The Changing Concept Of “Nobility” In British And Ottoman/Turkish Societies


Painting: Edmund Blair Leighton – Accolade

European races are classified as a member of Indo-Aryan family. The English word Aryan is derived from the Sanskrit word ārya meaning “noble”.[i] There (where this word came from) was class system which they called Varna as we know Caste system. This is such a system that no member of one class could pass to the other.

Nobilis derived from noscere and so it means in essence notable.[ii] According to Livy, the first 100 men appointed as senators by Romulus were referred to as “father” and descendants of those who became the Patrician class.[iii] Patrician line was bound to blood. They were superior to plebeians who were free landowning Roman citizens. At the beginning the distinction between patricians and plebeians was basically as the rich and the poor, but then some plebeians became rich and powerful while some patricians became poor and forgotten. However, this structure did not form a distinguished society in the Republic of Rome.

Nobility with strict rules rose in the Dark Ages in Europe. Two important factors rouse the nobility in those troubled lands: Barbarian invasion and Christianity. Barbarian invasion formed knight class which is the base of nobility. Christianity formed a panorama and clergy which was the holy ally of nobles.

When the Carolingian dynasty was founded in the land of today’s France and Charlemagne delivered the majestic time of that dynasty, Europe began to recover the damage of the first Barbarian invasion. Charlemagne saw that his empire lacked of intercommunication and an ideology to unite all people. He managed the second problem spreading Christianity under his domain and developing relationships with the Pope. But he couldn’t solve the first one and that brought an end to his empire. Lack of communication begot the lack of trade, so money and lack of local government from the centre. Beyond them, the second barbarian invasion in ninth and tenth centuries changed the face of Europe for a long time. Unrest Europe was under the threat of the north with Viking’s attacks, from east with Avars’ and Magyars’ assaults and from south with Muslim’s jihads. The first one was the most important for the Western Europeans. Security throughout the continent was lost and agriculture, the only source of their lives, was threatened. So the kings found out that the most effective troops against the invaders were the heavy cavalry. Troops and wars meant money, however, there wasn’t enough money but enough lands in Europe at that time. This led rulers to hire heavy cavalries and to give them lands as remunerations for their services.

To become a knight was a very hard thing. It required time to practice and money to fit up knights. They did not have to work in the field for their life. In 1408, a trial took place in the Dauphiné that revolved around the status of an innkeeper who laid claim to exemption from taxes on the ground just because he was a noble. A board of twenty-one people – two clerics, eleven nobles and eight commoners – were asked to give their opinions as to ‘what is nobility’. The answers were of varied nuances and occasionally idiosyncratic. But in the main the responses converged on two points: a noble is he who pursues the military vocation and who makes a living without having to resort to work. What is particularly remarkable is that only two on the panel believed that birth was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for nobility. Nobility, in the eyes of these people, was essentially a matter of a distinctive way of life.[iv] So, they formed a new social life. The knight bought small lands form the villagers in remuneration for protection and the lord hired out this land to the former owners. Knights were the only people who fought, so commons respected them because they killed and were killed in the battle field. The only thing that commons had to do was to work. Thus, knights formed a noble class with the respect of commons.

Long before the Black Death, the feudal system of warfare had begun to break down. The warrior was becoming a soldier. The term soldier is used here in its original meaning: a fighting man who receives a cash payment or solde for his efforts as opposed to one who serves in return for land or in the discharge of some nonmonetary obligation. This was an important development, not only because it changed the way in which wars were fought, but also because it altered the structure of the western European society. (Maltby, p.220) The lords who took lands from the king had got some privileges. They could portion these lands to their sons. This was the first factor for that blood was the only notion of nobility. The other factor was the change of battle strategy. The heavy cavalry was effective against mere infantry and their armours were enough to prevent arrows. However, an important development of new missile weapon was experienced in Northern Italy in the fourteenth century. The crossbow offered great accuracy and powers of penetration, though at a relatively slow rate of fire.[v] Subsequently, handguns were very importants part in the battle field. These could neutralize the knights’ armour. But the most striking change was the emergence of the pike. The pike was a spear, twelve to sixteen feet in length. It was used in a square formation similar to the Macedonian phalanx and could, if the pikemen stood their ground, stop a cavalry charge or clear the field of opposing infantry.[vi] These changes also changed the notion of nobility. When the importance of the knights in battle field decreased, then the nobles began to stress the blood as an only notion of nobility.

Today, noble class is not fully welcomed. Even some people accuse the nobles as being parasites. They make people work instead of working themselves for their lives. But why has this class had a very important part in social life for a long time, what kind of benefits it involved were the questions that are frequently asked. Some kinds of requirements occurring the noble class have already been mentioned. But it has some other benefits indeed. There was no lack of theory to justify aristocratic pretensions. The most eminent of French political writers, the Baron Montesquieu, insisted on the supreme importance of the nobility as a part of a pouvoi intermediate, which would prevent monarchy from degenerating into despotism by upholding the fundamental laws of the kingdom.[vii] Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England proved so successful in the 1760s, concurred in awarding the nobility a central role in the constitution: the House of Lords formed a body ‘to support the rights of both the crown and the people by forming a barrier to withstand the encroachments of both’[viii]. Thus, one of the oldest social constructions has lived since then.

The situation of nobility in Europe is like that but what about the European’s Muslim neighbour, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was founded in the land of heart of old world. The Middle East was the house of the great empires and emperors and so these people had very complicated and strong state structures. They lived every requirement that led Europe to the feudalism and took precautions to neutralize the side effects of this system so feudalism couldn’t take place in the Middle East. There were some other versions of feudalism in the Middle East. The rulers gave lands to his troops but they never got privileges. The rulers of these lands had the greatest power in the world; even some claimed themselves as a god. There could not be any direct opposition against such power. The Ottoman Empire took this heritage from this geography.

That doesn’t mean that there were only a ruler and his subjects. There weren’t nobles but there were notables in the eastern society. They were the dignitaries of commons. But they didn’t even have small power against the ruler. The notion of notability was ideally virtue and in reality wealth. Even the rulers behaved respectfully to those who had virtue. Those people didn’t gain respect because of noble birth and they couldn’t portion this notability to their children. The wealthy people were considered notable by people throughout the history. They could portion their possessions to their children. Some powerful and wealthy families had positions in administration of the realm like Bermeki, Köprülü and Çandar. They had enough knowledge and ability to manage the affairs of the state. Sometimes they became very powerful but, the absolute authority could manage to remove them. The monarch had such a great authority which others desired. There could be no nobles that shared the administration power where such powerful monarch existed.

The European nobles had a duty becoming a barrier between commons and monarch, but here, an important question should be asked; did the eastern rulers use their power as they will and smashed people without any rejection? The first and the main duty of the monarch was to establish justice and then to maintain common wealth. If the balance of justice was broken, the legitimacy of the sovereignty would disappear. However, this was notional. There wasn’t any authority to control and to apply sanctions, if the monarch passed the borders. The only thing that bound the ruler was the faith and to provide that advisers had very important roles to remind the duties to the rulers. Thus, eastern people did suffer for a life of a monarch not for an age like western commons.

A. Nobility in British History:

Feudalism which produced knights was common continental and plain realms like France and the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the Kingdom of England was not one of the feudal realms until the Norman invasion in 1066. There was nobility system before the invasion but its nature was changed by this act. After the invasion, English nobles were replaced with Norman aristocrats.

As a feudal lord, William the Conqueror knew the negative effects of the feudal system. They limited the king’s authority, so he could not give them limitless power. And they were few in the island against the native people so he built a very strong state construction with the heritage of former realm. William was no friend of feudal decentralization. The fiefs he established in England were composed of manors in different parts of the country to prevent a concentration of power. He retained the Saxon office of sheriff or shire reeve, who collected taxes, administered the royal domains, and presided over the shire courts. In 1086 his officials produced a comprehensive survey of all English properties known as the Domesday Book. Norman England was perhaps the most tightly administered monarchy of the central Middle Ages. (Maltby, p.151)

However, his policy was ended by the mindless management of one of his descents, King John the Lackland. In 1200 he married a woman who was already engaged to a vassal of Philip Augustus. The vassal appealed to his lord, and Philip called upon John, as duke of Normandy, to present himself so that the case could be judged. It was the normal way of dealing with disputes between vassals of the same lord, but John, acting in his capacity as the king of England, refused to submit to the justice of another sovereign. Philip responded by confiscating Normandy in 1204. John declared war to France but its cost was beyond the treasury. This drove him to extreme financial measure that brought him into conflict with the church. So, he was excommunicated in 1209 and John had to account for declaring England a Papal fief and renouncing the royal appointment of bishops. Finally, Philip Augustus defeated John’s Anglo-Flemish-Imperial coalition in Bouvines in 1214. This was the last thing to evoke the English lords. They rebelled to the king and forced John to accept the Magna Carta in 1215. Though the Magna Carta is widely regarded as a landmark in the development of Anglo-Saxon constitutional thought, it was primarily an affirmation of feudal privileges. It did nothing to ordinary men and women and was largely ignored by John’s successors. A later age would see it as a bulwark of individual rights against the claims of the state. (Maltby, p.153) In brief, this event was the dawn of the rising power of English nobles.

English nobles magnified their power until the execution of the King Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy with the leadership of Oliver Cromwell in 1649. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 without any heir, so her nearest kin the king of Scotland James became the king as James I of Great Britain and founded the house of Stuart. However, he was not familiar to English tradition and couldn’t recognize the power of the parliament and the nobles. He tried to be an autocrat on the throne of the Great Britain. He did not call the Parliament. His attitude caused to tighten the relationships between the king and the Parliament. When he died and his son king Charles I came to the throne, the crisis reached to an irreversible point. Twenty years of increasingly bitter conflict between Parliament and the crown led to civil war in 1642. This war ended in favour of Parliamentarians.  Oliver Cromwell became a dictator under the name of Lord Protector until his death in 1658. After his death, England entered the Restoration Era with the invitation of Charles II, the son of the executed king Charles I in 1649 by the same nobles who executed the former king. He accepted this invitation and became the king in 1660; however, he initiated his reign with the date of his father’s death in 1649. Although this short republican period failed, the power of English nobles increased as the kings were always under the shadow of the parliament after that.

B. Nobility in Ottoman History:

The Ottoman Empire was founded by the Turks who migrated from the Middle Asia through Persian and Arabian lands. Hence, Turkic, Persian and Arabian features can be seen in this one of the greatest empires of the history, and even some of them telescoped to unable to be distinguished. The empire established in the land of Anatolia that was the bridge between the east and the west and also the main land of East Roman Empire. So the Ottoman Empire covered the features of three civilizations; Inner Asia, Middle East and Eastern Rome.

When it was fist constructed, the rulers had no divine power; they lived with other public officials and every citizen had the right to present a petition directly to the ruler. They did not use strict force to the commanders on the frontier and let them loose in the action of their invasion. This era is called the period of foundation. In this term there was an influential Turkish family, Çandarlı that had enough capacity to administrate the realm. They did important jobs like founding the devshirme system which produced the royal army from firstly battle slaves and then Christian children. Their Grand Vizier had influence on the sultans. However, their growing power ended by the most authoritarian monarch of the empire, Fatih Sultan Mehmet when he got enough strength after the conquest of Istanbul.

The conquest opened a new era in all areas. The realm that had mostly Middle Asian character until that time, change into a new form mainly in Middle Eastern and Roman style which were more centralist. The Ottoman Empire began to structure organizations and to constitute exact protocols. At the top of the development, there was a new Roman Emperor who was the conqueror of Istanbul and the heir of the throne of Roman Empire from the part of his highness, Mehmet the Conqueror. Henceforth, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire got divine power as zillullahi fi’l-arz, the shadow of the God on the earth, so they added themselves a divine status. The sultans could not eat with anybody else and nobody could see the sultan directly as they will. Fatih emphasized devshirme system and made his governors as subjects who had no authority to obey but the sultan. The Conqueror chose the way centralization removing Çandarlı family and that showed that the sultan did not share his power. There could be no other powerful group which might be the option of the royal family. This idea prevented the Ottoman Empire to occur noble class. Hence, there wasn’t any aristocrat class in the Ottoman Empire unlike Europeans. Every Muslim had equal chance to get high ranks but the wish of the administration was “Son of the commons is common”. Only government decided the people who got high ranks through devshirme system. And those people could not portion their status to their children so the continuity of the high ranks couldn’t be maintained. From the view of the palace, there could not be any noble birth except his descent.

The Ottoman Empire was the one of the realm which used feudal system which was known as timar system but in basic meaning. The sultans gave their troops lands as remunerations for their services. The person who got those lands called timarlı sipahi and they were responsible to feed and to equip troops, to maintain peace in his lands and to gather taxes from villagers. Through that way, the rulers had immense military power without any heavy economical burden. Timar was given to those who showed merit and to those who was a descent of a timarlı sipahi. Here, blood step was in as a social factor. Until here, there weren’t many differences between the Ottoman and the European societies. However, there was a mainspring to avert to appear the nobility under such mighty sultans. The main reason of occurring of feudal lords was the lack of strong rulers in Europe but this geography hadn’t lived that for a long time.

Timar system was spoiled by the end of the 16th century. The system was the base of the state and the society, and the empire entered in a long period that changed everything from top to the bottom. The sultans had already mystified behind the scene delivering the governmental jobs to their Grand Viziers and they gave up campaigning with their troops who had no master but the sultan. The government delivered the job of collecting taxes to those who offered more money in a limited time with the corruption of timar system. This system was known as iltizam and the people who collected taxes were known as mültezim. Those were generally notables from native people of that region. In time, they were getting richer and their lands, whose ownership previously belonged to the state, were granted them as their own manors; in other words, they could portion their lands to their children. They were known as âyân, meaning notable. They were getting stronger and some of them had enough power to contest with the sultan and to defeat the royal army like Kavalalı Mehmet Pasha. And even some them interfered to whom raised to the throne like Alemdar Mustafa Pasha the notable of Ruse. The sultans were put the puppet in the hands Janissaries. Alemdar made Mahmut II raise to throne and made him form a contract with the notables about recognizing their rights of existence which was called Sened-i İttifak. Although it is regarded that the sultan’s authority was limited via that contract, it never had chance to become reality. Sultan Mahmut firstly did not give reaction to killing of Alemdar Mustafa Pasha by Janissaries and secondly he bloodily abolished the Janissaries and lastly he began to remove the notables whom once he made an agreement with. Although he could not success to remove some of them like Kavalalı, the centralization policy was a great expense to the palace. The notables had secured the peace in the provinces. After those notables were removed, rebellions who wanted freedom emerged (an example can be the Greek Rebellion which led Greek to success their freedom after the removing of Tepedelenli Ali Pasha) and the sultan who abolished the Janissaries and could not found strong army instead of them yet, did not have enough power to manage to overcome those rebellions up to ask for help from the remaining notables such as Kavalalı Mehmet Ali Pasha. Kavalalı was the most powerful notable in the land of the Ottoman Empire; after his success of the smashing of the rebellion of the Greeks, he wanted more lands to become the governor of there. When his will was rejected, he and his son rebelled to the sultan and moved with his army to challenge with the palace. He defeated the royal army which was established newly after the abolition of the Janissaries. A notable of the realm was defying of the sultan’s authority and the palace solved that problem with help of western empires. The solution was that the rights of Kavalalı would be recognized and his descents would be the natural governor of Egypt. In fact, some of the Europeans who had lived for a while in Ottoman Empire shortly after those events accused the sultan to abolish the notables like British admiral Adolphus Slade (Slade, Records of Travels in Turkey and Greece, p.220-225). Because they knew them nobles as their realm. After the empire got rid of its burdens, a restructuring in every area was done that covered the modern institutions which provided strong centralization. So the short spring of the Ottoman notables were about the end. Hence, the Ottoman Empire turned from the path of being an example of British model.

C. Nobility in Today’s Britain:

How could the power of the continental nobility consume but the power of English nobles could not? When it is analyzed, it can be easily seen that the answer was hidden in the position of the kings and in the minds.

The power of the nobles always increases when the kings’ authority decreases. English nobles profited the weakness of English kings and they were not bound their lives to kings’ grants. They behaved in a very selfish way to share their power with the kings. As Montesquieu wrote, the nobles of the island prevented monarchy from degenerating into despotism by upholding the fundamental laws of the kingdom and they had enough power to stop king’s despotism when the kings behaved so like Civil War. (The Spirit of Laws, p.45) Also, unlike their continental counterparts, they were prepared to tax themselves heavily when the need arose.[ix] On the other hand, French nobles were always under shadows of such mighty kings that all European monarchs envied them. French aristocrats tried to do the same thing like English colleagues but they faced with the power of the Sun King, Louis XIV. French nobles survived with the grants of the kings and their only concern was to become closer to the king. Whereas there are few examples of the direct purchase of peerages in eighteenth century England, the purchase of office carrying noble status was a commonplace in France: Necker, in 1785, calculated that there were more than three thousand offices granting hereditary nobility.[x] This close relationship with the king separated the nobles from the commons and their conditions. Thus, they couldn’t diminish king’s despotism and commons’ stress which led to revolution against the monarchy.

Nevertheless, French nobles did not participate in the capital movement. Actually they did not need to seek other profitable ways because their only concern was to become close to the king and to get place in the bureaus. They could not keep pace with time and stayed as a traditional structure. On the other hand, British nobles did not fall behind the time. They did not share the same concern with the Frenchs. They didn’t stay as large land holders but at the same time, they sought more money from their lands as the way of capitalism. So, English nobles who gained financial and political independence did their job being buffer class between the king and the commons and balancing these powers.

By the early nineteenth century, noble status was controlled by explicit, unequivocal legal standards.[xi] And nobility has strict notions today. That shows us nobility, once had important duties in the past days, and now becomes symbolic concept like royal family. The nobles once did not marry with non-nobles; now they break this rule like many others. Even the royal family has brides from commons. The most popular example for that would be the marriage of Prince William grandson of the Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Catherine Middleton from non-noble family. After the marriage, she who had no noble title gained the nobility title of Duchess of Cambridge. If William becomes the king, she will become the queen consort who has the royal authority from her king husband and if the king dies, she will lose this power. Mother of William, Lady Diana was criticised because even if she came from a noble family, she pretended to be as one of commons. Everybody who has enough money can buy royal titles and become a noble man or woman. There are plenty of websites on the internet that sell these titles. Of course, they are not equal to real ones. This is the proof that nobility is getting a symbolic meaning.

Lastly, nobility and royalty have some opponents in history like Oliver Cromwell and today (there isn’t famous leader like quidam). Conservatives believe that they are the symbol of the glory of the United Kingdom, and they justify their existence claiming that nobles perform a leading role in the development of social changes. However, some opponents think they do not need them anymore, they make people work for them but they do nothing for their own life. Nobles are no more than parasite in their eyes and they are the only barrier between them and pure democracy. In popular culture, there are some movies which are based on a life of an opponent to the kingship like V for Vendetta. Nobles are protested in some places during their journey by some opponents. Despite all these opposition, English nobility lives actively in British society and despite its symbolic meaning, it’s still the essence of the British culture and society.

D. Nobility in Today’s Turkey:

The Ottoman Empire chose the model of France in the reformation which had more populist origin than the other Europeans. This school educated reformist people in this way. Hence, when the Republic of Turkey the heir of the Ottoman Empire was founded, the reforms the productions of the French school were done by the founders who had egalitarian and populist thoughts. As mentioned above, a chance of living did not given to the notables, and as an heir of the Ottoman Empire Turkey abolished all of the titles which were believed that they divided the society with the Surname Law on June 21, 1934. Via that reform, the division based on noble birth was abrogated. However, the division based on economic wealth is still in the society.

There aren’t social distinctions to reach high ranks, everybody has equal chance in theory, but there are notables in the society. For this reason, Turkey cannot be compared with British society on this subject but it has more common features with American society another mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestant society.


English nobility has a very different way of development from other continental nobilities that led nobles to have more active role in their history, in their culture and in their society. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is the most developed and democratic country in the Europe even in the world, she has a very traditional structure from the Middle Age like nobility. They kept pace with the time and did not become a piece of history. Lastly, they always become the lawyers of the commons and defend their demands as long as nobles have profits.

On the other hand, the Ottoman Empire as an eastern realm didn’t give chance to spring out under the mighty sultans. Even some attempts of that were suppressed. In fact, Ottoman society had not nobility culture like Europe because Europeans had long records of their families. However, Turkish society mainly based on oral culture was not familiar to that tradition. Hence, nobility did not have roots in these lands although the notability was known fact on the base of society.

[i] Oxford English Dictionary: “Aryan from Sanskrit Arya ‘Noble’”

[ii] Roman Nobility, p.27

[iii] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 1:8

[iv] Hillay Zmora, Monarchy, Aristocracy and State in Europe 1300-1800, p.22

[v] Stephen Hause, William Maltby, Western Civilization, p.221

[vi] Stephen Hause, William Maltby, Western Civilization, p.221

[vii] John Cannon, Aristocratic Century the Peerage of Eighteenth Century England, p.3

[viii] Book I., Chapter 2.

[ix] G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century, p.115

[x] John Cannon, Aristocratic Century the Peerage of Eighteenth Century England, p.8

[xi] Hillay Zmora, Monarchy, Aristocracy and State in Europe 1300-1800, p.22


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Duggan, Anne, Nobles and Nobility in Medieval Europe Concepts Origins Transformations, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2000

Given-Wilson, Chris, The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages, Routledge, London, 2003

Hause, Stephen; Maltby, William; Western Civilization, Wadsworth Pub Co, 2004

Lukowski, Jerzy, The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2003

Slade, Adolphus, Records of Travels in Turkey and Greece & c. And of A Cruise in the Black Sea with Capitan Pasha in the Years 1829, 1830 and 1831, Saunders and Otley, London, 1833

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Zmora, Jonathan, Monarchy Aristocracy and State in Europe 1300-1800 Historical Connections, Routledge, London, 2001

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