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Feudalism was a system by which the aristocracy, or landed elites, from the king downwards exercised power over others. The term mainly applies in connection between a greater lord and his vassals, who comprised the gentry, barons, dukes, earls, and the greater clergy.12 Vassals were the officers of the state and its military elite. Underneath this group were the peasants tied to the estate of a lord, subject to the lord's justice, and unable to appeal for justice to the King's court. Under Henry II the English Common Law, as it applied to land law, specifically excluded villiens.3


The development of feudalism coincided with a change in military tactics that favoured the armed man fighting on horseback. This form of warfare was expensive as the knight required a trained horse, servants to care for the horse, and time to practice and perfect the technique of fighting on horseback. Magnates needed to provide sufficient support in the form of landed wealth to their fighting men to ensure their loyalty, and to provide the income that the knight needed to equip himself for battle.


Vassals were freemen who had placed themselves under an obligation to provide some form of service, usually military, to another (lord). In return the lord provided food, clothing, and protection to the vassal, in accordance to the vassal's station. This maintenance usually took the form of property, known as a fief, from which the vassal obtained his financial and material support.4


From the end of the fifth century the Merovingian empire had been split up, due to the practice of dividing property between all the sons, into a number of kingdoms. The resulting feuds and power struggles between various kings led to the wealthy magnates increasingly using vassals to form private armies, and the weaker seeking protection by in turn becoming a vassal of a more powerful neighbour.5


To provide sufficient land to support their vassals the Carolingian kings seized the vast estates owned by the church. This resulted in the impoverishment of the church authorities, a weakening in ecclesiastical discipline and a reversion in many areas to paganism. In 743/4 it was agreed that the church should regain the land it had lost, but that the current vassal could hold the land during his lifetime, and that king could grant it to one of his other vassals if external circumstances demanded a strong military. The church under this agreement regained very little of the land it had lost.6


The fief from which the vassal obtained his wealth was usually provided to him as a benefice. That is the vassal held the property as a tenent of the lord, on favourable terms regarding rent and requiring no labouring on the lord's lands. The tenants in chief (the vassals of the king) held very large estates that were granted to the holder of an office, such as those having administration authority over a geographical region.7 These estates were termed an honour and could be considered to be states within a State.8


In theory, because vassalage was a personal relationship between a lord and the vassal, the fief would revert back to the lord on the death of the vassal, or to the lord's heirs on his death. In practice the heir of the vassal would become vassal of the lord, and the vassal would become the vassal of the lord's heir. As such the relationship became hereditary, and vassals attempted over time to convert the fiefs they held into their own private property.9 Because the peasants were tied to the land, as fiefs were converted to freeholds, they became the property of the lord, who could sell or otherwise transfer ownership of them to another.10


Towards the end of the Carolingian period the delegation of power to local lords resulted in the weakening of central authority. Counts and dukes took control of their respective localities and with their army of vassals none could oppose their dominance of the local population, except a more powerful overlord. By the eleventh and twelfth century counts and dukes controlled their estates in name only. Much of their nominal lands were under the control of a local lord who held a castle and had the support of a few knights. These castelians rarely paid much heed to the overlord, and private wars, as a means of gaining a quick profit, was commonplace between rivals.11


By the 11th century the Capetian kings of France had managed to dominate their immediate vassals around Paris, but had to contend with the feudal ambitions of their tenants-in-chief in Flanders, Normandy, Blois, Anjou, Poitou, and Burgundy. However, these emergent rivals to the Capetian had similar difficulties in controlling their own vassals.