by V. G. Smith
Those of you who have studied French can translate this motto, and those
who have not may perhaps guess that it means "nobility obliges"; but it
is a favorite expression with so many different people, and it seems to
mean such different things to different persons, that perhaps it may be
worth while to tell a few anecdotes about what nobility has been
supposed to oblige us to do.
When James I. of England was a little boy in Scotland, he had an
extremely clever tutor, George Buchanan. Now Buchanan was a great Latin
scholar. He wrote verses, and was called the Scotch Virgil. Of course he
was very ambitious that his royal pupil should be a good Latin scholar
too, and the books say he "whipped so much knowledge into him" that
James was called the "British Solomon." This was the approved way in
Great Britain at that time to educate boys. But there is a fact about
which most of the books are silent: Buchanan and his friends reasoned
that though it was quite true that James could never learn Latin unless
some one was whipped, it would be a dreadful thing to strike a boy of
the blood royal, and so they arranged that another boy should live at
court, who should be whipped every time James failed in his declensions
This seems to have been a very satisfactory arrangement, and you see, in
this case, "nobility obliged" somebody else to be punished when the
"nobility" had done wrong.
This is the sense in which a great many splendid and magnificent people,
with crowns on their heads and sceptres in their hands, have understood
Tradition does not say what James himself thought about it. Perhaps he
worked all the harder with his lessons, and felt that "nobility obliged"
him not to let any one else suffer for his faults. If that was so, it
was not a bad plan, after all.
There is a better sense in which some have understood the motto. Perhaps
some of you have read the touching letter of the Prince Imperial before
he went to the fatal Zululand, where he was so cruelly murdered. The
poor boy felt as if he had no object in England. He thought of the great
deeds of the other Napoleons, and was stung at his own inaction. There
seemed to be no duty left for him to do, in the way of fighting; but
fight he must, to show he was as brave as the rest of his family. They
say he was a gentle, affectionate, noble-spirited boy, and it seems as
if he thought others would suppose he was weak unless he did some deed
of daring. His nobility obliged him to be foremost in the most
desperate places; and so he died, and the world mourned for him.
I think, as you read history more and more, you will believe, as I do,
that men, and even children, of high birth, are surer to be brave and
courageous than those in more obscure station. They may have other
faults—dreadful ones—but it seems as if they dare not be cowards,
because their whole race is looking at them, and expecting them to be
noble. In this country, where we know so little about our ancestors, we
need a still higher courage to make us do as grand things from yet
For, much as I pity and admire the little Prince, I think there is even
a better way than his to understand the old motto.
Perhaps you have been reading lately some account of the wedding
festivities of the young King Alfonso of Spain; but it is not very long
since he was married to his first wife, sweet little Princess Mercedes,
who died within a few months after her marriage. Indeed, their nobility
often obliges kings who lose their wives to be married again very soon.
It is of Queen Mercedes I wish to tell you. When she was about thirteen
or fourteen years old she was sent to school to a convent in France. The
convent was full of lovely and noble ladies, who had gone there because
they had met with misfortunes of one kind or another. These ladies
taught the young girls under their care very gently; still, there were
certain light punishments for those who were careless or idle. I think
one of these was that the offender should stand in a corner for a
certain length of time.
Although most of the girls were of high birth, the little Princess, soon
to be Queen, was of higher rank than any of the others. Her seat was a
little apart from theirs, and by various small tokens of this kind her
position was recognized.
Now one day it happened that Mercedes committed some fault. Perhaps she
was late in rising, or failed in some other way to carry out the convent
rules. The fault was not serious, and the Sisters did not think it
necessary to enforce the punishment; but Mercedes, blushing very much,
went of her own accord to the corner where she knew she ought to stand,
and staid the appointed time. You see she felt that if she was of too
high rank to receive punishment from others, the duty of inflicting it
upon herself was her own. Noblesse oblige.
Although the illustrations I have given you have all been from royal
families, where, I suppose, the motto originated, I am sure you will be
able to apply it to hundreds of other cases, and will believe that
nobility of character obliges us with still more force to do the best
things always, though we are bound by no outward law.