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Main Page: Titles of European hereditary rulers

Grand Feudatories and Royal Authority in France


1. Goldsmith, James Lowth. Lordship in France, 500-1500 (New York, NY : Peter Lang, 2003).
2. Goldsmith, James Lowth. Lordship in France, 1500-1789 (New York, NY : Peter Lang, 2005).

“In the century and a half between the accession of Philip II in the 1180 and the death of the last Capetian king Charles IV in 1328, the kings, the most dynamic princes, and barons expanded and consolidated their domains... All the great lords modernized their administrative systems. The better organized principalities and baronies had an administrative and judicial apparatus that closely resembled that of royal domain... As earlier, all of the principalities including the royal domain had three principal components: the inner core where the kings and the princes exercised the full rights of lordship directly over their subjects; the rights of protection, sauvegarde, over ecclesiastical lordships, over towns, and occasionally over lesser aristocratic lordships; and the rights of feudal suzerainty over lesser lords” [1: p.199].
“In the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the kings took only timid steps to expanded royal sovereignty outside of the direct royal domain and the sphere of protected churches and towns. The kings and the princes used feudal practices to reduce the political and military independence of lesser lords and to raise revenues. Philip II imposed the feudal taxes, heretofore assessed only on the direct vassals in the royal domain, on the most eminent principalities and baronies... The kings also expanded their military and fiscal powers by acting through their vassals. The kings called to arms all fief holders, not just their direct vassals, in the royal domain, in the royal apanages, and, with the approval of the princes, in the feudal principalities. In addition, the kings expanded their fiscal resources through the avenue of feudal suzerainty. Technically the kings called upon his vassals for financial aid or aid in lieu of military service. These early royal taxes required the consent of those taxed, the princes and barons” [1: p.199-200].
“Saint Louis also claimed the right to act as the judge of last resort on appeal in the event of denial of justice or justice poorly rendered... By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the kings claimed ressort et souvereineté, jurisdiction and sovereignty, over the entire realm... The thirteenth century kings made some very modest efforts to exercise legislative authority over entire realm. There were very few royal ordinances at all the thirteenth century and fewer still that applied to the entire realm. The thirteenth century royal ordinances that extended outside the royal domain were all the result of extensive consultation with the great aristocrats. They had the force of law in the principalities because they were proclaimed with the consent of the princes and because the princes agreed to enforce them in their own lands” [1: p. 200].
“All told, the actual efforts by the thirteenth century kings to exercise authority outside of the royal domain, even actions of Philip IV who was the most absolutist of them all, were quite restrained. The princes and barons imitated the actions of the kings and expanded their authority by exploiting the possibilities offered by feudal suzerainty in their own lands. The dukes and counts claimed exclusive jurisdiction over certain ducal and comital cases. ... Likewise, the dukes and counts began to call to military service all fief holders in their territories, even sub-vassals. The dukes and counts also developed their own system of extraordinary taxation, in part by exploring their rights as lords of their domains, in part by requesting feudal aid from their vassals” [1: p.200-201].
“However, the establishment of royal suzerainty over princes in the kingdom of France and the parallel establishment of the authority of the princes over the barons in the principalities did not eliminate the sovereign authority which every lord, whether king, prince, or baron, exercised over his own domain and over his own subjects. The king did not intervene in the internal affairs of an independent principality, nor did he exercise direct authority over the subjects of a major lord... Despite the proliferation of feudal bonds of dependence in the thirteenth century, the relationship between the king and the great aristocrats still rested on an ancient cultural and political tradition that recognized the independent and legitimate governing authority of all lords, each at his own level. In its essential features, this cultural and political tradition was the same in the thirteenth century as it had been in the eighth or the sixth century. The great lords governed France jointly with the king, and the power that they exercised was a personal, heritable attribute found only in the members of ruling aristocracy which encompassed the barons, the great princes, and the king himself” [1: p.201].
“The jurists had a different vision of authority... Authority flowed by delegation from the top down to a neat hierarchy of fiefs or benefices. The legal experts constructed theories of the state as a permanent entity... They referred to the crown as the symbol of royal power and proprietor of the royal lands, the king as an administrator, the holder of an office, and the royal domain as an inalienable asset” [1: p.201-202].
“Nevertheless, in everyday actions of the kings and great lords, it was the older cultural and political traditions that still counted... The king exercised authority in the thirteenth century personally, as a heritable attribute of his person, like any lord. Kingship, like lordship, was not an office, but a hereditary right. The royal domain was the king’s personal possession. In the Middle Ages, it was the king, the princes, and the barons who exercised authority, not states. Likewise, although the notion of royal sovereignty suggested a hierarchical ordering of fiefs with the king at the top, the effective power structure of thirteenth century France, politically and administratively, was still an untidy juxtaposition of largely autonomous lordships, some large and many quite small. For the most part, each lordship functioned as largely independent entity” [1: p.202].
“Certainly the expansion of royal and princely justice brought the lower seigneurial courts under the ultimate supervision of the royal and princely parlements... The highest royal and princely courts were much more likely to intervene in disputes between lords or in conflicts of jurisdiction between the courts of rival lords than they were to intrude into the legitimate everyday affairs of the principalities, baronies, and lesser lordships. The hierarchy of lordships became more sharply defined at every level in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century...” [1: p.202].
“As the principalities of the Middle Ages took on territorial integrity and developed a more elaborate administrative apparatus, the need for various bureaucratic services increased...” [1: p.203].
“ ...There can be no doubt that lordship itself was no longer by the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century quite what it had been earlier. Politically, power was flowing rapidly to the king and princes. The gap in revenues between the king and princes on the one hand and the barons on the other was now so great that the barons could no long behave as if they were fully equal powers. Increasingly, the barons gravitated to the courts of the king and the princes where they performed important political, diplomatic, and military functions as trusted confidants and pensioners. Indeed, often the leading barons in the royal domain and principalities drew much revenue from their role as courtiers as they did from their own lordships...” [1: p.210].
“Technically, the lordships in 1500 were often identical to what they had been under Saint-Louis IX in 1250, but socially and politically much had changed.
Under Saint-Louis, lords in France from princes of the realm down to village seigneurs, exercised the same sovereign governing authority over their lands as the king did over his domain. In 1250, lordship was still the institutional expression of the sovereign authority of a governing aristocracy which took on concrete form in fiscal institutions, justice, police authority, military power, and general administration. From the fourteenth century, the governing authority of the intermediate and lower reaches of the hierarchy of lords faded in favor of the king and the great princes. Next the great princes disappeared and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, only one lord exercised the full sovereign authority of governance, the king of France.
Although dukes and counts pullulated under the old regime, the dukes and counts of the early modern era were in no way comparable to medieval princes. They and all of the lesser lords of the old regime no longer possessed independent, sovereign powers of governance. Lordship survived as a fiscal institution, as an apparatus of justice, as a vehicle for police activities and even as an organ of local governance, but the authority of the lords and their lordships functioned at the sufferance of the king. In the eyes of the king and his jurists, all lords derived their authority from the king.
Once the kings had arrogated to themselves the fullness of sovereign authority, there was no need to press on further to destroy lordship. Although lordship as a political institution was dead by 1500, as a fiscal, judicial, and administrative apparatus it was still very much alive. The seigneuries were patrimonial possessions, but they were incorporated into the apparatus of state and functioned as public institutions" [2: p.3].