Legislative bodies or advisory bodies to a monarch were traditionally grouped along lines of these estates, with the monarch above all three estates. Meetings of the estates of the realm became early legislative and judicial parliaments (see The States). Monarchs often sought to legitimize their power by requiring oaths of fealty from the estates.
Estates in the Kingdom of France
First EstateThe First Estate comprised the entire clergy, traditionally divided into "higher" and "lower" clergy. Although there was no formal demarcation between the two categories, the upper clergy were, effectively, clerical nobility, from the families of the Second Estate. In the time of Louis XVI, every bishop in France was a nobleman, a situation that had not existed before the 18th century. At the other extreme, the "lower clergy" ( about equally divided between parish priests and monks and nuns) constituted about 90 percent of the First Estate, which in 1789 numbered around 130,000 (about 0.5% of the population).
Second EstateThe Second Estate (Fr. deuxieme état) was the French nobility and (technically, though not in common use) royalty, other than the monarch himself who, stood outside of the system of estates.
The Second Estate is traditionally divided into "noblesse de robe" ("nobility of the robe"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, and "noblesse d'épée" ("nobility of the sword").
The Second Estate constituted approximately 1.5% of France's population. Under the ancien régime, the Second Estate were exempt from the corvée royale (forced labour on the roads) and from most other forms of taxation such as the gabelle (salt tax) and most important, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation). This exemption from paying taxes led to their reluctance to reform.
Third EstateThe Third Estate was the generality (or the statement) of people which were not part of the other estates.
The Third Estate comprised all those not members of the above and can be divided into two groups, urban and rural. The urban included the bourgeoisie 8% of France's population, as well as wage-laborers (such as craftsmen). The rural includes the peasantry, or the farming class (about 90% of the population). The Third Estate includes some of what would now be considered middle class—e.g., the budding town bourgeoisie. What united the Third Estate is that most had little or no wealth and yet were forced to pay disproportionately high taxes to the other Estates.
The French Estates GeneralSee main articles French Estates General, Estates General of 1789
The first Estates General (not to be confused with a "class of citizen") was actually a general citizen assembly that was called by Philip IV in 1302.
In the period leading up to the Estates General of 1789, France was in the grip of an unmanageable public debt and terrible inflation and food scarcity. This led to widespread popular discontent and produced a group of third estate representatives pressing a comparatively radical set of reforms - much of it in alignment with the goals of finance minister Jacques Necker but very much against the wishes of Louis XVI's court and many of the hereditary nobles forming the second estate. Louis sought to dissolve the estates general after they refused to accept his agenda, but the third estate held out for their right to representation. The lower clergy (and some nobles and upper clergy) eventually sided with the third estate, and the king was forced to yield. The States-General was reconstituted first as the National Assembly (June 17, 1789) and then as the National Constituent Assembly (July 9, 1789), a unitary body composed of the former representatives of the three estates.
EnglandThe canonical three estates of France were never more than theoretically applied in England, where they never had the force of law, facilitating the climb from a low estate to a high position in the king's service and a noble title. Huizinga detected the common conception of divine institution that linked the idea of estates:
There are, first of all, the estates of the realm, but there are also the trades, the state of matrimony and that of virginity, the state of sin. At court there are the 'four estates of the body and mouth': bread-masters, cup-bearers, carvers, and cooks. In the Church there are sacerdotal orders and monastic orders. Finally there are the different orders of chivalry.
ScotlandThe members of the parliament of Scotland were collectively referred to as the Three Estates (Older Scots: Thre Estaitis), also known as the community of the realm, and until 1690 composed of:
- the first estate of prelates (bishops and abbots)
- the second estate of lairds (dukes, earls, parliamentary peers (after 1437) and lay tenants-in-chief)
- the third estate of burgh commissioners (representatives chosen by the royal burghs)
From the 16th century, the second estate was reorganised by the selection of Shire Commissioners: this has been argued to have created a fourth estate. During the 17th century, after the Union of the Crowns, a fifth estate of royal office holders (see Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland) has been identified as well. These latter identifications remain highly controversial among parliamentary historians. Regardless, the term used for the assembled members continued to be 'the Three Estates'.
A Shire Commissioner was the closest equivalent of the English office of Member of Parliament, namely a commoner or member of the lower nobility. Because the parliament of Scotland was unicameral, all members sat in the same chamber, as opposed to the separate English House of Lords and House of Commons.
The Parliament also had University constituencies (see Ancient universities of Scotland). The system was also adopted by the Parliament of England when James VI ascended to the English throne. It was believed that the universities were affected by the decisions of Parliament and ought therefore to have representation in it. This continued in the Parliament of Great Britain after 1707 and the Parliament of the United Kingdom until 1950.
In Sweden and FinlandThe Estates in Sweden (including Finland) and later also the Finland were the two higher estates nobility, clergy and the two lower estates burghers and land-owning peasants. Each were free men, and had specific rights and responsibilities, and the right to send representatives to the governing assembly, the Riksdag of the Estates in Sweden and Diet of Finland (after being conquered by Russia in 1809), respectively. Also, there was a population outside the estates; unlike in other areas, people had no "default" estate, and were not peasants unless they came from a land-owner's family. A summary of this division is:
- Nobility (see Finnish nobility and Swedish nobility) was exempt from tax, had an inherited rank and the right to keep a fief, and had a tradition of military service and government. Nobility was established in 1279 with the Swedish king granted tax-free status (frälse) to peasants who could equip a cavalryman (or be one themselves) in the king's army. Initially, exemption from tax was not inherited, but it became hereditary in 1544. Following Axel Oxenstierna's reform, government positions were open only to nobles. However, the nobility still owned only their own property, not the peasants or their land as in much of Europe. Heads of the noble houses were hereditary members of the assembly of nobles. The Nobility is divided into titled nobility (counts and barons) and lower nobility. Until the 18th century the lower nobility was in turn was divided into Knights and Esquires such that each of the three classes would first vote internally, giving one vote per class in the assembly. This resulted in great political influence for the higher nobility.
- Clergy, or priests, were exempt from tax, and collected tithes for the church. After the Reformation, the church became Lutheran. In later centuries, the estate included teachers of universities and certain state schools. The estate was governed by the state church which consecrated its ministers and appointed them to positions with a vote in choosing diet representatives.
- Burghers are city-dwellers, tradesmen and craftsmen. Trade was allowed only in the cities when the mercantilistic ideology had got the upper hand, and the burghers had the exclusive right to conduct commerce. Entry to this Estate is controlled by the autonomy of the towns themselves. Peasants were allowed to sell their produce within the city limits, but any further trade, particularly foreign trade, was allowed only for burghers. In order for a settlement to become a city, a royal charter granting market right was required, and foreign trade required royally chartered staple port rights. After the annexation of Finland into Imperial Russia in 1809, mill-owners and other proto-industrialists would gradually be included in this estate.
- Peasants are land-owners of land-taxed farms and their families, which represented the majority in medieval times. Since most of the population were independent farmer families until 19th century, not serfs nor villeins, there is a remarkable difference in tradition compared to other European countries. Entry was controlled by ownership of farmland, which was not generally for sale but a hereditary property. After 1809, tenants renting a large enough farm (ten times larger than what was required of peasants owning their own farm) were included as well as non-nobility owning tax-exempt land.
- To no estate belonged propertyless cottagers, villeins, tenants of farms owned by others, farmhands, servants, some lower administrative workers, rural craftsmen, travelling salesmen, vagrants, and propertyless and unemployed people (who sometimes lived in strangers' houses). To reflect how the people belonging to the estates saw them, the Finnish word for "obscene", säädytön, has the literal meaning "estateless".
In Finland, this legal division existed until the modern age. However, at the start of the 20th century, most of the population did not belong to any Estate and had no political representation. A particularly large class were the rent farmers, who did not own the land they cultivated, but had to work in the land-owner's farm to pay their rent. (Unlike Russia, there were no slaves or serfs.) Furthermore, the industrial workers living in the city were not represented by the four-estate system. The political system was reformed, and the last Diet was dissolved in 1905, to create the modern parliamentary system, ending the political privileges of the estates. The constitution of 1919 forbade giving new noble ranks, and all tax privileges were abolished in 1920. The privileges of the estates were officially and finally abolished in 1995, although in legal practice, the privileges had long been unenforceable. However, the nobility has never been officially abolished and records of nobility are still voluntarily maintained by the Finnish House of Nobility.
Nevertheless, the old traditions and in particular ownership of property changed slowly, and the rent-farmer problem became so severe that it was a major cause to the Finnish Civil War. Although the division became irrelevant following the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and political parties, industrialization and urbanization, it might be possible to claim that their traditions live on in the political parties of Sweden and Finland, in the sense that there are parties that have traditionally represented upper-class and business interests (Moderate Party and Coalition Party) and farmers (the Centre Parties of Sweden and Finland).
In Finland, it is still illegal and punishable by jail time (up to one year) to defraud into marriage by declaring a false name or estate (Rikoslaki 18 luku § 1/Strafflagen 18 kap. § 1).
In the Holy Roman EmpireThe Holy Roman Empire had the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). The clergy was represented by the independent prince-bishops, prince-archbishops and prince-abbots of the many monasteries. The nobility consisted of independent aristocratic rulers: secular prince-electors, kings, dukes, margraves, counts and others. Burghers consisted of representatives of the independent imperial cities. Many peoples whose territories within the Holy Roman Empire had been independent for centuries had no representatives in the Imperial Diet, and this included the Imperial Knights and independent villages. The power of the Imperial Diet was limited, despite efforts of centralization.
Large realms of the nobility or clergy had estates of their own that could wield great power in local affairs. Power struggles between ruler and estates were comparable to similar events in the history of the British and French parliaments.
The Swabian League, a significant regional power in its part of Germany during the 15th Century, also had its own kind of Estates, a governing Federal Council comprising three Colleges: those of Princes, Cities, and Knights.
In the Russian EmpireIn late Russian Empire the estates were called sosloviyes. The four major estates were: nobility (dvoryanstvo), clergy, rural dwellers, and urban dwellers, with a more detailed stratification therein. The division in estates was of mixed nature: traditional, occupational, as well as formal: for example, voting in Duma was carried out by estates. Russian Empire Census recorded the reported estate of a person.
In CataloniaThe Parliament of Catalonia (Corts Catalanes) was established in 1283, according to American historian Thomas Bisson, and it has been considered by several historians as a model of medieval parliament. For instance, English historian of constitutionalism Charles Howard McIlwain wrote that the Parliament of Catalonia, during the 14th century, had a more defined organization and met more regularly than the parliaments of England or France.
The roots of the parliament institution in Catalonia stem from the Sanctuary and Truce Assemblies (assemblees de pau i treva) that started on the 11th century. The members of the parliament of Catalonia were organized in the Three Estates (Catalan: Tres Braços):
- the "military estate" (braç militar) with representatives of the feudal nobility
- the "ecclesiastical estate" (braç eclesiàstic) with representatives of the religious hierarchy
- the "royal estate" (braç reial) with representatives of the free municipalities under royal privilege
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