bastard feudalism

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bastard feudalism. The term bastard feudalism, seemingly invented in 1885, has come to be adopted as a convenient label to distinguish a social structure different from its predecessor in the post-Conquest period. The essence of the original feudal system introduced by William I was that tenants of manors or other substantial units of land had obligations to their lords, of which fealty, suit of court, and military service were the most common. With bastard feudalism the bond between a man and his lord was not tenurial but financial, not hereditary but personal; it was often made by a written contract, an indenture, by which a retainer undertook, in return for a pension, to attend and ride with his lord whenever required, suitably armed and equipped.

The proliferation—if not the origin—of this pattern of relationships coincided with the Hundred Years War. Edward III and his successors raised their invading armies by indentures with lords and other captains who undertook to provide certain numbers of mounted men and archers. They in turn recruited parts of their contingents by similar contracts. All were to be paid wages of war: these were not feudal armies. The core of a lord's company would be the men already retained to follow him ‘in peace and war’. It was therefore in the king's interest that lords had organized companies available for military service, not only for campaigns abroad but for emergencies like foreign invasion or domestic rebellion.

The political hazards of this dependency could be reduced by good kingship. Public order was assisted if lords kept their retainers in order, as by arbitrating in their quarrels. It was otherwise when lords competed for regional dominance, as did the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the Nevilles and Percies, in a period of weak monarchy. ‘Livery and maintenance’ could weaken the administration of justice. In 1384 the parliamentary Commons complained that wrongdoers expected to escape retribution through the patronage of the lords whose liveries of cloth or badges they wore. Sheriffs and justices of the peace retained by a lord would not be impartial: juries could be packed or intimidated.

For many landed gentry, the best safeguard available was to have the ‘good lordship’ of a noble protector by becoming his retainer. Social aspirations may have helped to swell retinues, because tradesmen and rustic tenants able to wear a lord's livery could describe themselves as ‘yeomen’; while those of more dignified standing were known as ‘gentlemen’. Both these personal descriptions became widely used in the 15th cent., particularly in indictments of riotous assemblies. Eventually bastard feudalism was curbed, though not abolished, by Henry VII's conciliar jurisdiction and his statute of 1504, which prohibited retaining without royal licence.

R. L. Storey

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bastard feudalism

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