Estates of the realm

A 13th century French representation of the tripartite social order of the middle ages – Oratores: "those who pray", Bellatores: "those who fight", and Laboratores: "those who work".

The estates of the realm were the broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates developed and evolved over time.

The best known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). This system was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate). Some countries, notably Scandinavia and Russia, split burghers (the urban merchant class) and rural commoners into separate estates, creating a four-estate system with rural commoners ranking the lowest as the Fourth Estate. In England, a two-estate system evolved that combined nobility and bishops into one lordly estate with "commons" as the second estate. This system produced the two houses of parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In southern Germany, a three-estate system of nobility (princes and high clergy), ritters (knights), and burghers was used.

Today the term "Fourth Estate" usually refers to forces outside the established power structure (evoking medieval three-estate systems), most commonly in reference to the independent press or media. Historically, in Northern and Eastern Europe, the Fourth Estate meant rural commoners.

Social immobility

During the Middle Ages individuals were born into their class and change in social position was difficult.

The medieval Church was the institution where social mobility was most likely up to a certain level (generally to that of vicar general or abbot/abbess for commoners). Typically, however, only nobility were appointed to the highest church positions (bishops, archbishops, heads of religious orders, etc.), although low nobility could aspire to the highest church positions. Since clergy could not marry, such mobility was theoretically limited to one generation, though in practice senior clergy might be able to greatly influence the social and financial fortunes of their relatives.

Another possible way to rise in social position was due to exceptional military or commercial success. Such families were rare and their rise to nobility required royal patronage at some point.


"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 recognisable 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.[1]

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 were usually inherited from the father and his occupation, 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. Today, in most countries, the estates have lost all their legal privileges, and are mainly of historical interest. The nobility may be an exception, for instance due to legislation against false titles of nobility; similarly British government well maintains the distinction- witness its House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

One of the earliest political pamphlets to address these ideas was called "What Is the Third Estate?" (French: Qu'est-ce que le tiers-état?) It was written by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès in January 1789, shortly before the start of the French Revolution.


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.

In his book The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, the French medievalist Georges Duby has shown that in the period 1023-1025 the first theorist who justified the division of European society into the three estates of the realm was Gerard of Florennes, the bishop op Cambrai.[2]

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.[3]

In the 11th and 12th centuries thinkers argued that human society consisted of three orders: those who pray, those who fight, and those who labour. The structure of the first 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 second 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.[4]

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.[3]

Kingdom of France

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.[5]

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 d'épée ("nobility of the sword"), and noblesse de robe ("nobility of the robe"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government.

The Second Estate constituted approximately 1.5% of France's population. Under the ancien régime ("old rule/old government"), 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 of those who were not members of the above and can be divided into two groups, urban and rural, together making up 98% of France's population. The urban included wage-labourers. The rural included free peasants (who owned their own land) who could be prosperous and villeins (serfs, or peasants working on a noble's land). The free peasants paid disproportionately high taxes compared to the other Estates and were unhappy because they wanted more rights. In addition, the First and Second Estates relied on the labour of the Third, which made the latter's unequal status all the more glaring.

There were an estimated 27 million people in the Third Estate when the French Revolution started.

Men and women shared the hard life of physical labour and food shortages. Most were born within this group and died as a part of it, too. It was extremely rare for people of this ascribed status to make it out into another estate. Those who did so managed as a result of either being recognized for their extraordinary bravery in a battle or entering religious life.[6] A few commoners were able to catch the eye of the second estate, marry, and join them, although this was quite rare.[6]

Estates General

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 (nearly 3.56 billion livres), terrible inflation and widespread food scarcity (a huge famine in the winter of 1788-89). This led to widespread popular discontent and produced a group of Third Estate representatives (612 exactly) 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 could not persuade them to rubber-stamp his 'ideal program', Louis XVI sought to dissolve the Estates-General, 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. Thus, the Estate-General meeting was an invitation to revolution.

By June, when continued impasses led to further deterioration in relations, the Estates-General was reconstituted first as the National Assembly (June 13, 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 meetings are today defined as the epoch event beginning the historical epoch (era) of the French Revolution, during which – after several more weeks of civil unrest – the body assumed a new status as a revolutionary legislature, the National Constituent Assembly (July 9, 1789).[7]

This 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. Among the Assembly was Maximilien de Robespierre, an influential member of the Jacobins who would years later become instrumental in the turbulent period of violence and political upheaval in France known as the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794).[7]

United Kingdom

For more details on this topic, see Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Whilst the estates were never formulated in a way that 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.

Notwithstanding the House of Lords Act 1999, the British Parliament still recognises the existence of the three estates: the Commons in the House of Commons, the nobility in the House of Lords, and the clergy in the form of the Church of England bishops also entitled to sit in the upper House as the Lords Spiritual.


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 was overthrown during the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William III.[8] 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.[9]

Sweden and Finland

The Estates in Sweden (including Finland) and later also Russia's Grand Duchy of Finland were the two higher estates, nobility and 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 Riksdag of the Estates. At the Riksdag, each Estate voted as a single body. Since early 18th century, a bill needed the approval of at least three Estates to pass, and constitutional amendments required the approval of all Estates. Prior to the 18th century, the King had the right to cast a deciding vote if the Estates were split evenly.

After Russia's conquest of Finland in 1809, a Finnish House of Nobility was codified in 1818 in accordance with the old Swedish law of 1723. However the Diet of Finland and its four estates was not convened until 1863.

There was also 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:

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 1906, still drawing on the Swedish constitution of 1772. 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 as a result of the Finnish general strike of 1905, with the last Diet instituting a new constitutional law to create the modern parliamentary system, ending the political privileges of the estates. The post-independence constitution of 1919 forbade ennoblement, and all tax privileges were abolished in 1920. The privileges of the estates were officially and finally abolished in 1995,[10] although in legal practice, the privileges had long been unenforceable. As in Sweden, the nobility has not been officially abolished and records of nobility are still voluntarily maintained by the Finnish House of Nobility.

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).


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 overlord of the Netherlands. After the reconquest 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 onward. Without a king to rule the country, the States General became the sovereign power. It was the level of government where 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 representatives of the States (i.e. provincial parliaments) of the seven provinces. In each States (a plurale tantum) sat representatives of the nobility and the cities (the clergy were no longer represented; in Friesland the peasants were indirectly represented by the Grietmannen).

As a government, the States General were abolished in 1795. A new parliament was created, called Nationale Vergadering (National Assembly). It no longer consisted of representatives of the States, let alone the Estates: all men were considered equal under the 1798 Constitution. Eventually, the Netherlands became part of the French Empire under Napoleon (1810: La Hollande est reunie à l'Empire).

After regaining independence in November 1813, the name "States General" was resurrected for a legislature constituted in 1814 and elected by the States-Provincial. 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 appointed for life by the King, while the members of the Second Chamber were elected by the members of the States Provincial. The States General resided in The Hague and Brussels in alternate years until 1830, when, as a result of the Belgian Revolution, The Hague became once again the sole residence of the States General.

From 1848 on, the Constitution declares that members of the Second Chamber are elected by the people (at first only by a limited portion of the male population; universal male and female suffrage exists since 1919), while the members of the First chamber are chosen by the members of the States Provincial. 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 Verenigde Vergadering (Joint Session), for instance on Prinsjesdag, the annual opening of the parliamentary year, and when a new king is inaugurated.

Holy Roman Empire

Main article: Imperial State

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.

Russian Empire

In the 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.


Main article: Catalan Courts

The Parliament of Catalonia was first established in 1283 as the Catalan Courts (Corts Catalanes), 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 General Courts of Catalonia, during the 14th century, had a more defined organization and met more regularly than the parliaments of England or France.[11]

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

See also

Location specific:



Wikimedia Commons has media related to Estates of the realm.
  1. 1 2 Huizinga The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919, 1924:47).
  2. Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Part 1
  3. 1 2 Encyclopædia Britannica, "History of Europe – Middle Ages – From territorial principalities to territorial monarchies"
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, "History of Europe – Middle Ages – From territorial principalities to territorial monarchies – The three orders"
  5. R. R. Palmer, A History of the Modern World 1961, p. 334.
  6. 1 2 Henslin, James M. (2004). "9". Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn & Bacon. p. 225. ISBN 0205407358.
  7. 1 2 "Terror, Reign of"; Encyclopædia Britannica
  8. Kidd, Colin Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity 1689–1830 Cambridge University Press (2003) pp133
  9. Mann, Alastair, "A Brief History of an Ancient Institution: The Scottish Parliament", Scottish Parliamentary Review, Vol. I, No. 1 (June, 2013) [Edinburgh: Blacket Avenue Press]
  10. Original Act 971/1995
  11. Joaquim Albareda, "Estat i nació a l'Europa moderna"
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