What is a Baron?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A baron is a member of the nobility, with a rank which varies depending on the nation. In England and Japan, for example, this rank is at the bottom rung of the nobility. Many countries use the title of baron or some variation thereof in the ranking systems for their noble classes, and the title may be conferred or inherited. The female version of this rank is baroness.

Barons, like Revolutionary War hero Baron von Steuben, are members of the nobility.
Barons, like Revolutionary War hero Baron von Steuben, are members of the nobility.

The word is derived from the Spanish barón, which was in turn taken from the Frankish word baro, which refers to a nobleman or warrior. In most European countries, barons played an important role in feudal society by managing land and tenants and defending the king, if necessary. In England, a person of this rank actually swore loyalty specifically to the king or another high ranking noble. In return for this loyalty, he was granted a gift of land and serfs, which could be used to make a living.

Medieval barons often managed their lands from fortified positions known as castles.
Medieval barons often managed their lands from fortified positions known as castles.

A land grant given to a baron is known as a barony. Some baronies were historically quite large, and many have passed out of the control of the aristocracy in the modern era, since the role of the nobility in general society has changed. Barons, for example, no longer control the lives of serfs and servants, and they may not always be members of the military responsible for defending their monarchs and home nations.

Barons are entitled to wear certain ceremonial items, including coronets and robes trimmed with ermine. The specifics of these items, such as the number of rows of ermine and number of jewels in a coronet vary, depending on the nation, and these items are only worn at ceremonial occasions. Since the subtleties of the nobility are quite complex, an aristocrat of this rank may consult a professional to make sure that they dress and behave appropriately. Barons are also entitled to formal address; again, this varies from nation to nation, with many known as “The Right Honorable” or “Lord,” and baronesses are also entitled to these courtesies.

In the modern era, someone becomes a baron in one of three ways. The child of a baron will inherit the title, although some members of the nobility have chosen to reject their titles in the interest of social equality. A person can also attain this rank through letters patent, formal papers from a monarch which are issued to create a new formal office or right. In England, a baron can also be created through a writ of summons which orders someone to Parliament, effectively creating a new barony. Hereditary peers used to form an important part of the Parliament, sitting in the House of Lords; as of 1999, only 92 hereditary peers sit on the House of Lords.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon337567

Anyone ever hear of a Baron Von Wilt?

browncoat

@Iluviaporos - I think in some places the baron was actually allowed to name a female to be his successor, although it all seems to be mired in a lot of regulations.

My favorite Baron has got to be the Baron Munchhausen who was famous for telling tall tales about himself. Most people will know him from the movie, but he was a real person who lived in Germany in the 1700s.

lluviaporos

@anon25400 - Most barons do inherit the titles from their fathers and usually it is the oldest son, although it does depend on whether he decides to accept it. A barony is usually tied to a particular estate, or land title and part of the obligations of a baron is supposed to be caring for that land (and also profiting from it).

I think because they are the lowest kind of nobility in terms of hierarchy, people were made into barons fairly often as well. A ruler would just have to give them a bit of land and declare them a baron and that was it.

I'm not sure if it currently has to be the oldest son now that the monarchy in England has decided that the oldest girl can inherit the throne, or if that decision only affected that particular inheritance.

amypollick

@anon133326: And the British monarchy itself dates back over a thousand years. The peerage structure itself really hasn't changed that much, as far as rank goes.

Even if you count 1066 as the date when the British monarchy was more or less unified and start from there, the British institution of the monarchy still is one of the oldest in Europe.

anon133326

why is everything in this country relating to monarchy and nobility so anglo-centric? There are many thousands of nobles in europe besides England and there are still over six monarchies there also - one of which, the bourbons, are eight hundred years older than the upstart Windsors who were imported to England from a minor German State.

anon25400

can you inherit the title of baron? Do you have to be the eldest son or anything like that? How about for a french baron?

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