One of the things about reading accounts of medieval times is that the political geography was, of course, vastly different. The structure of the medieval state was a hierarchy of vassals and kings, with the divisions marking the borders of each noble’s land. It’s a confusing and frustrating geography, if you’re not familiar with it, so I’m hoping that this post will help clear things up for those of you who do not have history books open next to you.
(Picture from Heritage History maps collection, click to enlarge. The directory identifies this as the Angevin empire circa 1150, but there are so many things wrong with that date that I’m not even going to bother ridiculing it. While the map itself doesn’t seem to have a date, it’s almost certainly from the later part of Henry II’s reign.)
Most people know that the medieval world, especially France, was divided into both duchies (ruled by a duke) and counties (ruled by a count). As a duke usually ranked higher than a count, it seems to follow that a duchy was generally bigger than a county. Where it gets interesting is that some duchies were further divided into counties, some duchies had no counties, and there were many counties that were independent of any duchy. Some of the titles were hereditary, while some (My first thought is to the title Count of Mortain, held by Stephen, Geoffrey le Bel and John, among many others) pertained more to towns or cities, and were given to those who had cultivated royal favor (generally a member of the royal family).
England was slightly different, as the island had no formal duchies until the reign of Edward III in the 14th century – and even then, most (if not all of them) remained within various branches of the royal family. England’s divisions, therefore, were counties – much as they still are today. Though they were called counties, they were not ruled by counts – the English (and later British) equivalent was the earl, carried over from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom before the Conquest.
Though the counties and duchies all started out in separate families, over time, the standards for the marriage of nobles meant that many of these titles would be accrued by a handful of families, with the titles thus descending in hierarchical order (Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine, then Countess of Poitou; on his ascension, Stephen was King of England and Duke of Normandy; and by his own right, Henry FitzEmpress was King of England, Duke of Normandy, and the Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine). As status in these times was often dependent on the amount of land one held, once the titles were combined, the holders were loathe to split them – something that would cause untold problems for the English in the Hundred Years War (as I covered already, the Plantagenets refused to separate the Duchy of Aquitaine from the crown, meaning that they had to endure a king doing homage to another king).
From the north, the important Angevin holdings under Henry were: the Duchy of Normandy, the Duchy of Brittany (not directly held by the crown), the County of Maine, the Counties of Anjou and Touraine, the County of Poitou, the Duchy of Aquitaine, and the Duchy of Gascony. This was a vast amount of land – perhaps half of modern France – with titles that were joined to the English crown.
Like many things in medieval Europe, the borders of these divisions were somewhat fluid, with the counts and dukes often very eager to expand their borders at the cost of a neighbor. For that reason, we must reason that the peripheries of all duchies and counties often changed hands – thus, the only time we can be sure that a town or castle is in a certain area is when it is in the interior of the area. Some would argue that it’s also known when the castle is build by the current title holder, but that can be misleading: a war was started between two members of the Devil’s Brood, Hal and Richard, over castles that Richard build in lands that were nominally Hal’s (though on the disputed borders).
With that being said, many of the conflicts started over borders ended with a return to the status quo ante bellum – meaning that though the borders were often fluid and changing, they did stay in basically the same position over longer periods of time, allowing us to trust maps such as the one above.