The Estates of the realm were the broad divisions of society, usually distinguishing nobility, clergy, and commoners recognized in the Middle Ages and later in some parts of Europe. While various realms inverted the order of the first two, commoners were universally tertiary, and often further divided into burghers (also known as bourgeoisie) and peasants, and in some regions, there also was a population outside the estates. An estate was usually inherited and based on occupation, similar to a caste.
Legislative bodies or advisory bodies to a monarch were traditionally grouped along lines of these estates, with the monarch above all three estates. Meetings of the estates of the realm became early legislative and judicial parliaments (see The States). Two medieval parliaments derived their name from the estates of the realm: the primarily tricameral Estates-General (États-Généraux) of the Kingdom of France (the analogue to the bicameral Parliament of England but with no constitutional tradition of vested powers: the French monarchy remaining absolute); and the unicameral Estates of Parliament, also known as the Three Estates the parliament of the Kingdom of Scotland (which had more power over the monarch than the French assembly, but less than the English one), and its sister institution the Convention of Estates of Scotland.
The First Estate comprised the entire clergy, traditionally divided into "higher" and "lower" clergy. Although there was no formal demarcation between the two categories, the upper clergy were, effectively, clerical nobility, from the families of the Second Estate. In the time of Louis XVI, every bishop in France was a nobleman, a situation that had not existed before the 18th century. At the other extreme, the "lower clergy" (about equally divided between parish priests and monks and nuns) constituted about 90 percent of the First Estate, which in 1789 numbered somewhat over 100,000.
The French inheritance system of primogeniture meant that nearly all French fortunes would pass largely in a single line, through the eldest son. Hence, it became very common for second sons to join the clergy. Although some dedicated churchmen came out of this system, much of the higher clergy continued to live the lives of aristocrats, enjoying the wealth derived from church lands and tithes and, in some cases, paying little or no attention to their churchly duties. The ostentatious wealth of the higher clergy was, no doubt, partly responsible for the widespread anticlericalism in France, dating back as far as the Middle Ages, and was certainly responsible for the element of class resentment within the anticlericalism of many peasants and wage-earners. The first estates had to pay taxes to the second and third estates.
Similar class resentments existed within the First Estate.
During the latter years of the Ancien Régime, the Catholic Church in France (the Gallican Church) was a separate entity within the realm of Papal control, both a State within a State and Church within a Church. The King had the right to make appointments to the bishoprics, abbeys, and priories and the right to regulate the clergy.
The Second Estate is traditionally divided into "noblesse de robe" ("nobility of the robe"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, and "noblesse d'épée" ("nobility of the sword").
The Second Estate constituted approximately 0.5% of France's population. Under the ancien régime, the Second Estate were exempt from the corvée royale (forced labor on the roads) and from most other forms of taxation such as the gabelle (salt tax) and most important, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation).
The French nobility was not a closed class, and many means were available to rich land owners or state office holders for gaining nobility for themselves or their descendants.
Noblemen shared honorary privileges such as the right to display their unique coat of arms and the prestige right to wear a sword. This helped to reinforce the idea of their natural superiority. They could also collect taxes from the third estate called feudal dues, this was to be for the third estate's protection.
The Third Estate (Fr. tiers état) was the generality of people which were not part of the other estates.
The Third Estate comprised all those who were not members of the aristocracy or the clergy, including peasants, working people and the bourgeoisie. In 1789, the Third Estate made up 97% of the population in France. Due in part to a limited franchise, the representatives of the Third Estate actually came from the wealthy upper bourgeoisie; sometimes the term's meaning has been restricted to the middle class, as opposed to the working class.
They had to pay taxes to the First Estate.
The first Estates-General was called by Philip IV in 1302, in order to obtain national approval for his National Assembly June 17, 1789) and then as the National Constituent Assembly (July 9, 1789), a unitary body composed of the former representatives of the three estates.
Notions of equality and fraternity would soon triumph over official recognition of a noble class. Some nobles such as the Marquis de Lafayette supported the abolition of legal recognition of nobility, but even some other liberal nobles who had happily sacrificed their fiscal privileges saw this as an attack on the culture of honor. Nonetheless, the French Nobility was disbanded outright by the National Constituent Assembly on June 19, 1790, during the same period in which they were debating the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
From the 16th century, the second estate was reorganised by the selection of shire Commissioners: this has been argued to have created a fourth estate. During the 17th century, after the Union of the Crowns, a fifth estate of royal office holders (see Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland) has been identified as well. These latter identifications remain highly controversial among parliamentary historians. Regardless, the term used for the assembled members continued to be 'the Three Estates'.
A Shire Commissioner was the closest equivalent of the English office of Member of Parliament, namely a commoner or member of the lower nobility. Because the parliament of Scotland was unicameral, all members sat in the same chamber, as opposed to the separate English House of Lords and House of Commons.
The Parliament also had University constituencies (see Ancient universities of Scotland). The system was also adopted by the Parliament of England when James VI ascended to the English throne. It was believed that the universities were affected by the decisions of Parliament and ought therefore to have representation in it. This continued in the Parliament of Great Britain after 1707 and the Parliament of the United Kingdom until 1950.
One contrast between the French and British systems: the lower clergy in France were part of the First Estate, but in Britain they were commoners. Similarly, in Britain only titled peers are Lords Temporal. Other members of aristocratic families are also considered commoners.
This legal division existed until the modern age in Finland. However, at the start of the 20th century, most of the population did not belong to any Estate and had no political representation. A particularly large class were the rent farmers, who did not own the land they cultivated, but had to work in the land-owner's farm to pay their rent. (Unlike Russia, there were no slaves or serfs.) Furthermore, the industrial workers living in the city were not represented by the four-estate system. The political system was reformed, and the last Diet was dissolved in 1905, to create the modern parliamentary system, ending the political privileges of the estates. The constitution of 1919 forbade giving new noble ranks, and all tax privileges were abolished in 1920. The privileges of the estates were officially and finally abolished in 1995, although in legal practice, the privileges had long been unenforceable. However, the nobility has never been officially abolished and records of nobility are still voluntarily maintained by the Finnish House of Nobility.
Nevertheless, the old traditions and in particular ownership of property changed slowly, and the rent-farmer problem became so severe that it was a major cause to the Finnish Civil War. Although the division became irrelevant following the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and political parties, industrialization and urbanization, their traditions live on in the political parties of Sweden and Finland.
In Finland, it is still illegal and punishable by jail time (up to one yarr) to defraud into marriage by declaring a false name or estate (Rikoslaki 18 luku § 1).
Large realms of the nobility or clergy had estates of their own that could wield great power in local affairs. Power struggles between ruler and estates were comparable to similar events in the history of the British and French parliaments.