The realm of royals and nobles is infinitely fascinating and has captured the imagination of scholars and lay folk alike, both in the centuries past and in modern society. 

After a millennium of evolution, however, these systems have developed into quite a complex structure of hierarchies and definitions, so it’s not uncommon for there to be some confusion over the meaning and status of the various ranks and roles within the nobility and royal circles. 

To help distinguish the nature of royalty, as opposed to the similar and sometimes overlapping realm of aristocracy, here are some insights into the definition of royalty as it is largely understood today. 

The Definition Of Royalty

Royalty is most commonly defined as belonging to a royal lineage, such as descending from kings and queens. 

The notion of bloodlines is a common reference in the definition of royalty, i.e. the possession of ‘royal blood’ as a result of parentage or heritage. 

For a long time, the idea of ‘blue blood’ was used to denote the royal status of an individual, in that their bloodline was descended from royalty. 

Over time, however, the term has taken on a much broader meaning and can now refer to noble or aristocratic heritage rather than purely royal heritage. In some cases, it can even be used to suggest merely the good standing of a family in terms of respectability or wealth. 

The Etymology Of Royalty

The root of the modern word royalty stems from the Old French word roialte. This etymology reveals the origin of the word as relating to kings or kingliness – as roi is the french word for king. The more modern French word, dating back to the 12 century is related to royauté, which means kingship. 

Louis XIV of France – Hyacinthe Rigaud, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The French words themselves stem from the older Latin root word regalis, i.e. pertaining to a king, based on rex, the Latin word for king. This root word forms the core of so many words related to royalty and kingship, such as regalia, realm, and regal. 

Going back even further into the mists of time and the evolution of the word, the ‘reg’ part of the root word relates to the idea of moving in a straight line. This was a reference to direct leadership, and also reflects the link between a rule as a straight linear object and the concept of royal rule or governance. 

Broader Definitions Of Royalty

Although many strict modern definitions of royalty may indicate a direct connection to a monarch or sovereign, there are some broader definitions that allude more to the character than to precise genetic lineage. 

For example, some of the earliest definitions of the word royalty were a reference not only to ‘belonging to a king’ but also ‘worthy of a king’. 

In this sense, even in ancient times, the notion of royalty hasn’t always been purely biological, i.e. related to the bloodline and heritage. There has long been a broader definition of royalty that included those not of royal birth but rather of royal demeanour. 

So, in the strictest terms, the definition of royalty may be a clear question of royal descent, yet in reality, it has taken on a range of connotations that reflect royal status rather than describe genetics. Such characteristics include personal aspects such as deportment, speech, demeanour, confidence and authority, as well as behavioural traits such as strong leadership and a deep sense of duty or purpose. 

What Makes A Sovereign Royal? 

The nuances around the status of royalty can lead to some intriguing questions as to what exactly makes a sovereign or ruler one of royal rank, i.e. a legitimate member of royalty. 

For example, in the strictest sense, royalty indicates the status of a king or queen, or a bloodline connection to such royal ranks, yet throughout history there have been royal ranks and lineages that did not style themselves as kings and queens. 

One famous example is that of the Archdukes and Archduchesses of Austria – the legendary royal House of Hapsburg. This famous family was one of the most iconic dynasties during the evolution of the European nations during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. 

There is no doubt, either in modern times or during the reign of the Hapbsburgs, that this family were the esteemed sovereign rulers of the Austrian territory. Their wealth, palaces, protocols, lifestyles and history were undoubtedly those of royal status. Yet, according to the strictest definition of the word royalty, they would not be classed as royals since they did not style themselves using the conventional titles of king or queen or the imperial titles of Emperor or Empress

This example is one of the many rich and colourful nuances of the realm of royal definitions and the complex ways the systems and structures have evolved. 

What’s The Difference Between Royalty And Nobility? 

In general, royalty suggests being related to or descending from a crowned head of state, such as a king or queen, whereas nobility suggests being ennobled by a monarch, such as a grant of an aristocratic title like Duke, Count or Baron etc, or being related to or descending from a nobleman or woman. 

In some terms, the distinction is clear in that it all relates to heritage – whether the bloodline is one of royal descent or noble lineage. Yet, throughout the evolution of monarchies and the aristocracy, there has been much overlap and intermingling between the two classes. 

The practice of royal marriages being arranged by selecting candidates from the nobility means that many aristocrats married into royal lines, and many eligible princes and princesses made their matches from the noble classes. 

So, while the definitions of royalty and aristocracy may be clearly described, in reality, they are closely interwoven and the boundaries between the two have been greatly blurred over the centuries. 

The definition of royalty is a fascinating field of study and could keep scholars and curious minds occupied for a lifetime. While the dictionaries may clearly describe royalty as a factor of royal lineage, the word holds a much broader, more complex and captivating story, one that is rich with the very tradition and evolution of the royal classes themselves.