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Nobility is a social class found in many societies that have an aristocracy. It is normally ranked immediately below royalty. Nobility has often been an estate of the realm with many exclusive functions and characteristics. The characteristics associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles or simply formal functions (e.g., precedence), and vary by country and by era. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary and patrilineal.

Membership in the nobility has historically been granted by a monarch or government, and acquisition of sufficient power, wealth, ownerships, or royal favour has occasionally enabled commoners to ascend into the nobility.

Like most of Europe, British nobility originated in the feudal/seignorial system that arose in Europe during the Middle Ages. Their power and influence began to decline in the Renaissance period with the growing economic importance of the merchant classes, which increased still further during the Industrial Revolution. However, in many countries at this time, the nobility retained substantial political importance and social influence: for instance, the United Kingdom's government was dominated by the (unusually small) nobility until the middle of the 19th century. Thereafter the powers of the nobility were progressively reduced by legislation. However, until 1999, all hereditary peers were entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Since then, only 92 of them have this entitlement, of whom 90 are elected by the hereditary peers as a whole to represent the peerage.

Hereditary titles and styles added to names (such as "Prince", "Lord", or "Lady"), as well as honorifics, often distinguish nobles from non-nobles in conversation and written speech. In many nations, most of the nobility have been untitled, and some hereditary titles do not indicate nobility (e.g., vidame). Some countries have had non-hereditary nobility, such as the Empire of Brazil or life peers in the United Kingdom.

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Wp icon 16x16 Nobility
Wp icon 16x16 Peerage of the United Kingdom

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