Estates of the realm

Estates of the realm
"Cleric, Knight, and Workman": the three estates in a French medieval illumination

The Estates of the realm were the broad social orders of the hierarchically conceived society, recognized in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Christian Europe; they are sometimes distinguished as the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners, and are often referred to by medieval ranking of importance (as the hierarchy was ordained by God) as the First, Second, and Third Estates respectively. In the scheme, God ordained the ministry, which was necessary to ordain the royalty and nobility, who settled privileges on the more prestigious commoners, or burghers (bourgeoisie) ; hence the frequent references to the peasantry of Europe as the Fourth Estate—albeit one which was believed to be powerless in the theories of the others.

"Medieval political speculation is imbued to the marrow with the idea of a structure of society based upon distinct orders," Johan Huizinga observes.[1] The virtually synonymous terms estate and order designated a great variety of social realities, not at all limited to a class, Huizinga concluded, but applied to every social function, every trade, every recognizable grouping.

There are, first of all, the estates of the realm, but there are also the trades, the state of matrimony and that of virginity, the state of sin. At court there are the 'four estates of the body and mouth': bread-masters, cup-bearers, carvers, and cooks. In the Church there are sacerdotal orders and monastic orders. Finally there are the different orders of chivalry.

This static view of society was predicated on inherited positions. Commoners were universally considered the lowest order. The higher estates' necessary dependency on the commoners' production, however, often further divided the otherwise equal common people into burghers (also known as bourgeoisie) of the realm's cities and towns, and the peasants and serfs of the realm's surrounding lands and villages. A person's estate and position within it was usually inherited from the father and his occupation, and was similar to a caste within that system. In many regions and realms there also existed population groups born outside these specifically defined resident estates.

Legislative bodies or advisory bodies to a monarch were traditionally grouped along lines of these estates, with the monarch above all three estates. Meetings of the estates of the realm became early legislative and judicial parliaments. Monarchs often sought to legitimize their power by requiring oaths of fealty from the estates.



After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, numerous geographic and ethnic kingdoms developed among the endemic peoples of Europe, affecting their day-to-day secular lives; along with those, the growing influence of the Catholic Church and its Papacy affected the ethical, moral and religious lives and decisions of all. This led to mutual dependency between the secular and religious powers for guidance and protection, but over time and with the growing power of the kingdoms, competing secular realities increasingly diverged from religious idealism and Church decisions.

The new lords of the land identified themselves primarily as warriors, but because new technologies of warfare were expensive, and the fighting men required substantial material resources and considerable leisure to train, these needs had to be filled. The economic and political transformation of the countryside in the period were filled by a large growth in population, agricultural production, technological innovations and urban centers; movements of reform and renewal attempted to sharpen the distinction between clerical and lay status, and power, recognized by the Church also had their effect.

As a result of the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, the powerful office of Holy Roman Emperor lost much of its religious character and retained a more nominal universal preeminence over other rulers, though it varied. The struggle over investiture and the reform movement also legitimized all secular authorities, partly on the grounds of their obligation to enforce discipline.[2] In the 11th and 12th centuries thinkers argued that human society consisted of three orders: those who fight, those who pray, and those who labour. The structure of the second order, the clergy, was in place by 1200 and remained singly intact until the religious reformations of the 16th century. The very general category of those who labour (specifically, those who were not knightly warriors or nobles) diversified rapidly after the 11th century into the lively and energetic worlds of peasants, skilled artisans, merchants, financiers, lay professionals, and entrepreneurs, which together drove the European economy to its greatest achievements. The first order, those who fight, was the rank of the politically powerful, ambitious, and dangerous. Kings took pains to ensure that it did not resist their authority.[3] By the 12th century, most European political thinkers agreed that monarchy was the ideal form of governance. This was because it imitated on earth the model set by God for the universe; it was the form of government of the ancient Hebrews and the Christian Biblical basis, the later Roman Empire, and also the peoples who succeeded Rome after the 4th century.[2]

Estates in the Kingdom of France

Coat of arms of pre-revolutionary Kingdom of France
Kingdom of France
Estates of the realm
French nobility
Seigneurial system

France under the Ancien Régime (before the French Revolution) divided society into three estates: the First Estate (clergy); the Second Estate (nobility); and the Third Estate (commoners). The king was considered part of no estate.

The First Estate (Fr. premier état) was the clergy.

First Estate

The First Estate comprised the entire clergy, traditionally divided into "higher" and "lower" clergy. Although there was no formal demarcation between the two categories, the upper clergy were, effectively, clerical nobility, from the families of the Second Estate. In the time of Louis XVI, every bishop in France was a nobleman, a situation that had not existed before the 18th century.[4] At the other extreme, the "lower clergy" (about equally divided between parish priests and monks and nuns) constituted about 90 percent of the First Estate, which in 1789 numbered around 130,000 (about 0.5% of the population).

Second Estate

The Second Estate (Fr. deuxieme état) was the French nobility and (technically, though not in common use) royalty, other than the monarch himself, who stood outside of the system of estates.

The Second Estate is traditionally divided into "noblesse de robe" ("nobility of the robe"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, and "noblesse d'épée" ("nobility of the sword").

The Second Estate constituted approximately 1.5% of France's population.[citation needed] Under the ancien régime, the Second Estate were exempt from the corvée royale (forced labour on the roads) and from most other forms of taxation such as the gabelle (salt tax) and most important, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation). This exemption from paying taxes led to their reluctance to reform.

Third Estate

The Third Estate comprised all those not members of the above and can be divided into two groups, urban and rural. The urban included the bourgeoisie, who made up 98% of France's population, as well as wage-laborers (such as craftsmen). The rural had no wealth and yet were forced to pay disproportionately high taxes compared to the other Estates and were unhappy because they wanted more rights.

The French Estates General

See main articles French Estates General, Estates General of 1789

The first Estates General (not to be confused with a "class of citizen") was actually a general citizen assembly that was called by Philip IV in 1302.

In the period leading up to the Estates General of 1789, France was in the grip of an unmanageable public debt and terrible inflation and widespread food scarcity. This led to widespread popular discontent and produced a group of third estate representatives pressing a comparatively radical set of reforms — much of it in alignment with the goals of finance minister Jacques Necker but very much against the wishes of Louis XVI's court and many of the hereditary nobles forming his second estate allies—at least allies against taking more taxes upon themselves and keeping the unequal taxation on the commoners.

When he couldn't get them to rubber-stamp his 'ideal program', Louis XVI sought to dissolve the estates general after they refused to accept his agenda, but the third estate held out for their right to representation. The lower clergy (and some nobles and upper clergy) eventually sided with the third estate, and the king was forced to yield.

By June when continued impasses lead to further deterioration in relations, the States-General was reconstituted first as the National Assembly (June 17, 1789) seeking a solution for the realm independent of the king's management of the meetings of the Estates General which occasionally continued to meet. These self-organized and managed separate meetings are today defined as the epoch event beginning the historical epoch (era) of French Revolution during which, after several further weeks of civil unrest the body assumed a new status as a revolutionary legislature, the National Constituent Assembly (July 9, 1789), a unitary body composed of the former representatives of the three estates stepping up to govern along with an emergency committee in the power vacuum existing after the Bourbon monarchy fled Paris.

The United Kingdom

Whilst the estates were never formulated in a way which prevented social mobility, the English (subsequently the British) parliament was long based along the classic estate lines being composed on the "Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons". The tradition where the Lords Spiritual and Temporal sat separately from the Commons began during the reign of Edward III in the 14th century.


The members of the parliament of Scotland were collectively referred to as the Three Estates (Older Scots: Thre Estaitis), also known as the community of the realm, and until 1690 composed of:

  • the first estate of prelates (bishops and abbots)
  • the second estate of lairds (dukes, earls, parliamentary peers (after 1437) and lay tenants-in-chief)
  • the third estate of burgh commissioners (representatives chosen by the royal burghs)

The First Estate was overthrown during the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William II.[5] The Second Estate was then split into two to retain the division into three.

A Shire Commissioner was the closest equivalent of the English office of Member of Parliament, namely a commoner or member of the lower nobility. Because the parliament of Scotland was unicameral, all members sat in the same chamber, as opposed to the separate English House of Lords and House of Commons.

The Parliament also had University constituencies (see Ancient universities of Scotland). The system was also adopted by the Parliament of England when James VI ascended to the English throne. It was believed that the universities were affected by the decisions of Parliament and ought therefore to have representation in it. This continued in the Parliament of Great Britain after 1707 and the Parliament of the United Kingdom until 1950.

In Sweden and Finland

The Estates in Sweden (including Finland) and later also the Finland were the two higher estates nobility, clergy and the two lower estates burghers and land-owning peasants. Each were free men, and had specific rights and responsibilities, and the right to send representatives to the governing assembly, the Riksdag of the Estates in Sweden and Diet of Finland (after being conquered by Russia in 1809), respectively. Also, there was a population outside the estates; unlike in other areas, people had no "default" estate, and were not peasants unless they came from a land-owner's family. A summary of this division is:

  • Nobility (see Finnish nobility and Swedish nobility) was exempt from tax, had an inherited rank and the right to keep a fief, and had a tradition of military service and government. Nobility was established in 1279 with the Swedish king granted tax-free status (frälse) to peasants who could equip a cavalryman (or be one themselves) in the king's army. Initially, exemption from tax was not inherited, but it became hereditary in 1544. Following Axel Oxenstierna's reform, government positions were open only to nobles. However, the nobility still owned only their own property, not the peasants or their land as in much of Europe. Heads of the noble houses were hereditary members of the assembly of nobles. The Nobility is divided into titled nobility (counts and barons) and lower nobility. Until the 18th century the lower nobility was in turn was divided into Knights and Esquires such that each of the three classes would first vote internally, giving one vote per class in the assembly. This resulted in great political influence for the higher nobility.
  • Clergy, or priests, were exempt from tax, and collected tithes for the church. After the Reformation, the church became Lutheran. In later centuries, the estate included teachers of universities and certain state schools. The estate was governed by the state church which consecrated its ministers and appointed them to positions with a vote in choosing diet representatives.
  • Burghers are city-dwellers, tradesmen and craftsmen. Trade was allowed only in the cities when the mercantilistic ideology had got the upper hand, and the burghers had the exclusive right to conduct commerce. Entry to this Estate is controlled by the autonomy of the towns themselves. Peasants were allowed to sell their produce within the city limits, but any further trade, particularly foreign trade, was allowed only for burghers. In order for a settlement to become a city, a royal charter granting market right was required, and foreign trade required royally chartered staple port rights. After the annexation of Finland into Imperial Russia in 1809, mill-owners and other proto-industrialists would gradually be included in this estate.
  • Peasants are land-owners of land-taxed farms and their families, which represented the majority in medieval times. Since most of the population were independent farmer families until 19th century, not serfs nor villeins, there is a remarkable difference in tradition compared to other European countries. Entry was controlled by ownership of farmland, which was not generally for sale but a hereditary property. After 1809, tenants renting a large enough farm (ten times larger than what was required of peasants owning their own farm) were included as well as non-nobility owning tax-exempt land.
  • To no estate belonged propertyless cottagers, villeins, tenants of farms owned by others, farmhands, servants, some lower administrative workers, rural craftsmen, travelling salesmen, vagrants, and propertyless and unemployed people (who sometimes lived in strangers' houses). To reflect how the people belonging to the estates saw them, the Finnish word for "obscene", säädytön, has the literal meaning "estateless".

In Sweden, the Riksdag of the Estates existed until it was replaced with a bicameral Riksdag in 1866, which gave political rights to anyone with a certain income or property. Nevertheless, many of the leading politicians of the 19th century continued to be drawn from the old estates, in that they were either noblemen themselves, or represented agricultural and urban interests. Ennoblements continued even after the estates had lost their political importance, with the last ennoblement of explorer Sven Hedin taking place in 1902; this practice was formally abolished with the adoption of the new Constitution January 1, 1975, while the status of the House of Nobility continued to be regulated in law until 2003.

In Finland, this legal division existed until the modern age. However, at the start of the 20th century, most of the population did not belong to any Estate and had no political representation. A particularly large class were the rent farmers, who did not own the land they cultivated, but had to work in the land-owner's farm to pay their rent (unlike Russia, there were no slaves or serfs.) Furthermore, the industrial workers living in the city were not represented by the four-estate system. The political system was reformed, and the last Diet was dissolved in 1905, to create the modern parliamentary system, ending the political privileges of the estates. The constitution of 1919 forbade giving new noble ranks, and all tax privileges were abolished in 1920. The privileges of the estates were officially and finally abolished in 1995,[6] although in legal practice, the privileges had long been unenforceable. However, the nobility has never been officially abolished and records of nobility are still voluntarily maintained by the Finnish House of Nobility.

Nevertheless, the old traditions and in particular ownership of property changed slowly, and the rent-farmer problem became so severe that it was a major cause to the Finnish Civil War. Although the division became irrelevant following the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and political parties, industrialization and urbanization, it might be possible to claim that their traditions live on in the political parties of Sweden and Finland, in the sense that there are parties that have traditionally represented upper-class and business interests (Moderate Party and Coalition Party) and farmers (the Centre Parties of Sweden and Finland).[citation needed]

In Finland, it is still illegal and punishable by jail time (up to one year) to defraud into marriage by declaring a false name or estate (Rikoslaki 18 luku § 1/Strafflagen 18 kap. § 1).

In the Netherlands

The Netherlands, which until the late sixteenth century consisted of several counties, prince bishoprics, duchies etc. in the area that is now modern Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, had no States General until 1464, when Duke Philip of Burgundy assembled the first States General in Bruges. Later in the 15th and 16th centuries Brussels became the place where the States General assembled. On these occasions deputies from the states of the various provinces (as the counties, prince-bishoprics and duchies were called) asked for more liberties. For this reason, the States General were not assembled very often.

As a consequence of the Union of Utrecht in 1579 and the events that followed afterwards, the States General declared that they no longer obeyed King Philip II of Spain, who was also Lord of the Netherlands. After the conquest of the southern part of the Netherlands (i.e. Belgium and Luxemburg), the States General first assembled permanently in Middelburg, and in The Hague from 1585 onwards. Without a king to rule the country, the States General became head of state. It was the government were all things were dealt with that were of concern to all the seven provinces that became part of the Republic of the United Netherlands.

During that time the States General were formed by members of the States (i.e. provincial parliaments) of the seven provinces. In each State sat representatives of the nobility, the peasantry, and the cities.

As government, the States General were abolished in 1795. A new parliament was created, called National Assembly (Nationale Vergadering). It no longer consisted of members of representatives of the states: all men were considered equal under the 1798 Constitition. Eventually, the Netherlands became part of the French Empire under Napoleon (1811: La Hollande est reunie à l'Empire).

After regaining independence in November 1813, the States General were invested once again in 1814 and consisted of members of the states, who were invested once again. In 1815, when the Netherlands were united with Belgium and Luxemburg, the States General were divided into two chambers: the First Chamber and the Second Chamber. The members of the First Chamber were elected by the King, while the members of the Second Chamber were elected by the members of the provincial parliaments (which were once again called Provincial States). The States General resided in The Hague and Brussels until 1830, when, as a result of Belgium's independence, The Hague became once again the sole residence of the States General.

In 1848, it was decided that the States General no longer consist of members of the states as they were abolished once again. From then on, the Constitution declares that members of the Second Chamber are elected by the people (in first instance only a limited portion of the male population, universal suffrage exists since 1919), while the members of the First chambers are chosen by the members of the Provincial parliaments (confusingly still called Provincial States). As a result the Second Chamber became the most important. The First Chamber is also called Senate. This however, is not a term used in the Constitution.

Occasionally the First and Second Chamber meet in a United Assembly, for instance on Prinsjesdag, the annual opening of the parliamentary year, and when a new king is invested.

In the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire had the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). The clergy was represented by the independent prince-bishops, prince-archbishops and prince-abbots of the many monasteries. The nobility consisted of independent aristocratic rulers: secular prince-electors, kings, dukes, margraves, counts and others. Burghers consisted of representatives of the independent imperial cities. Many peoples whose territories within the Holy Roman Empire had been independent for centuries had no representatives in the Imperial Diet, and this included the Imperial Knights and independent villages. The power of the Imperial Diet was limited, despite efforts of centralization.

Large realms of the nobility or clergy had estates of their own that could wield great power in local affairs. Power struggles between ruler and estates were comparable to similar events in the history of the British and French parliaments.

The Swabian League, a significant regional power in its part of Germany during the 15th Century, also had its own kind of Estates, a governing Federal Council comprising three Colleges: those of Princes, Cities, and Knights.

In the Russian Empire

In late Russian Empire the estates were called sosloviyes. The four major estates were: nobility (dvoryanstvo), clergy, rural dwellers, and urban dwellers, with a more detailed stratification therein. The division in estates was of mixed nature: traditional, occupational, as well as formal: for example, voting in Duma was carried out by estates. Russian Empire Census recorded the reported estate of a person.

In Catalonia

The Parliament of Catalonia (Corts Catalanes) was established in 1283, according to American historian Thomas Bisson, and it has been considered by several historians as a model of medieval parliament. For instance, English historian of constitutionalism Charles Howard McIlwain wrote that the Parliament of Catalonia, during the 14th century, had a more defined organization and met more regularly than the parliaments of England or France.[7]

The roots of the parliament institution in Catalonia are in the Sanctuary and Truce Assemblies (assemblees de pau i treva) that started in the 11th century. The members of the parliament of Catalonia were organized in the Three Estates (Catalan: Tres Braços):

  • the "military estate" (braç militar) with representatives of the feudal nobility
  • the "ecclesiastical estate" (braç eclesiàstic) with representatives of the religious hierarchy
  • the "royal estate" (braç reial) with representatives of the free municipalities under royal privilege

The parliament institution was abolished in 1716, together with the rest of institutions of Catalonia, after the War of the Spanish Succession.

See also


  1. ^ Huizinga The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919, 1924:47).
  2. ^ a b Encyclopedia Britannica, History of Europe - Middle Ages - From territorial principalities to territorial monarchies
  3. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, History of Europe - Middle Ages - From territorial principalities to territorial monarchies - The three orders
  4. ^ R.R. Palmer, A History of the Modern World 1961, p 334.
  5. ^ Kidd, Colin Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity 1689-1830 Cambridge Univesity Press (2003) pp133
  6. ^ Original Act 971/1995:
  7. ^ Joaquim Albareda, Estat i nació a l'Europa moderna


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  • the estates of the realm — 1. The three divisions of the body politic, Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and Commons 2. Often misused for the legislature, ie king, lords and commons 3. The ancient parliament of Scotland consisted of the king and the three estates, ie (1)… …   Useful english dictionary

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  • REALM, ESTATES OF THE —    the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons in Great Britain …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Lord of the Realm — En af rikets herrar ( in Swedish ) or Lord of the Realm was a title introduced by king Gustaf III of Sweden after his bloodless coup d état in 1772, and after the new constitution was passed by the Riksdag of the Estates. The title was not… …   Wikipedia

  • The Estates — The States or the Estates signifies, in different countries and dominions, the assembly of the (feudalistic) representatives of the estates of the realm, called together for purposes of legislation or deliberation. In German speaking countries… …   Wikipedia

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  • The fourth estate — Estate Es*tate ([e^]s*t[=a]t ), n. [OF. estat, F. [ e]tat, L. status, fr. stare to stand. See {Stand}, and cf. {State}.] 1. Settled condition or form of existence; state; condition or circumstances of life or of any person; situation. When I came …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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