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Jonkheer (female equivalent: jonkvrouw; French: Écuyer) is an honorific in the Low Countries denoting the lowest rank within the nobility. In the Netherlands, this in general concerns a prefix used by the untitled nobility. In Belgium, this is the lowest title within the nobility system, recognised by the Court of Cassation. It is the cognate and equivalent of the German noble honorific Junker, which was historically used throughout the German-speaking part of Europe, and to some extent also within Scandinavia.
Jonkheer or jonkvrouw is literally translated as "young lord" or "young lady". In the Middle Ages, such a person was a young and unmarried child of a high-ranking knight or nobleman. Many noble families could not support all their sons to become a knight, because of the expensive equipment. So the eldest son of a knight was a young lord, while his brothers remained as esquires.
However, in the Low Countries (and other parts of continental Europe), only the head of most noble families carries a title, inheritance being by male lineage. As a result, most of the nobility is untitled in the Netherlands. 'Jonkheer', or its female equivalent 'jonkvrouw', developed therefore quite early into a different but general meaning: an honorific to show that someone does belong to the nobility but does not possess a title. The abbreviation jhr. – for men, or jkvr. – for women, is placed in front of the name (preceding academic, but not state titles).
The honorific could be compared more or less with "Edler" in Austria or "Junker" in Germany, though due to circumstances of German and especially Prussian history, "Junker" assumed connotations of militarism absent from the Dutch equivalent. Ranking this with the English nobility, it is roughly comparable with "The Honourable" when the untitled person is a son or daughter of a hereditary knight, baron, viscount or count; or "Lord" or "Lady" when the person is member of the old untitled but of high ranking (Dutch) nobility from preceding 1815 (i.e. "Heer van X" or Lord of X).
The spouse of a jonkheer is not named jonkvrouw but is named "Mevrouw", translated into English as Madam, and abbreviated as "Mrs." (with the use of her husband's name). However, if she is a jonkvrouw in her own right, she can be styled as such (together with her maiden name), unless she chooses to use the name of her husband.
Jonkheer is in Belgium the lowest title, and an official Dutch mark of status (not a title), as stated above, and is used as such, most notably by members of the Dutch royal family with the style Jonkheer van Amsberg.
Often however a title of nobility may be claimed by a family whose members are officially recognised only as jonkheeren, the title not being acknowledged by the modern monarchy either because the family is registered as untitled nobility and may thus only use the honorific or predicate, or because the family has not requested official registration of the title, but possesses a grant of nobility which predates the founding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815.
The coronet of rank for the untitled nobility in the Netherlands and Belgium is the same as that for the rank of a hereditary knight, i.e. Ridder: a plain circlet of gold with eight golden points, each topped with a pearl; five of them are seen in a representation. Furthermore, the golden circlet of the heraldic coronet is surrounded with a pearl collar.
Unrecognised titleholders use the same coronet of rank as hereditary knights, described above. Unrecognised titles can not officially use a coronet of rank and thus use the coronet that they have been historically awarded, if any at all.
Jonkheer's best-known use among English-speaking people is as the root of the name of the city of Yonkers, New York. The word was likely a nickname, as opposed to an honorific, associated with Adriaen van der Donck; a young Dutch lawmaker, pioneering politician and landowner in New Netherland. While his business ventures largely proved less than successful, the city of Yonkers takes its name from his steadfast work in the formation of the state of Manhattan itself.
The word, in reference to Van der Donck, is variously spelled among modern scholars. In Thomas F. O'Donnell's introduction to a translation of van der Donck's A Description of the New Netherland, it is suggested that van der Donck was known as "The Joncker". Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World has "jonker", while Edward Hagaman Hall's book on Philipse Manor Hall uses "youncker". "Jonker" (old Dutch spelling joncker) is another form of the word "jonkheer".