The origin of the Feudal Monarchies

The disappearance of the Frankish Kingdom in Western Europe made way for a multitude of feudal-type monarchies, where the figure of the monarch did not disappear but underwent significant changes.
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| 12/05/2020 | Last update:


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In the 9th and 10th centuries, there was a profound restructuring of the European political framework, which had hitherto been dominated by the Carolingian Empire and the Normans. Yet at the end of the tenth century, the fragmentation of the ruling class began, a major feature in the process of building Feudalism. The disappearance of the “Regnum Francorum” (the Frankish Kingdom) gave way to a multitude of decentralized feudal powers. Despite the emergence of the new Feudal Order in Western Europe, the figure of the Kings did not disappear as such.

Feudalism, which was under construction from the 10th century onwards, and which expanded throughout the 11th century, did not prevent the strengthening of the monarchies, which no longer had anything to do with the previous monarchies of Germanic origin. There was no continuity between the Germanic monarchies and the new feudal ones, among other reasons, as in the new political and social scheme the King was not just another feudal lord, but the most important feudal lord (although this was not always the case).

The maintenance of the monarchies, now transformed into monarchies of a feudal nature, was possible by charging the farmers for the revenues that were produced on the lands belonging to the personal patrimony of the different kings. It should be noted that during the newly established feudalism, the public tax system was dismantled and replaced by a private revenue collection system.

Coronación de Felipe Augusto II de Francia, 1.179 en Reims
Coronation of Philip August II of France, 1179, Reims

The emerging Feudal Monarchies

The building process of Feudal Monarchies, in the West, took place due to different factors:

The Church was the institution that guaranteed peace, that arbitrated and tried to solve conflicts through dialogue. The Monarchy was an interlocutor to organize military campaigns.

What could the Church offer the King? Most importantly, the Church gave ideological legitimacy to the monarchical institution, giving a sacred character to the king, as God’s representative on earth. A process that was carried out through anointing (granting of the Sacrum). The Monarchy was acquiring a dimension that it did not have until now. This collaboration between Church and Monarchy was also reflected in the literary field. From that moment on, the genealogies of the kings were written down. In England, the main support for the monarchy was the Archbishop of Canterbury. In Germany, he was the Archbishop of Mainz, and in France the Abbot of Saint-Denis.

Research into legal legitimacy: the “reception of Roman law”

Since the 12th and 13th centuries, monarchies began a process of seeking to legitimize their power in the legal tradition of the classical period (Roman Empire), through a process known as “reception of Roman law.”

The jurists of the feudal period began to recover the legal texts of the classical period with the aim of extracting the theories relating to the definition of political authority, in other words, those that could legitimize the action of the Monarchy. Everything that could give legitimacy to the action of kings within the Roman codes was sought. The Code of Justinian was recovered, studied and analysed, and from the 12th century it became known as “Corpus Juris Civilis.” The part of Justinian’s Code that gave meaning to the political and public action of the King was used. The legal experts were in charge of recovering the Roman law. The universities were the protagonists, among them the University of Bologna, as a reference in this whole process.

Obviously, the society of the 13th-14th centuries was not the same as that of the classical period. Roman texts had to be adapted to Feudalism. New texts had to be added, such as “the glosses,” which created jurisprudence.

Setting up a political community within established territorial limits

During Feudal times there were not yet any authentic states as understood in the modern day, but the tendency of monarchies was to identify a community within a defined space.

The Feudal King depended on his personal wealth, and on the ability to hoard income (revenue). This put him in competition with other members of the feudal aristocracy. The King had to have a higher income capture than the others, an element that led to conflicts between him and the nobility. That is why the King tried to conduct military conquest campaigns abroad. Many interests converged in the person of the Crown. The Church was also interested in participating in military conquests, as was the aristocracy. Even the urban bourgeoisie was interested.

When the feudal aristocracy conducted military campaigns abroad, there was peace within. There was a certain bond between the Monarch and all the inhabitants of the kingdom, even on those people who saw in the King more than just a feudal lord. The figure of the King was becoming more and more valued.

The concept of the vassal was losing strength all for the concept of the servant. How was it seen? The territory as a political space, the nexus between persons meant that man was linked more in the natural space. This could be seen when the royal title was changed from the old formula of King of the Franks to the new one of King of France.

The new institutions. Instruments of action of the Monarchies

Matrimonio burgués en Bolonia
Bourgeois marriage in Bologna

Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries we find the configuration of new forms of political representation. We witnessed a revitalization of urbanization, as well as the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a new social group to be added to the existing ones. The bourgeoisie took part in the institutions, especially at the local level. This new group had a certain role in the new municipal institutions.

In Catalonia, the Royal Curia (“Cort Comtal”) way to the Corts (Parliament), much larger institutions where the bourgeoisie intervened. It was also represented in the Municipal Councils.

Courts or Parliament

The medieval parliaments were the legislative bodies of the different kingdoms. How did they work? It was always called by the King. The Courts or Parliaments could be held in different places of the territory (they did not have a fixed seat). They were made up of several arms or estates:

The Parliaments had a relatively simple operation. As in case of Catalonia, firstly the King was responsible for opening the Corts with a speech, where he made a request to the estates, usually to ask for money. The royal petition was discussed by each arm and each group cast one vote.

Finally, the King’s proposal was either accepted or rejected. Every commitment was written down (drafting of laws or constitutions). If the King then failed to comply, Parliament would read the Memorial of Torts to him. In the Catalan Cortes, the policy of Pactisme was practised (it consisted of the King making a request for the collection of taxes and the estates had to accept it).

Jaume I presidiendo una sesión de Cortes
King Jaume I presiding over a session of the Corts

Royal Treasury

As the institutionalization of Monarchies progressed, there was an increasing presence of the state. The monarchies promoted the creation of the royal treasury (income of feudal origin). Little by little, the monarchs expanded other concepts such as regalia (royal rights in certain strategic sectors such as mining). Royalties were resources reserved by the King in the form of a monopoly. The monarchy could impose the payment of exceptional taxes at certain times. In this way the monarchy could expand its collection capacity.

New institutions specialized in the collection of royal taxes were set up. In the Principality of Catalonia, the Counts of Barcelona created the Diputació del General or Generalitat, an institution of an intermittent nature, to deal with the revenue collection. There came a time when collections were so close that these institutions, which were initially temporary, became permanent. The Diputació del General adopted a more political character.

The growing state power also became apparent in the royal military force as well as in the exercise of justice. Why did the Crown have an increasing need for revenue? To spend it on military issues (maintenance of the army, which became more professional).

Chancelleries

The emerging Feudal State needed resources to maintain the bureaucratic and administrative apparatus. As the state grew and consolidated, it required an increasingly solid organization, with professionalized personnel at its service. At this time the Chancelleries were born, which were the administrative bodies responsible for drafting public documents, archiving tasks, etc.

European Feudal Monarchies

Capetian France (987 – 1314)

In 987, the Carolingian dynasty ended with the premature death of Louis V. The ancient Roman province of Gaul (Western France) was fragmented into different feudal-type territories. Strong principalities with a recognized bond with the King through a relationship of vassalage yet not very solid and stable. These territories could eventually be rebellious to the king, refractory to the Monarchy, who disputed his power.

When the last Carolingian king, Louis V, died, the most important aristocrat in France was Hugh the Great, Marquis of Neustria and Count of Paris, Lord of the Île-de-France. His authority extended north of the two banks of the Seine and by 943 he obtained the duchies of Burgundy and Normandy. On his death, he was succeeded by Hugh Capet (in office from 987 to 996).

Given the need for the Church to find the gallant of balance and order, which would maintain the monarchical dignity, the Church gave Hugh Capet its support, as an alternative to the succession of the Carolingian dynasty. This power was difficult to consolidate. Many aristocrats did not approve of it. Little by little, this Monarchy was consolidated fundamentally thanks to ecclesiastical support.

How did this new dynasty consolidate in France? Through succession. The Germanic monarchies used to be elective, but by custom the sons of the kings had preference. The new King of France associated his son to the throne (a formula already used by the Visigothic kings), in a kind of co-regency.

Thus, the formula of the hereditary monarchy, which was a full reality as from Louis VI (1108–37), was being pursued. The next step in consolidating the new dynasty was to get enough strength in the King to subdue the aristocracy. If the King did not occupy the top of the Feudal Pyramid, he was nobody. A network of vassalages had to be built. The King was lord of all and vassal to none. It was necessary to make a pact with the nobility from a position of strength.

The result: the establishment of a network of feudal relations where the King occupied the top of the pyramid.

How did he submit to the nobility? Fundamentally, the King’s income had to be increased through the extension of the royal patrimony (marriage policy aimed at pooling assets), with impeccable administration (through agents, such as mayors) and imposition through military means.

From the middle of the 12th century, the Monarchy began a policy aimed at dominating the great principalities.

The key figure of the period was Philip II Augustus King of France (1180–1223). During his reign the great territorial expansion of the country took place. With Philip II, the Kingdom of France consolidated its borders, which would remain very stable throughout the medieval period.

Territorial expansion in three directions:

Directly or indirectly, from that moment on, all the territorial principalities located in the territory of ancient Roman Gaul revolved around the orbit of the French monarchy. It was the beginning of the awareness of a France around a King (Philip Augustus, “Rex Franciae,” King of France). From this moment on, a series of political institutions and bodies were formed that tended towards the centralization of the power of the royalty. Central institutions such as the Parliament and the Chancellery appeared, as well as territorial institutions such as the Bailiwicks.

Norman England (1066 – 1154)

The clashes between the Danish and Anglo-Saxon faction at the death of King Canute III Harthacnut (Danish Empire until the middle of the 11th century) favoured the Norman conquest of England. It was an operation led by William I, Duke of Normandy, who was crowned King as William I the Conqueror following his victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066).

The King of England was a vassal of the King of France for the continental fiefs, the source of bitter disputes with William’s successors (Henry II Plantagenet created the Angevin Empire in 1154) although the “English” presence on the French Atlantic coast intensified.

Domestic policy of the Normans

The Normans helped to intensify the feudal order on the British island, with the construction of a network of feudal relations closely linked to the territory. The King had imposed personally with force (a certain authoritarianism’s degree). Spectacular increase of the royal treasury, which was multiplied by two. As a result of his military victory, he confiscated a seventh of the island’s movable assets.

An inventory had to be drawn up, a census: the Domesday Book, a real cadastral-inventory of those estates and an extraordinary source of information. Another strategy to maintain the fidelity of the feudal lords was to endow them with lordships: endowment “in honour,” to compensate for their fidelity. It was a homogeneous honour for all and always in the peripheral areas, to avoid excessive power. The King secured his power with royalties: money, justice and permits building fortresses.

One of the most important episodes of the reign of William I was the struggle with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The introduction of the Pontifical Reformation brought about a confrontation between the King (who wanted to keep the secular investiture) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (episode of Thomas Becket’s assassination).

Internal problems in the time of King John Lackland led to the granting of the Magna Carta (1215, which placed limits on royal power) and the loss of a large part of the continental fiefdoms. This was the aristocracy’s way of taking advantage of the King’s weakness to take away some privileges. The Norman monarchy went abroad: Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

Holy Roman Empire (902 – 1806)

Restoring Imperial Dignity

Otto I (936-973) obtained the title of Emperor, a position that was linked to the German Kings as Charlemagne’s heirs. In 962, he received the Imperial Crown, and in 965 the Habsburg Empire was formed, which meant that the dominion over Germany and Italy and the title of Emperor of Rome were combined in one person.

The ceremony that legitimized the imperial office had a double process of coronation: in Aachen, the former imperial capital in the time of Charlemagne, the procedure of election by the nobles (court of the four dukes – vassals) took place, where he received the popular acclamation and also the Sacrum by the archbishop of Mainz, almost all the ceremony in the style of Charlemagne.

And in Rome, where he received the papal anointing; under the presidency of the Pope who granted the universal character (Imperium Christianum), the Emperor was proclaimed as sent by Christ with sacred power under the earth. There he received a crown full of symbolism and a belt.

However, the Emperor was recognized as a man of prestige and as the most important monarch, but his power was more apparent than real. He had to face revolts from the aristocracy (the Earls) who ended up imposing the criterion of inheritance on their offices.

The internal instability had two fronts. The one, the stormy relationship between the Emperor and the Pope (end of the 11th century beginning of the 12th), the investiture conflict and that had its origin in the hegemony of the political power over the Church. The second, the relationship with Italy, especially since the formation of the Lombard League, which brought together the main cities of northern Italy against the Emperor.

The Empire was made up of four great Duchies:

In time, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of the Two Burgundies were added. The office of Emperor was elective and had the fundamental support of the Church. There was a real complementarity between the Church and the Emperor. The imperial title gave it a universal character.

Policy of territorial expansion to the East (Drang Nach Osten, eastward expansion)

The territorial conquest in the East was a long process, led by the Emperor, the nobles and the military orders (the Teutons). It began with the Battle of Lechfeld (955). Many times this territorial expansion took on a crusading character, over the pagan peoples of the East. It was never a peaceful action. The old native communities were reorganized according to the feudal order.

These regrouping also joined the migratory movements of people who came from the Empire to colonize the lands. Once the territory was occupied, episcopal seats and new cities were established.

New concept of spatial organization

A process that required well-adopted pre-planning. The Locators, experts in population planning, played an actual important role in this task. This was what made the Empire great, the fact of having such a large space to conquer new lands. A true “expansion of Christianity,” which laid the foundations of Europe’s hegemony in the world.


All articles of the course: Medieval History in Europe

The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman EmpireThe conversion of Constantine, the Christian EmpireAfter the Roman Empire: the Barbarian KingdomsExpansion of Islam in the Mediterranean (8th — 10th centuries)Peasants, agriculture and food before the Feudal RevolutionCharlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)The origins of the new Feudal systemChristianity, a universal institution for the feudal orderThe origin of the Feudal MonarchiesMedieval cities under feudalism and commercial expansionThe Question of Medieval Growth (11th — 13th century)The Hundred Years' War (1337 – 1453)

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