Efficacy of Monarchy

I once had a Greek professor who insisted that the very best form of government was monarchy. We were discussing the Greek tyranny and how the hoi polli tended to favor the king in political matters rather than the oligarchy which was constantly wrestling with the king for supremacy. My professor pointed to the fact that society is more just under a strong central power like a monarch because, though people still remain divided by class, all citizens are basically equal under the law since they are all subjects of the king. There is less favoritism under monarchs, greater stability. One’s role in the society is foregone and protected. Oligarchic rule is usually disadvantageous for common people, he said, because law is enforced capriciously and leadership is constantly disputed. Without a king to serve, oligarchs are free to pursue their own interests exclusively. To thrive in an oligarchy one must split his loyalties between competing magnates and hope he carries the favor of the right one at the right time. Rule is constantly exchanged between victors and the vanquished. Interestingly, my professor characterized the democratic republic in the United States as an oligarchy. His reasoning being, I suppose, that one can buy influence in government with money and clout. So called democratic pluralism, as practiced today, is just another manifestation of oligarchic interests competing for dominance. The argument has some merit, but it fails to take into account that rule of law is still quite potent in the United States. The superiority of the judiciary and its relative independence from the other branches of government are vestiges in the Anglo-American legal system of regal authority and, ostensibly, countermeasures against oligarchy.

There is only one draw back to monarchy, according to my professor. He asked if we knew what it was. I guessed it was that the state is entirely dependant on the talent and leadership of a single individual, or the lack there of. He said this was true, but only insomuch as the monarch needed to be considered formidable enough to rebuff challenges to his authority. With social order, it matters less what the central authority does with its power and more that it is obeyed by others in the society and deferred to. A rogue king will always harm the commonwealth less than a civil war fought on behalf of competing oligarchs. The real problem of monarchy, he said, is that transition of power from one regime to the next had to be determined by lineage and inheritance. Every time a king dies the government must be rebuilt from the ground up for a new monarch. This is the case even when rules of dynastic inheritance are firmly in place and respected. And during the period of interregnum, the governments power is always vulnerable. Claims to the throne can be numerous and matters of succession often resolved through warfare.

The final ingredient of European feudalism and the precipitating event that resulted in oligarchic rule by the nobility for almost a half a millennium to come was the weakening and eventual dissolution of the Frankish crown. The Carolinian Empire collapsed just three generations after Charlemagne, and similar to the Merovingian kings before them, their fall was brought about by ineffectual leadership and disputes over succession. When Charlemagne died, he divided his realms between his sons, who then further subdivided their lands between their sons. Technically, rule was supposed to be shared between the brothers jointly, but after Charlemagne’s death, they almost immediately began fighting to take territory from one another. The Frankish custom of dividing inheritance between siblings insured that state power would always dissipate between generations and rulers would always have an impetus to betray one another to satisfy their ambitions. And as the empire’s strength steadily declined, threats from outside the kingdom became more menacing. The 9th and 10th centuries CE saw the beginning of the great Viking raids. What the Franks called the Great Heathen Army pillaged the coastal regions of the northern empire. They conquered the Low Lands and Normandy and settled them for their own. When the Viking king Sigfred sailed up the Seine and seized Paris and Charles the Fat’s only riposte was to pay them silver to leave, the Emperor of the Romans was deemed unfit to defend the realm and was forced to capitulate. After that the duchies exercised complete autonomy. The era of European feudalism was inaugurated.

Noble Rank

The ad hoc nobility that had arisen in the European kingdoms during the first centuries of the dark ages was finally organized and given official title by Charlemagne. His grandfather, Charles Martel, had joined land rights to military responsibility a century earlier, but the hierarchy of authority was shallow. Knights extorted the peasantry for taxes on behalf of a lord to whom they were vassals, and the lord bowed to the crown. This system failed to account for differences in power between the lords, and it did not hold them to any duties of leadership beyond simple intimidation and aggressive force. They were expected to maintain a military force and nothing more. Charlemagne went further by charging the landed nobility with administrative responsibilities. He ranked the nobility with different titles, each of which entailed varying degrees of power and separate duties.

Baron (and Knight) – The lowest station of noble rank, barons had title to the land and compelled the peasantry to work their fields and cultivate wealth for the kingdom. The typical baron lived in a manor, and during times of peace, he oversaw planting and harvesting. In times of war, he rode to battle on his own horses, carried his own weapons and fought under the banner of his province’s Duke, to whom he was a vassal. If a baron was too old to fight, as was usually the case, he would send his sons to serve the king as knights. It was expected that in wars of conquest a young knight would win new land holdings which would be awarded to him by the victorious king. In this way, an otherwise errant knight could acquire his own barony to sustain himself and his family rather than having to return home and fight with his brothers for his father’s lands.

Count – Administration of Charlemagne’s empire hinged on the count and the county. The comital title indicated that one was the invested representative of the royal palace. Counts were appointed by the king himself and dispatched to the provinces to see to all areas of governance. They collected taxes, oversaw troop levies, built roads and fortifications, resolved judicial matters, and executed the king’s law. Charlemagne divided his kingdom into dozens of counties and placed a count in each to carry out his will. Often the position was held by a powerful local baron. If Charlemagne doubted the loyalty of his subjects in the precinct, he would send one of his own courtiers. Loyalty of the counts was paramount and, at least during the Carolingian reign, the position carried tremendous power.

Marquis – A marquis is a count whose county lies in the kingdom’s frontier along a march. A march is a contested region bordering another kingdom. A marquis was usually given a sizable army to defend his county , and by doing so, secure the kingdom’s borders. They were trained in warfare and were martial in their rule. The marquis is a higher station than count because of its military rank.

Duke – Termed peers of the king, Dukedom is the highest rank of nobility below royalty. Dukes ruled large duchies which roughly correlate to the regions of Europe we know today (e.g. Swabia, Alsace, Normandy, Holland, ect). Although the king could rule from afar with the counts, the comital mansion was usually based in the city and the counts’ influence did not reach far beyond the activities of the town. It was the dukes who held real power in the provinces since they were lords to all of the barons. This fact was especially important for military matters. The king had to go through his dukes to raise an army from the knightly classes. The Dukes made up the class from which the king chose his generals. They commanded the royal armies in the king’s absence and exercised a great deal of autonomy in deciding whom to fight and when.

The Device of Nobility

Before his death in 511 AD, Clovis I divided Frankish Gaul between his four sons. Without establishing rules for the transition of hereditary title, internecine warfare arose between Clovis’s descendants. For the next 300 years Northern Europe became a place of constantly shifting alliances and fragmented authority. The legitimacy of the Merovingian kings’ rule dissipated with each generation. By the end of the 7th century, their power had almost completely withered. The regency had become more or less ceremonial and administrative power was wielded by the kings’ subordinates. So, it was at this point, in the darkest period of the dark ages when state authority had almost completely vanished from Europe, when family feuded with family and the only law that existed was the sporadically observed moral law of the church, that the Umayyad Caliphate captured the Iberian peninsula and then crossed the Pyrenees to challenge the Franks. This external threat of Muslim invasion prompted a rapid and dramatic reorganization of European society. Before this time, the Franks did not trust each other. One could not predict the behavior of his rivals or of his friends. Given a common enemy, the lords and regents of the Frankish kingdoms could align their interests around a single purpose and presume compliance from their neighbors since the consequence for noncompliance was certain annihilation. Led by Charles Martel, Majordomo of the Austrasian kingdom, a coalition system was devised based on alliance, obligation and trust. These new pacts would allow the different kingdoms to deploy a united army made up of professional soldiers. It was to be the first standing army in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. Built into these alliance agreements were plans for supporting, training, and arming an entire class of soldiers and provisioning them while in the field. Protocol was as follows: a lord would allow a soldier to collect wealth from a part of the lord’s holdings. This soldier would coerce the peasantry living on the lord’s land to grow food for his table, hay for his horse and enough surplus product to pay for armor and weaponry. In return, the soldier would swear an oath of fealty to the lord, promising to march under his banner when called upon to fight. The lord, in turn, swore allegiance to the king and was obliged to deploy his soldiers at the king’s command. This chain of alliances, roughly based on the Roman foederatus relation, formed the basis of European feudalism. Its efficacy was proven at the Battle of Tours, where Charles Martel was able to field an army of approximately 20,000 disciplined, well-armed men, nearly matching Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi’s force of 25,000 horsemen. According to accounts of the battle, Martel’s heavy infantry endured repeated charges from Saracen cavalry without breaking. A Muslim chronicle of the event reads as follows:

“And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

We could perhaps say that it was on this battlefield outside of Tours, in October of 732 AD, that the concept of European nobility was born.