London February 2001

To the Manor Bought

Aristocratic status is just a mouse click and a bank transfer away
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Illustration by Marcellus Hall

Ever since I moved to Europe, about eighteen months ago, I've been feeling my lack of nobility. Portrait galleries, stately houses, and magazines like Hello! and Paris Match constantly remind me of aristocracy's prominence in the Old World. People who have them say titles are mostly useful for getting a table at a crowded restaurant, but the rest of us know better. Lords and ladies appear on corporate boards and royal-wedding guest lists at a significantly higher rate than the general population. So although no one has yet turned to me at a party and asked, "Are you born?" when it happens I want to be able to say yes.

I can't literally change my origins, of course. But being an aristocrat isn't necessarily a matter of pedigree. Nor need I renounce my U.S. citizenship and spend decades distinguishing myself as the subject of some European monarch. I can acquire nobility the American way—by buying it.

Exchanging money for rank is actually a well-established European practice. As Hugh Thomas (Lord Thomas of Swynnerton) wrote in A History of the World (1979), "From the sixteenth century, it was usually possible for the successful merchant to buy a title or otherwise make his way into the aristocracy." Under Joseph II of Austria-Hungary "it cost 20,000 gelden to be a count, 6,000 to be a baron and 386 to be a 'von.'" A title acquired in this way might lack the cachet of one earned by battlefield victory or strategic marriage, but not even the haughtiest of the old guard could have denied its validity.

I set out shopping for this commodity as I would for almost any other nowadays—on the Internet. When a Web search turned up the site of the London-based Burke's Peerage (www.burkestitles.com), I knew I could stop looking. The company no longer puts out the authoritative Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, which it sold off in the 1970s, but it compiles a number of genealogical volumes, and its publishing director, Harold Brooks-Baker (an American—and as yet a commoner), is the world's most quoted expert on royalty and aristocracy. It was Brooks-Baker who revealed that Colin Powell is related to the late Princess Diana and that Bill Clinton is descended from a thirteenth-century Earl of Leicester.

Although the main business of Burke's is genealogical research, the site announces that the firm also "locates and researches titles that may be acquired for its clients." These titles are tied to particular pieces of real estate—sometimes less than an acre—in Scotland and France. (Of course titles exist in many other lands, too, but Burke's doesn't deal in them.)Whoever owns such property and can present the necessary documentation to the authorities gets to call himself noble.

A convenient online inquiry form ("in confidence and with total discretion") offered the choice of baron, count, or marquis. On the principle that it always pays to go first-class, I selected the highest rank and clicked on "submit." The next day brought an e-mailed reply from Brooks-Baker himself. "The title of Marquis is rare," he wrote, "but we are at this very moment carrying out research on three." He phoned the following day.

Brooks-Baker, whose accent bears little trace of his residency in England (his broad a is simply that of a tony northeastern American), sounded much friendlier than I had expected after seeing his aloof, frowning face on the Web site. He patiently talked me through my options, and I decided to go after a marquisate in France. Some of my ancestors were French, whereas I have no connection to Scotland. Moreover, each French title comes with its own historic coat of arms, which seemed more glamourous—and convenient—than having to commission a new one. What clinched my decision, though, was the news that although it was too late to be listed in Burke's Peerage's forthcoming Landed Gentry of Scotland, I could still make it into the French equivalent, scheduled for publication two years hence. I pictured the volume on my coffee table, waiting to catch the eyes of visitors.

The search fee was £650 (approximately $960), which I would get back if nothing turned up within nine months. That seemed a modest down payment on an illustrious past, so I read out my Visa number. "Marquisates are extremely rare," Brooks-Baker reminded me. "It could take me up to a week to get back to you."

He e-mailed me that evening with two possibilities: Removille and Badens. I chose to pursue the former, because it sounded prettier and more French. Removille is in the Vosges department of Lorraine, about seventy-five miles from the German border. The most eminent marquis had been a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, a chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and a chamberlain to the King of Poland. (Alas, none of these distinctions would come with the Burke's package.) The family had died out in the nineteenth century—a fact that Brooks-Baker made into a selling point: "You don't want to find yourself at a dinner party and have someone say 'My great-great-grandfather had that land and that title.' It would be embarrassing."

This brought to mind a matter that had been troubling me. Although I knew that my patent of nobility would be as real as anyone's, I also knew that snobbery doesn't always go by the book. Was there a risk that the ancienne noblesse would regard me as a trifle arriviste?

"People just assume that you inherited a title," Brooks-Baker assured me. "Nobody knows unless you tell them" that your blood is blue owing to a cash transfusion. As he had said in our first conversation, referring to the lack of public records: "It's all lost in the mists of time."

Just how would I meet my new peers? Was it hard breaking into noble circles?

Brooks-Baker fielded these indiscreet inquiries tactfully: "The answer is the same as how do you get to know people anywhere. If you belong to a club, then you can meet people in the club or not meet people in the club."

Did that mean that having a title would help me get into French clubs?

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

"I've never been asked that before," Brooks-Baker said, clearly a bit nonplussed. After a moment's reflection he said, "Yes, I think it would help you get into a lot of clubs." But he cautioned me not to raise my hopes too high. "If the Count of Paris meets you, he's not going to be terribly impressed that you're the Marquis of Removille. But if you're asking me whether people that you meet in business who don't have titles are going to be impressed, then I would say most probably yes."

What else could one expect? Joining a new hierarchy, one doesn't usually start at the top. I sought comfort in the thought that there are a lot more plebeians than patricians out there to awe. But I can't deny that I felt somewhat disappointed.

At the same time, I was having to confront another unpleasant reality, which up till then I had managed to ignore: the price. My marquisate (as I had already begun to think of it) cost £78,000—about $115,000. Brooks-Baker generously offered to let me pay on an installment plan, with no interest, and I was tempted to accept, the willingness to take on debt being a quintessentially aristocratic trait. It wasn't so much bourgeois prudence that kept me from succumbing as the sudden realization that I was going about this all wrong.

One may inherit a title, or earn it through conspicuous achievement, or buy it outright; but whatever the case, the point of having it is to lead a life of aristocratic leisure. Work is okay, if it's of the right kind: service in the Brigade of Guards, for instance, or philanthropy, or gentlemanly farming. Cranking out freelance articles to pay off one's marquisate bill, however, is unquestionably infra dig.

So it was with a heavy heart that I wrote the man who had so graciously parted the curtain onto the golden world of the chosen few, to tell him that I could not proceed.

Then, just when I had despaired of having any link to that world, I remembered another item I had seen advertised on the site. It was a humbler distinction than a title, yet probably a more useful one: the Burke's Peerage MasterCard, touted as "the most prestigious card in Europe," "the Aristocrat of credit cards." Using it, I would "immediately be associated with Burke's Peerage with all that it implies." And this was an acquisition I could justify financially, because, unlike my Visa, the Burke's Peerage card carries no annual fee.

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