Paying Homage in the Middle Ages


My current work in progress is a novella in which the hero has to pay homage to Edward III. Although I had a basic idea of what this meant, I didn’t know the details and a reader would want details.

Homage was paid by a man to his lord for land. The vassal knelt before the (usually) seated king with his hands joined together as if praying (or begging) and the king put his hands around them.  The vassal was granted land, which he held from the king. He did not own it. Technically he held it only for as long as he provided the services to the king which he promised during his act of homage. The vassal became a tenant-in-chief. The services he promised to provide were usually military support to the king. If the land was given into the care of the church, the bishop or abbot was to provide the service of prayers and charity.  In theory at least, if those services were not provided, the king could take back the land and give it to someone else.

The vassal was unlikely to be able to manage all the land that he had been given, so he would share it out amongst his own followers, who went through a similar process in that they swore to provide a service of some kind to him. This might be military service or it might be labour.

At the bottom of the chain the agricultural service owed to a lord of the manor was gradually replaced by rent in the fourteenth century, especially after the Black Death. Some men still owed field service to their lords, but freemen increasingly paid rent. Field service entailed working in the fields of the demesne – the part of the estate which was for the direct use of the lord of the manor. Some of the men who worked there were paid by the lord of the manor, but some paid for the use of the land they held from him with their labour.

One of the causes of discontent for Edward I, Edward II and Edward III was that they had to pay homage to the king of France. According to a treaty made by Henry III he was the lord from whom they held the duchy of Aquitaine. Part of the homage was promising not to bear arms against the king of France, which put them in a difficult position when he encroached on their territory, or when Edward III decided to assert his claim to the French crown.

On 6th June 1329 Edward III paid homage to Philippe VI, king of France, for Aquitaine. This event is depicted in the image at the top of the page. In 1325 he had done the same to Charles IV, on behalf of his father, Edward II, but Charles had been his uncle. The direct line of Capet monarchs ended with Charles IV. Through his mother, Queen Isabella, Edward III was the only living legitimate grandson of Philippe IV and had, he thought, a valid claim to the French crown. Instead, Philippe de Valois became king.  Philippe VI  had to go back to his grandfather, Philippe III, in order to make his claim, while Edward III’s claim was through his own grandfather, Philippe IV, son of Philippe III. It was later said that the homage paid by Edward III was not real homage, because Philippe VI was merely the son of a count and a king could not pay homage to someone of lower rank.

When Edward of Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince), heir of Edward III, was made Prince of Aquitaine in 1362, he expected the nobles of Aquitaine to pay homage to him, but not all of them were willing to do so. Many of them believed that they should only pay homage to a king and others refused to pay homage to anyone, maintaining that they did not hold their lands in their own right and not from any lord.

The act of paying homage was not supposed to be private, but public. There should be witnesses to the exact promises made. A thirteenth-century legal treatise known as Bracton has a template for a tenant paying homage to his lord:

[The tenant] ought to place both his hands between the two hands of his lord, by which there is symbolised protection, defence and warranty on the part of the lord and subjection and reverence on that of the tenant, and say these words: I become your man with respect to the tenement which I hold of you… and I will bear you fealty in life and limb and earthly honour… saving the faith owed the lord king and his heirs.



Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe – David Green

The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England – ed. Nigel Saul

A Social History of England – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Kings

41 responses to “Paying Homage in the Middle Ages

  1. Interesting post. Few seemed to have escaped it. I suppose in times of weakness it gave a landowner protection and time to regroup…or make designs on other landowners. One of my favourite books, King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett has a number of scenes where homage is paid, all a matter of record:by Thorfinn the Mighty of Orkney (a Viking turned Christian earl,n interesting historiacal figure) to The King of Norway, to King Canute and to King Duncan of Scotland, which has an entire chapter to itself. He seems to have used homage as a shield while he climbed the ladder. They are wonderfully rendered scenes and all public too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It makes you wonder how there were ever rebellions, but I suppose you could always say that the king had not been very kingly or something.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suppose kings weakened…and while you were doing homage and the king thought he was on top of things, you could sneak around making alliances…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve recently bought a couple of books on Edward II, so I shall soon understand how this treachery thing works.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It seems like fun….again Dunnetts version of Thorfinn, which was quite close to the real man (George Blunden has a great bio of him for anyone interested in the end of the Viking era) took to intrigue, politics and power play like ‘an ox to salt’ and he was the first character who really showed me how things are manipulated behind the scenes, and not only for bad but for good…I have a book on one of the Edwards somewhere, keep meaning to read it. The 3rd one I think.

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            • The third one is my favourite.

              Liked by 1 person

              • He was the one who was into pageantry, culture etc?The best one?

                Liked by 1 person

                • Mayhap, but mostly he was a warrior, started the 100yrs war with le French and had a few fisticuffs with the Scottish lot before trucing.

                  Liked by 2 people

                • He wasn’t terribly into culture. He liked fighting and he was pretty good at it. He liked tournaments.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Shaunn Munn

                  Edward III tried to bring back the Round Table culture, even to creating a new Round Table at Windsor Castle. Recently, PBS had a fascinating look at a bit of excavation at Windsor to search for remains. I recommend checking it out!

                  This king also used his children’s marriages to consolidate his kingdom. It worked very well for him, but also laid the groundwork for the Wars of the Roses.

                  Richard II was not the stuff of kings and his relatives began the push-shove “my right’s better than yours” that divided York and Lancaster.
                  Most barons were forced to choose sides. Very few nobles were clever enough (or just plain lucky) to skirt around things and get their families through the era relatively unscathed.

                  Through it all, the serfs, freemen and others of the lower and middle classes did their best to bend with the winds of change. The church became less spiritual and left many feeling lost and abandoned. It was at great personal risk that John Wycliffe & the Lollards sought the solace and support of God without the priests’ greed and nosiness.

                  John of Gaunt seemed at first to support Wycliffe, until he realized the Lollards didn’t just want to reform the churchmen, but fundamentally change the faith. Gaunt was orthodox, and truly believed in the sacraments and sacredness of doctrine. He backed away from Wycliffe, which pulled the fragile foundation from the movement. The seed was saved, however, and would be replanted in the Reformation.

                  I need to stop; get too excited about this era!

                  Liked by 2 people

                  • Thank you for commenting, Shaun. It’s certainly a fascinating period and I’m always happy to find a fellow enthusiast.

                    I didn’t realise that Edward III had done anything about his plans to have a round table. I thought he gave up on the idea when he went to France in 1346 and changed it later into the Order of the Garter. Did they find anything at Windsor?


                    • Shaunn Munn

                      They did! It seems it was an open room with a O-shaped table, open in the middle. I think it had a small opening at one end for the purpose of serving food and maybe to allow a knight to enter the middle to make a speech or lodge a challenge.

                      It seems (and my memory is a bit foggy), that there was a kind of awning behind the knights & king to either keep things private or provide shelter from the elements.

                      From this, I assume the table was too large to completely roof, dome construction still being an ancient marvel unknown to medieval architects. Knowing England’s weather, the room would probably be unusable a good portion of the year, which may be why the whole thing was likely scrapped & faded from general memory.

                      Doubtless, if it WAS to follow the Arthurian legends, the table was to be open to all worthy knights who qualified, regardless of nationality. Considering the European wars and England’s border issues, it just couldn’t happen. I’m pretty certain the FEALTY issue was the major reason a new Camelot was dropped!

                      Then, with the difficulty of travel, especially when trailing meinies, more issues muck things up, not to mention the risk of pulling powerful leaders away from contested border regions. The idea making it a Garter locale was moot, when there were better and more protected options.

                      The program from PBS is a lot better at explaining this. They were really proscribed for time because the area was too close to the royal lodgings & security would have been compromised for the Queen in to be in residence. And she must be at Windsor certain days, no way to change. The archaeologists also had to put everything back exactly as found, with each layer carefully researched & documented.

                      Fascinating just about describes it! Have a lovely day!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Thank you, Shaun. I’d assumed that very little got done because Edward went off to France. Now I want to find out more.

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this period of history April, will look forward to your Novella.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ali Isaac

    Gosh how complicated! I’m totally lost now. 😊 Love the symbolism of Lord and Vassal holding hands!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Today they seem content to collect our property taxes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Shaunn Munn

    Personal strength and forceful natures, sprinkled with piety, prudence, & a good grip on the royal coffers (sort of like the national treasury) were perquisites of the successful medieval monarch.

    Sadly, England had a history of men of the above characterization and, well, guys just not up to snuff. Just an example: John, Henry II, Edward II, Richard II.

    If you look at the family tree, you find that the not-so-hot kings tended to leapfrog generations. What saved John’s bacon was signing the Magna Carta and having William Marshal pull England together. Henry III came to the throne too young, and didn’t have much of a forceful personality. His reign started sinking when Marshal died, and the barons took advantage and tried to run things through Simon DeMontfort.

    Edward I, a guy who fit the ideals of strong leadership at the time, wrested control back, secured the Welsh & Scottish borders (which were always being contested), and laid the groundwork for building a strong monarchy.

    Whoops! Edward II just didn’t cut it. As with his grandfather, Edward did NOT have the stuff of kings, chose poor counselors & favorites, & his very disgusted wife & her lover did away with him. The queen’s 14 year old son, Edward, grabbed his kingdom as soon as possible, locked mom away & disposed of the lover.

    While Edward III also fit the ideal of a king & controlled his kingdom, his famed son, The Black Prince, died before the Edward III, leaving a delicate little toddler (Richard) as an heir. Edward III died a bare few years later, and
    England was in the hands of the child and his younger uncles. The roots of the Rose Wars were planted while the uncles tried to jockey control before Richard reached majority. When he did, it just got worse.

    It’s very complicated — all of it — and very good reading when well documented and presented entertainingly. Thanks to April and others who research with care, and write well, we can enjoy the fruits without tending the tree!

    Best wishes for a great Christmas, wonderful 2018, and lots of happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating – as usual, April. Enjoyed the comments too! All the best, Mike

    Liked by 1 person

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