Make your own free website on
(Pour avoir ce texte en français, cliquez sur le petit drapeau  )

Introduction and general information

   Switzerland having the characteristic to be a confederation of states of which each one has its own history, we can't  speak about " Swiss nobility " in the singular but " Swiss nobilities " in the plural. Also remind that the concept of nobility or noble class postulates the existence of a hierarchical society recognising the principle of the heredity of a function or social status
    In the Middle Ages we also find in the various Swiss cantons only families of feudal nobility and some ennobled families abroad. We found through Switzerland a great number of families of dynastes who were vassals  of the Holy Empire, of the house of Savoy or of the Kingdom of Burgundy. This diversity prevented the birth of a state with monarchical central authority

   In Switzerland, since the XIVth century, we can distinguish, except the particular cases, three modes of nobility

1°) the nobility acquired under the terms of the family right,  i.e. by direct line (male and legitimate since  the XVIth century). 
2°)  the nobility resulting from a concession or a recognition of the Sovereign, which can be one monarch or a collective Sovereign. This maybe individual, family or collective concession. The Sovereign can also recognize an ennoblement conceded to one of his subjects by a foreign sovereign. Also there exists "reward's ennoblements" conceding only the possession of a title.
3°) the nobility acquired by integration [For example: Affry in XVth century, Reyff (1577) Pontherose (1443), Vevey (1523), Vandel (1526), Hugues (1544) ]. This integration frequently results from a social rise and of one or more alliances with families belonging already to the nobility. Sometimes that was       accompanied by the acquisisition of a noble domain (the seigniory of Mézières was bought in 1547 by Jost Freitag who was consequently qualified noble). 
    The loss of nobility did not exist in Switzerland where the social classes were closer than in other countries. Juridically there is neither misalliance nor loss of nobility due to the manual work or to the trade. So Noble Jean Gambach was in 1442 manufacturer of scythe, and Noble Louis de Daguet was a carter at the end of XVIIIth century. The only cases of loss of nobility were  the illegitimate line or the voluntary renunciation. This last case was met in Fribourg in order to be able to reach the load of banneret; it was in particular the case for some lines of the families Fégely, Gottrau, Reynold, Reyff, etc..

   Each state had its own constitution, its currency, its jurisdiction, its habits and customs, its history and so its own  nobility. So it's necessary to understand the Swiss nobilities to specify some nobiliary characteristics of some "cantons".

    From XVth century there was a power's increasing of the cities and their citizens and  consequently there was an integration of the feudal nobility into the middle-class of the cities. In some "cantons", as Bern, Fribourg, Soleure and Lucerne, the political power belongs consequently to an upper class which is formed with noble families and new families proceeding from the middle-class of the chief town of each state. These no noble families and the ancient noble families held the power with an hereditary right to the governmental loads. This matter of fact  increased gradually and ended towards 1600 to the institution of a privileged class. In 1627 in Fribourg, this class was officialized by a letter known as "lettre des deux-Cents". Then this class were constitutionally composed with the families eligible for the Sovereign Councils. In Fribourg this class, the patriciat, was closed in 1684 and half-opened only at the end of XVIIIth century.

   The Sovereign of each state was not a King but the Council and the subjects of each republic had only one sovereign, who was a collective sovereign. These "patriciats" were renewed by co-optation and some of his families were ennobled abroad.

   Some of these collective sovereigns granted ennoblements: In 1547 Bern set up the seigniory of Batie-Beauregard in barony in favour of Jacques Champion; In 1665 Soleure granted letters of nobility to the brothers Marcacci of Locarno; In 1712 Bern set up the seigniory of Bercher in barony in favour of Jean-Louis de Saussure.

   In Fribourg at the end of XVIIIth century the privilege of eligibility to the governmental loads was the exclusive
prerogative of the patricians. In 1781 this "patriciat" is composed with four categories of families: 1°) noble families with titles (Affry, Alt, Diesbach, Maillardoz, Castella de Berlens); 2°)  noble families without title (Boccard, Fégely de Vivy, Fivaz, Gléresse, Griset de Forel, Lenzbourg, Maillard, Praroman, of Prel, Reyff de Cugy, Reynold); 3°) the patricians families of noble origin, but of which the nobility was not thought of (Fégely de Prez for example); and 4°) the patricians families without noble origin (Buman, Castella, Reynold, Weck, Wild, etc...). Due to the constitution of 1404 the members the first two categories of  families were excluded from the loads of  "banneret", "secret" (member of the secret council)  and "grand sautier" except if they renounced their nobility. Also there were in the canton some families who were ennobled  and who were not patricians and whose nobility was not recognised by Fribourg (Besson, Chassot, Gapany and Tercier). In the "canton" of Fribourg the only still extant family of feudal nobility is the house of La Roche became Schenewey who lost its nobility in the XVIth century.

    In 1782 the Sovereign of Fribourg decided to standardise the situation of these families. He removed all the titles except "noble", authorised all the patricians to use the nobiliary particle "de" (or "von"), and specified that henceforth the loads of  "bannerets", "secrets" and "grand-sautier" would be opened to all the patricians. By confirming that all the patricians families were noble either by origin or by being member of the privileged class, this "Règlement relativement à l'introduction de l'égalité des familles patriciennes et de leurs titulatures" (17th and 18th of July 1782)  is not really a collective ennoblement but the official confirmation of a state of things.

   In Bern a constitutional law created in 1643 the privileged class of the eligible families to the Great Council. Since 1731 the Sovereign prohibits to use titles of nobility conferred by foreign sovereigns; Since 1761 the patricians  were authorised to be called "wohledelgeboren"; Then on the 9th of April 1783 the patricians were authorised to uses the nobiliary particle "von" (or "de")..
  In Lucerne at the end of XVIIth century the patricians were named with the title "Junker" and regularly made use of  their nobility when they were abroad, particularly when they served in the foreigner armies. Some families also received foreigner letters of nobility.

    In Soleure the patriciat in fact was formed gradually. Some families set up the  corporations to be able to control the co-optation. So the capacity passed to a definite number of privileged families who then formed a noble patrician whose members were qualified "Herren und Bürger". Numbers of these families accepted letters of nobility abroad, particularly in France.


    In the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald, the political evolution from the  Middle Ages to the  XIXth century was realised by a relatively similar way but really doesn't lead to the constitution of a "patriciat" but rather to the formation of a relatively closed class of new families sharing the political power with the ancient noble families. Some of the new families were ennobled abroad while others were incorporated to the Nobility by "integration".

    The canton of Schwyz counted several families of ministériaux such Reding.


    In 1400 the city of Zürich formally became autonomous with regard  to the Holy Empire. Before this date the only noble families were families of ministériaux. Quickly the political power came to the corporations while giving a dominant position to the noble corporation of the "Constaffel" in which was constituted  a "noble chamber" called "adelige Stube zum Rüden Stübli". The members families of the Corporations were mainly in them by heredity

    The members of Stübli used the title "Junker". In 1798 the Stübli did not count any more than eleven familles. The Bonstetten family, the only still extant family of the nobility of Zürich, came to Bern in 1463. Some families received foreigner titles such Hirzel, count in France in 1788.


   In the cantons of Schaffouse and Zoug, the political power belonged to the corporations. So there was not real
hereditary prerogative for the governmental loads.

   In the canton of Zoug the few families who had received letters of nobility  abroad are extinguished. The very
democratic system of this canton hindered a nobility expansion.

   In the canton of Schaffhouse the noble families formed since the XIIIth century the  "Herrenstube" which became during the XVth century one of the twelve corporations. Some ancient families were extinguished and replaced in the "Herrenstube" by new families of  the "integration nobility". In 1864 these families were maintained in their right to be buried in the "Junkernfriedhof", their last privilege..

    In the cantons of Valais, Thurgovie and Tessin, the former noble families were maintained and only some families were ennobled abroad.

  The "patriciat valaisan" which provides in particular the bishops-princes, was  formed with families of old nobility but also with some families incorporated into the Nobility either by possession of a right of jurisdiction either by membership to the "nobility of integration". Some of  these families also accepted letters of nobility abroad. This patriciat was not a patriciat of right but in fact.

    Tessin, before becoming Swiss canton in 1803, did not form a political and administrative unit and there is thus no "nobility of Tessin" in a strict sense, however there are some noble families originating from this area. In Locarno,  at the Reformation, two of the three great feudal families of capitanei: Muralto and Orelli emigrated in Zürich. A branch of Muralt was established in Bern. The third great family, Magoria, remained in Locarno. The majority of the families of Tessin ennobled abroad were it by the dukes of  Milan.


      In the Grisons there was a great number of families of dynasts and "ministériaux". From the XIth or XIIth century, the dynasts owned seigniories on which they held power more in fact than by  resulting of  a constitutional law. These families maintained their privileges until XVe century and some families preserved an important  situation, in particular Salis and  Planta, while some others were ennobles abroad.

   In 1794 the Leagues enacted the radical cancelling of the nobility, titles and  particles. This prohibition was confirmed in 1803 and 1848.

     These cantons never had of nobility of right. However in Glaris there are some families ennobled abroad.

    In these cantons the families descended from the "State's chief" and  from the bailiffs formed in fact a class of
"integration nobility".


    This canton where is the castle of Habsbourg remained under the Austrian domination until 1415, when it has been conquered by Bern and Zürich which divided it. The current canton born only in 1803. The ancient noble families of Argovie were maintained in different cantons, such Mülinen and Hallwyl in Bern, or abroad such Reinach in Alsace.

   The canton of Vaud, old county then country of Vaud, depended  successively of Burgundy, Zähringen, Savoy until 1536, then of Bern. In this canton there were some feudal noble families, families of  Savoyard nobility, families of the patrician nobility of Bern, and families of  "integration nobility".


   In the canton of Neuchâtel, Principality since 1643, the nobility increased by ennoblements of the Prince, these
ennoblement letters were subject to be ratified by the Council of State. Neuchâtel became Swiss canton in 1815 and  staid paradoxically a Prussian Principality until 1848.

    Since the Reformation the Republic of Geneva did not officially recognise  the  nobility as an organised corps. There were families of old nobility, families of  "integration nobility", families who were ennobled abroad, and a great number of noble families refuge at the time of the Reformation.

   However it should be noted that, contrary to the generally accepted ideas, the Republic of Geneva made use of its capacity to ennoble. It is in particular what it did on August 20 1680 by ennobling with a title of count the Noblet family.

    In 1382 the constitution reserved four seats of the Council for the noble families. From  the next century the corporations and thus the town's citizens took the power. The noble families of this time preferred to leave Basel which consequently will have a corporative system. The nobility was then prohibited in Basel. An exception was made for the "barons Wieland" in 1816 under the condition that they will not use their title in Basel. However there are some noble families  whose nobility and titles are earlier to their reception as citizen of Basel.


   In St-Gall some powerful families formed a kind of patriciat whose members belong to the "adelige Stube zum
Notenstein". Some of these families consolidated their position by receiving nobility's letters abroad. In 1778 the
Sovereign Council fixed the list of the seven families of  the "Notenstein" which constituted in fact the nobility  of St-Gall. Some families which were not members of the "Notenstein" received nobility's diplomas abroad.

Current situation
  Since 1798 the nobility does not exist any more as a privileged class but simply on the historical level. However there was an aristocratic restoration in Lucerne and Freiburg 1814 to 1831.

    Now there are about 450 noble families remaining in Switzerland, either of the one of the Swiss nobilities or of a foreign nobility. By counting 15 people per family, we obtain a proportion of 1,06 °/oo of the population, which is equivalent to the French noble density. However it's necessary to note the cantonal inequality of this density; the canton of Appenzell  having nearly anyone noble family while the canton of Vaud having more than one hundred.

    Today the nobility not having legal existence in Switzerland, the titles of  nobility appear neither in the registry offices nor in the official instruments. Sometimes they are tolerated in some administrative documents and in the professional  life. to the social relations.

1°) Recommended references :
 - Marc CHAPPUIS: La noblesse en Suisse romande: la noblesse dans le pays de Vaud au XIe et XIIe siècles. In: Mémoires de la Société pour l'Histoire du Droit et des Institutions des anciens pays bourguignons, comtois et romands. Dijon, Faculté de Droit, 1949.
- Régis de COURTEN: Argumentation en faveur .... des familles patriciennes valaisannes ... Villars-sur-Glâne, 1991.
- Benoît de DIESBACH BELLEROCHE: Dictionnaire des familles nobles subsistantes de Suisse. Fribourg, Intermède Belleroche, 1996.
- HAMOIR: "Noblesse de notre temps en Suisse". Avant-projet. Villars-sur-Glâne, 1983.
- J. de PURY: Nobiliaire du pays de Neuchâtel. In Archives Héraldiques Suisses 1897-1899.
- Monique de PURY: La noblesse en Suisse. In L'ordre de la noblesse. Paris, Bonnot, 1978. Tome I.  pp CDXXI-CDXLII.
- H. Turler: Noblesse. In Dictionnaire Historique et Biographique de la Suisse. Neuchâtel, Attinger, 1930. tome V, pp151-154.
- Bernard de VEVEY: Les sources de l'état noble dans la Suisse romande du XIVe au XVIIIe siècles. In: Mémoires de la Société pour l'Histoire du Droit et des Institutions des anciens pays bourguignons, comtois et romands. Dijon, Faculté de Droit, 1949.

2°) Other references:
- Edgar BRUNNER: La noblesse à l'époque de l'ancien régime dans le territoire de la Suisse actuelle. Allocution à Berne le 16 avril 1983 et publication in Bulletin de l'Association d'entraide à la noblesse française. - Paris. - 51(1984). - n° 178 (Janvier), p. 47-53.
- Edgar BRUNNER: Der Adel auf dem Gebiet der heutigen Schweiz. In  Adler : Zeitschrift für Genealogie
und Heraldik. - Wien (14 Bd.), Heft 7 (Juli/September 1987), p. 237-243
- Edgar Hans BRUNNER: La noblesse en Suisse. In CILANE 1989. Madrid, A.H.F.E., 1989. pp. 33-36.
- J. G.: Etat de la noblesse fribourgeoise en 1781. In Mémorial de Fribourg, recueil périodique. Fribourg, Piller, 1856.
- A. W. LIEBESKIND: La Noblesse valaisanne. In Mélanges offerts à François Guisan. Lausanne, Université, 1950.
- Placi MEYER von SCHAUENSEE:  Der Schweizer Adel. In Archiv für Rechts- und Wirtschaftsphilosophie. Berlin, 7(1914), Heft 4, p. 4-6.
- Michel de PREUX: La noblesse valaisanne. Sierre, 1985.
- Michel de PREUX: Familles nobles et qualifiées. Sierre, 1991.
- Gonzague de REYNOLD: Le patriciat de Fribourg en 1798. In Almanach Généalogique Suisse, 1905, pp 793-804.
- Henri-Charles ZEININGER de BORJA: La noblesse en Suisse. In Rivista del Collegio araldico, Rivista araldica. Roma, 1953, pp. 374-378.

Home page