Feudalism and Medieval Warfare
Feudalism was a system of governing where an upper class (nobility) has certain well-defined responsibilities to the king. In return for the use of land (fiefs) exploited with the labor of a peasantry (serfs).
Early Feudalism was developed mainly to allow monarchs to maintain large armies of mounted troops. This was done by giving them land in exchange for military service. Classic Feudalism consisted of a more political relationship between a monarch and the nobility.
Feudalism began around 450 AD after German invaders had conquered Rome. Its origins were between the Rhine and Loire rivers, but it soon spread to Italy, England, most of central and Horse Archer Europe and even the Holy Land. It reached its maturity around the 11th century and proceeded to grow into the 13th century.
The Decline of Feudalism
Feudalism began its decline near the end of the 13th century. Modern infantry weapons and tactics negated the necessity for cavalry troops, while vassals preferred to give money payments, also known as scutage or shield money, instead of personal military service to their lords. Vestiges of Feudalism survived well beyond the abolishment of Feudal tenures in 1660 and exist in English constitutionalism today.
The oath of fealty involved the younger lord, called a vassal, promising support and loyalty to the older lord. The vassal was expected to provide troops, military service, and garrison for the older lord’s castle. The vassal was also expected to provide monetary support and advice on any matter the senior lord deemed necessary. The land that a vassal was given was considered to be hereditary, provided that the vassal’s conduct and heir were satisfactory.
In return the older lord was obligated to see to the well-being and happiness of his vassals. He couldn’t unfairly tax or confiscate lands from a vassal, nor could he allow his vassal to be attacked without sending some sort of military support. The lord was not allowed to attack or plan to kill one of his vassals, nor could he treat a vassal unfairly at court.
If a lord broke the oath, the agreement was considered void and a vassal was free to attack the older lord in retaliation. The Christian Church especially held sanction against Breaking of oaths of fealty because the oath was usually sworn at a church in God’s name over a holy artifact. The lord’s own peers would also act quickly to punish a lord that broke the oath of fealty.
The Vassal in Feudalism
A vassal who was found to have Broken the oath would have their lands confiscated. If they attempted to defend their lands, they would usually find themselves going to war against their lord and all their peers. If a vassal felt their lord had Broken the oath, they could declare independence and were free to keep their lands or become vassals for another lord. Since most lords saw defiance as rebellion, vassals who declared their independence usually had to have either strong support or are prepared to go to war.
The oath of fealty allowed a single ruler, or sovereign prince, to control vast areas of land by creating vassals among the nobility. The prince would grant tracts of lands, called fiefs, to other members of the nobility called Barons in exchange for their allegiance. The Barons in turn might grant lands to knights, who swore homage and fealty to the Barons and were required to serve them. This system continued down to the level of the serfs, who owed the knights a certain amount of work and crops each year. The king could ask for aid from any of his Barons and the Barons would send their knights in response.