Bastard Feudalism Part II -Gwyneth

In the time since my last blog post on McFarlanian bastard feudalism, I have been able to get access to McFarlane’s seminal 1945 essay on the subject (a big thank you to the librarians). Additionally, I managed to finish P. R. Coss’s lengthy 1989 essay “Bastard Feudalism Revised”, in which Coss provides a thorough critique of McFarlane’s ideas and offers a new framework for understanding the bastard feudal system. Thus, I plan to use this blog post to discuss McFarlane’s ideas a bit more and present some criticisms that have been made of them.

Coss begins his dissection of McFarlane’s work by challenging McFarlane’s emphasis on military developments, particularly during the reign of Edward I, in his explanation of the origins of bastard feudalism. According to McFarlane, “[t]he origin of the practice of substituting paid for unpaid service”, which marked the transition from classical to bastard feudalism, “still remains untraced in detail. But its most significant stage was reached when the need was felt for an army more efficient and durable than the feudal host” (McFarlane 162). He claims that the practice of systematically employing English troops (as opposed to foreign mercenaries, who had been present in English armies even earlier) was begun by Edward I. McFarlane then goes on to describe the process by which these soldiers were hired: “Edward made his contracts with a number of his greater barons, those evidently whose abilities and loyalty he trusted, and left them to make sub-contracts with the members of their respective contingents”, noting that these contracts were initially made verbally and that the practice of setting down the terms of recruitment in a written indenture was not standard practice until Edward III’s campaign of 1341 (McFarlane 163).

Edward I.jpg

Edward I (Richard II’s great-great grandfather!), reigned 1272-1307

Coss argues against McFarlane’s designation of the reign of Edward I as a turning point, claiming that “significant though the developments of the reign of Edward I may have been, they were by no means as revolutionary in the military sphere as had been supposed…[Edward’s] army was recruited in reality upon mixed lines and…the fully contractual army had to wait until the opening years of the Hundred Years War” (Coss 31). It is important to note that McFarlane did not argue that this was not the case, but rather seems to have viewed Edward’s recruitment of troops to supplement those raised by the traditional levy as an important moment in the transition from the levy to the contract as a means of raising troops rather than the definitive replacement of the levy with the contract.

In a more direct contradiction of McFarlane’s argument, Coss makes the claim that “contractual troops antedated Edward’s reign”. He notes the existence of a surviving contract from July of 1270, two years before Edward I became king, in which Adam of Jesmond promised one year of service with five knights in the army of the future king (then the son of the reigning king, Henry III), which embarked on crusade that August. Going off of the work of Simon Lloyd, Coss claims that “the written contract provided the backbone of the English crusade of 1270-2” (Coss 32). Given the clear evidence provided by the contract between Adam of Jesmond and Prince Edward, this is a reasonable claim, although it does not pose a significant challenge to McFarlane’s dating of the origin of the military contract, since this crusade not only took place right before Edward I’s ascension to the throne, but was led by that very same Edward. Additionally, Coss notes that the subcontracts (contracts between magnates and the soldiers that they would bring to the king’s army) which existed at this time were short term rather than for life. This characteristic distinguishes them from the slightly later contracts cited by McFarlane, which were “for life, appearing in this to give to the new order a stability in which by contrast with a feudal society it was otherwise singularly lacking” (McFarlane 164). If indenture for life was indeed a key component of bastard feudal relationships, it can easily be argued that the contracts described by Coss were fundamentally distinct from those which characterized bastard feudal society.

One claim which would more overtly call into question the validity of McFarlane’s framework is the argument made by Richardson and Sayles and cited by Coss “that contracts for military service must have had a continuous history from at least the twelfth century” (Coss 32). However, no evidence besides the late 13th century contract already noted is provided to back up this point. The contracts referred to by Richardson and Sayles may refer to those used, according to Coss, by kings for the purpose of expanding their personal household forces before a military expedition “as early as the time of Henry I and quite possibly in the time of the Conqueror himself” (Coss 32). This may very well be the case and would indeed demonstrate that the practice of paying for military service was in existence long before McFarlane places its origin. However, it should be noted that the king’s practice of hiring men to serve in his personal household was quite different from him contracting magnates throughout the country to serve him with their own personal contingents of hired troops and should therefore not be thought of as being bastard feudal in nature.

Moving forward with the assumption that “[b]oth contracts and contracted troops were important features of royal armies well before the period in which McFarlane saw the beginnings of bastard feudalism”, Coss looks for a different explanation of the origins of bastard feudalism. He cites as one possibility the approach taken by J.M.W. Bean, which revolves around the bachelor – “a special kind of retainer associated, whatever the precise provenance of the payments made to him, with service in the household, and enjoying a more intimate relationship with his lord than did other knightly retainers who did not have his status” (Bean; qtd. In Coss 33-4). Importantly, Bean “suggests that such men were already being given fees from landed estates during the thirteenth century” (Coss 34). Thus, the relationship between a bachelor and his lord could have been a precursor to that between lord and retainer which characterized bastard feudal society. Since bachelors were defined by their service in aristocratic households, Coss ties Bean’s work back to his own disputation of the generally accepted chronology of bastard feudalism by stating that “[s]tressing the importance of the household allows one to argue for the essential similarity of the practices of Anglo-Saxon warlords, Anglo-Norman barons and fourteenth-century magnates” (Coss 34). However, seeing as the bachelor has his origins in the 13th century, it is difficult to directly connect the noble practice of paying knightly household servants with fees from estates to Anglo-Norman,

Coss continues with the pattern of his argument by claiming an earlier origin for another integral feature of McFarlanian bastard feudalism – the practice of retaining justices and civil servants. He notes a study conducted by J. R Maddicott which places the earliest known occurrences of this practice in the 1230s and 1240s. However, those doing the retaining in these early incidences were not lords, but members of the clergy. Coss attempts to dismiss this caveat, stating that “[a]lthough these examples are monastic, there is no reason to suppose that there were not parallels with lay barons” (Coss 36). Personally, I think this assumption warrants further investigation rather than being treated as self-evident. Nonetheless, Coss’s claim that “[t]he occasional assumption that the practice of retaining justices developed, as bastard feudalism itself seems to have developed, only in Edward I’s reign is hard to substantiate. It is more likely that it had been brought into being by the middle years of Henry III” is a reasonable one.

Overall, the arguments which Coss raises against McFarlane’s conception of bastard feudalism are for the most part valid points. However, they ultimately prove insubstantial to invalidate McFarlane’s overarching framework. The most significant contribution of Coss’s work is not to dismiss McFarlanian bastard feudalism entirely, as was his goal, but to suggest a slightly earlier origin for many of the features of the system.


Works Cited

Coss, P. R. “Bastard Feudalism Revised.” Past & Present, no. 125, 1989, pp. 27–64. JSTOR, JSTOR,

McFarlane, K. B. (1945), BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE OF HISTORICAL RESEARCH. Historical Research, 20: 161-180. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.1945.tb01345.x




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