The nobility comprise the First Estate, Those Who Fight. They stand at the top of medieval society, upon a foundation of feudalism. As “Those Who Fight”, the nobles are born warriors by tradition. Their lot in life is to fight, to be the protectors of all those below them in rank and status and in return to rule them as wisely and well as they can, and also render service to those above them in rank. In general, all nobles are members of the “baronage” (except for Knights Simple who are landless). The barons, sometimes referred to as “magnates”, vary greatly in wealth, power, and influence. Lesser barons are bound to greater barons or “tenants-in-chief” in ties of homage and fealty, and both sorts to the king of the realm in return for their feofs, and all Knights with and without estates.
The term “feudalism” was actually coined by 18th century historians to describe a society based on “feofs” (pl. “FEEFs”, sing. “FEEF”). The tenure of land ownership and social relationships among the nobility and extending into the classes below share the same general pattern and character of the greater feudal system, so the whole society came to be described as “feudal”.
Feofs are estates, large tracts of land (mostly cultivated), held by noble warriors for life from the king (who ultimately owned all land, in theory), either directly or through another (greater) noble, in return for supplying a set number of knights for a yearly term of military service (servicium debitum, 40 days) usually during the campaign season – late spring to early fall. Feudal practice grew out of the warrior-based systems created by the Franks, Normans, Burgundians, and a host of others, in the wake of the crumbling of the Roman Empire, a brutal, crude, and largely lawless period often referred to as the Dark Ages.
After the Crown, the nobles in the realm are the greatest of the landowners, thus they rule, under the ultimate liege-lord of every nobleman in the realm – the king. The nobleman receiving a feof becomes a “vassal”, the sworn man of the king or lord who has granted him his lands, estates and his rights over all that lies within it, including the residents, which is called his feof. The feof is bestowed in return for the sworn oath of fealty and an act of homage. “Fealty” is the term used to described the nobleman’s obligation, social and military, to the grantor of his feof, and “Homage” is a humble act illustrating the nobleman’s new status under his lord.
When a Freeman shall do Fealty to his Lord of whom he holds in Chief, he shall place his right hand upon a holy book, and shall say thus,
“Hear you, my Lord [A.], that I, [B.], shall be to you both faithful and true, and shall owe my Fidelity unto you, for the Land that I hold of you, and lawfully shall do such Customs and Services, as my Duty is to you, at the times assigned. So help me [Eternal Light and all the sainted spirits within It].”
But when a Villein shall do Fealty unto his Lord, he shall hold his right hand over the holy book, and shall say thus,
“Hear you, my Lord [A.], that I, [B.], from this day forth unto you shall be true and faithful, and shall owe you Faith for the land that I hold of you in Villeinage; and shall be justified by you in Body and Goods.
So help me [Eternal Light and all the sainted spirits within It].”
When a Freeman shall do Homage to his Lord, he shall hold his hands together between the hands of his Lord, and shall say thus,
“I become your Man from this day forth, for life, for member, and for worldly honor, and shall owe you Faith for the Lands that I hold of you; saving only the Faith that I owe unto our Lord the King.”
But when a Freeman shall do Homage to any other than to his Chief Lord, and for a simple Tenement, he shall hold his hands together between the Hands of his Lord, and shall say thus,
“I become your Man from this day forth, and shall bear you Faith for the Tenement which I claim to hold of you; saving the Faith that I owe to our Lord the King, and to my other Lords.”
The act of homage will always be redressed with a kiss of equality when it is a fellow nobleman who is pledging himself, so no damage is done to the vassal’s honor by the act.
The feof of a nobleman is called his “honor”, the honor is governed from a residential castle. This is what divides the Lord from the Knight. The Knight’s fee is a manor (c.1200 acres), and it might take upwards of 200 manors or more to support a single castle. If a magnate has more than one castle, one of them will be the “capitus”, or head, also known as the seat, of his honor, the rest will be smaller and of a primarily if not strictly, military nature.
The honor of Pontefract is headed by Castle Pontefract and supported by five subsidiary (military) castles. Castle Framlingham is the seat of the earls of Norfolk.
Though the castle is the basis of military might in the medieval world, the residential castles of the barons and the greater magnates are lived in far more than they see active use in battle. The principle residential castle is the center of (local) baronial government and the main residence of the Lord, where the bulk of his wealth is kept and displayed, and where the archives of records of the business of his estates will be kept.
The honor of Richmond included 424 manors, the honor of Chester some 450.
The greatest of the magnates, the earls, dukes, and marquesses will commonly hold more than one honor, spread across multiple shires.
William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, held honors in Lewes, Sussex and south Yorkshire. Aubrey de Vere was created the first Earl of Oxford (Cambridgeshire), holding the 14 estates in Essex granted to his grandfather by King William I, 9 estates in Suffolk, but only 7 estates actually in Cambridgeshire itself.
The military obligation of a vassal to his lord is determined by the size of the feof he is given, at a rate of 1 knight per £20 in annual income derived from the land. Some of the greater magnates will owe the service of 70 to 80 Knights. The honour of Richmond, in Kent, whose capitus was Castle Richmond, was held for the service of 60 knights, indicating an annual income from it of £1200 per year. The lords generally support the Knights they owe the service of as members of their households, though they may grant manor feofs to those Knights who distinguish themselves by outstanding service. This way they provide a livelihood for the loyal and deserving while relieving themselves of the burden of their support. While they are a part of the lord’s own household, the lord is responsible to equip his knights and provide them with food, quarters, firewood, candles and/or torches, and clothing (often called “livery”).
A lord might employ his Knights as officers over the various departments of his household (in the same manner done by the king himself, though on a smaller scale), or appoint his Knights as stewards over several of his manors, over a body of bailiffs-in-residence. A great Lord might create a lesser baron of a truly deserving retainer by granting him one of his smaller, military castles or allotting him one or more manor estates (lordships) within the greater lord’s own holdings, in return for the service of 3 or 4 or 5 Knights, as appropriate. While some lords will provide estates for all the Knights whose service they owe, some take on and enfeof more Knights than are owing, coming to command substantial private armies. Still others keep most of the Knights whose service the owe as dependents in their households, granting feofs to only a few – a common practice among the lords of the Church. Some of the enfeoffed lesser barons and Knights split their feofs with others, in turn, from whom they demand a portion of the military service they themselves owe. This practice is called “sub-infeudation”.
The first Lord of Richmond sub-infeudated both of his brothers, giving the honor three chief castles.
As feudal society came into full flower in England (the model for RoM) all feudal ties of vassalage were made secondary to the ultimate oaths of the chief lords to the king of the realm, on the strength of the theory that all land belonged to the king, since the lesser lords could not have been enfeoffed by the greater lords if the king had not first granted the chief nobles their estates.
While the notion that these lords were constantly engaged in great pitched battles against one another with the private armies of Knights they were expected to support is prevalent today, this is greatly exaggerated. While there were, indeed, rebellions of some barons and other greater lords, these were usually against the king and his supporters and rather rare, and there were battles with the Welsh on one hand the and Scots on the other, and periodic battles on the Continent to protect or re-conquer the Angevin possessions. But the fighting the continent was also sporadic (excepting the 100 Years’ War). For the nobles to fight private wars between themselves while the rest of the kingdom was at peace is a gross violation of the Pax Regis, the King’s Peace, into which the king and the rest of his vassals would ride to punish both parties if they could not be shamed into desisting.
Disagreements between nobles might be carried out with swords on a field of battle, but it would have to be a private matter settled by judicial duel, otherwise disagreements might be prosecuted in the courts and pursued with bands of their household men on a much smaller scale – stealing livestock; ousting the tenants of coveted manors and installing their own; collecting their rivals’ rents, and the like. Neither are the noblemen allowed to hire mercenaries in their own right – although nobles of questionable morals might maintain agents of dubious character (or even outright bandits, thieves, and outlaws) in their households for ‘special causes’ to be performed on the sly, and those pushed to the edge of their temperament might maintain mercenaries in their household illegally as a part of their retinue. For a lord to take on mercenaries, even under the cover of proper social convention, is known as “bastard feudalism” in modern parlance and requires great care to practice for it is a violation of both law and custom, subject to heavy fines and sanctions, and can far too easily be construed as defiance, fomenting riot, both treasonable offenses. No lord, regardless of rank, raises arms in the kingdom without a specific warrant to do so from the Crown, and none hire mercenaries except the Crown or those agents charged by the Crown to do so for a specific occasion or campaign.
Despite the popularity of foreign mercenaries from Wales and Flanders there, Magna Carta prohibited the use of foreign mercenaries in England except as “supplemental” forces. Those foreigners brought into the realm, especially during “The Anarchy” in Stephen’s reign, created more problems in the end than they aided the Crown in solving.
While a king’s rights over lands and subjects are in many ways sweeping, they do have boundaries. They must be used in the customary methods established by the royal ancestors. Even the common folk have a say in some matters, and the barons of the land and the greater magnates and especially the tenants-in-chief holding directly from the Crown have a say in a great many more matters and royal policies. The most basic of the king’s rights over his vassals and tenants are the same ones enjoyed by every lord over his vassals by feudal custom and tradition, and custom hath the force of law. These rights are called relief, primer seizin, heriot, wardship, fine on alienation, aid, and forfeiture.
While the land held by a vassal is hereditary in practice, the death of the vassal originally ended the contract with the liege-lord. The king or lord legally (theoretically) has the right to take the lands he has granted back at the death of the vassal but, in practice over time, the heir is invested with the lands due him, until it became custom. But custom hath the force of law, and denying Henry Hotspur his extensive inheritance fired him to topple a king.
Before he may assume his father’s feof, the heir must first pay a “relief”. Relief is a sort of inheritance tax paid to the grantor of the feof, and is traditionally equal in value to the produce of the estate for a year, but it is generally agreed among the nobility that up to twice that is also reasonable, particularly on great estates. Even freemen must pay relief to assume their father’s lands when tenants on a lord’s estate.
If the inheritor of an estate fails to pay the required relief, the king or lord has the right of “primer seizin”, that is, to seize the land and all its proceeds and to continue to enjoy that income until the relief is paid.
When a landed tenant dies, “heriot” is required to be paid first out of the estate. This stems from the practice of returning the horse, weapons and armor originally supplied to the vassal by his lord for use in serving his feudal duty when the feof was first received. With the advent of “scutage” (money payment in lieu of military service), this was transformed into the gift of the best of the tenant’s livestock out of the estate prior to inheritance. One of the differences between the free commoner and the landbound is the fact that, while freemen tenants must pay relief, freemen tenants do not pay heriot.
In the event that the heir of an estate is too young to inherit (15 for commoners, 21 for nobles), the king or lord has not only the right, but the responsibility, of “wardship”. When the wardship of an estate is assumed, the king or lord reaps all the proceeds and benefits until the heir grows to an age to fulfill his family obligations, specifically military obligations in the case of noble wards. Oftentimes the ward is brought to the king’s or lord’s own court and household to be fostered until he reaches the age of majority and can assume his estates. Wardships are commonly sold to families seeking marriage partners for their children, or given as temporary sources of additional income to those who have earned the favor of the Crown.
An extension of the principle of wardship, the king or lord has the right to select a husband for any heiress to whom a feofdom or estate has fallen, to guard against the passing of the lands into the hands of his enemies, or into the hands of any who cannot fulfill the family’s (military) responsibilities. The king or lord will commonly use this right as a way to reward those in his favor with a wife of rich estates. The only restriction upon the king or lord in this right is that he may not marry the lady to a man who is her social inferior, nor make her marry a man she truly cannot abide, though the latter is not likely to occur. This is also expressed as the king’s or lord’s right to forbid any undesirable marriage he finds his vassals negotiating. While the vassal may not be told who he will marry (though his Majesty may make his preference known), he can say who he may NOT.
When a vassal dies without any surviving heirs of the blood, without issue and without relatives on his own or his wife’s sides of the family, the estate becomes subject to “escheat”. An escheat is an estate that returns part and parcel to the king or lord, no matter how it has been increased or changed in extent since the original grant, to be kept and enjoyed by him or regranted to some other worthy vassal, or otherwise disposed as he sees fit.
If a noble wishes to alienate a portion of his feof, whether to sub-infeudate by giving a portion of it to a vassal or to give a portion of it to another landholder in an exchange, he may do so without having to obtain the permission of the Crown, although doing so involves a fee, a “fine on alienation”.
Though selling land was originally illegal, due to the fact that (at least in theory) all of the land belonged to the Crown, feofdoms were granted under the guise of vassalage in return for a fee. Since the Crown was unable to put a stop to the practice, this fine eventually amounted to a tax on the sale of land.
In order to offset the costs of certain extraordinary times or ceremonies, the king or lord occasionally claim an “aid”, or the award of supplementary monies (an extraordinary tax) from his tenants. The king or lord actually has the right to demand an aid upon the marriage(s) of his daughter(s) and upon the knighting of his son(s), because of the great cost of these affairs, which are attended by the nobility at large (the reason the affairs are so expensive in the first place). More importantly, the ling or lord can request an aid in the event of (accompanying the king to) war, to help finance the mercenaries that will supplement his own Knights, and also to pay for provisions and the carriage of equipment to the battle site. An aid may also be collected on the king’s or lord’s behalf in case of his capture in order to pay his ransom.
Each aid requested is a separate thing to be determined individually, there will be no fixed rate (though a customary rate did prevail). Each aid will be negotiated between the Crown and those who will have to pay it. The nobility will commonly protest the paying of an aid for war, and dicker sharply over the percentage to be paid. Money aids are generally based upon the money value of the moveable goods owned by the nobility on their various estates, but might be based upon the extent of their lands, measured in “hideage” (parcels of land of 120 acres each). Carucage (carriage of freight) might be rendered in place of money for an aid, as well, the transport of men and supplies to a negotiated staging area.
The penalty for breaking the constraints of or failure to abide by the feudal contract by a vassal is called “forfeiture”. By this, the estates granted are claimed again by the grantor in the same manner as an escheat. In the same vein, when a tenant refuses to provide the labor dues attached to the land he occupies, he forfeits it and is put out of the property. On the other hand, when the lord breaks his own obligations to his vassal, the vassal can attempt a “defiance”, refusing in turn to uphold his end of the feudal contract and attempting to hold his feof free of all feudal duty or obligations. This is rarely of benefit to the vassal, unless he is strong enough to make his revolt a success.
If the vassal loses a defiance, forfeiture is only a part of the penalty, the headsman’s axe awaits as well if he cannot get free and flee to safety.
As the king holds these rights over the greatest lords of the realm, the greater lords hold these same rights over their vassal barons and lesser nobles, and the barons hold these same rights over their vassal knights, as the Knights do over the tenant bordars, cottars, and serfs bound to their lands. But these relationships work both ways. While the lesser must do good service unto the greater, the greater must serve the interests of the lesser in turn where their influence will do them the most good, especially where the lesser is in need of a patron to succeed or face failure. As mentioned, the key to the feudal system is the personal relationships between dependents and superiors.
The player and GM must understand that all the fuss about land and rulership only really describes the upper-most layers of medieval society, the nobility as a whole comprising only 1% of the total population, Among the common people, the townsfolk only comprised about 10% of the population. The feudal system really has little if anything to do with most (free) commoners, even the wealthy merchants, except insofar as the feudal rights of the lords restrict their activities, a toll here and a tax there, purveyance, carucage, etc. The lower classes will be hedged about by the obligations created by the feudal system, in particular by the manorial, or signeurial, system over which the feudal lords preside, by which they rule, particularly influencing the customs and requirements by which the poor farmers and the landbound classes hold their property. Since their lot is to work the land, all tenants both free and landbound are bound by custom to provide a fixed number of days of work on the lord’s land, called week-work, and a certain number of specific farming tasks, almost invariably having to do with getting the lord’s fields harvested and his grain threshed each year. These are called signeurial dues, representing a system of customs and requirements extending from the manorial lord down through their tenants from commoners to the lowest serf. These are charged in lieu of the military services the nobles themselves are charged by their liege-lords or the Crown for their own lands. The signeurial dues are a matter of custom, handed down from time immemorial regardless of whether the lord of the land was an Anglo-Saxon, Dane, or Norman. and the tenants will fight their lords even in the lord’s own baronial courts to protect those rights, and win due to the unique way in which the medieval courts worked.