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False titles of nobility are supposed titles of nobility that have been fabricated and are not recognised by any government and were not so recognised in the past, even in countries in which titles of nobility once existed or still exist. They have received an increasing amount of press attention, as the number of schemes that attempt to sell these titles has increased. False titles are also sometimes connected to self-styled orders of chivalry.
It is impossible to purchase a British peerage title as such a transaction would be in breach of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, 1925. Only titles from the semi-extinct feudal system may legally be sold.
The British peerage encompasses the titles of Baron, Viscount, Earl, Marquess and Duke. No peerage titles are capable of being bought or sold. Many are known by the designation "Lord" and in Scotland the lowest rank of the peerage is "Lord of Parliament" rather than "Baron".
Baronetcies are hereditary titles granted by the Crown, but are not part of the peerage. Baronets are styled "Sir" with the suffix "Bt." or "Bart." after their surname. Baronetcies can no longer be purchased, and existing ones cannot be bought or sold.
In Scotland, until the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act of 2000, the transfer of such a prescriptive barony required some interest in land, specifically the caput baronium (the seat of the barony). Since the Act, the titles stand on their own and transference by sale without land is legal. Transfer of such legitimate Scottish feudal baronies can therefore convey a legitimate title to the new owner, and these therefore are not "false titles of nobility."
The Scottish feudal baron is addressed as The Much Honoured. The Scottish Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms has ruled that a Scottish feudal baron is the equal of a Continental baron who is the chief of his family (in some European nations all males take the title but only the head or chief of the family has a superior rank). However, a continental baron cannot sell his nobility title. A French or a German baron is hereditarily noble, just like a king's son is almost automatically prince ; that is not purchasable by a non noble person. Except in Spain, since 1977, titles can be inherited by non noble.
In showing that Scottish feudal baronies are titles of nobility, reference may be made, amongst others, to Lyon Court in the Petition of Maclean of Ardgour for a Birthbrieve by Interlocutor dated 26 February 1943 which "Finds and Declares that the Minor Barons of Scotland are, and have both in this Nobiliary Court, and in the Court of Session, been recognised as 'titled' nobility, and that the estait of the Baronage (The Barones Minores) is of the ancient Feudal Nobility of Scotland".
A Laird is a member of the gentry in Scotland. In the non-peerage table of precedence, a Laird ranks below a Baron and above an Esquire. Though signifying the same as Lord, the two terms are not interchangeable and Laird is not a title of nobility. The designation of Laird is a 'corporeal hereditament' (an inheritable property that has an explicit tie to the physical land), i.e. the title can not be held in gross, and cannot be bought and sold without selling the physical land. The title does not entitle the owner to sit in the House of Lords and is the Scottish equivalent to an English squire in that it is not a noble title, more a courtesy title meaning landowner with no other rights assigned to it. However, a Laird possessing a Coat of Arms registered in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland is a member of Scotland's minor nobility. Such an individual can be recognised as a Laird, if not a Chief or Chieftain, or descendant of one of these, by the formal recognition of a territorial designation as a part of their name by the Lord Lyon. Only those so recognised continue to use the designation after parting from their estate. The Lord Lyon is the ultimate arbiter as to determining entitlement to a territorial designation, and his right of discretion in recognising these, and their status as a name, dignity or title, has been confirmed in the Scottish courts.
The title Lord of the manor is a feudal title of ownership and is legally capable of sale. The owner of a Lordship of the Manor is known as [personal name], Lord/Lady of the Manor of [place name], Owning a title of Lord of the Manor does not by itself replace the title of Mr, Mrs, or Miss, although under English common law a person may choose to be known by any name they see fit as long as it is not done to "commit fraud or evade an obligation."
There are three elements to a manor, the first is lordship of the manor, the second is manorial land and the third element is the manorial rights. The three elements may exist separately or be combined, the first element being the title may be held in moieties and may not be subdivided, this is prohibited by the Statute of Quia Emptores preventing subinfeudation whereas the second and third elements can be subdivided.
In many cases the title Lord of the Manor may no longer have any land or rights and in such cases the title is known as an ‘incorporeal hereditament’. Before the Land Registration Act 2002 it was possible to volunteer to register lordship titles, most did not seek to register. Since 13 October 2003 it has not been possible to apply for first registration of a title of a manor, however dealings in previously registered titles remain subject to compulsory registration with HM Land Registry. A frequent criticism of the lordships sold at auction is that the statutory declaration is relied upon as a substitute for missing historical deeds and transfer documents which would, in some cases, demonstrate that the manor in question either no longer exists, can no longer be identified definitively, or is not available for sale.
According to John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and co-author of The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, "Lordship of this or that manor is no more a title than Landlord of The Dog and Duck". However, the journal Justice of the Peace & Local Government Law advises that the position is unclear as to whether a Lordship of the Manor is a title of honour or a dignity as this is yet to be tested by the courts. Technically, Lords of Manors are barons, or freemen; however, they do not use the term as a title. John Selden in his esteemed work Titles of Honour writes, "The word Baro (Latin for Baron) hath been also so much communicated, that not only all Lords of Mannors have been from antient time, and are at this day called sometimes Barons (as in the stile of their Court Barons, which is Curia Baronis, &c. And I have read hors de son Barony in a barr to an Avowry for hors de son fee) But also the Judges of the Exchequer have it from antient time fixed on them."
There have been cases where manors have been sold and by accident the seller has parted with rights to unregistered land in England and Wales.
Several websites, and internet vendors on websites like eBay, sell Scottish Lairdships along with small plots of land. The Court of the Lord Lyon considers these particular titles to be meaningless because it is impossible to have numerous “Lairds” of a single Estate at the same time, as has been advertised by these companies. According to Richard Bridgeman, 7th Earl of Bradford, these sellers have an income of $2,918,520 per acre of poor land, which could probably be purchased for about $100. W.R.B. Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore has doubts about such companies' claims of conservation of nature, as there are not independent proofs of it. Some of these sellers enclose with the deed a coat of arms, which is not authorised by the Lord Lyon, and it is unlawful in Scotland to use or display any arms unauthorised by the Lord Lyon. The most recent advice from the Lord Lyon specifically states that this designation is not appropriate to the owner of a souvenir plot, such as sold in these schemes.
Some companies purport to sell unsuspecting individuals a title when in fact they do no more than offer them the facility to change their name. Such an individual adopts the purported title, e.g. "Sir" or "Lord", as a forename rather than receiving any formal title. HM Passport Office is aware of this scam and will place an official observation in the individual's passport stating that the purported title is a name rather than the person's title. In essence, such an individual becomes Mr. Sir John Smith or Mr. Lord John Smith, for example, as their title has in fact not changed at all.
Some companies claim to be selling manorial lordships when in fact they are actually selling nothing more than a trademark. For this reason, careful legal advice should be sought before entering into any transaction purporting to be selling a lordship of a manor.
Many who choose to invent false titles of nobility take advantage of the pool of formerly genuine titles of nobility that derive from a time when a country, now a republic, was once a monarchy; for example France, Austria, Hungary and the many parts of Germany that once had sovereign nobles. One advantage of assuming such a title, is that, contrary to the situation involving the British nobility, there is usually no longer any official arbitrator who can or will judge between two separate claimants to such a title. In some such countries, titles may nevertheless be protected by an appropriate law, such as France, or by an extension of copyright law, as in Portugal.
Outside monarchies, a distinction can be drawn between a legitimate historical title which is no longer recognised under a successor state (such as republic) but borne by hereditary heirs, as opposed to an invented or falsely-attributed title of nobility claimed without any historic basis.
Some vendors of fake titles claim to arrange for the customer to acquire an Italian title based on adoption or even through notarial acts ceding the titles to the customer. In Italy, where titles of nobility have not been officially recognised since 1948, and where nobility by feudal tenure was abolished in most regions during the years immediately prior to 1820, an adoptive child cannot succeed to his adoptive parent's title, and no legal act can serve to renounce a hereditary title. Claims to sell titles of nobility linked to ownership of a certain estate or castle are based on equally misguided misconceptions. It should be noted, however, that no Italian publication or record, not even the Consulta Araldica's official registry (the Libro d'Oro now retained at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato at Rome-EUR), is a truly complete record of Italy's nobles and armigers.
A number of legitimate titles recognised in the pre-unitary Italian states (Two Sicilies, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, Papal State), as well as the Republic of San Marino, were not recognised in the Kingdom of Italy between 1860 and 1948. In most cases these were small baronies, minor lordships (signorie) or untitled ennoblements (patrizi and nobili). In connection with this, some Sicilian titles could devolve to female heiresses in the absence of close male kin, and in a few instances there are claimants (in female lines) in Spain as well as Italy, the former looking to Two Sicilies (pre 1860) legislation and the latter citing Italian (post 1860) law. Most of the parallel claims (usually by Spanish citizens) were made after 1948, when the Consulta Araldica (Italy's heraldic authority) was suspended by the Italian constitution, which abolished recognition of titles of nobility.
There exists no law that prohibits private use of noble titles. Such privately adopted titles lack official recognition, but are not illegal to use.
Noble names enjoy no particular legal protection. In accordance with the Name Law's paragraph 3, any family name with 200 or fewer bearers is protected and may not, without all bearers' acceptance, be adopted by another.
Sometimes someone makes up a false title that does not even purport to belong to an existing nation. Those who do this may then grant other false titles or honors, or a membership in a false or self-styled order of chivalry, to other persons in exchange for payment, gifts, or donations. Sometimes in order to support the illusion of legitimacy for a falsely assumed title, one or more web sites (or even an elaborate collection of mutually referencing web sites) are created that feature or list a person who has assumed a false title. Often these web sites can appear to be themselves quite legitimate and convincing but really only serve to try to legitimize the person who has assumed a false title.