The Nobility of the Imperium is the result of a system of peerages and hereditary rights granted over thousands of years of Imperial history. The Imperium enshrines and romanticises these Highborn Citizens in its art and media, and, more often than not, a major victory will be attributed to a Highborn Commander or a regiment of renown made up of Scions of noble families, rather than to the Hive Scum legions who actually won it for the Imperium. So important are nobles that many of the highest ranks in the Military and the Imperial Administration will carry noble titles and, often, an array of honourific titles to go with them. Even senior Inquisitors, despite their independence, often wear self-styled titles ranging from the rather simple ‘Lady Inquisitor’ to the more ornate titles like ‘Inquisitor-Suzerain of the Inner Circle’, echoing the Imperial obsession with titles and status.
Creating a Dynasty
Within a Noble House, name is everything. It means a lot more for a Scion to be listed in the family’s records than to be being related by blood. It is a common practice for Houses to adopt suitable individuals into the House if they believe it strengthens their line. Succession is not determined by progeniture or gender; instead, the Head of a House will designate an heir and determine a line of succession, that will remain flexible until the Head dies or abdicates. This issue is further muddied by the fact that, in the Prosperitas Sector, many Scions are created in artificial wombs and gene-designed by their parents, often bearing either little resemblance to them, or clone-like similarity. Therefore, it is unsurprising that familial backstabbing and intrigue are frequent, especially in families with multiple Scions who desperately want to earn the favour of the Head of the House.
As blood holds so little stock against a name, being exiled from the family and stricken from the records is one of the worst punishments imaginable for a noble, as it removes their status and any connection to their family in a single stroke. Keeping track of peerages and lines of precedent and succession is both a vital and monumental task, handed to respected Seneschals who are specially tasked with this duty. Some Houses take it even further and brand their Scions with tattoos and other markings that identify their ancestry and lineage – and prevent impersonators from claiming to be long lost relatives.
What’s In a Name?
Because of the importance of these families, it is common to see a rather immediate reaction when an individual who carries any one of these families names is announced – one does not idly or accidentally carry such a name – and to carry such a name is to carry tradition, enemies and all the baggage that comes with being member of such a dynasty.
In some cases, individuals will carry double barrelled names such as Sarandeen-Mardis – these are normally members of a Vassal House, a Lesser House that swore fealty to a Greater House, and under their protection. Thus they use their liege’s name first, and then that of their own family. However, if the order of names is reversed (such as “Volkov-Majid), with the Greater House name coming second, then this is what is known as a Cadet House (see below).
Members of a House, even the lowest ranked, will have a noble title (Lord/Lady if they favour gendered titles, or the non-gendered “Scion”), while the Head of the House will have the family title. Nobles who are also officers are normally addressed by their military rank. Titles that combine officer ranks and noble titles, like “Lord-Captain” and “Lady-General” are reserved either for the leaders of Rogue Trader families or very high ranking officers (in this case, the non-gendered title is “Liege”). The Imperium does not formally acknowledge the rank of “King\Queen” or similar, but this does not prevent some less civilized planets from bestowing the title. The actual designations of titles and ranks of the Houses of the Prosperitas Sector often vary from planet to planet.
Ties That Bind: Marriage
Marriage is a common tool of alliance, strengthening bonds between the main House and its vassal Houses, or creating unions and alliances between Houses. As most marriages are seen primarily as political tools at best and business transactions at worst, the desires of Scions are rarely taken into account. Unsurprisingly, most noble marriages are loveless, although there are some fortunate — and rare — exceptions. Gender is not a factor to these unions: the Imperium in M.41 has access to arcane sciences, allowing for the production of genetic heirs without requiring physical compatibility of two (or more) parents. With the need for descendents no longer a factor, the primary issues that will be taken into account when making a match are the Scion’s standing, wealth and place in the line of succession.
While unusual, it is possible for a single noble to have multiple spouses: it usually involves members of several vassal Houses marrying one of the Scions of their Liege-House; a three-(or more)way marriage between Scions of similar status (where all spouses are married to each other, instead of multiple spouses wedded to a single one) is much rarer, but not entirely unheard of.
Traditionally, when two Scions of different Houses marry, whoever has a lowest status will join their spouse’s family — giving up both family name and place in the line of succession — in exchange for an increase in status. In some cases, a higher-ranking Scion will accept leaving their family for someone of lower standing — usually in exchange for an exorbitant wedding gift (the immensely wealthy Trader Houses, considered to be of low status, frequently acquire Scions of a high rank in such a manner). When this happens, the higher-ranking Scion still abandons the line of succession, but is allowed to retain the original family name and title — this title is non-hereditary and will not be passed on the couple’s children. Instead, the children are allowed to choose which House they will join when they come of age.
Scions not considered important enough to be married off are often used to strengthen ties with other Imperial institutions. Having had access to the finest tutors and education in the Imperium, Scions are well-equipped to serve in any branch — but there is a strong tradition of sending them to either join the Priesthood of the Ecclesiarchy or the Imperial Military, especially the latter given how many noble Houses owe their fortunes to the Prosperitas Crusade.
Lifestyles of the Rich and the Noble
Scions will spend most of their lives without any contact with the working masses: their education starts at home, conducted by a battalion of tutors, instructors and masters. A basic education of history, imperial law, etiquette and knowledge of High Gothic is just the beginning. After all, being able to navigate the cutthroat waters of polite society requires so much more: how to dress, speak or even move are things that cannot be overlooked, and, thus, are drummed into their minds from an early age. Artistic accomplishments are highly appreciated and considered a mark of refinement, but so is martial skill. Unsurprising, in a culture that venerates war and conquest. All noble children have, at least, basic knowledge of strategy and tactics, and many a family evening is spent playing games like chess and Regicide. For the more traditionalist (or martially-inclined) families, combat training is likewise expected: being capable of defending yourself as well as the Head of the House is seen as the duty of any Scion.
Of course, compared to the masses, nobles lead a charmed life: constantly in the public eye, dressed in fineries, and partaking of lavish parties almost every night, it’s unsurprising that they are treated as celebrities by many. Their excesses are easily forgiven in the face of how they are living embodiments the fantasies of wealth and fame of the lower classes.
It is considered scandalous for unmarried Scions (of any gender) to be seen in public in the company of other unmarried nobles while unchaperoned. Surprisingly, chaperones are not meant to protect the purity or reputation of the Scion in question. Instead, their purpose is to prevent more inexperienced young nobles from being seduced into doing something stupid by their more experienced (and ruthless) peers — like accidentally revealing family secrets or allowing themselves to be put in a compromising situation. Chaperones are usually relatives, but family friends or even hired tutors can also fill the role, especially if they knowledgeable of the ways of society. Unsurprisingly, young Scions will do all they can to escape their escorts and gather with their peers out of the prying eyes of their elders. Should two unchaperoned Nobles be seen in each other’s company too frequently, it will be immediately assumed that their families are in talks of marriage. If the marriage proposal is not forthcoming, the rumour mill will go into overdrive, and all kinds of justifications will be trotted out (ranged from one of them being made a patsy, to the family finding fault with them and cancelling the marriage).
After a Scion marries, however, chaperones are no longer required in the company of others. Since most noble marriages are more political agreements than relationships, it is neither uncommon nor controversial for married Scions to take lovers. Loyalty — not fidelity — is the virtue expected of a noble union, after all. In some planetary cultures, Scions are outright encouraged to assist finding a lover worthy of their spouse.
The Art of War
Strife between noble Houses is common, and, most of the times, clashes occur in the political and economic arenas. However, the Imperium of Man has a strong duelling tradition, and death and bloodshed have resulted from more literal conflicts. As long as the situation does not spiral out of control, the Imperial authorities are happy to turn a blind eye, and let them go at each other. In some ways, the Imperium is happy to encourage brutal and cutthroat competition between nobles — it functions as a form of social Darwinism, edging out those too weak to rule. All Houses keep deadly warriors on retainer with the single purpose of fighting in their stead. Many Scions train in the deadly arts of combat, in hopes of earning the position of Champion, which allows them to take (or issue) challenges on behalf of the House. As it is expected for a Champion to be member of the family, it is not uncommon for particularly skilled duellists to be adopted into a family for that specific purpose.
Dueling is usually a formal, but no less deadly affair, with very specific codes and traditions that often vary from planet to planet, and even from House to House: some will allow only one-on-one combat, while others will prefer vast and ritualised battles between House armies.
The universal protocol, however, is for a House to issue a formal challenge to the Scion that has offended them. If the offense was grave enough, the challenge may be issued to the Head of the House. The challenged House then will schedule the duel, and both sides will negotiate the terms (if any). Traditionally, terms include things such involvement of the Champion (assuming she did not issue or accept the duel already), location, consequences and conditions of defeat. By law, duels to the death are not allowed – normally, duels are to first blood, yield or until one of the combatants can no longer fight. However, when deadly weapons are involved, so many things can ‘accidentally’ go wrong, and ‘accidental’ deaths are prone to happen.
A duel is an honour afforded only to other nobles, although military officers are, sometimes, recognised as deserving of such a recognition. Should a lower class citizen have the nerve to offend a member of the nobility by challenging one to a duel, a swift and brutal retribution is to be expected.
Houses of the Prosperitas Sector
The Great Houses
The Great Houses is a term that refers to the nine most powerful noble families within the Prosperitas Sector. Although the nine technically are considered of equal wealth and status, there is still some degree of stratification within the:
- Primus Houses are the four ‘founding families’ of the Prosperitas Sector, the members of the Imperiali Nobility who accompanied the first Warmaster Durovera when she left Terra at the head of the nascent Prosperitas Crusade. These Houses are capable of tracing their roots back thousands of years, some even to the founding of the Imperium, to their parent Houses based on Holy Terra itself. They have history, they have power, they have prestige and, most importantly, they have connections. The four Primus Houses of the Prosperitas Sector are House Durovera (who additionally possesses a Warrant of Trade), House Vilas-Lobo, House Palamyr and House Caerlyn
- Rogue Trader Houses are unique amongst the Imperium, let alone the nobility, for they are in possession of a document known as a Warrant of Trade. Though some Warrants were granted as rewards, others are little more of documents of exile, charging individuals too powerful to be prosecuted through Imperial channels (or just outright killed) with the task of exploring and exploiting the uncharted regions of the galaxy. Within the Prosperitas Sector, there are three major Dynasties that possess a Warrant of Trade – all of which have largely settled down to govern regions of the sector and grow wealthy through trade – though some Scions of the family may still rely on the Warrant of Trade to exercise authority over expeditions of the wild-space of the Rimward Marches and the Nemean Gulf. In addition to House Durovera – who re-found the sector at the start of M.41 – two other Rogue Trader charters operate in the sector: House di Firro and House Majid, both of which base most of their wealth on trade rather than exploration.
- The Great Chartist Houses are so called ‘Chartist’ families, who owe their nobility to the possession of an Imperial Charter granting them an effective monopoly to provide the Imperium with an essential service or transport and sale of particular goods and services. They are essentially giant hereditary megacorporations, and what they lack in prestige and land (compared to ‘planetary’ Houses), they make up for in considerable wealth and resources. The wealthiest of these own the rights over one of the many trade routes throughout the sector, and are able to tax other ships for the right to use them — of which only a nominal fee makes it to the coffers of the Imperial Navy tasked with patrolling them. There are many minor Chartist Houses, but only three have power to be considered one of the Great Houses: House Ruttyer, House Monforte and House Globex.
Although each of the Great Houses is technically of similar standing, the Primus Houses and the Rogue Trader Houses – owing to their charted history, ancient bloodlines and the authority granted by Warrants of Trade and Imperial Titles – are usually considered to be of a higher prestige in matters of social standing when it comes to the internal politics of marriage and eligibility than the Great Chartist Houses.
You can find the details of the Great Houses [here]
A Cadet House generally occurs when an entire family is ‘adopted’ into a Great House, and, by special leave of the Head of the House, are allowed to retain their original family name to honour their roots. They carry the status of the Great House they belong to, as they are part of the Great House, rather than being simply under their direct protection. Like Vassal houses, they will, formally, carry double names – but the order is what separates them is telling – a Cadet House will bear their family name first and their “main” House second, such as ‘Rutger-Monforte’ or (the now former) ‘Volkov-Majid’. Obviously that the creation of a Cadet house isn’t as simple as just getting permission – extensive checks on a family’s historic and genetic background occup to ensure they are trustworthy, compatible and ideal for such adoption.
Vassal Houses and other Lesser Houses
Beyond the Great Houses there are hundreds of smaller noble Houses, these are divided between the Vassal Houses to swear their allegiance to one of the Great Houses, and the Lesser Houses which are often young newly-formed families currently independent of the rule of one of the Great Houses. Although a Vassal House and a Lesser House are technically of the same social standing, a Vassal House will be more appealing for marriage because of the guarantee of protection from a Great House.
Because all but a few worlds within the Prosperitas Sector were awarded to their various governors as ‘prizes’ for military service and outstanding actions in the line of duty, the majority of the noble Houses in the Sector are young by Imperial standards. Most of them trace their lineage back to Imperial officers and war heroes who were elevated to noble status when they were granted dominion over their worlds. These majority of these smaller Houses are too small and too numerous to cover in this entry, and their power is simply not enough to move things on the interstellar scale, though a few families of note are covered below.
- House Sarandeen: Sits at the centre of a vast trade empire and holds the Munitorum charter for the production and distribution of all conventional solid-slug ammunition across the Prosperitas Sector – formerly a vassal of House Majid until it broke with them and swore themselves to House Vilas-Lobo.
- House Roshan-Fikran: Renowned for its impressive educational facilities on the hollowed-out moon of Mazar-63, the House provides funding to multiple educational establishments across the sector, taking nothing but inducting their best graduates into their own facilities, or indeed adopting them into the house.