Switzerland is a confederation of states of which each one has its own history.
In the Middle Ages, various Swiss cantons had only families of feudal nobility and some ennobled families abroad. In Switzerland there was a great number of families of dynasties 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, three modes of nobility can be distinguished (except for particular cases):
In Switzerland, where the social classes were closer than in other countries, there is neither misalliance nor loss of nobility due to engaging in manual work or taking up a trade. So the noble Jean Gambach was a manufacturer of scythes in 1442, and the noble Louis de Daguet was a carter at the end of the 18th century. The only cases of loss of nobility were illegitimacy or 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 canton had its own constitution, its currency, its jurisdiction, its habits and customs, its history and so its own nobility.
Bern, Fribourg, Solothurn, Lucerne
From the 15th c. onwards, rising economic and political pressure from the city states enticed more and more families of the traditional feudal nobility to seek membership in the higher echelons of the citizenry. These late-mediaeval urban upper classes were already composed of wealthy commoners (merchants, landowners, and craftspeople) but also of aristocrats from nearby fiefdoms or the descendants of ministeriales (i.e. knightly, originally unfree nobles in the service of eccleastical or secular fiefs). While a de jure distinction between noble and common patrician families was still upheld for some time, with quotas for certain government positions reserved for each group, these distinctions became de facto less and less rigid in the early modern era. Non-noble families could still be ennobled by letters patent, be it through the favour of foreign monarchs (most notably the kings of France) or by the cities themselves. For instance, in 1547 Bern set up the seigneurie of Batie-Beauregard as a barony for one Jacques Champion; in 1665 Solothurn granted letters of nobility to the brothers Marcacci of Locarno; in 1712 Bern created the seigneurie of Bercher for a member of the de Saussure family.
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").
The city state of Fribourg defined its patrician ruling class through the so-called Lettre des Deux-Cents in 1627, and closed their ranks to non-privileged families in 1684. Towards the end of the Ancien Régime, this aristocracy comprised four categories:
- titled noble families (Affry, Alt, Diesbach, Maillardoz, Castella de Berlens)
- untitled noble families (Boccard, Fégely de Vivy, Fivaz, Gléresse, Griset de Forel, Lenzbourg, Maillard, Praroman, of Prel, Reyff de Cugy, Reynold)
- patrician families of noble origin whose nobility is not taken into consideration by the state (Fégely de Prez, for example)
- patrician families of common origin(Buman, Castella, Reynold, Weck, Wild, etc.)
As defined in the constitution of 1404, members of the first two categories were barred from certain higher offices (banneret and secret, i.e. secret council) unless they renounced their noble privileges.
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 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.
- Noble Families of Berne von Erlach von Graffenried von Gunten
- Noble Families of Fribourg
- Noble Families of Soleure
- Noble Families of Lucerne
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".
- Noble Families of Uri: von Attinghausen-Schweinsberg (freiherren, higher nobility; leading family of Uri in the 13/14th c.). A number of local families were appointed meier (bailiffs) by the abbess of Fraumünster, the ruler of Uri, around the middle of the 13th century. These abbatial ministeriales grew more influential after the end of Attinghausen hegemony and are generally considered members of the lower nobility. They include the following families: Niemirschin (bailiffs of Bürglen) Schüpfer (related to the Niemirschin; bailiffs of Bürglen, at times landammanns of Uri) Meier von Erstfeld (bailiffs of Erstfeld, at times eigenleute of Wettingen Abbey) Meier von Silenen (perhaps related to the Schüpfer; bailiffs of Silenen ca. 1256-1370; originally from Urseren; later also ministeriales of the bishop of Sion, with Jost of Silenen ascending to the bishopric itself; influential patrician family in the city of Lucerne) von Moos (bailiffs of Silenen after 1370; originally most likely ministeriales of Disentis in the Urseren valley; would later become an influential family of patricians and industrialists in the city of Lucerne; still extant)
- Noble Families of Schwyz: Reding von Bibberegg (ministeriales)
- Noble Families of Unterwald: Rudenz (ministeriales, originally from the Haslital)
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.
- Noble Families of Zurich von Kyburg Bonstetten Brun Bürkli Daeschner Escher vom Glas Escher vom Luchs Hirzel von Jori Kilchsperger Landenberg Manesse Meiss Meyer von Knonau Mülner von Orelli Winterthur
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.
- Noble Families of Schaffhouse
- Noble Families of Zug
Valais, Thurgovie, Tessin
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.
- Noble Families of Valais
- Noble Families of Thurgau
- Noble Families of Ticino
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.
- Noble Families of Grisons
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.
- Noble Families of Glarus von Glarus
- Noble Families of Appenzell von Sutter
The modern canton of Aargau was only created in 1789 under Napoleon, when the previously Austrian Fricktal was joined to the other districts that had been conquered by the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1415. The conquered territories were split into a Bernese area of influence in the west, a small district under the rule of Zürich in the very east, and two larger districts, the Freie Ämter ("free administration districts") and the County of Baden making up the eastern half of the canton. The governance of the latter two districts alternated between the individual member states of the Swiss Confederacy in the form of condominiums. With the house of Habsburg ousted, the Swiss states installed landvögte in several of the newly acquired castles, civil stateholders who wielded the legal and economic powers of the former feudal fief which they now administrated, for example in Lenzburg castle or in the Landvogteischloss (Governor's Castle) in Baden. In contrast, many of the smaller fiefs held by lower nobility (e.g. Hallwyl castle, owned by the family of its founders; or Habsburg castle itself, held at the time of the conquest by the ministerialis Wernher von Wohlen) continued into the new order and were not directly affected by it; several nobles, such as the lords of Reinach on Wildenstein castle, were officially enfeoffed by the conquering cantons, so that the only alteration in their title to the land was a change of liege lord, in this case from the counts of Habsburg to the city state of Bern.
A number of comital families and other high-ranking nobles are attested in the time before the Swiss conquest:
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".
- Noble Families of Vaud de Felice
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.
- Noble Families of Neuchâtel von Hohenzollern
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, 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.
- Noble Families of Geneva von Genf
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 called the Daig, that dominated its political life. Its most prominent members were the families Bernoulli, Burckhardt, Faesch, Iselin, Liechtenhan, Merian, Sarasin and Vischer.
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.
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. 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.
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.