Swiss nobility

Switzerland is a confederation of states of which each one has its own history.

In the Middle Ages we find in the various Swiss cantons only families of feudal nobility and some ennobled families abroad. In Switzerland there was a great number of families of dynastes who were vassals of the Holy Roman 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 14th century, we can distinguish, except the particular cases, three modes of nobility:

  1. nobility acquired under the terms of the family right, i.e. by direct line (male and legitimate since the 16th century).
  2. nobility resulting from the concession or the recognition of a Sovereign, which can be one monarch or a collective Sovereign. This may be 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. nobility acquired by integration [For example: Affry in 15th 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 a manufacturer of scythes, and Noble Louis de Daguet was a carter at the end of the 18th 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".

Berne, Fribourg, Soleure, Lucerne

From the 15th 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 patriciate, was closed in 1684 and half-opened only at the end of the 18th 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 "patriciates" 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 the 18th century the privilege of eligibility to the governmental loads was the exclusive prerogative of the patricians. In 1781 this "patriciate" 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 16th 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" (17 and 18 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 use the nobiliary particle "von" (or "de").

In Lucerne at the end of the 17th 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 patriciate 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.

Uri, Schwyz, Unterwald

In the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald, the political evolution from the Middle Ages to the 19th century was realised by a relatively similar way but really doesn't lead to the constitution of a "patriciate" 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 as Reding.

Reding von Bibberegg


In 1400 the city of Zürich formally became autonomous within the Holy Roman 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 families. The Bonstetten family came to Bern in 1463 and ended in 1606. Some still extant families of the nobility of Zürich received additionally foreign titles such as the Hirzel, count in France in 1788.

Schaffhouse, Zug

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

In the canton of Zug 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 13th century the "Herrenstube" which became during the 15th 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.

Valais, Thurgovie, Tessin

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 prince-bishops, 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 patriciate was not a patriciate of right but in fact.

Tessin, before becoming a 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 to 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 11th or 12th 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 the 15th 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.

Counts de Salis-Soglio (Vienna, 1748).
Comtes de Salis-Seewis (Versailles, 1777).

Glarus, Appenzell

The canton of Glarus never had of nobility of right. However, in Glarus there are some families ennobled abroad.

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

As for the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, there are known direct male decedents of the most elite Noble Swiss family currently living abroad.


This canton, home of the castle of Habsburg, remained under the Austrian domination until 1415, when it has been conquered by Bern and Zürich which divided it. The current canton, formed in 1803, with Bern and Zurich land and what was for a short time the Principality of Frickgau, is sometimes known as the Canton of Fricktal. The ancient noble families of Aargau were maintained in different cantons, and around the World, such as Mülinen and Hallwyl in Bern, or abroad such as 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 stayed at last paradoxically a Principality held in personal union by the Berlin-based Hohenzollern 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.

The canton of Basel had in place of a nobility a patriciate, that dominated its political life. Its most prominent members were the families Bernoulli, Burckhardt, Faesch, Iselin, Liechtenhan, Merian, Sarasin and Vischer.

St. Gall

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

The privileges of the nobility were gradually suspended after 1798, save for a revival in Lucerne and Freiburg during the Restauration from 1814 to 1831. Article 4 on equality of the 1848 Swiss federal constitution, finally made a legal end to the Swiss nobility.[1] Nowadays the titles of nobility appear neither in registry offices nor in public instruments. Sometimes they are tolerated in administrative documents and in the noble's professional life, that is to say in social relations.[2]

About 450 noble families are left in Switzerland, either Swiss or foreign. By counting 15 people per family about 1.06 ‰ of the population belongs to the nobility, which is comparable to the situation in France. There are large regional differences however: the canton of Appenzell for example has hardly any noble family left, while the canton of Vaud has over a hundred.[2]


  1. Hersche, Peter (16 November 2010). "Noblesse" [Nobility]. Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse (in French). Retrieved 22 October 2015.
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