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An image from circa 1760 depicting two extravagantly dressed members of the Second Estate

The Second Estate was a small group in 18th century French society comprising the noble or aristocratic orders. Its members, both men and women, possessed aristocratic titles like Duc (‘Duke’), Comte (‘Count’), Vicomte (‘Viscount’), Baron or Chevalier. Whatever their rank, members of the nobility enjoyed significant privileges.

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Ranks and privileges

Not all noble titles were of equal status. The nobility, like the clergy, had its own natural hierarchy. Court nobles (those closest to the monarch) were usually considered the most prestigious.

The noblesse d’epee (‘nobles of the sword’) earned their titles through military service and considered themselves of greater importance. The noblesse de robe (‘nobles of the robe’) gained noble titles from non-military services, such as their work as financiers, administrators, magistrates or court officials.

Hundreds of men also acquired titles venally, by purchasing them from the crown rather than having them bestowed for service. Venality allowed wealthier members of the Third Estate to join the ranks of the Second Estate. In total, the Second Estate made up between one and one and a half per cent of the population.

A noble title was not just an honorific: it also endowed its owner with certain rights and privileges, most notably an exemption from personal taxes. These exemptions became a significant cause of the French Revolution, as France’s Third Estate (commoners) realised they were carrying the financial burden of the nation.

Perceptions and depictions

The nobility in pre-revolutionary France is often depicted as an extravagantly wealthy yet non-productive group, leisure-loving and disconnected from the realities of French society.

An example of this stereotype can be found in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in English, Dangerous Liaisons), a 1782 novel by Pierre de Laclos. Told as a series of letters between the main protagonists, Dangerous Liaisons depicted an aristocratic elite that was fascinated with intrigues, manipulation, sexual conquest and negotiation, involving other aristocrats and commoners.

Dangerous Liaisons contained several criticisms of the Second Estate, both implied and explicit. Its wealthy characters, who had little else to do, engaged in decadent and immoral behaviour purely to relieve their boredom. The main characters used religion in a cynical manner, particularly the main character de Valmont, who feigns religious piety while sexually pursuing his married victim. Above all, the nobles in Les Liaisons Dangereuses show disdain for the lower classes, the servants and the bourgeoisie, while contributing little or nothing to society.

Industrious nobles

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A depiction of French noble women in the 18th century

The stereotypes in Les Liaisons Dangereuses were true of some nobles but not all. Like aristocrats everywhere, many French nobles worked to accumulate wealth and expand their power and influence. Before the 1700s, it was considered demeaning for noblemen to engage in any form of trade or commerce. It was even possible to be stripped of one’s noble titles for working (dérogeance).

By the time of the revolution, however, those attitudes had fallen away. Many noblemen had become energetic businessmen, capitalist and progressive in their thinking. They sought to expand and diversify their business interests by investing in trade, commerce and new ventures. In this respect, they were little different from the businessmen of the bourgeoisie.

For more conservative nobles, their main source of income was land. Wealthier nobles owned large estates and ran them as businesses. The main sources of income for these landed nobles were rents, feudal dues and the profits of agricultural production.

Struggling nobles

Not all members of the Second Estate were wealthy, successful or prestigious. Provincial nobles with lesser titles and smaller land holdings were called hobereaux (‘old birds’). Most hobereaux lived modestly on small estates in rural areas, in a similar fashion to English country squires.

While most hobereaux were devoid of land and wealth, they retained their political privileges and exemption from personal taxation. For the most part, the hobereaux were a frustrated class: they possessed the arrogance and snobbery that comes with privilege but lacked the wealth to live as they wished.

Many of them resented the rising bourgeoisie, who had outstripped them in land, wealth and status. Some blamed the monarchy for their plight, for failing to protect the nobility and their property. Some members of the Second Estate were completely landless. They lived in cities or towns and relied on investments, royal pensions or sponsorship from other nobles.

Entering the Second Estate

As mentioned, it was possible to buy your way into the nobility, a practice called venality. French kings had often sold venal offices to wealthy commoners to raise revenue for the state. After a period of time, the holders of these venal offices were granted a noble title.

The sale of venal offices increased markedly during the 1700s. These venal offices did not come cheap. A minor office could cost 20,000 livres, while higher offices with immediate noble status were in excess of 50,000 livres. A venal title would exempt you and your descendants from all personal taxation, however, so it was a sound investment for those who could afford it. 

Historian Sylvia Neely estimates that around 6,500 commoner families acquired noble titles during the 18th century. Most were merchants who acquired wealth from France’s booming imperial trade. Others made their fortunes from colonial investments, banking and finance or tax farming.

Aristocratic liberalism

Ironically, some wealthier members of the Second Estate became prominent supporters of liberal and therefore revolutionary ideas.

Several factors led to the growth of a small but vocal group of liberal nobles: economic modernisation, the entry of former bourgeoisie into the Second Estate, the growth of the Enlightenment, access to liberal political texts by Rousseau and other philosophes, and the circulation of British and American political ideas.

Noblemen like Marquis de Lafayette, the Duke of Noailles and Honore Mirabeau received a liberal education and read the work of Enlightenment authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. In the case of Lafayette, he experienced the successes of the American Revolution first hand, serving as an adjutant to George Washington.

Liberal ideas could also be found in many of the cahiers de doléances (‘books of grievance’) that were drafted by the Second Estate and submitted to the Estates-General in 1789. Many of these grievance ledgers called for a constitution; a few even petitioned to end noble exemptions from taxation.

Liberal nobles would become prominent leaders of the French Revolution, particularly in its early phase (1789-91). As the revolution progressed, noble titles would be abolished and association with the nobility became reason not to be trusted and, ultimately, a death sentence.

A historian’s view:“Despite enormous differences in status and wealth, membership of the noble order bestowed the same fundamental privileges on all. Some were honorific, like the right to wear a sword in public, to display a coat of arms… some again were judicial: the right to have their cases heard in a high court of law, to be exempt from corporal punishment, to be beheaded rather than hanged if found guilty of a capital offence. Others were financial: freedom from the taille and from the salt-tax… The most treasured possession of the Second Estate, however, was its belief in the moral superiority of the nobility: the virtues of generosity, honour and courage were seen as the distinguishing characteristics of the true nobleman.”JH Shennan

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1. The Second Estate was one of France’s three social orders. It contained all French citizens who possessed a noble title, either through birth, royal gift or venal purchase.

2. There were two types of nobility: ‘nobles of the sword’, who earned their titles for military service, and ‘nobles of the robe’, who obtained their titles venally or for public service.

3. The French nobility was often stereotyped as lazy, decadent and leisure loving – however many actively worked to consolidate and expand their fortunes and status in society.

4. There was considerable economic diversity within the Second Estate. While some nobles were very rich and powerful, others like the hobereaux lived modestly and only exerted power at a local level.

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5. Through education, travel and exposure to Enlightenment texts and ideas, a number of nobles acquired liberal political ideas and became important leaders during the first phase of the revolution.