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A prince is a male ruler ranked below a king and above a duke or member of a monarch's or former monarch's family. Prince is also a title of nobility, often hereditary, in some European states. The feminine equivalent is a princess. The English word derives, via the French word prince, from the Latin noun princeps, from primus (first) + capio (to seize), meaning "the chief, most distinguished, ruler, prince".
The Latin word prīnceps (older Latin *prīsmo-kaps, literally "the one who takes the first [place/position]"), became the usual title of the informal leader of the Roman senate some centuries before the transition to empire, the princeps senatus.
Emperor Augustus established the formal position of monarch on the basis of principate, not dominion. He also tasked his grandsons as summer rulers of the city when most of the government were on holiday in the country or attending religious rituals, and, for that task, granted them the title of princeps.
The title has generic and substantive meanings:
The original, but now less common use of the word, originated in the application of the Latin word princeps, from late Roman law, and the classical system of government that eventually gave way to the European feudal society. In this sense, a prince is a ruler of a territory which is sovereign, or quasi-sovereign, i.e., exercising substantial (though not all) prerogatives associated with monarchs of independent nations, as was common, for instance, within the historical boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire. In medieval and Early Modern Europe, there were as many as two hundred such territories, especially in Italy, Germany, and Gaelic Ireland. In this sense, "prince" is used of any and all rulers, regardless of actual title or precise rank. This is the Renaissance use of the term found in Niccolò Machiavelli's famous work, Il Principe.
As a title, by the end of the medieval era, prince was borne by rulers of territories that were either substantially smaller than or exercised fewer of the rights of sovereignty than did emperors and kings. A lord of even a quite small territory might come to be referred to as a prince before the 13th century, either from translations of a native title into the Latin princeps (as for the hereditary ruler of Wales), or when the lord's territory was allodial. The lord of an allodium owned his lands and exercised prerogatives over the subjects in his territory absolutely, owing no feudal homage or duty as a vassal to a liege lord, nor being subject to any higher jurisdiction. Most small territories designated as principalities during feudal eras were allodial, e.g. the Princedom of Dombes.
Lords who exercised lawful authority over territories and people within a feudal hierarchy were also sometimes regarded as princes in the general sense, especially if they held the rank of count or higher. This is attested in some surviving styles for e.g., British earls, marquesses, and dukes are still addressed by the Crown on ceremonial occasions as high and noble princes (cf. Royal and noble styles).
In parts of the Holy Roman Empire in which primogeniture did not prevail (e.g., Germany), all legitimate agnates had an equal right to the family's hereditary titles. While this meant that offices, such as emperor, king, and elector could only be legally occupied by one dynast at a time, holders of such other titles as duke, margrave, landgrave, count palatine, and prince could only differentiate themselves by adding the name of their appanage to the family's original title. Not only did this tend to proliferate unwieldy titles (e.g. Princess Katherine of Anhalt-Zerbst, or Karl, Count Palatine of Zweibrücken-Neukastell-Kleeburg, or Prince Christian Charles of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Plön-Norburg), but as agnatic primogeniture gradually became the norm in the Holy Roman Empire by the end of the 18th century, another means of distinguishing the monarch from other members of his dynasty became necessary. Gradual substitution of the title of Prinz for the monarch's title of Fürst occurred, and became customary for cadets in all German dynasties except in the grand duchies of Mecklenburg and Oldenburg. Both Prinz and Fürst are translated into English as "prince", but they reflect not only different but mutually exclusive concepts.
This distinction had evolved before the 18th century (Liechtenstein long remained an exception, cadets and females using Fürst/Fürstin into the 19th century) for dynasties headed by a Fürst in Germany. The custom spread through the Continent to such an extent that a renowned imperial general who belonged to a cadet branch of a reigning ducal family, remains best known to history by the generic dynastic title, "Prince Eugene of Savoy". Note that the princely title was used as a prefix to his Christian name, which also became customary.
Cadets of France's other princes étrangers affected similar usage under the Bourbon kings. Always facing the scepticism of Saint-Simon and like-minded courtiers, these quasi-royal aristocrats' assumption of the princely title as a personal, rather than territorial, designation encountered some resistance. In writing Histoire Genealogique et Chonologique, Père Anselme accepts that, by the end of the 17th century, the heir apparent to the House of La Tour d'Auvergne's sovereign duchy bears the title, prince de Bouillon, but he would record in 1728 that the heir's La Tour cousin, the Count of Oliergues, is "known as the Prince Frederick" ("dit le prince Frédéric").
The post-medieval rank of gefürsteter Graf (princely count) embraced but elevated the German equivalent of the intermediate French, English and Spanish nobles. In the Holy Roman Empire, these nobles rose to dynastic status by preserving from the Imperial crown (de jure after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) the exercise of such sovereign prerogatives as the minting of money; the muster of military troops and the right to wage war and contract treaties; local judicial authority and constabular enforcement; and the habit of inter-marrying with sovereign dynasties. By the 19th century, cadets of a Fürst would become known as Prinzen.
The husband of a queen regnant is usually titled "prince consort" or simply "prince", whereas the wives of male monarchs take the female equivalent (e.g., empress, queen) of their husband's title. In Brazil, Portugal and Spain, however, the husband of a female monarch was accorded the masculine equivalent of her title (e.g., emperor, king), at least after he fathered her heir. In previous epochs, husbands of queens regnant were often deemed entitled to the crown matrimonial, sharing their consorts' regnal title and rank jure uxoris,
However, in cultures which allow the ruler to have several wives (e.g., four in Islam) or official concubines (e.g., Imperial China, Ottoman Empire, Thailand, KwaZulu-Natal) these women, sometimes collectively referred to as a harem, there are often specific rules determining their relative hierarchy and a variety of titles, which may distinguish between those whose offspring can be in line for the succession or not, or specifically who is mother to the heir to the throne.
To complicate matters, the style His/Her (Imperial/Royal) Highness, a prefix often accompanying the title of a dynastic prince, may be awarded/withheld separately (as a compromise or consolation prize, in some sense, e.g., Duke of Cádiz, Duchess of Windsor, Princesse de Réthy, Prince d'Orléans-Braganza).
Although the arrangement set out above is the one that is most commonly understood, there are also different systems. Depending on country, epoch, and translation, other usages of "prince" are possible.
Foreign-language titles such as Italian principe, French prince, German Fürst and Prinz (non-reigning descendants of a reigning monarch), Russian knyaz, etc., are usually translated as "prince" in English.
Some princely titles are derived from those of national rulers, such as tsarevich from tsar. Other examples are (e)mirza(da), khanzada, nawabzada, sahibzada, shahzada, sultanzada (all using the Persian patronymic suffix -zada, meaning "son, descendant"). However, some princely titles develop in unusual ways, such as adoption of a style for dynasts which is not pegged to the ruler's title, but rather continues an old tradition (e.g., "grand duke" in Romanov Russia or "archduke" in Habsburg Austria), claims dynastic succession to a lost monarchy (e.g. prince de Tarente for the La Trémoïlle heirs to the Neapolitan throne), or descends from a ruler whose princely title or sovereign status was not, de jure, hereditary, but attributed to descendants as an international courtesy, (e.g., Bibesco, Poniatowski, Ypsilanti).
In some dynasties, a specific style other than prince has become customary for dynasts, such as fils de France in the House of Capet, and Infante. Infante was borne by children of the monarch other than the heir apparent in all of the Iberian monarchies. Some monarchies used a specific princely title for their heirs, such as Prince of Asturias in Spain and Prince of Brazil in Portugal.
European dynasties usually awarded appanages to princes of the blood, typically attached to a feudal noble title, such as Prince of Orange in the Netherlands, Britain's royal dukes, the Dauphin in France, the Count of Flanders in Belgium, and the Count of Syracuse in Sicily. Sometimes appanage titles were princely, e.g. Prince of Achaia (Courtenay), prince de Condé (Bourbon), Prince of Carignan (Savoy), but it was the fact that their owners were of princely rank rather than that they held a princely title which was the source of their pre-eminence.
For the often specific terminology concerning an heir apparent, see Crown prince.
Other princes derive their title not from dynastic membership as such, but from inheritance of a title named for a specific and historical territory. The family's possession of prerogatives or properties in that territory might be long past. Such were most of the "princedoms" of France's ancien régime, so resented for their pretentiousness in the memoirs of Saint-Simon. These included the princedoms of Arches-Charleville, Boisbelle-Henrichemont, Chalais, Château-Regnault, Guéménée, Martigues, Mercœur, Sedan, Talmond, Tingrey, and the "kingship" of Yvetot, among others.
The current princely monarchies include:
In the same tradition, some self-proclaimed monarchs of so-called micronations style themselves as princes:
Though these offices may not be reserved legally for members of the ruling dynasty, in some traditions they are filled by dynasts, a fact which may be reflected in the style of the office, e.g. "prince-president" for Napoleon III as French head of state but not yet emperor, or "prince-lieutenant" in Luxembourg, repeatedly filled by the crown prince before the grand duke's abdication, or in form of consortium imperii.
Some monarchies even have a practice in which the monarch can formally abdicate in favor of his heir, and yet retain a kingly title with executive power, e.g. Maha Upayuvaraja (Sanskrit for Great Joint King in Cambodia), though sometimes also conferred on powerful regents who exercised executive powers.
In several countries of the European continent, such as France, prince can be an aristocratic title of someone having a high rank of nobility or as lord of a significant fief, but not ruling any actual territory and without any necessary link to the royal family, which makes it difficult to compare with the British system of royal princes.
France and the Holy Roman Empire
The kings of France started to bestow the style of prince, as a title among the nobility, from the 16th century onwards. These titles were created by elevating a seigneurie to the nominal status of a principality—although prerogatives of sovereignty were never conceded in the letters patent. Princely titles self-assumed by the princes du sang and by the princes étrangers were generally tolerated by the king and used at the royal court, outside the Parlement of Paris. These titles held no official place in the hierarchy of the nobility, but were often treated as ranking just below ducal peerages, since they were often inherited (or assumed) by ducal heirs:
This can even occur in a monarchy within which an identical but real and substantive feudal title exists, such as Fürst in German. An example of this is:
Spain, France and Netherlands
In other cases, such titular princedoms are created in chief of an event, such as a treaty of a victory. An example of this is:
Poland and Russia
In Poland specifically, the titles of prince dated either to the times before the Union of Lublin or were granted to Polish nobles by foreign kings, as the law in Poland forbade the king from dividing nobility by granting them hereditary titles: see The Princely Houses of Poland.
In the Russian system, knyaz, translated as "prince", is the highest degree of official nobility. Members of older dynasties, whose realms were eventually annexed to the Russian Empire, were also accorded the title of knyaz — sometimes after first being allowed to use the higher title of tsarevich (e.g. the Princes Gruzinsky and Sibirsky). The many surviving branches of the Rurik dynasty used the knyaz title before and after they yielded sovereignty to their kinsmen, the Grand Princes of Muscovy, who became Tsars and, under the House of Romanov, Emperors of Russia.
In each case, the title is followed (when available) by the female form and then (not always available, and obviously rarely applicable to a prince of the blood without a principality) the name of the territory associated with it, each separated by a slash. If a second title (or set) is also given, then that one is for a Prince of the blood, the first for a principality. Be aware that the absence of a separate title for a prince of the blood may not always mean no such title exists; alternatively, the existence of a word does not imply there is also a reality in the linguistic territory concerned; it may very well be used exclusively to render titles in other languages, regardless whether there is a historical link with any (which often means that linguistic tradition is adopted)
Etymologically, we can discern the following traditions (some languages followed a historical link, e.g. within the Holy Roman Empire, not their language family; some even fail to follow the same logic for certain other aristocratic titles):
In Belgium, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Hungary the title of prince has also been used as the highest title of nobility (without membership in a ruling dynasty), above the title of duke, while the same usage (then as fürst) has occurred in Germany and Austria but then one rank below the title of duke and above count.
The above is essentially the story of European, Christian dynasties and other nobility, also 'exported' to their colonial and other overseas territories and otherwise adopted by rather westernized societies elsewhere (e.g. Haiti).
Applying these essentially western concepts, and terminology, to other cultures even when they don't do so, is common but in many respects rather dubious. Different (historical, religious...) backgrounds have also begot significantly different dynastic and nobiliary systems, which are poorly represented by the 'closest' western analogy.
It therefore makes sense to treat these per civilization.
In ancient China, the title of prince developed from being the highest title of nobility (synonymous with duke) in the Zhou Dynasty, to five grades of princes (not counting the sons and grandsons of the emperor) by the time of the fall of the Qing Dynasty.The Chinese word for prince Wang (王, literally, King) as Chinese believe the emperor Huang Di (皇帝) is the ruler of all kings. The most accurate translations of the English word "prince" are Huang Zi (皇子, lit. Son of the Emperor) or Wang Zi (王子, lit. Son of the King).
In Japan, the title Kōshaku (公爵) was used as the highest title of Kazoku (華族 Japanese modern nobility) before the present constitution. Kōshaku, however, is more commonly translated as "Duke" to avoid confusion with the following royal ranks in the Imperial Household: Shinnō (親王 literally, Prince of the Blood); Naishinnō (内親王 lit., Princess of the Blood in her own right); and Shinnōhi 親王妃 lit., Princess Consort); or Ō (王 lit., Prince); Jyo-Ō (女王 lit., Princess (in her own right)); and Ōhi (王妃 lit., Princess Consort). The former is the higher title of a male member of the Imperial family while the latter is the lower.
In Joseon Dynasty, the title "Prince" was used for the king's male-line descendant. Prince translated generally into three divisions. The king's legitimate son used title daegun (대군, 大君, literally Grand Prince). A son born of a concubine and king's great-great-grand son used title gun (군, 君, lit. Prince). But the title of gun wasn't limited to royal family. Instead, it was often granted as an honorary and non-hereditory title. Presently, as noble titles are no more granted or even recognized by the people, the English word "Prince" is usually translated as wangja (왕자, 王子, lit. king's son), only rendering the usage in foreign royal families. Princes and principalities in continental Europe are almost always confused with dukes and duchies, both being translated as gong (공, 公, lit. duke) and gongguk (공국, 公國, lit. duchy).
In Thailand (formerly Siam), the title of Prince was divided into three classes depending on the rank of their mothers. Those who were born of a king and had a royal mother (a queen or princess consort) are titled Chaofa Chai (Thai: เจ้าฟ้าชาย: literally, "Male Celestial Lord"). Those born of a king and a commoner, or children of Chaofas, are tilted Phra Ong Chao (พระองค์เจ้า). The children of Phra Ong Chaos are titled Mom Chao (หม่อมเจ้า), abbreviated as M.C. (or ม.จ.).
A Western model was sometimes copied by emancipated colonial regimes (e.g. Bokassa I's short-lived Central-African Empire in Napoleonic fashion). Otherwise, most of the styles for members of ruling families do not lend themselves well to English translation. Nonetheless, in general the princely style has gradually replaced the colonialist title of "chief", which does not particularly connote dynastic rank to Westerners, e.g. Swazi Royal Family and Zulu Royal Family. Nominally ministerial chiefly titles, such as the Yoruba Oloye and the Zulu InDuna, still exist as distinct titles in kingdoms all over Africa.
In states with an element of theocracy, this can affect princehood in several ways, such as the style of the ruler (e.g. with a secondary title meaning son or servant of a named divinity), but also the mode of succession (even reincarnation and recognition).
Furthermore, certain religious offices may be considered of princely rank, or imply comparable temporal rights. The Prince-Popes, Pope, Hereditary Prince-Cardinals, Cardinals, Prince-Lord Bishops, Prince Bishops, Lord Bishops, Prince-Provost, and Prince-abbots are referred to as Princes of the Church.
Also in Christianity, Jesus Christ is sometimes referred to as the Prince of Peace. Other titles for Jesus Christ are Prince of Princes, Prince of the Covenant, Prince of Life, and Prince of the Kings of the Earth. Further, Satan is popularly titled the Prince of Darkness; and in the Christian faith he is also referred to as the Prince of this World and the Prince of the Power of the Air. Another title for Satan, not as common today but apparently so in approximately 30 A.D. by the Pharisees of the day, was the title Prince of the Devils. Prince of Israel, Prince of the Angels, and Prince of Light are titles given to the Archangel Michael. Some Christian churches also believe that since all Christians, like Jesus Christ, are children of God, then they too are princes and princesses of Heaven. Saint Peter, a disciple of Jesus, is also known as the Prince of the Apostles.