Medieval Europe: Government, Politics and War

This article looks at developments in government and warfare in Medieval Europe.


By around 1000, the political map of Christian Europe was much as it would be for the rest of the Middle Ages. The leading state was the Holy Roman Empire, which covered modern-day Germany and AustriaHolland and Belgium, the Czech Republic and much of Italy. Other leading states in Europe were the kingdoms of France, England and Scotland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Poland and Hungary, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula – Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and later Portugal.

Feudal fragmentation

None of these empires and kingdoms was a unified state in the modern sense; they were in fact more like federations, with power fragmented amongst a multiplicity of feudal lords. Monarchs – kings and emperors – had little direct authority over most of their territories; local magnates (dukes and counts) or major towns owed him, their overlord, a duty of obedience, but within their own territories they could act as virtually independent rulers. When a king managed to get most of the magnates on his side, they would support him; if not (especially when they felt he or his officials were encroaching too much on their independence) they could (and frequently did) rebel.

Complicating this situation was the existence of a hugely influential international organization which claimed to be independent of kings and emperors, and at times asserted its claim to superiority over them. This was the Church, under the leadership of the pope in Rome.

The political history of medieval Europe is mostly bound up with the tussle between these competing centers of power: royal, noble and church.

The interplay between these had very different outcomes in different places. In France, king and Church were largely in agreement, and the balance of power therefore shifted towards the king and away from the magnates. This would enable a highly centralized state to emerge in the early modern period. In the Holy Roman Empire (a large medieval European state rented on Germany and not to be confused with the Roman Empire of the ancient world) not to be confused the Church was frequently allied with the magnates against the emperors. Power therefore slipped away from the emperor and towards the magnates. In England, the tussle led to the beginnings of a political system in which the different centers of power would resolve their differences in the context of parliament.

A medieval realm

At the top of any medieval kingdom sat the king. Even the Holy Roman emperor was also the King of Germany and King of Italy, and it was these offices which gave him authority over these lands rather than his imperial title.

The medieval king was always on the move, accompanied by his large household. This enabled him to keep in touch with different parts of the kingdom – an important consideration in the days of slow communications. It also meant that his subjects throughout the realm could see him – a reminder that  he was not some mythical figure who need not be taken into account, but a very real person who would see justice done, order kept, loyalty rewarded and disobedience punished.

A king ruled through a council of his leading nobles and bishops.  These were usually great figures in their own localities, possessing power and influence over large areas of land. A wise king brought these men on side by consulting them frequently and making sure that he had their loyalty. As things became more settled and trade grew, it became more important to gain the support of the towns also, so that the king’s council came to include representatives from these as well. The councils expanded to become representative assemblies.

Bishops played an important part in the high counsels of every medieval king. Their education and administrative experience made them invaluable royal ministers, and their key role on the Church was vital in keeping this powerful body loyal. However, bishops also had another superior besides the king. This was the pope, the leader of the Catholic Church in western Europe. From time to time the king and pope might be in conflict with one another, and bishops could then find themselves in a delicate situation – who should they support? It is testament to their political skills (though not necessarily to their spiritual leadership) that most seem to have navigated these treacherous waters with success, usually by giving more weight to the wishes of their temporal lord than of their religious one.

From royal household to civil service

All medieval kings were surrounded by a large household. This consisted of a retinue of domestic servants to take care of the personal needs of the king and his family. But it also consisted of his secretaries, treasurers, messengers and of course guards.

The Roman Empire had been administered by a sophisticated imperial civil service, but this had collapsed in the chaos which followed the fall of the empire in the west. The barbarian kings did not pay their troops regular salaries out of tax receipts, as the Romans had done, so the primary function of a pre-modern bureaucracy – to collect taxes to pay for the army – was not required. Instead, the kings awarded their leading followers with land with which to maintain themselves and their followers on.

When times became more stable and kings again began to need a secretariat and treasury, they staffed them with members of their private households. In the early Middle Ages these were usually clerics, as it was these who were the most educated men of the time.

These small staffs were adequate until the increasing centralization of power in royal hands necessitated a larger and more elaborate organization. The treasury in particular found it had to remain in one place (while the king travelled around with his household) so that it could collect, check and disburse funds efficiently. It was hived off into its own separate offices.

Other departments followed, and rudimentary bureaucracies emerged in countries such as Spain and France. Royal officials supervised the collection of taxes, ensured that royal ordinances were carried out, executed the decision of royal courts, and kept an eye on the nobility (by whom they were deeply loathed). The stage was set for the expansion of royal bureaucracies into the large organizations they became in the early modern period.

Local government

At the local level, public affairs were largely in the hands feudal lords. Village matters were under the authority of manorial courts. Above them the councils of greater lords saw to affairs of wider interest.

Above the village, there were two competing hierarchies of authority. One was through the feudal lord to whom the village belonged, or his officials; the other was through the royal officials (sheriffs, bailies), answering to the king’s council and set upon bringing royal authority more firmly into the localities. The tensions between kings and magnates was played out at a local level in rivalries between the newer royal institutions and the more traditional feudal authorities.

The Church hierarchy

There was also the Church hierarchy to be taken into consideration, with the parish priest serving one or two villages at its base. A bishop ruled over a diocese consisting of one or two hundred parishes, an archbishop presided over a clutch of dioceses, and the different archdioceses covering western Europe made up the Catholic Church as a whole, looking to the pope for leadership.

Stephen II marks the historical delineation between the Byzantine Papacy and the Frankish Papacy
Stephen II marks the historical delineation between
the Byzantine Papacy and the Frankish Papacy

The political situation in medieval kingdoms was further complicated by the position of the towns.

The towns and cities

We have seen above that medieval kingdoms were not unified states in the modern sense, but were more like federations, with the monarch being the “first amongst equals” when it came to his magnates. We have also seen elsewhere that the feudal system opened the way for towns to gain a large measure of self-government.

A town’s rights to self-government were usually embodied in its charter, granted by a king, feudal lord or bishop. This also specified that the citizens of the town were free from feudal obligations.

Many towns and cities throughout western Europe ran their own affairs, but some actually became independent states in their own right. This was nowhere more true than within the Holy Roman Empire, which covered Germany, much of northern and central Italy, and other lands. The sheer size of this realm made it very hard for Holy Roman emperors to impose their will upon all their subjects, given the very underdeveloped governing institutions at their disposal, and a series of civil wars – often fomented by the papacy, undermined what authority they were able to muster. The draining away of the emperor’s power opened up opportunities for cities to assert their de facto independence. The commercial power of the north Italian cities gave them the military capability to keep the emperor’s forces at bay, and from the late 13th century they were recognized as being independent city-states (they had been functioning as such since the 12th century). North of the Alps, the free imperial cities of Germany were not officially independent, but were effectively self-governing.

The actual structures by which towns – whether completely independent or merely self-governing – were governed varied from place to place, but there were common elements. Most towns and cities had a chief magistrate (called by different names, such as mayor, doge or consul) responsible for the day-to-day affairs in the community. There was also at least one council, often more. A common arrangement was for there to be a large council, composed of many citizens and meeting on infrequent occasions to endorse major decisions; and a much smaller council, which would meet more frequently, often on a daily basis, and would make routine decisions. It would put major decisions for the larger council to vote on.

The members of the town’s council, or, where there were more than one, members of the smaller councils, were the power-brokers in the towns. Although they were often elected to their positions by the citizens at large (usually by lot), these elections were very commonly manipulated so that important offices tended to be filled by wealthier citizens. The chief magistrates were elected from amongst such councillors.

The coming of representative government

In normal times, the king had to provide for most of the expenses of royal government from his own “private” income. This was more or less possible in peace time, but in time of war it was another matter. Although he was often (but not always, as in 12th century France) the greatest landowner in the kingdom, his private income did not extend to financing the waging major wars.

He therefore had to rely on the financial contributions from the magnates – his leading nobles and churchmen. He could not, according to feudal custom, coerce them into contributing to the costs of the war – or, if he did, he risked rebellion (as king John of England found). Instead, he had to gain their agreement that the war was a good idea (in other words, that it would benefit them).

Sensible medieval kings governed in partnership with their “great councils” of leading nobles and churchmen. Major decisions, including war and peace, were made in this forum, so that they had the support of all the chief men of the realm.

Later, as towns and cities became wealthier, and the financial support they could contribute became critical, representatives from these joined the great councils when decisions had to be taken. The great councils thus evolved into assemblies representing the nobles, the church and the townspeople, or commoners. These three “estates” usually met in their own assemblies, though this practice varied from place to place (in England, for example, the lords and the bishops met together in what became known as the “House of Lords”, while the others met together in the “House of Commons”.)

As the Middle Ages wore on, warfare became much more expensive, and this helped embed representative assemblies in the power structures of different states. Feudal levies of knights gave way to organized professional armies, armed with new weapons such as pikes, crossbows, cannons and guns. These developments meant that finance became a critical issue for rulers, as can be seen clearly in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1452). This long episode also shows how different circumstances led to different outcomes so fas as representative assemblies were concerned.

The Hundred Years’ War

The English kings’ problem was that, if they wished to wage a long campaign in France (as they repeatedly did), they had to maintain an army across the sea, which added greatly to the already enormous expense. Kings solved this problem, as we have seen, by calling parliaments to gain their agreement before a campaign. Parliament voted on whether or not to grant the king a tax to fund it, which they usually did if they felt that the war would be good for the country.

In this process, parliament won a series of concessions from the kings, and became an important part in the government of the realm – the kings of England eventually found themselves unable to enact any major policy (whether or not it was to do with war or finance) without the consent of parliament.

France’s problem was the reverse of this: the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War were fought on its soil, to the immense misery of all sections of society. French kings therefore found it easier to justify taxation to raise and maintain armies; the Estates-General of the France were called regularly throughout most of the wars, but seldom refused the king the necessary aid. This pattern became customary, and the Estates-General lost the assertiveness of its English counterpart. Indeed certain taxes became regularly collected by tradition, year after year, without the necessity for a vote. The power of the Estates-General wilted.

Centralization of government

Whatever the outcome in each case, the wars (the Hundred Years’ War was made up of several wars) moved both England and France along the road to becoming nation-states in the modern sense. By the end of the Middle Ages both kingdoms were unified states with strong central governments. In England, this was centered on a (often fractious) partnership between king and parliament; in France, the king and his officials held center stage.

Indeed, the wars paved the way for the French kings erect a centralized, absolutist monarchy in the early modern period, which was the model for others throughout Europe.

This trend away from the federalism of feudal governance towards centralized nation-states was not confined to England and France. Spain is the outstanding example of a strong centralized monarchy coming into being at the end of the Middle Ages. This was created when two of the leading Christian kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, which had driven the Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula, were united under one crown with the marriage of Ferdinand, King of Aragon with Isabella, Queen of Castile, in 1469.

In the meantime, Germany and Italy remained fragmented amongst a multiplicity of states of varying size, some as big as whole countries, others no larger than villages.

Law in medieval Europe

The roots of Medieval law

With the fall of the Roman empire in the west, the old Roman provinces became home to two legally distinct groups – the Romans (for by the end of the empire all free inhabitants were Roman citizens), and their new masters, the Germans. Both peoples lived under their own laws, administered by their own officials; however, from the 6th century the Germanic kings started issuing law codes (for example the codes of the Visigoths and the Burgundians) which sought to regulate relations between Romans and Germans, and later bring all subjects under one set of laws.

In essence, these codes were orally-transmitted Germanic tribal customs as written down (in Latin), systematized and interpreted by Roman lawyers. Like much customary law in less complex societies, the laws were based largely on the principle of compensation – the perpetrator compensated the victim for wrong done. This compensation (called a weregeld) was normally expressed in money terms, and differed according to the crime committed and the status in society of those involved.

In this process, Roman law fell into disuse as an integrated system in western Europe (except in those areas of Italy ruled by the Byzantine empire). However, it had a heavy influence on the Germanic codes, especially marked in civil matters such as family and property law, which were defined much more fully than in German custom.

A third strand of law was also at work in early medieval Europe, and this was Church law (also called canon law). This dated back to the early days of Christianity, through it was much refined over the centuries. Its purpose was to set out rules for ordering the Christian church and maintaining discipline amongst its servants. The servants of the church (its priests and clerks) were subject to church courts, where canon law prevailed.

The two main sources of this were Roman law and the Christian Bible. This latter contained the ancient Israelite law code as it appears in the Old Testament, plus the statements of the writers of the New Testament. Together these reflected a strong set of ethical principles underlying personal and family matters. Although canon law was applicable only to church men and women, it had a deep influence on secular law in medieval Europe, given the immense influence of the church on all aspects of life.

Feudal law

Out of these various traditions emerged the feudal law of the high Middle Ages. By the time this came into operation, Europe had fragmented into a multitude of localities under their own lords. Such a lord might acknowledge the distant authority of a suzerain such as the Holy Roman emperor or the king of France, but he would still have been the de facto ruler of his territory, and each territory maintained its own customs and practices. The term “feudal law” therefore covers many different local traditions. Nevertheless, the differences were largely to be found in the details; there was a set of principles which underlay all of them. These revolved around the rights and duties of lords and vassals to each other, which protected their person and property on condition that the individual performed the duties of his station.

Feudal law was administered in the feudal courts of the fief-holders of Europe, from the kings’ great councils down to the humble manorial courts of squires holding just a single village. Over time, feudal law came to be defined more closely in documents like the Magna Carta, in England. This was produced in 1215, and was essentially an agreement between the king and the nobles (supported by the leading churchmen of England) by which the king promised to abide by customary feudal law and not abuse it for his own purposes. The nobles who drew up the document were not conscious of creating a major innovation; rather their intention was to protect their own customary rights. In the process, however, they spelled out the principle that governments are not above the law, but are bound by law to protect the rights of subjects. This principle has profoundly influenced legal decisions, first in England and then around the world, up to the present day.

Roman law

From the late 11h century the influence of Roman law received a huge boost when the Code of Justinian began to circulate around Europe, beginning in Italy where the law school of Bologna evolved into the first European university. Justinian was an emperor who had ruled the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) empire in the 6th century, and who had compiled a massive compendia of Roman laws.

The increased influence of Roman law was fed by the changing political and economic circumstances of the time. In the 12th to 14th centuries rulers were striving to impose their wills on their kingdoms, and to rule their subjects directly rather than through powerful vassals. They therefore established their own royal courts to set beside (and weaken) the complex hierarchy of feudal courts of their vassals and sub-vassals. In these courts, Roman law suited the royal purpose admirably, as it emphasized that the monarch alone had the right and duty to govern his subjects; no one else, neither pope nor vassal, was entitled to encroach on this prerogative. Roman law also contained a much fuller and more sophisticated treatment of property than feudal law, making it more suitable for the expanding commercial activity of the times.

Roman law also brought into use a new kind of court practice, in which panels of judges carrying out enquiries into cases (an inquisition). This was in contrast to the adversarial approach found in the German customary law involving a single judge plus a jury. This is today found in the common law of England and other countries.

The influence of Roman law spread around Europe in these centuries, with the notable exceptions of England and the Scandinavian countries. Here, common law prevailed – that is, law based on previous legal decisions arrived at in courts of law rather than law based on abstract principles of justice. The decisions of generations of royal judges were preserved and, with the idea that a legal judgement made to deal with a particular situation should be used as the basis for subsequent decisions in similar circumstances, they were used as precedents. Common law has remained in force in England, and in all states which have adopted English law (or law based on it), to the present day.

Medieval warfare

In classical antiquity, Greek and Roman warfare had centered on massed infantry: the bulk of Greek phalanxes and Roman legions were made up of foot soldiers.  In later Roman times, cavalry became more prominent, as the need for mobility against barbarian raids came to the fore and with Rome’s most formidable enemy, the Persian empire, fielding heavy cavalry called cataphracti. The Goths, who played a crucial part in the fall of the western Roman empire, also seem to have fought as heavy cavalry; other German tribes apparently fought more on foot.

Catalan infantry of the 14th. century
Catalan infantry of the 14th. century

Heavy cavalry came again to prominence in the period after Charlemagne. The arrival of stirrups in Europe may have been the key factor in this, as it enabled heavy cavalry to become much more effective shock troops than hitherto. Stirrups allowed mounted soldiers to put their entire weight behind a heavy spear: when a body of such cavalry was bearing down on an infantry formation, there was not much the latter could do to resist the charge.

Sempach Schlachtfresko
by Photo: Roland ZumbühlFresco: Hans Rudolf Manuel (1525 – 1571),
reworked by Hans Ulrich Wägmann (1583 – ca. 1648), Joseph Balmer (1828 – 1918)
http://www.picswiss.ch/01-LU/s-LU-03/sLU-023-05.html. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

By this time western European rulers had no way of paying for permanent armies (see below, administration), apart from their own select force of bodyguards; when they needed to go to war (i.e. most years) they ordered their nobles to come to them with their armed followers, and thus an army was formed. As the need for cavalry spread, the nobles would have rallied round with smaller groups of mounted soldiers – early versions of the medieval knight.

Feudal armies

Knights dominated western European battlefields by the 10th and 11th centuries. The rise of feudalism came about as a way to raise armies made up of knights – estates, or fiefs, were awarded largely on the understanding that the fief-holder would supply knights for service (usually for 40 days per year) with his lord.

This was a workable way of raising armies when wars were fairly localized. In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, kingdoms became more organized, and warfare increased in scale and distance. The feudal levy was a cumbersome way of raising an army; and also, having been granted small fiefs of their own by this time, many knights would be too old, too unfit or just plain unwilling to endure the hardships of a military campaign.

The rise of professional armies

As a result, the custom arose that, instead of doing military service themselves, knights could pay the king an amount of money (in England called “scutage”) instead, covering the cost of someone else to serve in his place. This gave kings the ability to hire trained soldiers to fight for them; and to fight until the campaign was properly concluded instead of returning home after 40 days. Developments in military tactics helped this process along, as each innovation made waging war more expensive (see below).

From the 12th century, at the latest, kings were supplementing their feudal levies with professional troops, and by the end of the 14th century medieval armies were entirely made up of the latter. Kings would contract with some of their chief nobles to raise, maintain and command a body of troops (who could do this quite easily from the inhabitants of their fiefs) to serve in the royal army. These would be paid for from the royal purse. This was a system open to wide abuse, but it did provide kings with the professional armies they needed.

Technological developments in warfare

In the meantime, technical developments had made raising and maintaining armies much more expensive than in earlier times.

Developments in military tactics helped this process along. The use of longbows, crossbows and pikes, the replacement of chain mail with plate armor, and the arming of horses, and, for the 14th century, cannon and hand-held firearms, brought infantry forces back into prominence. In response to this, knightly armor had progressed from chain mail to much more expensive plate armor (covering a chain shirt). Their horses also began to be armed with plate armor.

From the 14th century, cannon and hand-held firearms began to be used in Europe. At first these were so unreliable as to be of little use in battle, and they would really come into their own in the early modern period.

The increasing expense of medieval warfare had huge political implications (see above); and, even before it revolutionized battlefields, the coming of gunpowder had a direct impact on government and politics.


Fortified buildings called castle began appearing in Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries. They were a response to the anarchy of the times: although by the standards of later castles they were small, flimsy affairs hurriedly constructed in wood, they allowed local lords and their followers to gain protection from the raiders that roamed the countryside at that time.

Château de Falaise in France
“Falaise chateau Guillaume conquerant 2” by Ollamh – Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Because castles were so effective at protecting garrisons, unless an invader could capture a castle he could not eliminate military opposition to him in a particular area. Castles were therefore very effective at holding territory. For example, after William of Normandy’s conquest of England starting in 1066, he had hundreds of castles built all over the conquered country. These were mostly small wooden structures, but even so not one of them was captured by the English resistance. They were therefore a crucial ingredient in the success of the Norman conquest.

As time went by, castles tended to become more massive. Built of stone and protected by a complex system of defenses, they were very hard to capture by enemy forces. Siege weapons such as battering rams, catapults, siege towers were never truly effective, and demanded a great deal of preparation if their were to succeed.  Each soon stimulated adaptations in castle design, such as rounded walls and steep and narrow entry passages. The one technique that does seem to have been successful was digging tunnels to undermine castle defenses, but this took a great deal of time and was only possible in certain soils.

All this ensured that lords who possessed castles were at a tremendous military advantage in defending their lands – and therefore their independence from their kings.

The existence of many castles dotting the landscape was a serious hindrance to rulers wishing to bring their leading vassals under tighter control.  From time to time kings tried to prevent nobles from building castles, and vigorous rulers even had ones which did not have royal permission to be knocked down. However, whenever there was a weak king, or in times of disorder (which were quite frequent), new castles sprang up and old ones were renovated.

This situation only changed with the coming of effective cannons, from the late 14th century. These were the first weapons to be truly effective against castles, as cannon balls could knock down castle walls. Because castles were stationary, guns could be trained at one spot, and relentlessly weaken it until it collapsed.

Having a cannon train –  a battery of cannons along with the horses and men to man and move them – was an expensive proposition. Only kings could afford them. This enabled them at last to reduce their nobility to obedience. The king was now able to have a monopoly of military power in his kingdom, and this was an important element in the formation of centralized States.

Naval warfare

The Mediterranean was the scene of major naval wars in the Middle Ages. In the period immediately after the fall of the western Roman empire the Vandals dominated the western Mediterranean. The Byzantine navy made a comeback when they reconquered North Africa; and then the Arabs dominated the sea when they in turn occupied that region. After 1000, however, the Italian city-states of Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi (briefly) and Venice came to rule the seas between them, and fought several wars to win advantage. By the end of the Middle Ages Venice had emerged as the leading sea power.

Mediterranean sea power was fought between galleys – small, fast warships powered by banks of oars, with a sail for supplementary power. Their two disadvantages where that they had little room in which to store supplies, which greatly limited their range; and their shallow draft meant that they could not ride out storms well, which kept them close to shore and safety. Galley fleets could therefore not be used to blockade ports for any length of time unless there was a friendly naval base close by; and this limited their ability to command areas of sea. However, there were numerous hard-fought galley battles, some of which decisively shifted the balance of power away from one city to the next. These battles involved ships ramming one another, the firing of massed arrows and other missiles, and the boarding of ships by soldiers, leading to shipboard fighting.

 Battle between Venetian and Holy Roman fleets; detail of fresco by Spinello Aretino 1407-1408
Battle between Venetian and Holy Roman fleets;
detail of fresco by Spinello Aretino 1407-1408

In northern waters, the most famous warships of the medieval period were the Viking longships. Their heyday was brief, however, and all the naval battles in which Viking longships were actually recorded as taking part in (rather than transporting racing parties and invaders to coastal and riverine targets) were in a short period on the late 10th and early 11th centuries.

Later, a number of naval battles were fought between the English and the French. These are fought using converted merchant ships, or cogs (see above). They would be fitted for war by constructing a temporary wooden platform on deck from which to fire arrows and leap down on enemy ships, and a party of soldiers would be embarked. The battles mostly involved ship-to-ship fighting between soldiers, but they also witnessed the first use of ship maneuver under sail, and of shipboard artillery (1338).

Further study

An overview of medieval European civilization

Feudalism in medieval Europe

The medieval Church

The medieval European economy

Look at a sequence of maps showing an outline of medieval European history