Bastard Feudalism

   The term “bastard feudalism” refers to a society in which titled noblemen, and some members of the GENTRY, developed networks or affinities of sworn RETAINERS who provided political, legal, domestic, and military service in return for money, office, and influence. Because the system allowed the raising of large bands of armed men, bastard feudalism enabled wealthy members of the PEERAGE to disrupt law and order and conduct private feuds in their localities, and even to contend for control of the national government. For these reasons, bastard feudalism was once considered a primary cause of the WARS OF THE ROSES, although most historians today view it as a useful and neutral social system that merely became susceptible to abuses during periods of royal weakness, such as occurred during the personal rule of HENRY VI and the first reign of EDWARD IV.
   Charles Plummer coined the term bastard feudalism in 1885 to describe what he believed was a degeneration of feudalism, the early medieval social system that was based on a lord’s granting of land (by heritable tenure) to a vassal in return for military or other services. Plummer blamed bastard feudalism for the disorder and instability that for him characterized the late fifteenth century. Plummer’s phrase came into wide use in the 1940s when the influential historian K. B. McFarlane employed it to describe the functioning of English political society between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. McFarlane viewed bastard feudalism not as an illegitimate offshoot of an earlier, purer system but as a natural response to societal changes that was, through individual abuses and royal incapacity, employed for disruptive and illegal purposes. Because they were rarely kept under arms for long periods, noble retinues were not private armies. Although it could be seriously threatened by the military forces of dissident noblemen, as occurred to Henry VI in the 1450s, the Crown never sought to abolish retaining, only to control it through statutes passed by PARLIAMENT (see Retaining, Acts Against). Lacking standing armies, kings relied on noble retinues for the military forces they required to conduct foreign wars or crush internal rebellions. Once Edward IV destroyed the house of LANCASTER and secured himself on the throne, armed forces raised by bastard feudal relationships tended to support rather than threaten the Crown. However, under an inept monarch like Henry VI, or an insecure one like Edward IV before 1471, ambitious or disaffected magnates, like Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, in the 1450s and Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, in the 1460s, could use their networks of retainers to defy or even control the Crown. Although bastard feudalism did not cause the disorder and instability of these decades, it did provide powerful men with the means to take advantage of royal weakness and their own ambition.
   Men recruited under the bastard feudal system were not exclusively employed for military purposes; many were household servants, while others bound themselves by indenture (contract) to supply various services. Only those recruited in emergencies, as when Warwick summoned retainers to repel Edward IV in 1471, were meant solely for military employment. In return for money and “good lordship,” which might mean using influence to obtain an office or bribing or intimidating a judge or jury in a lawsuit (known as embracery), retainers often wore their lord’s BADGE or livery (uniform) and took their lord’s part (except, technically, against the king) in any political or military dispute. Although both Edward IV and HENRY VII limited retaining, bastard feudalism continued as the basis of English political society until the late sixteenth century.
   Further Reading: Bean, J. M.W., From Lord to Patron: Lordship in Late Medieval England (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1989); Bellamy, J.G., Bastard Feudalism and the Law (Portland, OR:Areopagitica Press, 1989); Hicks, Michael, Bastard Feudalism (London: Longman, 1995); McFarlane, K. B.,“Bastard Feudalism,” in England in the Fifteenth Century: Collected Essays (London: Hambledon Press, 1981).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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