F o n s H o n o r u m





The main question about aristocracy today is the acquisition of nobility and who can be considered noble. However, books on this subject do not discuss the question of the law of nobility, although the system of rules that applied during the kingdom has remained as part of the interpretation of the customary law on nobility even under the present republican form of government. On this basis, the main points can be summarised in the following points:

1. Nobility is granted by a ruler who has sovereign status,
2. declared in the territory over which the ruler exercises sovereign status,
3. it carries benefits and obligations,
4. is recorded in an official public record; and
5. is valid in other countries only after ratification

Nobility is a privilege granted by a crowned monarch in recognition of exceptional merits. All persons who have inherited the title of nobility through direct and legitimate paternal lineage, or who have acquired the title on their own, are considered to be noble.

5 distinctive features




A ruler is a person who has jurisdiction over a territory, meaning that he or she can decide the rights and obligations of citizens. A sovereign ruler can be a chief, a prince, a king, an emperor or even the Pope. Their common characteristic is that they have fons honorum, an exclusive right that gives them the power to confer the title of nobility or the rank of knight.

The literal translation of fons honorum is the source of honour. It is the right of a sovereign ruler for as long as he holds his status, the position as ruler. If a republic is established in a country, the ruler loses his sovereign status and becomes a private citizen. And a private citizen is not entitled to grant a noble title, because then all other citizens could do the same.


The nobility is announced in the gazette of the country or in a state register. In Hungary, from 1630 onwards, a law stated that titles of nobility had to be published within a year, but such laws were also in effect in other European countries.

The importance of the announcement is also underlined by the current practice, since the decision of the executive power is published in a gazette after presidential ratification, and can be considered effective from then onwards. The same is true in the case of nobility, if someone's title has not been officially proclaimed, it is not considered valid until then.


Nobles are entitled to noble privileges and obligations. This varies from country to country and from era to era in terms of what it means, for example in the case of Hungary Werbőczy's Tripartite mentions four cardinal noble rights: exemption from taxation, personal liberty, subjection to the royal court and the right of resistance. After 1848, most of these rights were abolished, but not all of the rights.

Therefore, the nobility is not just a social class, but rather a community with rights and privileges. In this legal approach, the true meaning of merit is expressed, because a real act of service to one's country is rewarded with a real reward.


After the decision of the monarch, each noble receives a document containing a description of the coat of arms and the reasons for the grant of nobility. Not always, but often, it was combined with the donation of a nobility prefix (first name), written before the person's surname with a small initial. Later, if the government have doubts about someone's nobility, and the certificate had disappeared, the person were subjected to a procedure (involving witnesses) to investigate his or her origin. From 1783 this was carried out by a special department of the Royal Hungarian Council of Governors.


In other countries, nobility is only valid if it is ratified. It varies from country to country depending on who has the power to ratify it, whether it is the parliament, the monarch, the government or any other competent authority. For example, one of my ancestors from the Hoeller-Bertram family twice asked the Hungarian Parliament to ratify his barony in Hungary, which was not considered valid in our country without this.

In my opinion, these five points are the five essential attributes of the nobility. It is also obvious that they are closely related to each other, since privilege can only be granted by a person who is the legal ruler of the territory, meaning that his sovereign status gives him the power to differentiate one person from other citizens and to make his decision recorded in a public document.

Pros and cons



Today, there is much criticism of the hereditary nature of the noble institution, even though history has proven this system on many occasions. I would like to emphasise two reasons.

I consider the most important thing is the social shaping effect of the noble institution. In the old days, knowledge was the privilege of the few. The values of proper manners, religious education and culture were particularly important in the noble class, where these values were introduced from an early age. As each family tried to preserve the honour achieved by its ancestors, this hereditary system also guaranteed that the nobility would be renewed from generation to generation, maintaining its own high standards. As the proverb says: nomen est omen!

On the other hand, let's not forget that nobility was awarded in recognition of an outstanding merit, and many of these merits have provided benefits to the community for many generations. To give two family examples, my great-great-grandfather Adolf Divald of Berencs laid the foundations of Hungarian forestry, and my great-great-grandfather János Rabár of Komjáth built schools and a church in his home village, for which he received the Order of the Iron Crown in addition to the nobility title. These examples also illustrate that the gratitude shown to noble deeds across generations goes beyond what can be expressed to a single person.

Illegitimate ranks



To summarise the points mentioned above, only those can be called noble, who are placed in a more favourable position (by a crown monarch) than other citizens regarding their legal status. Regardless of this, imitation titles of nobility have been used throughout history for centuries. Their common feature is that they do not share any of the five characteristics mentioned above.

The basis for imitative nobility used to be a fake document, but now it is usually done by associations, where private people give nobility to other private people.

Another variation is the imitation titles bought by the so-called land, which are related to Scottish common law. The idea is that a small portion of a barony is sold, after which the purchaser receives a 'noble' charter. Of course this purchase does not carry any rights, this fact has been emphasised also by the Scottish Heraldry Office. Furthermore, in 2012, a specific legislation was introduced to ban the land registry entries.

The third - less common - type is the noble titles granted by dethroned monarchs. In the absence of a fons honorum, these titles cannot be considered legitimate, nor do they carry any privileges, since the donation is not part of the local legal system.

It is important to emphasise that in order to prove nobility, it is necessary to prove a direct paternal descent from the family. One of the reasons for this is that, although historical family names are protected in Hungary, there is no legal ban on taking them from the mother's side.

Because of these cases, many people refer to "sonship", a practice that occurred during the kingdom when an old noble family became extinct. Sonship was the practice whereby the last female descendant passed her surname to her child, so that the family name was further inherited. Since this was approved by the monarch, this practice no longer applies in a republic.

Szilárd F. Kökényessy