Bastard feudalism is a somewhat controversial term invented by 19th century historians to characterize the form feudalism took in the Late Middle Ages, primarily in England. Its distinctive feature is that middle-ranking figures rendered military, political, legal, or domestic service in return for money, office, or influence. As a result, the gentry began to think of themselves as the men of their lord rather than of the king. Individually, they are known as retainers, and collectively as the "affinity" of the lord, among other terms.
The historian Charles Plummer coined the term "bastard feudalism" in 1885. Plummer blamed bastard feudalism for the disorder and instability of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. However, "bastard feudalism" as a concept is primarily associated with Plummer's contemporary William Stubbs (1825–1901). According to Stubbs, a shift in English history took place under Edward I (reigned 1272–1307) when the feudal levy was replaced with royal payment in return for military service by the great magnates who willingly served the king. Thus, instead of vassals rendering military service when required by the lord, they paid a portion of their income into the lord's treasury. In turn the lord would supplement the owed military service with hired retainers, a sort of private army in full-time service to the lord.
In the 1940s K. B. McFarlane presented a strong challenge to the ideas of Stubbs. McFarlane stripped the term "bastard feudalism" of any negative connotation. To him, bastard feudalism centred not the financial aspect (the sums involved were mostly negligible) but on the concept of service in exchange for good favour. In a society governed on a personal basis, service to a lord was the best way to obtain favour in the form of offices, grants, etc. Lords would retain administrators and lawyers, as well as recruiting local gentry into their affinities. By offering money instead of land, lords could afford to retain more followers.
In return for becoming retainers, the gentry would expect to rely on their lord's influence in local and national politics. This practice was known as "maintenance". The retainer might wear his lord's livery badge or the grander form, a livery collar, which could be very useful in a courtroom. Under a weak king, such as Henry VI (reigned 1422–1461 and 1470–1471), the rivalries of magnates might spill over from the courtroom to armed confrontations, thereby perverting justice.
Since the crown and the nobility essentially had the same interests at heart, military commissioning of great magnates was not in itself disruptive to society. The civil wars of the 15th century were caused by personal factors (particularly the failings of Henry VI), not by institutional ones. Recent historical research has shown that payment for military service goes back much further than the reign of Edward I, further discrediting the ideas of Stubbs.
As of 2014[update] historians consider the concept of feudalism problematic, and bastard feudalism no less so. The term is therefore used only with caution, although it is not a dead concept. Most historians today would view it as a neutral social system that was open to abuse. Provided that a king could control the lords, bastard feudalism could provide a stable way of organising local society. Two points are worth bearing in mind in relation to the Wars of the Roses:
Because they were rarely kept under arms for long periods, noble retinues were not private armies. Lacking standing armies, kings relied on noble retinues for the military forces they required to conduct wars or to crush internal rebellions. Under an inadequate king like Henry VI, ambitious or disaffected magnates such as Richard Duke of York (1411–1460) or Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (1428–1471) could use their network of servants and retainers to defy or even control the crown. Groups of gentry, already coming to blows over local issues, inevitably attached themselves to different patrons. Their private feuds continued under their leaders' banners and transferred to the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses.
Although Edward IV (reigned 1461–1483) attempted to limit "retaining", he generally did not succeed. However, Henry VII (reigned 1485–1509) managed to largely overcome bastard feudalism by imposing financial sanctions on unruly nobles. Furthermore, Henry passed a statute in 1504 that only allowed the King to have retainers – nobles had to apply and pay for a licence. Overall, bastard feudalism had vanished by the early seventeenth century.