Patents of Nobility

Authentic works of art used for the bestowing of a noble title

By Andalusian Archives

Archivos de Andalucía

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1499-03-19)Andalusian Archives

Patents of nobility

A patent of nobility was a legal document containing information on the judgment through which an individual was granted noble status. When an individual was granted the status of a "hidalgo" (or noble), he became a member of the lower, untitled nobility. As well as privileged social standing, the status came with tax advantages and economic benefits, as nobles were exempt from certain taxes and duties.

Real Chancillería of Granada ArchiveAndalusian Archives

The "Chancillerías"

The only means of validating an individual's claim to nobility was via an application put before the Real Chancillería (Royal Chancellery).

The Reales Chancillerías were courts whose Chambers of Hidalgos, under the Crown of Castile, were dedicated exclusively to hearing cases relating to the granting of the noble status of "hidalgo."

There were two Reales Chancillerías: one in Valladolid and the other in Granada, established in 1371 and 1505 respectively.

Judgments validating a claim to nobility were finalized by way of a Royal Patent of Nobility, which included the text of the judgment.

The image shows the front of the Archive of the Real Chancillería in Granada, now located in what was the ancestral home of the Suárez de Toledo family. The archive houses the Judgments on Nobility issued by the Real Chancillería in Granada going as far back as the court's establishment.

Coat of Arms of Luis Valero (1556) by Miguel Guerrero.Andalusian Archives

Judgments on the granting of noble status

In the Early Modern Age, taxation registers distinguished between commoners and non-commoners—that is to say, those individuals who were obliged to pay taxes, and noblemen who were exempt from doing so.

Generally speaking, proceedings to become a nobleman were initiated at the request of a resident who had been included on the register of commoners in his place of residence, obliging him to pay the corresponding taxes. Occasionally, the proceedings were initiated by local councils, as they were responsible for drawing up the taxation registers and for revenue collection.

The image shows the coat of arms of Francisco Rodríguez Valero featured on the judgment of 1661 with the council of Mairena de las Alpujarras (Granada) on the preservation of his noble status.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1433-05-18)Andalusian Archives

The judicial process for the validation of nobility involved the verification, through evidence and witnesses, of the nobility of the applicant. A judgment would be issued on his noble status, the longevity of his lineage, the legitimacy of his birth and the purity of his blood, following the direct male line.

This document is a Royal Decree of a Patent of Nobility, dated 1433. It was granted by John II of Castile to Pedro López de Soto, following the application made to the Council of Cuenca.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1515-03-17)Andalusian Archives

Issuing the patent of nobility

The process for issuing a patent of nobility began with the declaration of the judgment.

When an application resulted in an unfavorable outcome for the applicant, the document was issued on paper and in cursive script.

However, if the outcome was favorable, the applicant would request the formal issuing of the judgment in recognition of and as evidence of his rights.

The clerk of the Chancillería would prepare two identical documents recognizing the applicant's status as a nobleman. Both were produced on paper, with the text written in the cursive script of the judiciary.

One of them was kept in the office of the clerk of the nobility, and the other was given to the applicant.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1506-09-08)Andalusian Archives

If the nobleman could afford it, the recognition document was often taken to a scribe who was not part of the Chancillería, who would painstakingly recreate the calligraphic script and rich ornamentation in the form of a booklet.

Once the patent of nobility had been produced and decorated, the document was taken to the Real Chancillería and its contents were checked against the copy issued by the scribe.

When its faithfulness to the original had been verified, both copies were dated, signed, and sealed with a hanging lead seal.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1514-05-05)Andalusian Archives

Producing the patent of nobility

The formal version of the patent of nobility, such as the one shown here, identifiable by the detailed text contained within it, tended to be made in the same way as a book. Most of them were produced during the 16th century, and were unaffected by the invention of the printing press.

The scribes and book binders used traditional, tried-and-tested methods when producing the booklets and in copying the text of the document.

The calligraphic script had more in common with drawing than with writing. A similar style was used in liturgical books of the time.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1501-07-31)Andalusian Archives

Some were richly bound in leather stretched over wood, or in sumptuous fabrics with embossed irons, metal decorations, and clasps made from an abundance of fine materials. They always featured a handsome lead seal hanging from colored silk threads.

This document is a Royal Decree of a Patent of Nobility, granted by the Catholic Monarchs to Juan de Casco, an inhabitant of Logrosán (Cáceres).

Writ recognizing the petitioner, Fernando Padilla Dávila, a resident in Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz), as an hidalgo (1558, February, 8)Andalusian Archives


The status of the patent of nobility, as a document providing irrefutable evidence of the applicant's nobility, was reflected in its decoration. Fernando Padilla Dávila's 1557 patent is a good example of this. He was an alderman in Jerez de la Frontera. It is a richly decorated and beautifully illuminated document, whose contents are written in blackletter Gothic script with the initials in golden ink, inside a border that is handsomely adorned with plant motifs. The way the formal version of a patent of nobility was made depended on the economic means of the person commissioning it. That is why the document was decorated with letters, borders, and miniatures or vignettes, all of which imbued the document with greater significance.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1608-12-15)Andalusian Archives

Decorative lettering

The decorative letters known in Spanish as "letras de aparato" are not part of the text and are unrelated to its content. However, they enrich the document and add to its significance.

Being purely decorative, this lettering can sometimes create difficulties for the reader. However, it embellishes the document, adding a Mannerist-style touch of beauty.

The size, borders, and embellishments of the letters can vary, and they break up the monotony of the text.

This is a detail from the patent of nobility granted by Philip III of Spain in 1608 to Juan Sayago de Bolaños, an inhabitant of Fuente del Maestre in Badajoz.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1564-12-05)Andalusian Archives


The borders are a decorative motif which, taking the form of strips or bands, frame the text contained within a document. Different types of Renaissance motifs tended to be the most widely used.

They usually mimicked the designs and styles found in books, and were the work of professionals whose job it was to decorate documents.

This page is part of the patent of nobility granted to Alonso de Isla. The image of John the Baptist is framed by a richly decorative border with two cartouches, one at the bottom which reads “Ora pronobis beate Joannes Baptista” and the other at the top, dated 1564.

Title of nobility of Bartolomé Villalobos (1536-08-14) by Notaries of BaenaAndalusian Archives


This is the name given to the pictures used to illustrate old books. In the late 15th century, its use spread to documents, and to patents of nobility in particular. The Granadan School's miniatures were characterized by their decorative richness and refined formal elements, and were firmly rooted in the Renaissance style. Renowned painters and several artists' workshops, such as those of Francisco Pacheco, Francisco Herrera, and Diego Gómez, located in Seville, were responsible for many of the miniatures that appeared on patents of nobility in the first half of the 17th century.

Coat of Arms of Juan Sayago de Bolaños (1608-12-15)Andalusian Archives


Miniatures—small drawings used to illustrate patents of nobility—varied greatly in the themes they depicted and in their artistic quality. They are of great interest as reflections of the artists' social reality and symbolic universe.

Three themes are most commonly depicted in their iconography:

1. The judicial function: the judges, courtrooms, and furniture of the place in which the proceedings for the granting of nobility were held, and the applications heard.

2. The noble estate: kings and nobles, often accompanied by their families, often appear represented by their regalia, exploits and lineages, and heraldry and family trees, making it possible to trace the chronological development of the images used.

3. Religiosity: religious representations of devotional engravings, either standing alone or linked to members of the lineage.

Title of earl of Miraflores de los Ángeles (28/11/1689)Andalusian Archives

Individuals who were members of the titled high nobility also used miniatures on other types of document, such as for the establishment of an entailed estate, dowry letters, marriage contracts, and the granting of noble titles.

The image shows a portrait of Charles II of Spain featured on the document granting the title of Count of Miraflores de los Angeles, bestowed in 1869 on Juan de Torres de Navarra y de la Vega Ponce de León.

The 3 judges comprising the courtroom (1537-05-31)Andalusian Archives

The judges

The iconography representing the judges in patents of nobility generally depicts them seated on a cushion-covered bench, on which magistrates and the court president were seated.

The court president was identified by the placing of two cushions at his feet, of the same fabric and color as the canopy. The judges were depicted dressed in their robes.

Other benches used by lawyers, officials, and other individuals representing or assisting with the proceedings were sometimes depicted on the sides of the room.

This document shows a detail from the patent of nobility granted to Antonio de Vera in 1537, in which the three judges (known as "oídores") who represented the court are depicted.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1539-02-13)Andalusian Archives

The king

All powers emanated from the monarch, and the granting of nobility to the applicant was symbolically bestowed by him.

Patents of nobility were issued in the name of the king, a fact that was emphasized by the inclusion of his portrait. Depictions of monarchs are interesting because they establish a type of official, authorized portrait. This allows us to track the development of the styles used throughout the Early Modern Era.

The detail of the patent of nobility shown here, granted in 1539 to Andrés González of Valdeoliva (Cuenca), depicts Charles V of Spain seated majestically and adorned with some of his regalia, such as the crown and scepter.

In general, the king is depicted inside the initial letter of the first line of the document's text.

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1598-12-22)Andalusian Archives


Several images of saints and dedications appear in the iconography of patents of nobility.
They provide information on private religious practices, and reflect forms of worship and veneration linked to specific geographical areas and social classes.

An example of this is the miniature on a patent of nobility shown here, awarded by Philip II of Spain to Juan Francisco de Vera in 1598. It features a full-page depiction of the Virgin Mary framed in a Renaissance-style border with floral motifs and a cartouche at the bottom bearing the inscription “Don Phelipe.”

Members of the family kneel before the Virgin Mary, as though in prayer.

The purpose of the image is to link members of the family's lineage to a dedication, reflecting the piety of the time.

Francisco Luis and Isabel Ortiz Vara Family Tree (1666)Andalusian Archives

The nobles

In a society as hierarchical as the Spanish Old Regime, "hidalgos" worked hard to establish a series of visible symbols that would make it clear that they were part of the nobility. All these symbols had a common feature: extolling the past and emphasizing the family lineage.

Iconography alluding to the virtues and values assumed to be inherent to the noble estate was varied in patents of nobility, but with some recurring themes. These themes were: the purity of their blood, the defense of faith, military bravery, and the longevity of their lineage.

A portrait of the ennobled individual was usually included too, often accompanied by his family or scenes depicting their exploits.

Letter patent of nobility (30/01/1764) by González de Andía y Palacios, José.Andalusian Archives

Family trees

Symbolism tends to feature heavily in the iconography of patents of nobility, with family trees being another common feature.

Family trees are a graphic representation of an individual's genealogy and that of their relatives. They were included in patents of nobility in order to demonstrate the longevity of their lineage.

The family tree shown here is from the patents of nobility of Miguel Luis and Antonio del Valle Caviedes, inserted into a notarial deed dating from 1807.

Title of nobility of Bartolomé Villalobos (1536-08-14) by Notaries of BaenaAndalusian Archives

Coats of arms

Patents of nobility feature attractive heraldic elements from the lineage of the individual concerned.

Coats of arms are a quintessential symbol of the nobility, since they are used exclusively by noblemen.

This shows a detail of a coat of arms featured on the patent of nobility granted to Bartolomé Villalobos in 1536.

It is a quartered shield. The first quarter depicts two wolves passant (walking) in sable (black) tincture. The second features ten bezants in gules (red) tincture. The third is a bar in sable tincture. The fourth, in azure, features two wolves in proper (their natural colors).

Definitive Royal Provision of Nobility (1515-03-17)Andalusian Archives


Coats of arms belong to a lineage, not a surname; i.e. to male descendants of the individual to whom the right to use the coat of arms is granted. The arms of that family appear on it.

The image shows the coat of arms featured on the Royal Patent of Nobility granted to Gaspar Mogollón of Alanje (Badajoz), in 1515. Gold shield with two brown bears, passant (walking) and impaled (set against heraldic pale). Bordure with eight gules blades.

Credits: Story

Patents of nobility

Organized by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage of the Regional Government of Andalusia

Curator: Gema Herrera Vázquez. Directorate General of Historical and Documentary Heritage
Text: Ana Melero Casado and Gema Herrera Vázquez. Directorate General of Historical and Documentary Heritage
Photography by: Royal Chancellery of Granada, General Archive of Andalusia and Provincial Historical Archives of Córdoba and Seville
Digital design: Charo Andreu Abrio. Directorate General of Cultural Innovation and Museums

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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