The Belgian nobility comprises individuals and (some members of) families recognized by the Kingdom of Belgium as members of a certain social class. Historically, these individuals were a socially privileged class enjoying a degree of prestige in society. In contemporary society, much of the historic social privileges associated with being a member of the nobility have become somewhat reduced, reflecting the more egalitarian nature of the present-day.
The Belgian constitution states that no specific privileges are attached to bearing a title of nobility.
Because most old families have resided in the current territory of Belgium for centuries and prior to the founding of the modern Belgian state, their members have been drawn from a variety of nations. Spanish nobles resided in Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries and intermarried with local noble houses. Amongst these houses we find de Pe?aranda, Coloma, De Evora y vega, Perez, de Castro y Lopez, de San Estevan, de Horosco, Franco y Feo, Santa Cruz, Gallo de Salamanca, Gerardi, Sant Vittores de la Poitilla.
In the period under Dutch sovereignty, the nobility was an important factor in move towards independence. After independence, the Kingdom of the Netherlands lost an important segment of their nobles, as all of the highest born families lived in the south, and thus became part of the Belgian nobility. At court in the 19th century this new Belgian nobility played a major role.
In some old families the heads of the house have the right of multiple titles. Today, most important families still pass these old titles only in the male line. In the Ancien Régime and Spanish and Austrian period, titles and rights could be inherited by marriage or just by will.
This was legally accepted by the Spanish crown and titles could be accumulated with other legal titles. This system ended after the French Revolution. After the creation of Belgium, families could receive the recognition of their status, which happened for the majority of the current families. Mostly, the noble status was recognized but sometimes the old title could only be passed in the male line of the same noble house. Since this change, old titles have disappeared, and only few old titles survive. Known examples are the counts of Bornhem and the Marquess of Assche titles inherited by the families of Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde and Vander Noot.
Until 1662 the North part of France belonged to Flanders, under Spanish rule. Titles created before this date are considered to be part of the Flemish nobility. The Picardian and Artesian nobility lost their land to the French Crown, and was incorporated into the French Kingdom. The Marquess of Morbecque had lost his land after the Battle of Cassel. After this periode much former Flemish houses, were bestowed other French titles.
During the Austrian period, the high nobility participated in the government, both political and at the imperial court of Brussels. Since the French Revolution the nobility has not played a social function. However some members of most old families worked in major functions in Belgium.
The modern Belgian nobility is known to be mostly traditionalist, and royalist. In the Kingdom of Belgium there were as of 2013 approximately 1,300 noble families, with some 20,000 members. The noble lineage of only approximately 400 families dates back to the 17th century or earlier. As Belgium is a democratic constitutional monarchy there are no legal privileges attached to bearing a noble title or to being a member of the aristocracy. According to article 113 of the constitution, "The King may confer titles of nobility, without ever having the power to attach privileges to them".
Many nobles in Belgium still belong to the elite of society. They sometimes own and manage companies, or have leading positions in cultural society, business, banking, diplomacy, NGOs etc. Many of the older families still own (and reside in) important castles or country houses (see: Castles in Belgium).
The fortune of the nobility is impressive: only 11% of the 500 wealthiest families in Belgium are members of the nobility, however: they have more than 56% of this wealth, 79.85 billion euros. This is partly caused by the fact that many of the new noble titles are bestowed on wealthy entrepreneurs, like the families of Boël, Frere, Colruyt, Janssen and Solvay. Old houses however are in the minority and have sold much of their lands and estates. The house of Merode has sold during the ages thousands of hectares of their own private lands. Other houses have still immense lands and grounds, but most houses have lost much of their historic wealth.
Like most European nobility, the family name says much of the origin of the house. Normally the name of the family or House cannot change, however it used to be possible. A famous example was Conrad III Schetz: he had himself adopted by his aunt and changed his surname, for him and all his descendants from Schetz to van Ursel.
Every noble family has its own coat of arms and titles: both are legally protected from copyright. People who do not belong to the house, are forbidden to use the titles or the coat of arms.
In Belgium the title forms part of the identity of the noble person and is mentioned on the ID-card. The title is not a part of the name though.
Assumption of noble titles by those not entitled to any is prohibited and is punishable with a fine of 200 to 1000 euros under article 230 of the Belgian penal code.
Belgium is one of the few monarchies in the world in which hereditary ennoblement still occurs regularly. Hereditary titles are conferred by letters patent, which are issued by the king of the Belgians, co-signed by the minister of Foreign Affairs. Noble titles can also be granted for life.
Belgian citizens distinguished in business, politics, science, arts, sports, etc. or for extraordinary service to the kingdom may receive noble status or noble titles.
By letters patent extension, change or upgrade of the rank of members of a noble family or change the rank of the whole family.
Characteristically the Belgian nobility is structured and ranked very formally. These ranks are still important in social life and ceremonial life at court.
The royal house does not belong to the Belgian nobility, it is not of Belgian origin and is considered to be above the social class that is the nobility.
The title of Prince (French: Prince, Dutch: Prins) is the highest noble title in use in Belgium. They are ranked under the princes of royal blood and members of the royal family. New princes are not created, though they can be recognised or incorporated by the king if their members do prove to have bounds in Belgium and live there. This procedure is very rare and has occurred only with princes that de facto are Belgian.
Most members of the families listed below have the right to be referred to in Belgian government documents as "Prince" or "Princess" in combination with their family name. Some titles are not recognised by the Crown, and cannot be used legally, this is the case for the Dukes of Ursel who are the legal heirs to the Prince of Arches and Charleville.
Members of the following houses bear the title of Duke (French: Duc, Dutch: Hertog). The ducal title has never been granted outside the Royal Family in the Kingdom of Belgium. The origin of such titles for Belgian families thus pre-dates the current monarchy, having been conferred or recognised by sovereigns of other jurisdictions.
The title of Duke/Duchess of Brabant (fr: Duc(hesse) de Brabant, nl: Hertog(in) van Brabant, de: Herzog(in) von Brabant) is reserved for the heir apparent to the Belgian monarchy (and in the absence of an heir apparent, the title reverts to the Crown). Current titleholder is Princess Elisabeth.
In most of these families, the title descends by male primogeniture.
Count is the highest-ranked title still granted by the Belgian monarch. There are approximately 90 families in Belgium where at least one of the members bears the title of count or countess. An incomplete list of families bearing the title of Count can be found on the list of noble families in Belgium.
There are approximately 45 families in Belgium where at least one of the members bears the title of Viscount (French: vicomte, Dutch: Burggraaf). An incomplete list of families bearing the title of Viscount can be found on the list of noble families in Belgium.
Écuyer, Jonkheer (Dutch, originally meaning "young lord") is the lowest Belgian title recognised by law. Many cadet members of important houses are styled with this title, this happens when the head of the family is styled higher. Écuyer has no French feminine equivalent for daughters or wives; in Dutch the equivalent is jonkvrouw.
Another legal concern is that people who have Belgian nationality are forbidden by law to have noble titles from another country.
However, to have foreign titles recognised is not impossible. It is only possible after formal recognition by the king of the Belgians.
In addition to the families mentioned above, a number of noble families originated from outside Belgium, but have since obtained Belgian nationality after residing (sometimes for many generations) in Belgium. Most of these families have come from neighbouring European monarchies (France, the Netherlands, Germany) at various stages of history. These have usually (but not always) asked for equivalent nobility titles within the Kingdom of Belgium, which were typically granted.