As one of the most superior ranks within the hierarchy of the aristocracy, the titles of Duke and Duchess have long held an enduring fascination with people from all walks of life – from those who enjoy the lifestyles of glamorous society VIPs, to those who have more of a historic and academic interest. 

Given that this esteemed title graces the top of the ranking system of nobility above all other noble titles, and the holders are often members of the Royal Family, it’s not unusual to wonder how it’s possible to become a Duke, or its female equivalent, a Duchess. 

The routes to this noble title have changed over the centuries, and many of the ways of old are no longer available in contemporary society. Yet the numerous pathways to a Dukedom reveal a captivating history and variety of this rare noble title, so here are the ways it has historically been possible to become a Duke or a Duchess

Ruler of a Sovereign State

During the evolution of Europe in medieval times, the larger countries that we know today were often made up of smaller territories, feudal monarchies that were sovereign states, in that they were independent of a king, queen or emperor. 

Some of these were ruled by Dukes, Grand Dukes or Archdukes, and in official terms they ranked just below the conventional royal hierarchy of Kings and Queens. 

In reality, however, some of the great Grand Dukes and Archdukes of history were regarded as royals, and certainly lived as such, enjoying vast palaces, large courts, enormous wealth and considerable political power on the world stage. 

One legendary example of such a class of powerful dukes is the line of Archdukes and Archduchesses of Austria – the famous Habsburg dynasty that gave the world one of its most infamous historical figures, Marie Antoinette.

Palace of Versailles, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Duchy of Austria emerged when it broke away from the Duchy of Bavaria in the 12th century, and in the centuries that followed, it grew to a mighty force within Europe, perhaps more powerful than might be expected from a Duchy, as opposed to some of the larger surrounding countries that developed into kingdoms, such as France, Germany, and Italy.

So, in medieval times, the way to become a Duke or one of the more esteemed and powerful variations of Duke, ie Grand Duke or Archduke, was to become the ruler of a sovereign state, or to declare a new sovereign state, as the founding member of the Austrian Habsburgs dynasty did in the Middle Ages. 

Head of a Duchy Estate

While the great sovereign dukes of old were the leaders of entire nations, some dukedoms are much more modest roles, such as the heads of duchy estates within countries such as England, Portugal and Spain. 

While less powerful and influential than the Grand Dukes and Archdukes of history, the Dukes who were the heads of these estates were still considered high-ranking nobles, both within the social circles of their own country, as well as in the wider world of aristocracy across Europe and beyond. 

These duchy estates are much less prevalent in modern times than in centuries past, yet many will be familiar with some of the more well-known contemporary Dukes. 

For example, the Duchy of Normandy, which evolved as a Viking territory during the 10th century, has a modern-day Duke as its official head, and while this Duke of Normandy was until recently actually female, as it is a title held by the British monarch, formerly Queen Elizabeth II but now King Charles III.

Other, more well-known modern duchy estates include the Duchy of Cornwall, with Prince William as its head, with his official title of the Duke of Cornwall – granted to him when the former Duke (previously Prince Charles) became King.

So, in theory at least, becoming the head of a duchy estate is another way to become a Duke or a Duchess. 

Royal Warrant

As the aristocracy grew and altered during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, noble titles became a regular feature of royal courtly life. 

Dukedoms, like many of the other titles of nobility such as Baron, Lord, Marquis, Earl, Count and Viscount etc… would often be granted by a monarch as a gift or token of their favour or appreciation. 

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington – Thomas Lawrence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In these times, one way to acquire the elevated social rank of Duke or Duchess was to impress or serve the reigning sovereign, in the hopes that your efforts would be rewarded with a Dukedom. This practice resulted in many of the dukedoms throughout modern history, some of which still survive today. 

Other famous Dukes and Duchesses who were granted their titles as gifts through their close ties to the monarch include Prince Philip, who was the Duke of Edinburgh, and Kate Middleton, who became the Duchess of Cambridge when she married Prince William.

Purchasing a Duke or Duchess Title

While impressing the king or queen was a viable route to being granted Duke & Duchess titles, it was entirely at the mercy of the monarch in question, many of whom were renowned for their shifting allegiances and fickle favour. 

As a result, some enterprising individuals, usually lower-ranking nobles, would take matters into their own hands and explore the more accessible and more predictable route of simply purchasing a title of Duke as a commercial exchange.

This would undoubtedly require considerable funding – those in possession of a Dukedom would be well aware of their value in society, especially if the title was hereditary, i.e. could be passed along to future generations indefinitely. 

Yet it was still an appealing option for wealthy nobles or aspiring aristocrats who had substantial wealth but were yet to attain the required status within society. Perhaps they lacked the impressive lineages or provenance that were so highly valued at the height of aristocratic power, yet they were willing to finance their admission to the higher echelons of society. 

Over time, those who purchased their Dukedoms would establish respectable family lines in their own right, ranking among the more traditional nobility of the day. This purely commercial route to becoming a Duke or a Duchess was not uncommon during the heyday of the aristocracy, and it’s not widely known that this practice is still available in modern times, albeit in rarefied circles and extremely limited numbers. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered how to become a Duke or Duchess, you now know that, even though many of the previous routes to a Dukedom are highly unlikely or near impossible in today’s society, there is still a way to join the ranks of history’s eminent Dukes and Duchesses, and it’s a pathway that was also chosen by a whole host of esteemed nobles before you.