Spanish Cronistas claim, with similar logic to that used by the English College of Arms, that their authority extends to the citizens of states of the former Spanish Empire, and with this in mind it would seem that the residents of those Southern, Midwestern and Western states who wish to record their arms should not feel that such confirmations are of any lesser merit than those originating in London or Edinburgh. Other heraldic jurisdictions – in Ireland, South Africa and one of the Swiss cantons – serve equally well to accomplish the real purpose of registration: to insure that in some official archive there is some proper record of the right to arms. Indeed, were it not for the recent scandal of falsified genealogies and revocation of grants that has brought down the reputation of the Chief Herald of Ireland, I would not hesitate to endorse the understandable desire of those of Irish descent to receive grants from Dublin.

In 1783 General Washington had established the Society of the Cincinnati, a memorial society for those officers who had served in the land and sea forces of the new republic and of France during the Revolutionary War. This body was first proposed as a state institution, but the strong objections of Franklin and Jefferson led to it becoming a purely private body. The French members requested of their sovereign, Louis XVI, that he make it a royal order but he declined to do so – almost certainly, in my view, because of its obvious initial association with Freemasonry, referring as its founding document did to the “Supreme Being” and the use of other phrases typical of 18th century Masonic bodies. Nonetheless he agreed to be its protector and allowed French officers to wear its distinction on their uniform, even on occasion adopting the insignia himself. The French Society disappeared in the French Revolution soon afterwards but, happily, was revived in the 1920s and now enjoys a prestige that might have even surprised its founders. In the US it continued to flourish, even though there were brief periods of moribund state societies, and of all the “hereditary societies” it is, in the view of most observers, still the most prestigious.

The Society of the Cincinnati, while founded as a private, memorial society, by the officers in Washington’s army, represented a certain élite. Many of the members came from families which either descended from the English gentry – such as Washington himself – or had clearly established the lifestyle of gentlemen in the colonies. When asked a few years ago to produce a consultative paper for the Grand Master of the Order of Malta on reforming noble proofs in the New World – the qualifications required for entry into the order – I proposed that any male line descendant of a member of the Society of the Cincinnati should be considered eligible for admission in the noble grade of Grace and Devotion. In making this I drew a parallel between the Cincinnati and those organizations of the provincial nobility which still legally survive today in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and even arch-republican Austria, which has even criminalized the use of the particule von. The Cincinnati having at the time represented to some degree a social and certainly a military élite – after all these were the officers who had fought for the very liberty of their country – had deliberately sought to perpetuate this.

While many Americans of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with the word élite, and élitism is, of course, politically completely incorrect, it is unconsciously pursued by every parent who seeks to give his or her child a superior education, and cannot be divorced from membership in the handful of legitimate orders of knighthood that admit Americans to membership. It would be illusory to pretend that North America has not established over the four hundred years since the first settlements a series of hereditary élites which, while no one of them may be said to hold political or financial power on anything like the 18th or early 19th century models, is none the less a present reality. Noble titles only have any real application, however, when associated with a long-standing tradition and granted by an ancient hereditary monarchy. Perhaps if the Carolinas had remained under the jurisdiction of the Lords Proprietors and their plans to establish an hereditary, titled nobility, had born fruit, this tradition might have survived union with the new republic, but I doubt it.

Instead, Americans who have pursued the acquisition of a foreign title have had to pursue a number of different foreign routes. The impoverished King of Montenegro, when ejected from his throne during World War One by his former son-in-law, King Peter I, who incorporated Montenegro into Serbia, let it be discreetly known that he would confer high ranking titles for special services – these were intended to be in the form of large bundles of cash. But even the most ambitious social climbers were aware that a newly minted Montenegrin nobility – and the country had had no tradition of hereditary noble titles – was unlikely to improve their prospects of social advancement. Aside from one dukedom – granted to a Danish adventurer who signed up for all the better-known self-styled orders – and a couple of titles of count, all now long-forgotten, this enterprise proved a sorry failure.

Following the loss of Rome and the Papal States in 1870, the Holy See expanded a longstanding practice of conferring titles on its own subjects (and such conferrals had not been more prolific than in any of the other Italian states) and foreigners. Among the first recipients were the two sons, Gabriel and Claude, of a French general who had given his life defending the Papal States at the battle of Castelfidardo in 1860, the Marquis de Pimodan, and who were given the title of Duke de la Vallée de Rarecourt de Pimodan for all their male line descendants. The king of Bavaria then recognized the ducal title and extended it to the four sons of Claude (Gabriel having died without male heirs); today, however, the family uses only their more modest title of Marquis de Pimodan.

The qualities which earned Papal titles were not all won on the field of battle, however, and most such titles were given to recognize generous financial support. The heir to a French tramway fortune, Joseph Florimont Loubat, who, as he was born in New York in 1831, was also an American citizen, became the first native born American duke when he was created Duke Loubat by papal brief of 10 April 1893 (he had already been created a Papal count in 1888). This high rank, however, was insufficient to assist his entry into the nobiliary class of the Order of Malta and he was received only in the lowly rank of donat second class. Another American duke was the grandfather of former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, who became Marquess Macdonald while a New York Stock broker and was one of the early presidents of the American Association of the Order of Malta. Some of these titles were hereditary, some were granted for life and patents creating the latter form of title have occasionally been irregularly assumed by their descendants as if they were hereditary. That the mother of one of this country’s most famous presidents, John F. Kennedy, was created a papal countess would have led, perhaps, to far greater opposition to his candidature for the presidency if she had thereby forfeited her citizenship under the provisions of the failed thirteenth amendment.

The Holy See abandoned the creation of titles in 1958 – although I have been told that the Secretariat of State has issued private letters regulating the succession to some ancient, pre-1870 titles within the last twenty years. Another source of ennoblement that was taken up by some Americans was the Republic of San Marino, which conferred its last title in 1976 and in 1980 amended its constitution to prohibit any further conferrals.

The Astors simply upped-sticks, moved to England and generously endowed numerous institutions including the liberal party, receiving two peerages, the Viscountcy of Astor and the Barony of Astor of Hever; in both cases, however, the holders of these peerages proved to be outstanding citizens and contributed enormously to the public good – the present Viscount Astor was a junior minister in the last Conservative government, the Astors of Hever were the proprietors of a notable British newspaper as well as serving in many other ways. Three notable Canadian newspaper entrepreneurs received British hereditary titles – and of course I would not pretend that one can compare Canada and the United States directly, the one being a monarchy the other a republic – but all three of them after their Canadian beginnings moved to England. The first Lord Beaverbrook was an important member of Churchill’s war time cabinet and the founder of the Daily Express; the first Lord Thomson of Fleet took over the London Times and the first, and only, Lord Black of Crossharbour, owned the Daily Telegraph and Spectator until his disastrous fall from power in recent months.

The total absence of any traditional nobiliary structure outside the states once ruled by Spain, makes it hard to have ever justified any nobiliary jurisdiction in this country. This has not diminished their attraction in some social circles, however, and there is one elderly gentleman who has for many years lived in Paris and who acquired a baronial title from San Marino and a ducal title from the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia, back dated to the time when this unfortunate King was briefly reigning before Hitler’s storm troopers forced him to flee. That the Kings of Yugoslavia were prohibited from conferring titles under the royal constitution has not prevented some giving this title credit – its possessor, however, has now made the extravagant claim that this title was first created by the King of Naples in 1799 – at a time when this gentleman’s ancestors were scraping along as smallholding farmers in southern Ireland.

Aside from the heirs of a surprisingly large number of titled European nobles who have at various times settled in this country – and who in most cases have abandoned the use of their titles – the only recent cases of ennobled Americans have been those persuaded that improbable claims to descent from Byzantine Emperors, Czars of Russia, and Grand Dukes of Lithuania, or other now abolished sovereignties, were actually genuine. I have always found it surprising that people are so readily taken in by some strange figure dressed in Ruritanian costume often wearing ludicrous facial hair and forced by circumstances to stay in the local Marriott, and to pay large sums in the belief that he has the power to change their lives by the grant of an imaginary noble title. These persons end up making complete fools of themselves and are usually too embarrassed to take the legal action that would put such charlatans out of business.

I can conclude, therefore, with a tinge of regret, that the perception of a right to arms has too many associations with the ancien régime for America to establish a public and official heraldic jurisdiction. Nobility, for Americans, is demonstrated by conduct rather than birth, but sadly in a society where manners and courtesy are increasingly rare commodities, even this nobility is at risk of extinction.

 

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