Handwritten letters patent of nobility for Leopold Spitzl von Peitzenstein from 1783

The business of war was not an easy business. Especially not in said 18th century some refer to as enlightened. The Austrian army marched into the Seven Years’ War from 1756 until 1763 and into the War of Succession from 1778 until 1779. In 1784, it quelled the Revolt of Horea in Transylvania and fought the in the Kettle War against Holland from 1784 until 1785.

Cannon fodder, i.e. common soldiers, were easily come by. Drilling them until they were ready to fight did not take all too long. However, well-trained men were needed for the officer corps; men who were willing to do low-paid service for many years. In order to offer them an incentive, they were granted the rank of nobility – given that they behaved properly, of course – after 30 years (if they had fought in a campaign) or, since 1896, after 40 years of service even without a campaign.

Our Leopold Spitzl completed his service in 1783 and did then receive his beautifully embellished letters patent, which can now be seen at the MoneyMuseum. Such a letters patent was quite a sight with its velvet binding, hand-written on finest parchment, elaborately embellished, with grand crests.

Joseph II and the generals during a visit of camp at Münchendorf in 1786. Painting by Martin Ferdinand Quadal. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna.

Leopold Spitzl was not the only one who was awarded this honor by Joseph II. Dozens of men advanced to the rank of noble man, knight or baron in addition to counts and dukes. They all had paid quite a sum for this honor: 1,075 gulden were due for the lower rank of nobility. Those who wished to obtain the attribute “Edler” had to pay 10% extra. The rank of knight cost 1,575 gulden. And a large amount of additional fees had to be added to that: for the writer, the crest painter, the crest censor and the bookbinder. Even the capsule for the imperial seal and the laces were charged extra.


Regular officers got off cheaper. They did not have to pay any additional fees. In return, they had sold their soul to the war. In a contemporary history of the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) we can read about how our Leopold Spitzl, who had since advanced to the rank of senior lieutenant of Peitzenstein, attacked, looted and burned the village of Gorize. The historian at the time did not care about the number of civilians who died in this attack. He raved about how only 7 out of the 400 Austrian soldiers were injured. And that 75 oxen, 9 horses and a lot of clothes and utensils were seized under the leadership of the brave senior lieutenant of Peizenstein.


Times have changed. While we send our soldiers to go see a psychologist today to rehabilitate them into society after having experience the horrors of war, the Austrians promoted their veterans to noble men and thus accepted them into the rank of society who considered itself the country’s elite.


*Joseph Georg Oehler, Ausführliche Geschichte des Krieges zwischen Rußland, Oesterreich und der Türkey und des daraus entstandenen nordischen Krieges. Volume 5. (2. edition, 1792), pp. 143-146

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