The Highest Rank of the Nobility and the Supremacy of Status Equivalence

Inspired by the highly exclusive royal marriage market of the two Great Powers, Spain and France, I start my analysis from the highest layer of the nobility, the genuinely privileged few, to see how they performed their high status when arranging their marriages and the succession of occupations. As in the case of royalty, it is to be expected that status equivalence dictated arrangements in the higher nobility as well, councillor dynasties as its representative specimen. Unfortunately, language difficulties prevented me from taking a sample of the Spanish or French aristocracy and studying them in more detail, but I hope that a sample of five Swedish councillor dynasties provides a convenient basis for a more general analysis of the dynamics of the aristocratic marriage market in the heyday years between 1550 and 1800. This assumption is grounded in the fact that throughout Europe, appointments to the Council were clustered around a relatively small number of aristocratic families.

In France before the Revolution in 1789, power was in the hands of just a handful of families, and there was a tendency within this elite to intermarry (Swann 1995, 170). For example (Collins 2009, 192-4), all eighteenth-century chancellors and seven of the nine keepers of the seals belonged to the same tight, intermarried family network. In addition, 18 of the 22 controllers general were sons of sovereign court judges, and the marriage alliances of these families show that they often remained within the small world of the Royal Council. In Hungary, it is estimated that the most powerful aristocratic dynasties numbered just 16, in the Austrian and Bohemian Lands around 10 and in Spain between 20 and 40 (Scott and Storrs 1995, 21). In Russia, seventeenth-century policymaking is said to have been dominated by just 17 aristocratic families, who had placed all their men in the Duma, the Russian version of the Council. In Denmark, the governmental inner circle comprised 13 to 17 noble dynasties, from which councillors were constantly chosen between 1500 and 1650 (Jespersen 1995, 35, 50). In Brandenburg, the power elite consisted of 20 families, but governance was effectively in the hands of just 13 of them (Melton 1995, 76-9). As these figures demonstrate, the power elite was very small and aristocratic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but a more detailed analysis can only be conducted via a case study of five Swedish councillor dynasties.

Upton (1995, 18) says that in 1611, 40 per cent of all Council seats in Sweden were held by 36 families, which were increasingly interlinked by marriage. By 1632, this proportion increased to 66 per cent. Within this oligarchy one inner group became dominant: the Oxenstierna-Brahe-De la Gardie connection. From 1632 to 1647, they accounted for 20 of a total of 25 new Council appointments. In this chapter my primary focus is on this inner circle, the representatives of which were the Oxenstiernas, the Posses, the Bielkes, the Leijonhufvuds and the Stenbocks.[1] The ancestors of these five Swedish families had been dubbed knights in the fourteenth century and created barons and counts in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. They were not only barons and counts, that is, members of the aristocracy, but also highly successful in their administrative careers, serving the monarchs as riksrad, councillors of the realm, equivalent to privy councillors in many other European monarchies and members of the Boyar Duma in Russia (Crummey 1983, 12-33; Bush 1988, 34, 42; Scott 1995a, b). Councillor dynasties thus formed the highest layer of the nobility (Norrby 2014, 171; Norrhem 2010, 50), whose unique privilege was to have access to the monarch (Thompson 1995, 192).

In sixteenth-century Sweden, this kind of access was also performed by marriages to two kings.

Earlier in Chap. 2 we met a Leijonhufvud, a Stenbock and a Bielke when discussing monarchs’ marriages to noblewomen, which although legal at the time were offences against status equivalence. Margareta Leijonhufvud married King Gustav I Vasa in 1536 as his second consort; Katarina Stenbock became his third wife in 1552 and Gunilla Bielke King John Ill’s second wife in 1585. All these noblewomen were ladies- in-waiting at the court, but they were also related to the king as well as to one another. Moreover, their fathers were councillors of the realm, as King Gustav Vasa’s father, a nobleman, had been. Nobles related to royalty were usually regarded as superior to other nobles (Bush 1988, 34; Crummey 1983, 30, 70-1, 76-7), and indeed, seen from their perspective, royal-to-noble marriages appeared as an avenue of social rise. To explicate further the kin relations of the said three consorts, we can note that they were not randomly chosen noblewomen, but all from one and the same family. The key figures were Ebba Vasa and Erik Leijonhufvud, a high-noble couple. Ebba was King Gustav Vasa’s second cousin, which added to her status in the nobility. One of the couple’s daughters was the said Margareta Leijonhufvud, who married King Gustav Vasa; the other to marry King Gustav Vasa, Katarina Stenbock, was Ebba and Erik’s granddaughter; and their youngest daughter’s granddaughter in turn married King Johan III. Even though Katarina Stenbock, Gustav Vasa’s third wife, and her family benefited from their close relationship to the king, they incurred his successors’, King Erik XIV’s (r. 1560-68) and Johan III’s (r. 1568-92), disfavour with disastrous results: several of Katarina’s relatives were killed on grounds of suspicion of treason (Tegenborg Falkdalen 2015, 106-213).

A similar situation happened a little earlier in England, where King Henry VIII (r. 1509-47) married four noblewomen, including the cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The Howard dynasty to which Anne and Catherine belonged traced its origins to the thirteenth century. The founder of the dynasty was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas Sir William Howard (d. 1308), but dukedom was granted in 1483 when Richard III made Thomas Howard duke. He was one of the chief men around the king at the time (Schofield 2011, 42). The duke’s namesake,

Thomas Howard, the Second Duke of Norfolk (1443-1524), served Henry VII on his Privy Council, a counterpart to the Swedish riksrad where Margareta LeijonhufVud’s, Katarina Stenbock’s and Gunilla Bielke’s fathers were employed. The Second Duke of Norfolk had five surviving children, three of whom are of particular interest to us here: the firstborn son, again Thomas by name, who inherited the dukedom from his father by primogeniture; Elizabeth, who married Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire; and the second son, Lord Edmund Howard. Thomas Howard, the Third Duke of Norfolk, married Anne Plantagenet, daughter of King Edward IV (r. 1461-70 and 1471-83); Elizabeth Boleyn’s daughter Anne married Henry VIII as his second wife; and Edmund Howard’s daughter Catherine married the same king as his fifth wife. This noble family thus produced three children who were married into two royal families—quite a success for a noble family, even in the sixteenth century, which saw a significant clustering of marriages between kings and noblewomen. Besides, Henry VIII married off his illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, to Mary, who was the Third Duke of Norfolk’s daughter. And furthermore, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary Boleyn was Henry VIII’s mistress before he embarked on a relationship with Anne (Weir 2012). The Howards’ was a story of success, if the terrible fates of Anne and Catherine are ignored. Both of them were beheaded, Anne with her brother in 1536, and they were not the only members of this family to be executed, demonstrating the dangers of proximity to the ruler if the family incurred disfavour (Hutchinson 2009, 98-150). As mentioned, the Swedish Stenbocks experienced an almost identical fate.

No Oxenstierna was married to a king, but their achievements in state governance were unrivalled. The Oxenstierna family produced 22 councillors of the realm, the first one in 1370 or 1371 (Wetterberg 2013a, 17). No other Swedish noble family achieved such a number of councillor positions (see Lewenhaupt 1961, 43-5, 77-9; Upton 1995, 17-18). Between 1602 and 1682, 67 noble families produced at least one councillor, but most of them (62 per cent) just this one. Only nine families or 13 per cent had five or more councillors, a smaller cluster of governing magnates than Upton (1995, 18) suggests. The Oxenstierna, Stenbock and Bielke families belonged to this distinguished group of noble dynasties from 1602 through to 1682, but the Posse and Leijonhufvud dynasties no longer did, indicating that their heyday had run its course. Axel Oxenstierna (1583-1654) was the most distinguished individual in his dynasty, both in Sweden and internationally. Wetterberg (2013a, 13), the author of his biography, compares him with Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, his contemporary influential statesmen. Axel Oxenstierna started his career as a chamber junker in the royal court in 1605, which was a typical first assignment for young noblemen at the time—the other was that of officer. But he was too ambitious to remain in the court. In 1609, at the young age of 26, he was appointed a councillor of the realm, and just three years later he was nominated for an even higher office, the chancellor of the realm. Several other appointments were bestowed on him by successive monarchs, such as guardianship of the minor Queen Kristina (Wetterberg 2013a).

To gain a more accurate picture of status equivalence in high-noble dynasties, commonly identified as councillor dynasties, it is useful to divide the period between the mid-sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century into two parts. The first one was the time of councillors, apparently the height of their heyday, spanning from the midsixteenth century up to the time when the unbroken chain of councillors in these families came to an end, that is, in most cases by the late seventeenth century. The other period more or less covers the eighteenth century, when just a few occasional nominations to the Council were made from these dynasties. This rough divide suffices to illuminate how the heyday turned to gradual decline at the very pinnacle of the nobility. Occupations are identified as follows. All of those who made their career in the army are categorized as officers; those who made most of their career in the court are categorized as courtiers; civil servants are classified in more detail according to the highest post they achieved, that is, as councillors, governors, justices and other higher civil servants; and if other occupations appear, they are categorized separately, keeping in mind those professions that later on became more common in the nobility, such as clergymen, manufacturers and professionals.

During the first period, that is, when at least one son in successive generations was appointed a councillor, no less than 43 per cent of all male members who survived to the age of 30 were councillors of the realm. The Oxenstierna family had the highest number of councillors: 74 per cent of the men in four generations were councillors, undeniable evidence of identical status equivalence between fathers and sons. In other councillor dynasties the proportions varied from 50 per cent (Bielke) to 18 per cent (Posse). The Leijonhufvud dynasty is excluded from this examination since it turned into an officer dynasty by the early seventeenth century. What, then, about the sons who were not appointed as councillors during the first period, when appointments to the Council were frequent in these families? Apart from the 43 per cent who became councillors, 19 per cent of these sons made their careers mainly as officers, 17 per cent advanced to the position of governor and 12 per cent to justices, while 7 per cent were mainly employed in the court, but dynasty-wise variation was considerable. The Oxenstierna was conspicuously a councillor dynasty, whereas justices accumulated in the Posse dynasty and officers in the Stenbock dynasty. The male family members formed a homogenous social category: 98 per cent of them were councillors, officers (many of them generals), governors, justices and courtiers. In the 40-tiered ranking list of offices (1714), councillors, presidents of Courts of Appeal, governors, general majors and court marshals occupied the top eight places. Even though some judges and courtiers in these five dynasties did not occupy the highest offices, we can, nonetheless, conclude that if it was impossible to maintain identical status equivalence, exceptions first extended to offices just beneath councillors. Status differences therefore remained minor and hence acceptable.

In these five dynasties the time of councillors was over by the late seventeenth century at the latest. In the eighteenth century four councillor appointments were individual cases, that is, without succession from father to son that was so typical of the first period. The change was statistically significant: the proportion of councillors declined from 43 per cent to 4 per cent in the eighteenth century. With the posts of councillor now out of their reach, councillors’ sons and grandsons flooded the army, the other bastion of the nobility. In all, 60 per cent of the male family members in the eighteenth century made their careers primarily as officers; the figure was lowest in the Oxenstierna dynasty (46 per cent) and highest in the Leijonhufvud dynasty (82 per cent). In other respects the differences between the two periods were not significant, but perhaps symptomatic. The share of governors fell from 17 per cent to 11 per cent and that of judges from 11 per cent to 5 per cent. It is tempting to suggest that the sharp decline in the number of councillors in these dynasties undermined their prestige and at once their position in the ‘labour market’ of the nobility. The decreasing proportion of governors and justices probably reflects this decline.

Recruitment to the court was a good option for those whose careers were beginning to wane in these dynasties, particularly in the eighteenth century when Swedish kings were developing their courts more in line with continental royal courts. And indeed, the proportion of courtiers rose from 10 to 15 per cent in the eighteenth century. However, the army continued to offer an inexhaustible pool of positions for those high- noble men who were not appointed to higher offices. The proportion of officers rose from 19 to 60 per cent in the eighteenth century but, in contrast to the first period, an increasing number of officers were now of lower ranks. Yet these positions seemed better suited to the high nobility. This is also evident in the 40-rank list of offices: in 1735 a second lieutenant was ranked at the same level as notaries and actuaries in the Royal Chancellery and mayors of other cities than Stockholm. However, despite these sharp changes in the relative proportions of different occupations in the eighteenth century, the range of occupations remained unchanged: 96 per cent of the male family members in these five dynasties chose the same occupations as their forefathers had chosen during the first period. So, the old aristocracy stuck largely to the same occupations. It was very rare for Sweden’s eighteenth-century aristocracy to venture into new occupations.

The marriage market to a great extent reflected the same tendency as the succession of occupations, but marriages also brought to light some additional details that help us see the capacity of marriages to perform the hierarchical order of occupations. Starting with endogamous noble-to- noble marriages, they were impressively consistent in these five Swedish aristocratic dynasties throughout the period from the mid-sixteenth century to 1800: 96 per cent of men and 97 per cent of women married nobles, most of them from families of counts and barons. Clearly then, nobility was in itself an important yardstick in the marriage market of the higher nobility, effectively excluding non-nobles from the aristocratic marriage market.

But occupation was also a significant yardstick when choices of spouses were made. During the first period, the time of councillors, about 70 per cent of all councillors married daughters of councillors, in other words, their identical status equals. This figure is slightly higher than the 61 per cent calculated in another study (Norrhem 2010, 53, 189), which is explained by differences in the councillor dynasties included in the samples. Nonetheless, both statistics bear witness to the fact that councillors were truly ultra-exclusive in their choices of spouses, as was the case in other monarchies (Swann 1995, 147). Moreover, virtually all councillors married, as did governors. In both cases, only two of them in these five councillor dynasties remained unmarried during the period between the mid-sixteenth century and 1800. The rule that applied to royalty was also true for the aristocracy: the higher the status, the more compelling the marriage.

Governors, however, although showing the same minimal incidence of celibacy as councillors, differed from them in the marriage market. While councillors very often married councillors’ daughters, governors quite rarely—one-fifth of them—married governors’ daughters, in other words, their identical status equals. Instead, they favoured councillors’ daughters as their wives: half of them made this choice. Identical status equivalence was thus not the ultimate ideal for them, but they were keener to pursue a better match in order to add to their prestige. Preferences of this kind demonstrate that the hierarchical order of offices, when transposed into the marriage market, organized bride and groom candidates into a hierarchical order as well. Following this logic, it is apt to point out that the next most preferable officeholders for councillors after governors were courtiers, as 30 per cent of them married councillors’ daughters. The least favoured were officers, as only 15 per cent of them married councillors’ daughters. I would suggest that these declining percentages—70, 50, 30 and 15—were indicative of prestige being conferred in different proportions on councillors, governors, courtiers and officers. The prestige, as expressed by access to families of councillors by marriage, also reflected the hierarchical order of occupational domains: employment in state governance was considered a higher position than employment at court and in the army, except in the highest ranks. But this order was only valid for those who made their careers at the very highest echelons of state governance. The order would perhaps have been different in the marriage market of aristocratic dynasties, where field marshals and other high-ranking officers had a dominant part.

Even though marriages drew the boundaries of status equivalence, the marriage market was somewhat elastic in this respect, particularly after the heyday of councillor dynasties. But the downward expansion should ideally proceed step by step, each step presenting a test of acceptability in the marriage market. It is important to bear in mind the double character of performances: they are directed by the imperative of status equivalence prevailing at the time, but at the same time performances redraw the boundaries of status equivalence, if stricter status equivalence can no longer be followed. In these five Swedish councillor dynasties, women had to stretch the boundaries of status equivalence more than men: only 40 per cent of women married councillors, but they found acceptable husbands from amongst the same conglomeration of occupations as men did when choosing occupations for themselves. One-quarter of councillors’ daughters married officers, one-fifth governors and one-tenth courtiers. The remaining 5 per cent were justices and other higher civil servants.

In the second period covering approximately the eighteenth century, when these five councillor dynasties produced no more than four councillors in total, the number of marriages to councillors or their daughters fell sharply. Almost one-fifth or 18 per cent of the men married daughters of councillors, and 12 per cent of the daughters married councillors. Based on these figures it is clear that when the Oxenstierna, Stenbock, Bielke, Posse and Leijonhufvud dynasties were no longer councillor families, their past prominence counted for little in the marriage market of councillors. Councillors from new councillor dynasties turned to families of their own rank to find acceptable spouses, but the trend more generally was away from identical status equivalence, even in councillor dynasties (Norrhem 2010, 54-5). However, in the said five dynasties, a vast majority of marriages into councillor families were contracted in two or sometimes three generations after the last councillor in the family. Thus, councillors’ sons who were not appointed to the Council as well as daughters benefited in two or three generations from their families’ reputation as former councillor dynasties. This is important when considering the duration of the prestige of noble dynasties: it extended beyond the dynasty’s heyday—or prolonged it—in the same way as the prestige of the Spanish royal dynasty in the royal marriage market, in their case actually much longer than their heyday lasted, that is, longer than Spain’s standing as a Great Power. Thus, the glorious days of aristocratic dynasties might last longer than the ‘objective’ basis of the status, that is, Council membership assumed. The vacuum was again filled by officers: 40 per cent of the men in the said five dynasties married daughters of officers, while 60 per cent of the daughters married officers. However, this substitution hardly reduced their inclination to stick to the same exclusive cluster of occupations as before when choosing their spouses. This cluster furthermore dominated the marriage market in the five Swedish councillor dynasties: 95 per cent of women married councillors, governors, officers, courtiers or judges, while 90 per cent of men found their wives from the same social circles.

A high frequency of intermarriages between councillor families might easily be expected to have led to a large number of cousin marriages. As we saw in Chap. 2, cousin marriages were quite common in several royalties. In the nobility, their proportions varied from dynasty to dynasty, but on average 23 per cent of the members of these five Swedish high-noble dynasties married their relatives, including in-laws, between 1550 and 1800. While councillors clustered around the Oxenstierna family, they also accounted for a relatively high proportion of cousin marriages. Most conspicuous in this respect was the Sodermore branch, whose progenitor was the said Count Axel Oxenstierna. His parents were related, Axel himself married his cousin, and his brother, who also was a councillor, married his relatives twice, who too were daughters of councillors. His third wife was not kin to him, but besides a councillor’s daughter, she was also King Johan Ills illegitimate daughter’s daughter. Axel produced 12 children, but eight of them died in early infancy. His eldest surviving son married his relation, but their marriage remained childless. The other surviving son, who was a councillor, produced four children who survived to maturity; three of them, including the only son, married relatives, but his two children died prematurely. Count Axel Oxenstierna’s branch thereby became extinct.

This branch’s history echoes that of royal dynasties, where high infant mortality rates most obviously owed to inbreeding in successive generations, not to living in towns and with limited resources, the explanation suggested by Bush (1988, 27) for the high rate of infant mortality in noble families. Thus, consciousness of one’s own very high status, which led to a high prevalence of identical status equivalence in succession and in the marriage market, was further reinforced by cousin marriages. Even incestuous marriages were contracted in European nobilities. In England, for example, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk, who was related to Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, married off three of his sons from his two earlier marriages to his third wife’s daughters from her previous marriage (Hutchinson 2009, 211-16). These marriages were arranged in the 1560s. A similar case is found in late sixteenth-century England (Hattersley 2013, 80-2), where Henry Cavendish, brother of the future first Earl of Devonshire, married his stepfather’s daughter Grace Talbot. In addition, his sister Mary married Gilbert Talbot, another child of George Talbot. Grace and Gilbert were children of George Talbot, who was Henry and Mary’s mother’s fourth husband.

We have thus far been examining Swedish councillor dynasties who lived in the proximity of the monarch. This predestined many noblemen for high offices. But what was the situation on the eastern side of the realm, in peripheral Finland? Wetterberg (2013a, 17) remarks that the Finnish low nobility often consisted of no more than ennobled great peasants who were not capable of taking charge of the highest posts, but there was also a higher nobility whose members were even appointed as councillors. Six dynasties of this kind produced 15 councillors in all. These 15 Finnish councillors represented 5 per cent of all councillors between about 1600 and 1800 (see Lewenhaupt 1961, 43-5, 77-9). Whether one was born into a noble family in Sweden or in Finland, a peripheral part of the realm, heavily influenced one’s chances to advance to the highest offices. This handful of Finnish councillors came from the high-noble dynasties of the Fleming with five councillors, the first of whom was appointed in the sixteenth century; the Creutz with five councillors; the Boije with two councillors; and the Cedercreutz, Cederstrom and Wrede, each with one councillor (Wasastjerna 1879, 1880; Carpelan 1954, 1958, 1965). The Fleming and the Creutz families were able to fashion their entries into the Council after a genuine dynastic order, from father to son or grandson. Their marriage patterns were also closely similar to those of their Swedish counterparts: the councillors tended to marry daughters of their colleagues, and the daughters tended to marry councillors. Moreover, in the six Finnish high-noble dynasties with councillors, 20 per cent of all marriages contracted in 1600-1800 were cousin marriages. In other Finnish nobilities, the proportion of cousin marriages was around 10 per cent.

The six noble dynasties with councillors of the realm domiciled in Finland were almost equally inclined to stick to endogamy as their Swedish counterparts: between 1600 and 1800, 94 per cent of men and 92 per cent of women married nobles. In the rest of the Finnish high nobility, according to my 50 per cent sample of dynasties, 83 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women married nobles; in the lower Finnish nobility, according to my 10 per cent sample, the proportions were lower, 75 per cent for men and 55 per cent for women (Wasastjerna 1879, 1880; Carpelan 1954, 1958, 1965). The steady decline in percentages goes to show that the nobility demarcated the marriage market most strictly in the uppermost rank, while this criterion was stretched in the lower ranks of the nobility quite early on. Nevertheless, the high percentages of endogamous marriages warrant the conclusion that, until the dawn of the nineteenth century, the nobility were quite exclusive in keeping commoners out of their marriage market.

  • [1] Calculations of the occupations and marriages of the members of the five Swedish councillordynasties are based on social genealogies drawn from Almanacs of the Swedish Nobility (Elgenstierna 1925, 363-69; Elgenstierna 1928, 545-71; Elgenstierna 1930, 582-608; Eelgenstierna 1931,9-33; Elgenstierna 1932, 566-89).
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