Last updated: Feb 22, 2013
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Titles of European hereditary rulers
Until the second half of the 20th century emperors, kings, grand dukes, princes and other hereditary rulers played an important role in Europe. The evolution of their official titles reflects in its special way the complex political history of the continent.
In law Title
is the means by which the owner has just and legal possession of his or her property. A title of territorial dominion
expresses claims to authority in a certain geographical region. Thus, such a title includes a proper name of the region or an ethnical group that gives its name to the region (e.g., "King of the Franks" and "King of France").
Before the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, European rulers often united lands located in the different corners of the continent. Some of these unions last for many generations. When the same person ruled several lands, they were often administered by local governments. Chancelleries of these governments might issue documents with their own versions of the ruler's titles (see examples
According to traditions of most European noble families only one person at a time could bear the same title because only one person could own the corresponding land. However, traditions of the German Ancient Nobility (Uradel
) were different. The German noble families were reluctant to adopt primogeniture, and until the 18th century, family’s possessions were often divided among several male relatives. When a family member did not receive a share, he was still considered as a potential heir. In Germany, many individuals bore the same titles even after the adoption of primogeniture.
The number of geographical names in official titles of European rulers grew from the 14th century on. When the rulers acquired a new possession, or advanced a claim to it, its name was added to their titles. However, the rulers reluctantly removed names. Often European rulers kept names of lost territories hoping to regain them in the future (e.g., France in the British titles, Burgundy in the Spanish titles, etc.). Even when the rulers finally recognized that a land belonged to other states, its name could remain in their titles. Many rulers considered some territorial names in titles as family names (e.g., Lorraine by the Emperors of Austria, Nassau by the Kings of the Netherlands, Oldenburg by the Kings of Denmark, etc.). Thus, a list of geographical names in titles might not inform us about actual estates of their owners. Some rulers possessed none of the territories mentioned in their titles (see examples
). In the 18th century, several rulers had titles that included more than twenty geographical names (e.g., Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Sweden, Savoy, Nassau-Orange, etc.).
From the 19th century, one can see a different trend. The multi-name titles became less fashionable than before. The kings of Greece, Belgium, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Norway and Albania, the European monarchies established in the 19th and the 20th centuries, had only one territorial name in their titles. Some countries (e.g., Austria, Prussia, Russia, Württemberg, Saxony-Meiningen, etc.) introduced three forms of the state title, Grand, Middle and Short. The Short form, which included a few geographical names, was used in most official documents. The Middle form included names of main possessions. Only the Grand form included all names, and was reserved for special occasions. In the 1970s, the simplified versions of the royal titles, which included only one geographical name, replaced the traditional multi-name ones of in Sweden and Denmark.