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Monday, January 16, 2023

Barons, Knights and the High Court: The Powerful Vassals of Outremer

 If the kings of Jerusalem were only "first among equals," then logically the barons and knights of Outremer were the equals of their king. Although things weren't quite that simple, the feudal elite in the crusader states enjoyed considerable privileges and on the whole a greater say in the affairs of state than did their contemporaries in the West.


In the crusader states, there were a variety of different kinds of fiefs. There were land fiefs (‘fié en terre’) familiar from Western Europe where a knight received one or more rural village (casal), producing sufficient income to finance the maintenance of one or more knights (i.e., the knight[s], including their squires, horses, arms and armour). In the crusader states, however, there were also several money fiefs (‘fié en besans’). These likewise ensured that a knight had sufficient income to maintain himself, horses, equipment and status, but the income was derived from royal revenue. This could be a stipend directly paid from the king’s treasury, similar to a retainer for household knights, but in this case, hereditary. Or it might be something more exotic, such as the tribute owed by the Bedouins, or the revenue collected from markets or bazaars, or a portion of the income from economic monopolies such as salt extraction. It was common across the crusader states for individual knights to have mixed fiefs, that is, to draw income from both land and money fiefs, a practice that suggests knights sought to diversify revenue streams for their financial security. Such diversification was also applied geographically after the conquest of Cyprus. Nearly all lords (and probably many knights) held fiefs on the mainland and Cyprus.

Another unique feature of fiefs in the Holy Land was that there were many ‘sergeantries’, that is, fiefs owing not knights’ service, but rather service of a sergeant. Many of the ‘sergeantries’ were held by non-immigrant and non-Latin tenants. Finally, the laws of the crusader states distinguished between traditional fiefs granted or inherited and fiefs of conquest (‘fié de conquest’). While the former had to be bequeathed to the rightful heirs in accordance with the laws of the land, fiefs of conquest could be disposed of at will, bypassing legal heirs. One generation later, however, they were no longer viewed as fiefs of conquest and had to pass to the legal heirs.

The inheritance laws in the crusader states were shaped by the overriding imperative to ensure an adequate military force for the defence of the realm. To prevent the concentration of fiefs in one pair of hands with the effect of denying the kingdom needed fighting men, the inheritance of more than one fief was initially prohibited. However, the laws were soon modified to allow a man to inherit and hold more than one fief, on the condition he could meet all feudal obligations by financing knights for the fiefs he did not represent in-person. This could be done through sub-enfeoffing, i.e., creating ‘rear vassals’ or retaining knights (hiring knights for wages). It was common practice for a knight holding multiple fiefs to divide them among his heirs at his death, but this was not a legal requirement. An alternative was for the knight to designate his eldest son as his heir and for the heir to enfeoff his siblings as rear-tenants. Significantly, however, an heir who was physically or mentally incapable of rendering military service could be passed over in favor of a sibling.

Surprisingly for states so dependent upon feudal service for defence, female inheritance was recognised and rigorously upheld. The explanation is likely the exceptionally high mortality rate among men, which often made women the standard-bearers of their families. However, an heiress between the ages of 12 and 60 was required to have a husband capable of performing military service. If not already married, heiresses 12 and older were summoned by their lord and given a choice between three candidates of comparable rank. Refusal to marry one of these candidates theoretically resulted in the loss of the fief for one year and a day, after which the process was repeated. In practice, some heiresses, such as Constance of Antioch, got away with rejecting candidates without forfeiting their fiefs.

The duties of vassals in Outremer were first and foremost military service, and unlike in England, military service could not be commuted to a monetary payment (scutage). Furthermore, fief-holders were required to be physically present in the kingdom; absence of more than one year resulted in forfeiture — again to ensure they would meet feudal obligations. Military service in the Holy Land could be commanded for up to one year, a length of service far in excess of the usual forty days familiar from England and France. Military service included garrison duty for castles and cities and mustering with the feudal army for mobile operations.

Non-military feudal obligations included maintaining law and order within the realm by participating in inquiries into crimes, delivering summonses and providing counsel to pleaders and defendants before the lower courts. Last but not least, vassals holding knight’s fiefs (but not sergeantries) were required to participate in the government of the realm by sitting on the High Court, which is significant and unique to the crusader kingdoms. In most kingdoms, only selected or elected representatives of the knightly class sat in parliament. In the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, on the other hand, the number of knights was sufficiently small for all to be required to give council via the High Court. Thus the thirteenth-century jurist Geoffrey Le Tor wrote:

All liege-knights of the king … are peers, whoever they are, high or low, poor or rich … they protect one another in their rights and maintain one another in law and also as they are called upon to act as counsel, to give judgements and issue recorts. And the speech of one carries as much force as that of any of the others.[i]

 The concept of all knights being equal can be traced back to the reign of Amalric I. In a move to increase royal power over the magnates, King Amalric I introduced the ‘Assise sur la ligece’, which required the so-called rear vassals, the vassals of the prominent ‘tenants-in-chief’, to do ‘liege-homage’ to the king in addition to the homage they gave to their direct overlord. ‘Assise sur la ligece’ also gave the king the right to demand fealty from the rear vassals and effectively force them to abandon their direct overlord in the event of disputes between the king and his great vassals. However, it also had the collateral effect of making rear vassals peers of the realm, entitled to sit on the High Court and raise issues directly before the king. 

Legal scholars agree that the High Courts of Jerusalem and later Cyprus were more powerful than the parliament in England during this period. La Monte summarised the High Court’s powers as follows:

It included within its sphere of activity the modern departments of executive, legislative, and judiciary. Its word was law … and the king who endeavored to act without the advice of, or contrary to the decisions of, his High Court found himself confronted with a legalized rebellion on the part of his subjects.[ii]

 Specifically, the High Court elected the kings, determined the regents of minors and selected the consort of heiresses to the crown. Furthermore, the High Court controlled the ‘purse strings’ because its approval was required for levying taxes. Likewise, no treaty was valid without the High Court’s consent. It oversaw the registration and transfer of all feudal property and — curiously — horses. It settled disputes concerning the forfeiture and inheritance of fiefs. It served as the jury in cases indicting any member of the court (i.e., any fief-holder in the kingdom, including the king) for criminal offensives such as murder, rape and assault, and in cases of feudal law, such as the default of service or homage. Last but not least, it tried all cases of high treason.

Strikingly, under the leadership of the rebel barons, Balian of Beirut and his cousin Philip de Montfort (the latter a cousin of Simon de Montfort, the English parliamentary reformer), non-nobles were invited to attend a session of the High Court in June 1242. Thereafter, the military orders, Italian communes and other confraternities took part in more than a half-dozen political assemblies with a quasi-parliamentary character.

Despite this trend towards expanding the franchise in the formal structure of the High Court, political reality made some vassals a little more equal than others. In the hands of powerful lords, the prominent frontier baronies were virtually free of royal control. They administered justice within their territories, they minted their own coins, and most importantly, they conducted independent foreign policy. This happened in 1186 when the Count of Tripoli and Prince of Galilee (by right of his wife) made a separate truce with Saladin. It explains why Reynald de Châtillon refused to compensate the crown for violating a truce signed by King Guy, with words to the effect that he was lord of his land just as Lusignan was lord of his.[iii] Possibly, Lusignan’s attempt to curb the autonomy of his great magnates led to their intense hostility to him. The problem re-emerged in the thirteenth century when Mamluk pressure mounted, and royal authority decayed under the absentee Hohenstaufen and Angevin kings. Once again, the barons began to make separate treaties with their enemies, disregarding the interests of the kingdom as a whole.

Finally, a last note on the High Court of Jerusalem: while much has been made of the fact that non-Franks could not bring charges against the feudal elite in the High Court, this was not a discriminatory privilege but rather the consistent application of the fundamental concept of judgement by one’s peers. Those outside the feudal elite could bring charges against vassals before the Cour de Bourgeois. If the jury here found the evidence of wrong-doing sufficient to indict a member of the feudal elite, the case was then referred to the High Court, where the defendant had to answer the charges and submit to a judgement by his/her peers.[iv]

 In Cyprus, in contrast, the power of vassals’ power was greatly reduced. Surrounded by water rather than hostile states, there was no need for marcher baronies, massive fortifications, or large garrisons and feudal armies. To be sure, vassals owed feudal service, but in practice, it was rarely required, so even the most celebrated magnates had no independent armies with which to defy the king. Yet there was one anomaly about the barons of Cyprus: most of them held titles derived from lordships they had once held on the mainland. For example, the Lord of Beirut was one of the foremost landowners in Cyprus. The same is true for the Lords of Caesarea and Arsur, the Count of Jaffa and others. However, it appears their Cypriot fiefs, rather than being geographically consolidated, were scattered across the island, similar to the situation in England after the Norman conquest. Without a territorial base, disaffected barons were in no position to either rebel or conduct independent foreign policies.

[i] Geoffrey Le Tor, quoted in Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1174-1277 (London, Macmillan, 1973), 13.

[ii] See note 2, La Monte, Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 87.

[iii] Peter Edbury, Law and History in the Latin East (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), II-53.

[iv] Edbury, Peter. Law and History in the Latin East. [Farnham: Ashgage, 2014] VI, 236.


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

  1. The beginnings of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Interesting.


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