Austro-Hungarian Web Site

Nobility in Your Tree?

© by Felix G. Game

Occasionally I am approached by people who believe that their ancestors were of noble birth, and they want to find out all about them. Often they have become so preoccupied with this notion that they forget the basic principles of genealogical research, which simply says that we have to go backward one generation at a time and collect primary proof to link each generation. As soon as there is any hint of nobility, many act as if playing Monopoly, and think they just drew a card that says "you may go to the year 1523". Sorry, you cannot jump 300 years without something very solid to go by.

To explain all the different things known about nobility and its various layers would require writing a major work. So, for practical purposes let me just over-simplify and state that the type of nobility we are most likely concerned with are not the nobles who were given a whole county by their king because of some special service (usually in battle), but with the landless paper nobles, who qualified for "elevation to the nobility" because of long, faithful, and distinguished service to the monarch (or who simply had the money to buy a patent). Under Empress Maria Theresia, for example, any officer of her army who had 30 years of service and a spotless record (preferably with some indication of bravery before the enemy) could petition to be awarded the decree of nobility. Notice that they had to petition for it, similar to the way people today have to apply for their pensions when the time has come. To be sure, there was a lot of paperwork involved and a tax to be paid, but normally the title was eventually awarded. The petitioner had some choices. He simply could ask to be allowed to use the honorific of 'de' or 'von', or he could also ask to have a second name suffixed to his family name, and he could, but did not have to, have his own coat of arms designed and approved at the same time. Once the design was approved, he had the right to display it on almost anything from jewelry to dishes to letterheads, or wax seals (this is where the word "signet ring" probably comes from). In this way - using my own name as an example - plain old Felix Game could become Felix Game Ritter von Gmunden (in Hungary it could become Vitéz Felix Game de Gmunden). Hmmm, a fellow could get used to this.

One of the first things we must remember about awards of nobility is that titles are bestowed upon specific people, and only them, and that this is always spelled out in the documents. Almost always the patent includes all legitimate children who can then pass the title on (in the male line) to their children. Frequently one sees a patent written to include a brother or a brother-in-law. If not specifically mentioned in the patent, no person is entitled to carry the honorific or the suffixed name, or use the coat of arms. So when you see someone selling articles with the coat of arms of "your family name" it would be wise to remember that you are most likely not entitled to use it.

Anyone seriously researching the possibility of noble ancestors should become familiar with some of the standard works which will provide some focus to his research. Some of the works that I use are Nagy Iván's 11 volume work Magyarország családai, czimerekkel és nemezetrendi Táblákkal (written in Hungarian). It contains detailed narratives about many noble families of Hungary, as it was before 1918. Nagy Iván often provides diagrams of pedigrees and discusses relationships with foreign branches of the family in considerable detail. My favorite "first look" reference is J. Siebmachers Großes Wappenbuch which consists of about 110 volumes. One of these volumes was put together by Géza von Csergheö and bears its own title of Der Ungarische Adel. As you may have guessed, all of Siebmacher's books are written in the German language. Apart from the language, the main difference between Nagy Iván and Siebmacher is that Siebmacher specializes in coats of arms, and provides only scant textual information about families, unless such information is crucial for proper identification (in cases where more than one family exists with the same name). The most useful aspect of these great works is that they are meticulously indexed. The General Index for Siebmacher's many volumes is in itself a major volume of remarkable proportions and the excellent work of the well-known Austrian Hanns Jäger-Sunstenau.

If you think that the family legend about your noble great-grandfather is worth investigating, and you do know his name, one of these works will give some quick answers to start you off. You will find out, first of all, whether there is such a person listed. If listed, it will tell you where the family hailed from. It will tell you the name of the county (or counties) involved, and it will tell you the date the patent was issued and by which king, and to whom, and where it was first published, and normally it will tell you where the original document is to be found. All you have to do is work your way back to the person named in the patent and provide the documentation that links you to him.

If the first quick look proves satisfying, and you are now really determined to refine your research, you can try and find one of the many "pocket books" listing Austro-Hungarian nobility. Among the better known are Gothaisches Genealogisches Taschenbuch der Freiherrlichen Häuser, Genealogisches Taschenbuch der Adeligen Häuser Österreichs, Wiener Genealogisches Taschenbuch, etc. Most of these have separate volumes for each year, so volume number and year of issue have to be watched. These are all written in the German language. Among he Hungarian language works are Alan de Muray's A Magyar genealógia strukturája, Béla Kempelen's Magyar nemesi családkönyv, the Magyar Nemzetségi Zsebkönyv published by the Hungarian Heraldic and Genealogical Society, and the original documents, from which most of the above mentioned works took their information: the Libri Regii, better known by their Hungarian name of Királyi Könyvek, published by the Hungarian National Archives (and available from LDS on 35 rolls of microfilm).

Once you have established that one of the people in your tree was a genuine noble, you will want to own the documentation that goes with the title. This is when you write to the relevant archive in Europe to get the whole file copied and sent to you. It is not as expensive an exercise as one might think, and well worth the effort for the interesting reading contained in the documents. These are flattering documents totally cleansed of any skeletons. In these an individual is addressing himself to his Apostolic Majesty telling him how loyal and clean-living he has been, and how he has repeatedly, and joyously risked his life in the service of the Empire. In the case of military officers there are always descriptions of heroic episodes that are intended to show how brave he was before the enemy. I have several files, and half of them include stories I had never come across in any other document.

I should also mention that none of the works I know cover all countries. Nagy Iván deals with Hungary and its possessions before 1918, Siebmacher deals with what used to be the Holy Roman Empire. There are others that specialize in France and southern Europe (L'Armorial General), and there are quite a few pertaining to Great Britain. So it is fairly important to know where the patent was granted, else they can be difficult to find. One family in my tree started off in Scotland as a Gordon, went to Poland and set the stage there for the German noble family of Gordon von Coldwells. Another one dangling off my tree is a German baron in the employ of the Czar of Russia, and living in Kazan. He was very German with the very German name of von Grahe, but I have not been able to find him in any of the references I have consulted. His daughter was brought back to Vienna by a cousin who later obtained his own title.

Titles have been legislated out of existence in many countries, which makes it quite difficult to try and find living descendants. I am, for example, very interested in finding the genealogical papers of Karl Pelikan Freiherr von Plauenwald who was married to my aunt. He died some 60 years ago in Vienna, but there are descendants and one of them has those papers. Pelikan is unfortunately not a rare name, and when the "von Plauenwald" had to be dropped, they all looked the same in the phonebook.

I must not forget to tell you that the LDS has much information about the Hungarian nobility, and that most of the books I mentioned earlier are available on film. The original documents are normally held by the county archives in Hungary because the patents were initially published at that level of government.

The Austrian patents (Adelsbrief or Nobilitätsdiplom) are kept in one of the branches of the Austrian State Archive. The correct mailing address is:

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Allgemeines Verwaltungsarchiv
Nottendorfer Gasse 2
1030 Wien

RootsWeb also provides a conceptual discussion on nobility and armorials which may be of interest to you:   "Does your Family have a Coat of Arms?"  

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