Feudal Distribution Questions

Hey guys! I need help understanding one of the fundaments of the setting and am struggling to find helpful info online.

While kingdoms surely vary tremendously between one another, I was wondering if I could get some guidelines on what percentage of a kingdom's lands would typically be crown lands, and what proportion of a Great Lord's holding (dukes, counts and the like) would typically be subinfeudated to vavasaurs vs them administering it directly.

My rough understanding is that as a general rule, the bigger someone's holdings are the lower a percentage of it they'll own directly due to the difficulty of administration over large distances, but if that's incorrect I'm also interested in hearing how major landholders get around the difficulty in communication to personally control large holdings.

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As you note, this varies widely by kingdom, but I can add it has huge ramifications on culture. Let’s use two examples, England and France.

In England, all land is owned by the king; he can let other people use it for a short time or a long time, but any piece of land he hasn’t given away—like a forest—still belongs to him (and so he gets to decide who hunts in that forest and who doesn’t). Barons are comparatively weak; the king deals with them from a position of strength.

In contrast, in France, the king traditionally owns only a relatively small part of the kingdom, around Paris. The barons and other lords are relatively powerful, and the king cannot simply ignore them; he deals with them from a position of weakness.

This reflects throughout culture. So in English Arthurian tales, Arthur is a strong king who defeats giants single-handed, conquers Rome, and kills scores (or even hundreds!) of foes in battle. But in France, Arthur is more of a figurehead, a reason for great knights to come together in one place and have adventures in which Arthur himself barely figures.

What kingdom are you working with? If you are creating your own setting, let your priorities for the setting (strong ruler vs weak ruler) guide you along the England/France spectrum.

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I'm no medieval expert, but from my (occasional and limited) research this depends too much on the precise year and place you are in.

For practical purposes I'd say the following (you can find guidelines pointing to this in the core rules and in several medieval sources):

Horses matter. Cavalry can usually ride 10miles, fight and go back 10 miles in the same day. That means that a noble can keep tight reins in a 10 mile radius around his manor/keep/castle. 20 miles is a reasonable distance if you can go, fight and camp for the night, and be back on the night of the second day. When you go further you need to carry resources or buy them from where you go, and logistics start to make things difficult.

(From here down its less rules/sources and more personal opinion/what works for my game)

If I was a noble, I wouldn't thrust my men to be effective further than 30 or 40 miles without causing some trouble. Thus you try to put trusted people at that distance. Sons, brothers, cousins. If there is none available, marry your sister to the lord next door. Blood is thick.

As a rule of thumb I don't try to put more than 7 nobles under a higher ranking one (it's both gaming and real life experience, when groups get too big it gets harder to manage). Some times this can go lower (2 or 3) or higher (up to 12 if I want to punish myself).

Finding real data from historical medieval sources helps, but sometimes you won't find information easily in your native language. Even so, just a general outline of a particular region is usually possible to grasp. Color as needed for your game.

Also, you talk about percentage, and that makes me think you are trying to have all of the nobles of a country in a spreadsheet, tied to which lands they rule, who are they related to, etc. I probably wouldn't think in these terms. If my covenant is in England I want a reasonable grasp on the nobles in a 40 mile radius, a somewhat loose grasp on a 80 mile radius, and to know the name of the king of England and where he lives. If my players decide to travel 200 miles away I just handwave it. If they go to Germany you can be sure I won't really care if they are in the lands of a baron or a duke. I'll decide this based on "who do I need to make this a good story, a stronger noble or a weaker noble?".

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As stated about, where you are (and when) really makes a big difference. Being in England for example, everything technically belongs to the King.

However the higher nobles generally do not directly control more land than the lesser nobles. The King of England might own the whole island, but in general only directly controls London and the immediate lands supporting it. The rest of the island is broken down into Duchies, with the Dukes directly controlling a city and its immediate lands while the rest is held by lesser nobles.

For the higher nobles they will generally control a single city and the lands around it (10 to 20 miles), with lower nobles holding a town, village, or just a manor house and farm lands. Depending on the nation, that lowest level might be made up mostly of Landed Knights, which will often have the largest directly controlled area (though they have no indirectly controlled areas and the lowest population).

EDIT: And the breakdown of directly controlled land is totally different from the power of the ruler. In England even if the King does not directly control something it still is his land. If he wants to force the noble who does directly control it to do something (on pain of losing it based only on his command) then he has a fairly easy time doing it. In other nations the King can not easily revoke title (or even can not do it at all without military force).

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I may have phrased the question wrong. Like, yes, in England the king owns all the land by matter of right and can more or less claim it back from whoever, whenever, but even if they're politically weak compared to the king, he still has barons and earls running large tracts of his land at any given moment, and those barons and earls presumably have vassals of their own running some amount of their land. So that's more the direction of my question: how much of their own land is a given Great Noble likely to be running, vs how much they'd infeudate. (And yeah, England would probably be the most helpful kingdom to use as our benchmark.)

Because I read something recently that suggested a Great Noble couldn't let all their vassals collecticely run more than about a fifth of their land without losing the respect of their peers, and that seems nuts to me, because the other 80% is surely more than one dude can personally administer??? And also seems like it's treating vassalage as something they engage in just to reward people they like, rather than a necessity of the available technology and social structure.

I would be interested in where you read that at, since it defeats the whole purpose of the system which was to insure that there was direct administration over all given lands that could effectively do the job. While such a thing might be possible today, in the time AM is set in there is insufficient communication and travel speed to make it possible. Any noble attempting this who held a large swath of land would actually have very little control of it and the area would most likely see a sharp rise in criminal activity while generating very little wealth for the noble.

Best start with the Domesday book then. Working out percentages is likely best done from the Domesday Explorer - but access to it will cost money.
Why such percentages are important here for deeper understanding of English Feudalism escapes me, though.
In general, a vassal needs to provide service to his liege. The king and higher nobility had other ways to reward their servants and followers, but those looked out to turn their rewards into freeholds.

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OK, this is a fun question. And I'll try to give an overview (though, very much amateur enthusiast historian here - I'm not a "proper" academic medievalist!)

The nice neat idea is that in the feudal system in theory the overlord (king) owns everything. Lesser nobles (the "tenants in chief") hold land "from" the overlord or hold land from the tenants in chief. Some land is directly owned by the overlord, but he won't actual administer any of that himself - he'll appoint administrators and commanders (shire-reeves, castellans, etc.).

In the Domesday book, 17% of land is royal land, 190 tenants-in-chief hold 54%, and 26% belongs to bishops and abbots.

So, if you want to keep yourself sane, you could just assume for a "typical" feudal area, about a fifth = royal, a quarter = various bishops and abbots, and the rest (over half) is barons, earls, etc.

But a lot of the fun (including a lot of potential for stories and interesting settings) is in the detail. So, here is some other stuff you might want to play with:

  • An overlord can demand that a neighbouring magnate acknowledge him as an overlord without ever owning any actual land in that magnate's territory. E.g. the "I'm the King of France, you're the Duke of Brittany/Anjou/wherever - bow down to me so I can demand you send me soldiers and taxes in future" requires no change in local land administration.
  • Cities are becoming important, and their owners generally let the city's grandees "buy" a degree of self-government in return for fixed rents or money or service. This is utterly unimportant in, say, Scotland where there are no settlements with a population above 2,000, but is really important in, say, Flanders and Champagne, where there are big cities. A town might negotiate a "charter" where it administers its own affairs, appoints a mayor, administers "low justice" (not murder etc.) in return for a payment of, say 1,000 "soldiers" (i.e., armed citizens) for a month per year, or enough money to pay for 100 soldiers for whole year. At the start of the 13th C London gets a charter; by 1220 there are dozens of towns in England who also have charters, though usually for much lower fees than the example above. This seems kinda weird, because it means the owner (usually the king, but it could be a bishop or noble) is giving up control of economically powerful areas, but it's about simplicity - the king knows nothing about running trade, but certainly wants people to promise him predictable revenues or soldiers. Tensions between militarily-minded feudal lords and "free" commercially-minded cities make for good dynamics in sagas.
  • Royal lands may end up being the more strategically significant. Example, when William Rufus expanded the borders of England north to Carlisle, he made sure that the lands around Penrith (i.e. the lands on strategically important road from Lancaster to Carlisle) remained royal lands, but the impoverished and windswept hills off to the east he essentially subcontracted to one of his strongmen - saying in effect: look, you go subdue this unimportant area for me and you can be the Earl of Egremont, but I'm keeping control of this vital road.
  • Rights and privileges could overlap and get messy. The system was not neat. And this is fun for creating stories, either small or grand....

As a petty example, maybe the king of England has "given" this bit of land to an abbey but has still designated it as a royal hunting forest so only he can hunt there, the abbey has given rights to a neighbouring village to graze their pigs on the land, and now the magi want to gather the acorns that fall from the magic oak - lots of people are jostling in that space, with the magi annoyed that the pigs keep eating the acorns, the villagers are paying money to the abbey for the right to do this, but the abbey are actually considering cutting down the oak (which they many or may not be allowed to do, based on forest law in England). That is probably WAY more complicated than you want to go, but it does give an idea of how complicated this can get.

On a large scale, here is a real thing: The King of Scotland is also the Earl of Huntingdon. So, when a new King of England is crowned the King of Scotland goes and does homage to him. In the King of Scotland's head (and as he tells his own underlings) he is only doing homage for Huntingdon - he is still an independent ruler in Scotland. The King of England, meanwhile, happily crows to his minions about how he is superior to the King of Scotland who is, of course, one of his vassals. This tension can fester for ages until eventually one English king decides to push the point and actually exercise what he thinks are his rights as the Scottish kingdom's overlord (at which point a big war breaks out, and in later years terrible movies will be made with Mel Gibson inexplicably painting half his face blue). You may not want to use that exactly, but you can se how ambiguity in land holding can give you great tensions in a saga, with rivalries between nobles (all of whom think they are right) embroiling a covenant and leading to war.

Hope that helps!


It's a subtle issue, but... The vast majority of the land of a Baron is subinfeudated. Because, really, you can't run more than a couple of manors yourself, and certainly not even that if you are managing a whole lot of lesser vassals. Those manors you administer "directly" are usually run by paid officials (bailiffs), but that's a far less efficient way of managing them then subinfeudation -- less efficient in the sense that it generates less military firepower for you, and maximizing military yield is what feudalism is all about.

The reason you don't subinfeudate everything is that you want to retain just enough power to keep your vassals in line... plus you might want to have a little extra cash for stuff like building castles, cathedrals etc. (mostly castles). And this raises the crucial question: how is the subinfeudated land split up? A few large vassals are easier to coordinate, and to tie to you through bonds of blood and personal loyalty .. but they are also far more dangerous. So, you might split 1/2 to 4/5, typically about 2/3 of your land between half a dozen of them; then split 1/2 to 4/5, typically about 2/3 of the remaining land between lesser nobles directly loyal to you; and keep going until you have relatively few manors that you manage via bailiffs.

So, if you are a Great Lord, with estates worth ... let's say, 300 manors, your ideal configuration might be:

  • 200 manors split between 5 lesser lords, 40 manors each (these in turn have 30-35 manors held by half a dozen banneret knights with 5-6 manors each (typically subinfeudated themselves), and 5-10 managed semidirectly through bailiffs). These provide the bulk of your forces when you wage war on your neighbours. Each of these lesser lords has some strong tie to you: you might have squired under his father (or viceversa), you might have married his daughter/sister (or viceversa), you may be cousins etc. Ideally their estates are not nice, big, contiguous chunks of land; they are instead split up and interspersed with those of your lesser subjects (below).
  • 60 manors split between half a dozen powerful banneret knights directly loyal to you, with 10 manors each (typically subinfeudated to a bunch of other knights). These bannerets get more land and honour than those of your lesser lords - it's a feature of the system that ensures their loyalty! They are what you can rely on if one or two of your lesser lords try to rebel. If you can, you try to make sure that these bannerets have ties to you as well. Maybe you arranged a marriage between one of them and your sister's daughter, or one of their sons squired under you.
  • 20 manors managed directly by half a dozen very very loyal knights who answer directly to you, 3-4 manors each. Again, these knights probably get slightly more land than the knights of your bannerets or lesser lords! These are probably the most loyal of your subjects, those to whom you'd trust your life to - not because you have direct ties of blood or marriage to them (they are too much below your station) but because they are the ones who are most "propped up" socially by their close association to you: simple knights, but direct tenants of a great lord such as you!
  • 20 manors run indirectly by bailiffs.

Inheritance, marriages, wars etc, all tend to upset this balance, either mutliplying the number of vassals you have so you no longer can keep tight ties to them, or (more dangerously) concentrating power into a few vassals who might end up stronger than you (case at hand: Aquitaine vs. the Kingdom of France).


It is worth noting that there really never was such a thing as "the feudal system". Feudalism is a term which has come to be used to lump together a larger number of different systems with only some commonality, and there is no consensus on exactly what feudalism means.

It is as if you would talk about "the democratic system" of the 21st century, and with that include the governing systems of all countries that are democratic or semi-democratic, or at least pretends to be democratic or close to it.


Thank you so much, @ezzelino ! This is just about the best breakdown I could have asked for, and makes a lot of sense!


I have found Chivalry and Sorcery (2nd or 3rd ed) a useful guide for designing feudal demographics and hierarchies. Not authoritative, but plausible and pragmatic.