Titles like king, duke, prince, count, and baron, had meanings that applied to some degree across many countries in Europe, and are sometimes applied outside of Europe. Understanding these titles can be useful in understanding history and to some degree the news and fantasy literature. This guide will concentrate on major ranks, setting aside titles like archduke, grand duke, etc.
I will start with a table of the general European system and the English variants. Other countries also vary from the standard, but I have not covered those in this table. Systems varied not only from place to place but also time to time.
This table covers the basic ranks of the royalty and the aristocracy. Below these two groups are the gentry, who did not do physical labor, and finally, the peasants and laborers that do have to do physical work for a living. There are several ranks for each of these groups that will be discussed below. But first the royalty.
Royals, particularly the top two ranks, are likely to be sovereign, they do not answer to any earthly superior.
The top rank is emperor, who rules an empire. The name implies a multiethnic state. The emperor may occasionally be called a king of kings. He rules over what perhaps in the past were independent kingdoms.
Emperor is the highest rank, but because it often conflicts with the modern ideals of patriotism and nationalism it has a somewhat evil connotation. So even though the Queen of England is an Empress, she goes by the title queen. It is not as high a title, but more in line with the modern spirit of patriotism, and her job is to act as a symbol of British patriotism.
The Emperor of Japan is the last to use the title in everyday English language conversation and writing. As Japan no longer has an empire I think King of Japan would be more appropriate.
Kings can be under the authority of an Emperor. For example, the notorious King Herod in the New Testament. But this seems rare. Kings are normally independent sovereigns. Their states are more likely than an empire to be composed mostly of one ethnic group.
Dukes are the next rank under kings on the continent, and the princes are next rank under the Dukes. In England, the ranks are reversed.
Dukes can be independent sovereigns, but are frequently under the authority of an emperor or king. The title is frequently held by members of the royal family including those in line for the throne. In many cases, however, the dukes are high ranking members of the aristocracy. Dukes who are members of the royal family are sometimes termed royal dukes to distinguish them from aristocratic dukes.
When dukes ruled independent dukedoms in Europe they were frequently larger than princedoms. Even today the Grand Dukedom of Luxemburg is larger than the Princedom of Monaco.
A prince is lower than a Duke in Europe, but higher in England. English speakers often think of a prince as a male in line for the throne. In England, the Prince of Wales is heir apparent to the throne. This is also true for other countries. The Spanish heir apparent is female and therefore the Princess of Asturias. The Portuguese heir apparent was formerly the Prince of Brazil. But in France, the heir apparent was Count of Vienne. This was because the Count of Vienne sold his domain to the King of France on the condition that the heir apparent would always govern it. The Count of Vienne's coat of arms prominently features two dolphins so the French heir apparent was known as the Dauphin. In Scotland, the heir apparent is the Duke of Rothesay. When Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales visits Scotland he is referred to as the Duke of Rothesay out of respect for the Scottish.
In England, they say Dukes are the lowest rank of the royalty and the highest rank of the aristocracy. Both dukes and princes often serve an aristocratic role, under the authority of a higher, sovereign authority.
There are rare cases where the lower ranks may be independent sovereigns but normally they governed a region of a larger state.
The kingdoms of Medieval Europe were frequently split up into counties, which as the name implies were governed by counts. But if the subdivision was on the border, particularly a border that needed to be defended, it was frequently the domain of a marquess, who had more soldiers than the count because he was defending the border. As he had more soldiers he had a higher title, marquess.
The marquess rules a border area called a march or mark, for example, Denmark. Of course, today Denmark has a king so it should be Daneland, or the king should be a marquess, but I digress.
The more normal subdivision of the kingdom was the county governed by a count. In England, the counts are called earls. However, the earl's wife is not an earless, she is a countess. The country is split up into counties, and the next title down from earl is viscount. All of this illustrates that an earl was really a count. But it was not always that way. Historically, before the Norman conquest in 1066 earls had been more powerful, the equivalent of continental dukes. But aristocrats that powerful can revolt so they reduced the earls from the equivalent of dukes to the equivalent of counts.
The next step below a count or an earl is a viscount, essentially a vice-count.
Finally, the barons are the lowest level of the aristocracy. They governed the smallest manors granted by the king, and were the lowest rank with the right to attend parliament as a lord.
In England people who are not members of the royalty and aristocracy are commoners. They may be elected to the House of Commons, but not the House of Lords.
The upper level of the commoners is the gentry. They often did not have to work for a living, or if they did it is not physical labor. For example, the clergy were considered gentry.
The highest rank in the gentry was the baronet, one step below baron, the lowest level of the aristocracy. The baronets are sometimes referred to as hereditary knights. They can pass their titles on to their sons. This ability to pass a title down is normally a right of the royalty and the aristocracy, but not the commoners. The fact that the baronet could pass his title down shows this is a transition rank.
Knights are the next rank. This rank, unlike those above the knight's rank, is not hereditary. It is an honor conferred for service. Today very successful people in a variety of fields are knighted by the Queen of England. Men gain the title Sir, and women the title Dame.
In medieval times knights were heavy cavalry. There were also heavy cavalry that were not knights, they were called men at arms.
In medieval times knights in training, called squires, served a knight and fought with him in battle. So the next rank is the squire or esquire. This relationship between a knight and his squire no doubt inspired George Lucas in creating the Jedi Knight and his Padiwan. The Star Wars fantasy may provide the modern reader with some idea of the squire's role.
Later in history, the title of squire or esquire was given to sons. The eldest sons of Knights and their eldest sons in perpetuity, the eldest sons of the younger sons of the aristocracy and their eldest sons in perpetuity.
Many positions qualified you for the title of esquire, middle and high ranking military officer, justice of the peace, and some lawyers.
In England, the term esquire is occasionally used in letters. Men are called esquire, the only qualification that is required is that they have no higher title. In America, we raise all men to an even higher level, knight, by writing, Dear Sir.
In the past, however, they spoke of the life of a country squire, a landed gentleman who did not have to work, but could live a comfortable if not luxurious life off the rents from his land. The squire typically was a leader of the local community.
Finally, there was the gentry, those who could live without working or at least without doing physical labor. Clergy, lawyers, and physicians might have this rank, or in many cases the rank above it.
Finally, we come to the great mass of the people who do work, and in past centuries did hard physical labor. These are the peasants, laborers, the proletariat. At some times there were more ranks than I mention here.
In England, the top level were referred to as yeomen. They did physical labor, but usually had an excess above what they and their family needed. They might hire poorer peasants to work on their farms. I suppose the Russian kulaks would be considered yeomen in England. Stalin slaughtered them, but England was less revolutionary. The sturdy English yeoman seems to have enjoyed a good reputation.
The farmers who usually could earn enough to support themselves and their families from their own land were called husbandman. In normal times the husbandman would not have to work for others.
The cottager had a cottage and garden, ideally several acres, but would need to work for others to support a family.
The laborer is dependent on his work for his support and the support of his family. People at this level are likely to experience serious want in bad times, as are the cottagers, and husbandmen.
This page gives you a general idea of the system, but not only were there other ranks and different names for the same rank at different times and places, but the human race does not limit itself to following the system. As mentioned above in formal letters it is common to raise all men to the rank of esquire in England, and Sir in the United States. Sir was and in England still is a prefix that implies you are a knight.
We have covered four general categories. The royalty ruled the nation, the aristocracy governed divisions of the nation, the gentry did the paper work, and the peasants and laborers did the physical labor.
There was an ancient Greek idea that aristocrats should rule rather than the people. The aristocrats were thought to have three characteristics that made them better suited for rule than the great mass of poor people. One, the aristocrats were educated, two they had the leisure to attend to government affairs, and three they were not economically desperate. For these reasons it was thought that aristocracy was better than democracy.
The ranks of European society that we have reviewed to some degree put people who had the education, leisure, and comfort into control of government and society. The European royalty, aristocracy, and gentry thereby carrying out, even if imperfectly, the Greek idea.
In the modern developed democracies, we do much better. We combine aristocracy and democracy. The great mass of people are educated, leisured, and reasonably comfortable. Developed democracies enjoy stability, peaceful relations with each other, and freedom from corruption that earlier societies could hardly dream of. No developed democracy has ever fallen to a dictator, or tyrant to use the ancient Greek term. Furthermore, no two developed democracies has ever fought each other in a war. For a list of developed democracies and definitions of these terms click here.
I have written this because the topic interests me, but mostly because somewhat similar pages have proved popular. Turned out to be a good strategy this is my most popular page. I have a list of other pages where I present information I have collected and organized in the right hand column of this page. Perhaps the most similar page is on the meaning of metropolis, city, town, village, and hamlet.
Here is a link to my contact information..
City sizes and terms
List of Developed Democracies These countries have made it.