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Today Luxembourg is the only remaining grand duchy. However, some former ruling families of historical grand duchies still retain the titles granted to them, usually from the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815.
The titles of "grand duke" and "grand duchess", when used as a translation from another language, may not necessarily be territorial.
The title of "grand duke" (Latin: Magnus Dux) ranks in honor below king, but higher in diplomatic precedence than a sovereign duke or sovereign prince. Hence, "grand duchy" is the name used when referring to the territory of such a sovereign grand duke or duchess.
The title has confusedly, in translation and in diplomatic ranking (such as deciding who precedes whom in a diplomatic event such as a dinner), been applied to some non-sovereigns, particularly in pre-United Nations eastern European nations. "Grand duke" is also the usual and established translation of sovereign "grand prince" in languages which do not have separate words meaning prince for:
- the non-ruling relatives of a monarch, and
- monarch (sovereign or like) princes. English and French use "grand duke" in this way.
- "Grand Duke" is also the usual and established translation in English and French of the Russian non-sovereign title Velikiy Knjaz (Grand Prince) of Russia, which from 17th century belonged to members of the family of the Russian tsar, although those grand dukes were not sovereigns. (This is an upgrade, not a downgrade. They were not downgraded from sovereign. Quite the opposite, before the growth of Russia and the title of its ruler, the members of the ruler's family had no title, then later were simply non-sovereign "Knjaz" (Prince). Before independence of Russia in 1480, the position of "Velikiy Knjaz of Russia" was appointed by the Khan of the Golden Horde from among the rulers of different Principalities. At a later stage, only Moscow, and from some point in time Moscow stopped asking permission. Several of the Principalities at a late stage proclaimed themselves Grand Principalities in their own right, most notably, Ryazan. This was usually not recognised by Moscow, and was terminated everywhere by eventual Muscovite conquest. These ones were the ones who were really downgraded. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was elective from 1569, under Polish dominance, although de facto mostly under long-standing dynasties. It was conquered by Russia in 1795.)
The title of sovereign "Grand Duke" and its translation of "grand prince" thus have clearly different meanings. In the widespread political reorganisations following World War II many monarchies ceased to exist, making the title far less prevalent and important.
The only grand duchy in existence today is Luxembourg. It has been a grand duchy since 1815 when the Netherlands became an independent kingdom and Luxembourg was handed over to King William I of the Netherlands. Luxembourg remained in personal union with the crown of the Netherlands until 1890 when William III, King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg, died without leaving a male heir. In the Netherlands, he was succeeded by his daughter Wilhelmina and in the Luxembourg, he was succeeded as Grand Duke of Luxembourg by a distant male cousin Adolf, Duke of Nassau— due to Salic law being applicable to Luxembourg but not to the Netherlands. The present Grand Duke of Luxembourg is Henri.
Additionally, other houses of Europe may style themselves as "grand duke" even if they are not wholly recognized as such by rest of the society.
The proper term of "grand duchy" was a later invention, probably originating in Western Europe, to denote lands of a particularly mighty duke, as the duchy had around the end of Middle Ages inflated to belong to rulers of a middle-sized town, shire, or similar relatively small fiefs, instead of the big provinces it once belonged to.
One of the first examples was the unofficial use of the title "grand duke" by the dukes of Burgundy during the 15th century, when they ruled a vast tract of modern day eastern France as well as most of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The first monarchy ever officially titled a "grand duchy" was the Medici sovereignty of Tuscany under overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperors. They received the title in 1569. Tuscany remained a grand duchy until 1860, when it was annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia as part of Italy's reunification.
Expanded use of the term lapsed until the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon used the title "grand duchy" for several territories given to his allies. The elevation of these figures to the title of "grand duke" usually accompanied an expansion of their fiefs with additional lands obtained from defeated powers such as Prussia. Though Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and his vassal territories like the Grand Duchy of Berg were erased from the European map, the representatives assembled at the Congress of Vienna consented to yet more uses of the title by restored dukes and princes, especially for several of those in the lands that had constituted the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, the 19th century saw a new group of monarchies titled grand duchy around Central Europe, such as the Grand Duchy of Hesse.
At the same time, the courtesy use of the title "grand duke" in Russia expanded because of the births of several male dynasts. The new set of grand dukes afforded the Romanovs a respite from the continued issue of the male succession that plagued it during the 18th century.
Within Germany, use of the title expanded after 1815, but its application was not universal. However, in the German language (which has separate words for royal prince, "Prinz", and for sovereign prince, "Fürst"), the grand dukes of Lithuania and historic Russian states, as well as other Eastern European princes and later Russian dynasts, were referred to with the title "Großfürst", a direct translation, rather than using the version "Großherzog".
The title "magnus dux" or "grand duke" (Didysis kunigaikštis in Lithuanian) is said to have been used by the rulers of Lithuania, and after rulers from the Jagiellon dynasty became kings of Poland, it was later found among the titles used by kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish kings of the Swedish Vasa dynasty also used this grand princely title for their non-Polish territories. Modern translations normally credit the Lithuanian monarch with the title of "High King".
Between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I there were several grand duchies in Europe. A considerable number of grand duchies were created in the Napoleonic era, and later following the Congress of Vienna and the foundation of the German Confederation.
- The Grand Duchy of Tuscany (1569–1860, part of Italy afterwards)
- The Grand Duchy of Berg (1806–1813, part of Prussia afterwards)
- The Grand Duchy of Würzburg (1806–1814, part of Bavaria afterwards)
- The Grand Duchy of Baden (1806–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Hesse (1806–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Fulda (1816–1866) part of the Electorate of Hesse
- The Grand Duchy of Finland (correctly translated as Grand Principality, 1809–1917 in Personal Union with Russia, Republic since 1917)
- The Grand Duchy of Frankfurt (1810–1813, part of several German states afterwards)
- The Grand Duchy of the Lower Rhine (1815–1822 as part of Prussia)
- The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (since 1815, in Personal Union with the Netherlands until 1890)
- The Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1815–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1815–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Posen (1815–1848 as part of Prussia, "Großherzogtum Posen")
- The Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1815–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Oldenburg (1829–1918, part of the German Empire since 1871)
- The Grand Duchy of Cracow (1846–1918 in Personal Union with Austria, part of Poland, "Großherzogtum Krakau")
Other jurisdictions often incorrectly labelled "grand duchy" are:
- Grand Duchy of Lithuania (correctly a grand principality, Ruth.: "Великое князство Литовского")
- Grand Duchy of Moscow (correctly a grand principality, Russ.: "Великое Княжество Московское")
- Grand Duchy of Kiev (correctly a grand principality, Ruth.: "Вели́ке Кня́зівство Київське")
- Grand Duchy of Ryazan (correctly a grand principality, Russ.: "Великое Княжество Рязанское")
- Grand Duchy of Rus (correctly a grand principality, Ruth.: "Велике Князівство Руське")
In Belgium, Grand Duché (French for grand duchy) is often used as a metonym to refer to the neighbouring Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. This is often done in order to avoid confusion with the Belgian province of the same name—when hearing Luxembourg, a Belgian would naturally think of the province rather than the Grand Duchy. At the same time, Royaume (French for Kingdom) would be used to refer to Belgium.
Grand princes were medieval monarchs who ruled a nation or several tribes, and were usually at the time translated as kings. However, a grand prince was usually only primus inter pares within a dynasty, other princes of the dynasty were approximately as entitled to succession as the then ruler (succession was for example through agnatic seniority or rotation), and often other members of the dynasty ruled parts of the same realm as some sort of "sub-princes". Such was usual in Eastern Europe, for example among Russians and Lithuanians. As the position of current ruler was not as elevated as that of Western kings, they have been treated more like great princes than full kings.
Velikiy Kniaz was from the 11th century the title of the leading Prince of Kievan Rus' (head of the Rurikid House), then of several princes of the Rus'. From 1328 the Velikii Kniaz of Muscovy appeared as the Grand Duke for "all of Rus" until Ivan IV of Russia in 1547 was crowned as tsar.
The title "grand prince" was used in the Slavic, Baltic, and Russian languages. Великий князь, the Slavic knjaz and the Baltic kunigaitis (usually now translated as "prince") is actually a cognate of "king". Thus, "Veliki Knjaz" was more similar to "high king" than "grand duke".
These countries moved slowly towards primogeniture or their rulers obtained another kingdom, whereby the position of the head of the dynasty became more elevated compared to other dynasts. In such situations, those monarchs assumed a higher title, such as tsar or sole king.
The title "grand prince" (which in many of those lands already was in later grand princely epochs awarded simultaneously to several rulers in the more expanded dynasty) continued as a courtesy title for all or several members of the dynasty, such as the Grand Duke of Russia (veliki knjaz) in Russia's imperial era. The title "velikiy kniaz", finally formalized by Alexander III, was given to sons and grandsons (through male lines) of the tsars and emperors of Russia. The daughters and paternal granddaughters of Russian emperors, as well as the consorts of Russian grand dukes, were generally called "grand duchesses" in English.
A more accurate translation of the Russian title would be "great prince", especially in the pre-Petrine era, but the term is neither standard nor widely used in English. In German, however, a Russian grand duke was known as a Großfürst, and in Latin as Magnus Princeps.
In 1582 King John III of Sweden added Grand Prince of Finland to the subsidiary titles of the Swedish kings, although without any factual consequences since Finland was already a part of the Swedish realm.
After the Russian conquests, the title of "grand duke" continued to be used by the Russian emperor in his role as ruler of Lithuania (1793–1918) and of Grand Duchy of Finland (1809–1917) as well. The Holy Roman Empire ruling house of Habsburg instituted a similar grand principality in Transylvania (Großfürst von Siebenbürgen) in 1765.
The title Didysis kunigaikštis (in Lithuanian) was used by the rulers of Lithuania, who after Jagiello also became kings of Poland, and was later found among the titles used by kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish kings of the Swedish Vasa dynasty also used the title for their non-Polish territories. The Latinized translation of the title of Lithuanian rulers was sometimes Magnus Dux or "grand duke".
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