The Duties of Kings to their Subjects and Vassals
When we think of feudalism, we tend to think of a hierarchical state with a king at the top enjoying all the benefits. In my entry on The Ideal Feudal State, I pointed out that feudalism was in fact more decentralized and consensual than is commonly thought. Today I want to draw attention to some of the duties of kings.
At the most elementary level, of course, kings owed their subjects what all governments owe their citizens: security and justice. The security component consisted (then as now) of protection against foreign enemies (invasions, Viking raids or terrorism etc.) and protection against lawlessness and crime. Then as now that first duty bled into the second as fighting crime entails administering justice, but justice is and was not confined to fighting crime alone. Justice also includes a just administration of property, labor, scarce resources such as water, and more.
The parallel to modern society is imperfect, however, because feudal society was both more personal (men took oaths to individuals not to abstract ideas) and more stratified. Feudal society was not based on the principle that “all men are equal before the law” but rather on the notion that rights and duties depended on one’s social position or class.
Fundamentally, society was divided into three classes or estates: 1) those who worked, 2) those who prayed, and 3) those who ruled/administered (not those who fought, as I’ll explain below). While this stratification oversimplifies both the society itself and attitudes of the time, it is nevertheless a useful structure for understanding feudal society and with it the duties of kings.
The workers were responsible for the production of (first and foremost) food, other necessities and luxuries. The more sophisticated the society, the more complex this class was, so that it came to include everything from serfs working the land to great merchants and craftsmen commanding fortunes and ruling over armies of tradesmen, apprentices, servants and laborers. Being a member of the “Third Estate” was not the same thing as being poor! But the Third Estate was viewed as subordinate to the other two: in spiritual matters to the Second Estate and in secular matters to the First Estate.
The men who prayed (the Second Estate) were the clergy, and again this segment of society included poor (e.g. parish priests who lived little better than the peasants they served) and “princes of the church” with vast estates and fortunes. Unlike the Third Estate, which was fragmented into different professions with their own hierarchical structures, before the Reformation all members of the Second Estate belonged to one, universal (“Catholic”) church. All members of the Second Estate thus operated in a single, well-defined hierarchy headed by the pope. Since the Catholic Church required celibacy of its members, churchmen could not bequeath their lands, fortunes or offices to their offspring (even if, as we know, they often had them!) On the other hand, because members of the Second Estate were drawn from the other two, and the Church as an institution often provided a means for the children of poor parents to rise to positions of power, wealth and influence.
The First Estate is often described confusingly as a class of warriors or “those who fight.” While even contemporary sources refer to the First Estate in this way, the description is misleading. On the one hand, 50% of this class, the women, did not fight — but they were still members of the First Estate and often wielded great power, including power over men and fighting forces. On the other hand, the bulk of fighting men in any host were not drawn from the First Estate, but rather from the Third; they were men engaged in the profession of arms as mercenaries or feudal levies called up for a set period of time.
It is more useful to look at the First Estate as the secular ruling class, the people who exercised for and in the name of the king his fundamental duties of providing protection and administering justice. Because one man (or woman) could not alone perform either function, the king depended upon the First Estate to provide military capability, enforce the law of the land, and administer local justice. The First Estate was effectively the executive branch, and as such it had a special relationship with the king. Members of the First Estate were not mere subjects of the king, they were also his deputies. Understanding this helps explain why the king and his nobles had a special relationship, a relationship founded on an exchange of oaths.
To be precise, the exchange of oaths was only with the upper strata of the First Estate, with the barons or tenants-in-chief. They were called tenants-in-chiefs because in feudal theory all land belonged to the king and he merely loaned it to his designated deputies, albeit on a hereditary basis. This meant the land passed from the original recipient to his heirs in perpetuity — until the line of the original recipient died out or he or his descendants failed to fulfill the feudal duties associated with the loan of land (the enfeoffment). In either case the land was forfeit to the crown.
The tenants-in-chief generally controlled far more land than they could possibly manage and owed many more fighting men to the crown than they could personally equip and provide (often in the hundreds), so they in turn lent out their lands (again on a hereditary basis) to other men, who owed them — the barons, not the king — fealty. The lowest tier in the First Estate were simple “knights” holding a “simple” knight’s fief, meaning a fief whose annual income was sufficient to support only a single knight (which was not one individual but a fighting unit, as I explained in an earlier post.) If a fief became too small or poor to support the expenses of a knight, the owner slipped out of the First Estate and down into the Third, becoming nothing but a tenant farmer. (This was to become a problem in the latter Middle Ages.) The landowners holding land from a baron or bishop were called “rear tenants” and belonged to the First Estate, but not to the baronage.
However, often lost beneath the customs, ceremony, romance and idealism of chivalry is the fact that the relationship between a king and his barons (and between lords and their rear-tenants) was fundamentally one of fee (fief) for service. The Kingdom of Jerusalem shines light on this relationship because many of the fiefs in the Kingdom of Jerusalem were “money fiefs,” highlighting the monetary component of feudal service. Whereas elsewhere it was more common for a king (or lord) to bestow land that was expected to produce enough income to support a set number of knights, in Jerusalem the king frequently paid a set amount of money outright in exchange for the service of a set number of fighting men. Significantly, La Monte points out in Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1100 to 1291, many money fiefs were granted with the provision that “if the revenues specifically granted [were] not forthcoming, the amount promised [would] be made up from...the general revenues of the kingdom.” The distinction between a fief and wages in these circumstances is approaching minimal, albeit a fief could be bequeathed, while wages could not. The more common practice of granting land deemed to be worth a certain income, of course, obscured and weakened this monetary component of the king’s duties to his vassals because the value of land could vary over time based on many factors from acts of God (draught, flood, fire etc.) and through good or poor management.
Regardless of the nature of the fief, the relationship between the king and his barons/tenants-in-chief was a direct and personal one. It requiring the renewal of the oath each time a monarch died and was succeeded. The oath of a vassal was furthermore, neither unconditional nor unlimited. For example, in Jerusalem the king could not command feudal service outside the borders of the kingdom, either for offensive operations (e.g. against Cairo or Damascus) or even in the defense of the neighboring states of Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa. Another important limit on service was that no man was required to personally render knight's service after he reached the age of 60. Critically — and often overlooked nowadays — is that the oath of fealty was a two-way bond. Not only did the vassal swear loyalty to the king, but vice versa. Thus, Richard I of England, as the liege lord of the Lords of Lusignan, was obligated by feudal custom to support Guy de Lusignan’s claims to the throne of Jerusalem.
While the case of a vassal being anointed king elsewhere and then needing support is a rare one, a far more frequent occurrence were attacks on a vassal's lands — by brigands, raiders, enemy troops. Attacks might come from a common enemy like the Saracens or Vikings, or simply from a neighbor, who owed allegiance to a different king (think of the situation in France during the long wars between the Plantagenets and Capets, or the Hundred Years War). Simply put, if a vassal did not have the military strength to defend his own territory, he could call upon the king to come to his aid. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where the threat of Saracen invasion was ever-present, the constitution explicitly stated that failure on the part of the king to protect the lands of a vassal automatically absolved the vassal of his oath.
In general terms, then, the duties of a king to his barons was payment and protection, but in the Kingdom of Jerusalem there was (at least) one more duty — one that particularly appeals to me, that of “restor.” Restor was the duty of the king to replace or reimburse any knight or noble whose horse was mutilated or killed in battle while serving the king. Indeed, it was one of the most important duties of the Marshal of Jerusalem to assess the value of all knights’ and noble’s horses before any campaign/engagement, to assess the value of horses captured during an engagement, then then either replace horses injured or killed with captured horses of equivalent value or reimburse the knight/noble the monetary value of the lost stallion. This custom highlights the importance horses had to the military establishment and social status in the feudal age; see my entry on crusader horses.
Balian d’Ibelin’s stallions are important characters in all three parts of my biographical novel about Balian, and the duties of kings and vassals is natural a fundamental component of the historical developments.