Margrave was originally the medieval title for the military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or of a kingdom. That position became hereditary in certain feudal families in the Empire, and the title came to be borne by rulers of some Imperial principalities until the abolition of the Empire in 1806 (e.g., Margrave of Brandenburg, Margrave of Baden). Thereafter, those domains were absorbed in larger realms or the titleholders adopted titles indicative of full sovereignty.
Etymologically, the word "margrave" (Latin: marchio, c. 1551) is the English and French form of the German noble title Markgraf (Mark, meaning "march", added to Graf, meaning "Count"); it is related semantically to the English title "Marcher Lord". As a noun and hereditary title, "margrave" was common among the languages of Europe, such as Spanish and Polish.
A Markgraf (margrave) originally functioned as the military governor of a Carolingian march, a medieval border province. Because the territorial integrity of the borders of the realm of a king or emperor was essential to national security, the vassal (whether a count or other lord) whose lands were on the march of the kingdom or empire was likely to be appointed a margrave and given greater responsibility for securing the border.
The greater exposure of a border province to military invasion mandated that the margrave be provided with military forces and autonomy of action (political as well as military) greater than those accorded other lords of the realm. As a military governor, the margrave's authority often extended over a territory larger than the province proper, because of border expansion subsequent to royal wars.
The margrave thus usually came to exercise commensurately greater politico-military power than other noblemen. The margrave maintained the greater armed forces and fortifications required for repelling invasion, which increased his political strength and independence relative to the monarch. Moreover, a margrave might expand his sovereign's realm by conquering additional territory, sometimes more than he might retain as a personal domain, thus allowing him to endow his own vassals with lands and resources in return for their loyalty to him; the consequent wealth and power might allow the establishment of a de facto near-independent principality of his own.
Most marches and their margraves arose along the eastern borders of the Carolingian Empire and the successor Holy Roman Empire. The Breton Mark on the Atlantic Ocean and the border of peninsular Brittany and the Marca Hispanica on the Muslim frontier (including Catalonia) are notable exceptions. The Spanish March was most important during the early stages of the peninsular Reconquista of Iberia: ambitious margraves based in the Pyrenees took advantage of disarray in Muslim Al-Andalus to extend their territories southward, leading to the establishment of the Christian kingdoms that would become unified Spain in the fifteenth century. The Crusaders created new and perilous borders susceptible to holy war against the Saracens; they thus had use for such border marches as the Greek Margraviate of Bodonitsa (1204–1414).
As territorial borders stabilised in the late Middle Ages, marches began to lose their primary military importance; but the entrenched families who held the office of margrave gradually converted their marches into hereditary fiefs, comparable in all but name to duchies. In an evolution similar to the rises of dukes, landgraves, counts palatine, and Fürsten (ruling princes), these margraves became substantially independent rulers of states under the nominal overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV's Golden Bull of 1356 recognized the Margrave of Brandenburg as an elector of the Empire. Possession of an electorate carried membership in the highest "college" within the Imperial Diet, the main prerogative of which was the right to elect, along with a few other powerful princes and prelates, the non-hereditary Emperor whenever death or abdication created a vacancy on the Imperial throne. Mark Brandenburg became the nucleus of the House of Hohenzollern's later Kingdom of Prussia and the springboard to their eventual accession as German Emperors in 1871.
Another original march also developed into one of the most powerful states in Central Europe: the Margraviate of Austria. Its rulers, the House of Habsburg, rose to obtain a de facto monopoly on election to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. They also inherited several, mainly Eastern European and Burgundian, principalities. Austria was originally called Marchia Orientalis in Latin, the "eastern borderland", as (originally roughly the present Lower-) Austria formed the easternmost reach of the Holy Roman Empire, extending to the lands of the Magyars and the Slavs (since the 19th century, Marchia Orientalis has been translated as Ostmark by some Germanophones, though medieval documents attest only to the vernacular name Ostarrîchi). Another march in the south-east, Styria, still appears as Steiermark in German today.
The margraves of Brandenburg and of Meissen eventually became, respectively, the kings of (originally 'in') Prussia and of Saxony.
The title of margrave, no longer a military office, evolved into a rank in the Holy Roman Empire's nobility; higher than Graf (count), it was equivalent to such associated compound titles as Landgrave, Palsgrave and Gefürsteter Graf, yet remained lower than Herzog (duke) and even, officially, lower than Fürst.
A few nobles in southern Austria and northern Italy, whose suzerain was the Emperor, received from him the title of margrave, sometimes translated in Italian as marquis (marchese): those who reigned as virtual sovereigns (Marquis of Mantua, Marquis of Montferrat, Marquis of Saluzzo) exercised authority closer to the dynastic jurisdiction associated in modern Europe with the margrave, while some non-ruling nobles (e.g., Burgau, Pallavicini, Piatti) retained use of the margravial title but held the non-sovereign status of a marquis.
By the 19th century, the sovereigns in Germany, Italy and Austria had all adopted "higher" titles, and not a single sovereign margraviate remained. Although the title remained part of the official style of such monarchs as the German Emperors, Kings of Saxony and Grand Dukes of Baden, it fell into desuetude as the primary title of members of any reigning family.
The children of Charles Frederick, Grand Duke of Baden by his second, morganatic wife, Luise Karoline Geyer von Geyersberg, only legally shared their mother's title of Imperial Count von Hochberg from 1796, and were not officially elevated to the title of margrave until 1817 when they were publicly de-morganitised. But their father had, in fact, allowed its use for his morganatic children at his own court in Karlsruhe from his assumption of the grand ducal crown in 1806, simultaneously according the princely title to the dynastic sons of his first marriage. However, from 1817 his male-line descendants of both marriages were internationally recognised as entitled to the princely prefix, which all used henceforth.
The title of Margrave of Baden has been borne as a title of pretence only by the head of the House of Zähringen since the death of the last reigning Grand Duke, Frederick II, in 1928. Likewise, Margrave of Meissen is used as a title of pretence by the claimant to the Kingdom of Saxony since the death in exile of its last monarch, King Fredrick Augustus III, in 1932.
In 1914, the Imperial German Navy commissioned a dreadnought battleship SMS Markgraf named after this title. She fought in WWI and was interned and scuttled at Scapa Flow after the war.
The etymological heir of the margrave in Europe's nobilities is the marquis, also introduced in countries that never had any margraviates, such as the British marquess; their languages may use one or two words, e.g. French margrave or marquis. The margrave/marquis ranked below its nation's equivalent of "duke" (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Scandinavia, Spain) or of "prince" (Belgium, Italy), but above "count" or "earl".
The wife of a margrave is a margravine (Markgräfin in German, but margrave in French). In Germany and Austria, where titles were borne by all descendants in the male line of the original grantee, men and women alike, each daughter was a Markgräfin as each son was a Markgraf.
The title of margrave is translated below in languages which distinguish margrave from marquis, the latter being the English term for a Continental noble of rank equivalent to a British marquess. In languages which sometimes use marquis to translate margrave, that fact is indicated below in parentheses):
|Language||Equivalent of margrave||Equivalent of margravine|
|Afrikaans||markgraaf / markies||markgravin / markiesin|
|Catalan||marcgravi / marquès||marcgravina / marquesa|
|Chinese||藩侯 / 邊區伯爵||藩侯夫人 / 邊區伯爵夫人|
|Croatian||markgrof / markiz||markgrofica / markiza|
|Czech||markrabě / markýz||markraběnka / markýza|
|Dutch||markgraaf / markies||markgravin / markiezin|
|English||margrave / marquess||margravine / marchioness|
|Esperanto||margrafo / markizo||margrafino / markizino|
|Finnish||rajakreivi / markiisi||rajakreivitär / markiisitar|
|Greek||µαργράβος (margrávos) /
|Hungarian||őrgróf / márki||őrgrófnő / márkinő|
|Italian||margravio / marchese||margravia / marchesa|
|Japanese||辺境伯 (henkyō haku)||辺境伯夫人 (henkyō hakufujin) /
辺境伯妃 (henkyō haku-hi)
|Korean||변경백 (byeon-gyeongbaeg)||변경백부인 (byeon-gyeongbaegbu-in)|
|Latvian||markgrāfs / marķīzs||markgrāfiene / marķīze|
|Lithuanian||markgrafas / markizas||markgrafienė / markizė|
|Norwegian||markgreve / marki||markgrevinne / markise|
|Persian||مرزبان (marzoban or marzbān)||–|
|Polish||margrabia / markiz||margrabina / markiza|
|Portuguese||margrave / marquês||margravina / marquesa|
|Slovene||mejni grof / markiz||mejna grofica / markiza|
|Spanish||margrave / marqués||margravina / marquesa|
|Swedish||markgreve / markis||markgrevinna / markisinna|
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