(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
Some time ago, we mentioned the four potential ruling groups laid out by Samuel Finer, and discussed the first “polity” (or regime type), the Palace Polity. Now, let us discuss the second “pure” polity—the Nobility—as well as our first hybrid polity, the Palace/Nobility.
What makes the Nobility unique is not that they are powerful or influential. In any polity there will be influential figures, even in the Palace. But for a group of powerful people to be considered a Nobility in the sense Finer means, they must first have autonomy from the central government, and from each other. Aristocrats attached to the Palace, and deriving their power from it, may be noble in the class system of their society; but Finer would not consider them “Nobility,” merely courtiers (typically the rivals of the autonomous Nobility). Nobility are able to resist the central government, because they control their own power resources—land most frequently, but also the people on that land.
(One might consider a vast fortune to count as a power resource as well, though historical nobles usually had land as the source of their power; but money by itself does not yield power if the rich are vulnerable to state coercion. Furthermore, a state with enough money to make large fortunes possible is unlikely to have autonomous nobles; the central government is usually strong enough to force some sort of dependent relationship, often in the form of a corporatist system. Bill Gates cannot simply decide to stop paying his taxes. It was the historical lack of coin, and thus the need to pay retainers in land grants, that typically led to the emergence of nobility in the first place. Still, one can imagine other potential sources of autonomous power.)
Second, a Noble is distinguished by his absolute control over those in his domain. No higher authority, no central government, may interfere with a Noble’s lands or vassals. Not even other Nobles, which is helps to explain why nobles were constantly occupied with feuds and intrigues against each other. On the other hand, Nobility could often arrange themselves hierarchically or even fractally, so that many petty lords could be vassals of a more powerful lord, who in turn would be one of the several vassals of an even more powerful lord, all the way until you reach a handful of great nobles who dominate their politics. Finer gives the example of Bakufu-era Japan, with its samurai class aligned under the daimyos, in ever-shifting coalitions and factions.
A pure Nobility polity is extremely rare and not very stable. To qualify, it would have to lack a strong central government entirely. But the nobles would still have to be bound together in some form, or else it would not be a single polity but a patchwork of smaller principalities. The only example that Finer locates is that of 16th-17th century Poland, where the great nobles sat in a council together, under the nominal rulership of a king who nevertheless was nearly always controlled by the noble council. Such polities would tend to either coalesce into a stronger central regime over time, or else fragment entirely.
More commonly, strong nobles coexisted uneasily with a central Palace regime, leading to the Palace/Nobility polity (naturally). This was the situation during the Feudal era of Europe, in which a nascent centralized government had to deal with lesser nobles who could stand apart from the Crown, and on occasion present a real threat to its power.
If the independent nobility is relatively weak and more easily controlled by the Palace, then while Nobles have their ancient privileges, those privileges might be closely circumscribed. Palace administrative structures may be imperfect, so local control depends on the cooperation of the nobles, but the nobles themselves would have small armed forces if any; they pose little threat to the Palace in the long run. And unless there is a dramatic change in the balance of power, the Nobles’ position will erode over time. Perhaps the independent nobles are being challenged by other “court nobles,” whose prestige depends on the largesse of the Palace alone.
If the central monarch faces a powerful set of nobles with strong militaries of their own, he or she must scramble to keep on top of them via careful alliances and shrewd politicking or risk losing power, or being made nearly irrelevant. Think of the early French kings, or of King John of England (who was forced to sign the Magna Carta by an alliance of barons). The king remains powerful in his own right; otherwise, if the king were a mere figurehead or first among equals, we would be left with a pure Nobility polity as in the case of Poland. But the nobles are strong enough collectively to restrain the king’s power or even to bring him down, if they ever manage to put aside their own rivalries and oppose him as one.
This circumstance can have several long-term outcomes. In the case of England, the rights that the nobility extracted from the king (the Magna Carta) laid the groundwork for the later English experiment in broad political rights, the forerunner of the more explicit American political rights that created the modern liberal-democratic society. That did not happen in France, where the nobles focused not on rights but on privileges—chiefly, the privilege of taxing the populace. As a result, even when the French monarchy grew in strength, it still had to depend on tax-farming for revenue; the resulting abuses of the people were a key factor leading to the French Revolution.
For a weak ruler to strengthen his position is a long, perhaps generational, project. It took the Capetian kings of France hundreds of years to slowly, patiently, methodically chip away at the power of the nobility, and they were never assured of ultimate success. The same could be said of the English kings, who suffered periodic overthrow and wars of succession. A strong nobility can defend its own position quite effectively; still, the king has the advantages of a central political position and the ability to divide and conquer, given the opportunity.
A final possibility is that a weak Palace can strengthen to the point that the polity becomes evenly balanced. Or, a previously powerful Palace can have its position diminished so that the nobles reach parity. In either event, such a Palace/Nobility polity features an unstable, delicate balance between each side, so that the future trajectory of the system could go in either direction.
For authors, opportunities for conflict abound. Independent nobles can scheme against each other or even make open war, the king can intrigue with one faction against another, or they could intrigue against the king or rebel; country aristocracy could come into conflict with dependent courtiers, each side resenting the privileges of the other. Feuds between nobles and a weakened king could risk fracturing the polity altogether, leaving it open to outside invasion; or the threat of such invasion could be exploited by the Palace to augment its own power and force the nobles in line. If court politics is your thing, then the possibilities should make you downright giddy!