Medieval Nobles

In the Middle Ages, noblemen were the rulers. It was their duty to insure that the peasants and churchmen  were defended so that they could live in peace and act as judges to handle disputes. The name comes from the belief that they were to act in a noble manner. Noblemen were themselves ranked from highest to lowest:

What you called them
Their domain was called a…
King / Queen
“Sire”, “Grace”, “Majesty”
Prince / Princess
“Your Highness”
Kingdom / Principality
Duke / Duchess
“Your Grace”
Earl or Count / Countess
“Your Excellency”
Baron / Barones
“Your Excellency”
Squire or Gentleman
“My Lord,” was always acceptable for any rank above you

The King
The King was the most powerful nobleman in any kingdom. Kings were addressed as “Your Majesty”, or “Sire” by people close to him. For ceremonies he wore a crown to signify his importance. The king was “sovereign” in his realm, meaning that within his kingdom he could make the laws. Like other nobles, the King inherited his position from his father. Sometimes, when there was no son and a King died, it led to bloody wars and struggles to see who would be King. Other times, the succession could become muddied for political reasons. The Wars of the Roses (in England, 1455 – 1487) raged on for years and were caused by this.

The Queen
The Queen ruled with the King, though in most cases she had much less power. Some Queens, by strength of their own personality and family connections were powerful noblewomen who outmaneuvered the men in their courts and reigned with vigor. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who ruled in England with Henry II (1133-1189), was one such queen. Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) , daughter of Henry VIII (1491-1547), was another great Queen who moved her kingdom into the Renaissance.

Princes & Princesses
Sons and Daughters of the King and Queen were known as Prince and Princess. The first son would be the Crown Prince, the one who would inherit the throne provided that he did not die before his father did. After him the other sons would remain Princes for their whole lives, becoming king only if their father was gone and all older brothers were also dead. Princesses were often married to Princes of other kingdoms to secure alliances and good relations.

The King’s Power
The King was responsible for the well-being of his kingdom and his subjects. He ruled through the other nobles, sometimes with more power and sometimes with less. Some kings were good for their kingdoms, bringing peace and prosperity, while others spent money unwisely and taxed their subjects harshly, bringing gloom and despair.

From the early Middle Ages (the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century) through the reign of King Richard I (the Lionheart, 1157-1199), the King wielded his power freely, and only the nobles could stand against him. Weak kings were faced with nobles who challenged his right to rule, which made it hard for them to keep order, while strong kings could have more freedom and could do more for either good or ill. With the weak King John I (1167-1216) of England, however, the Barons of England sensed weakness and revolted, forcing him to give up power and to have the Barons and other Lords of England involved in the process of making laws. This famous document was signed on June 15th, 1215 at a place in England called Runnymede. After the Magna Carta (Great Charter), the King could no longer have absolute power over his people. From this document Europe gradually rediscovered the idea of Democracy, or government by the people, that we know today.

Other Nobles
Under the King were other nobles who ruled in the King’s name over smaller portions of the Kingdom. Like the King, nobles held their position and title from their father. Titles could also be won through marriage or occasionally by a grant from the King. Dukes and counts were the most powerful nobles, ruling over Duchies and Counties. Within each Duchy or County, there could be smaller fiefs called Baronies, or sometimes a Baron could hold their fief directly from the King. Knights held a smaller grant of land called a “demesne”, a collection of Farms, meadow and timberland that they held from the next highest noble, or directly from the King.

Each noble held their land from the King, sometimes through other nobles, in a kind of contract or agreement called a feudal bond. This was called feudalism. There were two parts to the bond, fealty and homage. Under this contract nobles pledged their allegiance as vassals to the King in exchange for the grant of land. In turn the knights swore the same kind of fealty to the nobles, so that in the end the King was on top, the nobles owed him fealty, and the knights owed it to the nobles. Everyone was thus connected in a kind of bond.

The Feudal Ceremony
In a public ceremony, the nobles and knights, as vassals, swore homage to their liege lord. The ceremony was much the same all over Europe. Two men would face one another, the one agreeing to serve kneeling. They placed their hands together, palm to palm, and the liege closed their hands around them. He said simply something like the following:

I become your man of the tenement I hold of you, and to you faithfully will bear body, chattels, and earthly worship, will support you against all folk saving the faith that I owe to our lord the king.

The liege raised the kneeling man, and both kissed one another on the cheek to signal their agreement and friendship. This oath was a legal contract in which the liege promised to defend the vassal against all men. The vassal swore the same, adding reverence of the liege lord.

After the homage had been sworn, another rite was added, the Rite of Fealty. In the fealty ceremony the vassal pledged not to the man but to uphold his duties:
“Hear this my lord: I will bear faith to you of life and member, goods, chattels, and earthly worship, so help me God and these holy Gospels of God.”

This was an oath, a kind of contract that could be brought up in court. Fealty was not mutual as Homage was; but homage could not be brought up in court, while fealty could, and this is why both were used.

The Duties of Nobles
Since nearly all nobles were knights, it was their duty to protect the peasants and the Church from enemies. Nobles were powerful military leaders who could command the “banners” of the many knights who lived on their lands, leading them into battle for the king, or in some cases, for their own purposes. In addition to military defense, which including the manning of castles, mounting patrols and accompanying the King to war for 40 days per year, the nobles also had to defend their liege in a political sense, serving as judges in their own courts.

Peasants and freemen could bring their disputes to the lord’s court just as we do now, and the court was bound to hear both sides of the complaint, then render a judgment that would bind and would not be overturned. Nobles were also bound to defend their liege against rumor and political plotting, although they often participated as often as they defended. In many times and kingdoms powerful nobles were actually stronger than the king, because the king did not have an army of his own—all his troops came from his nobles. Local “private” wars sometimes broke out between nobles, and there were from time to time groups of armed bandits that pillaged and marauded all over Europe. The noblemen were supposed to defend the people from these groups as well, but sometimes it was hard to tell who was an armed bandit and who was a knight. If the king was weak, he could do little to stop it.

To stop this petty warring Kings often diverted attention somewhere else. Edward I (1239-1337) of England sought to unify England, conquering Wales and Scotland. Edward III (1312-1377) chose both to fight in France and Scotland and to found the Order of the Garter, a knightly Order which was comprised of the most powerful nobles of England. Founded in 1347, the intent of the Garter was to improve the quality of Edward’s knights and to bring them together into a group. The Garter proved extremely successful, and it was copied in France, Spain, in the lowlands and in Germany. It still exists today, but now the Garter Knights (KG) are the most powerful citizens in Britain, contributors to British culture.

As knights, nobles undertook activities to continually hone their skills and seek enjoyment. Noblemen spent their time hunting, tending to accounts, hearing court, advising their liege, inspecting their lands, training, and accompanying their liege in war. Nobles spent much of their youth preparing for war, in jousts, tournaments, hearing tales of valor, and generally learning to be a stronger knight. Many could read, but those who could not would listen to tales of chivalry and courage done by knights of history and legend, hearing the tales spread by travelers to the Holy Land and all over Europe. These travelers were often welcomed in the household, since they brought news which was hard to get when their were no newspapers, telephones, or electrical devices.

Noblewomen had special duties, overseeing the nobleman’s household. They would see that the children were properly trained, especially their daughters, and look after the castle or estates when the lord was away. Sometimes they even defended the castle as commander when a house was caught under attack while the lord was away on Crusade or in service to the king. This did not happen often, but it is recorded several places amongst the medieval chroniclers.

Although medieval noblewomen spent much of their time working on needlework, overseeing the household, raising the children, their life was not easy. Servants did keep the manor or castle maintained, but there was much to do every day to insure that the household was topnotch. They also had far less freedom to marry than we have today, their partners sometimes being chosen when they were children for political reasons. Many marriages were done in this way, and many affairs resulted.

Women were instrumental in softening the rough impulses of the men. They encouraged poetry and other literary arts. The vast body of stories and literature concerning King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were used by poets to try to improve the warrior-knights, and over time their ideals of chivalry came to be forged together with the knights ways and the ideas of the Church on knights into what we think of as Chivalry, or courtesy.

The Chivalric Ideal
Under the chivalric ideal, the lady was the source of the strongest force that could strengthen a knight more powerfully than anything else except the knight’s faith to God. Knights such as Ulrich von Lichtenstein did many deeds of valor for women, holding tournaments in their honor and performing deeds of great prowess in their honor. The lady was the earthly ideal of perfection, gentle and strong at the same time, beautiful and inspirational.

Children of Nobility
The children of noblemen spent their time learning to be like their parents. From a young age they were taken care of by their mother and any nurses she might be able to afford. The household servants helped to rear the children as well. Until boys were eight, they were usually under their mother’s supervision, learning basic life on the estate. Girls continued under their mothers care until they were married, which could be any time from age twelve to age eighteen. When boys were eight they would usually be sent away as pages, where they would learn the very basics of being a knight. When they were twelve or thirteen they would actually become squires, when they would start training with weapons and horses.

The Noble Household
The noble household was generally a busy place. Richer, more powerful nobles had more servants to keep track of their holdings and their houses. Some noble families would have many houses in different places, since a single nobleman might be Duke of this place and Baron of several others. He might also hold the charter for one or more free towns, which he would administrate. And then there were the forty days per year that each vassal pledged military service to their liege, when they would probably be away and the affairs of the house would still need to be attended.

Although the nobles did enjoy horses, hawking, and feasting; built large estates; participated in tournaments and in other leisure ways, they were also charged with defending the land in the King’s name. They had to do what they could to maintain justice, to defend against enemies both outside and inside the kingdom, possibly laying down their life while for the good of the kingdom.


© 1998 Brian R. Price
Editor / Producer
January 29. 1998