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."

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