Skip to Content

Government in the Middle Ages

Government in the Middle Ages

If you want a greater understanding of life during the Middle Ages, you must understand how the government was structured. The Middle Ages was a time of great turmoil, and one power reigned supreme in the government in the high Middle Ages.

Government in the Middle Ages can be subdivided into three categories – the early, high, and late Middle Ages. The government looked different in each period. By the late Middle Ages, there were well-established monarchies throughout Europe.

I will explain how the government structure changed throughout the Middle Ages, so you can see where it began and ended in the Renaissance. We’ll also consider what role the church played in the government and how the feudal system influenced the government of the Middle Ages. 

How Was The Government Structured In The Middle Ages?

The government changed a lot throughout the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages can be divided into three subcategories :

  • the early Middle Ages (476 – 1000 CE)
  • the high Middle Ages (1000 – 1300 CE)
  • the late Middle Ages (1300 – 1500 CE) [3]

The Middle Ages are exciting since so much changed from the onset to the end of the Middle Ages. Let’s see how the government changed in the three Middle Ages periods to better understand the governmental structure at the time.

Government In The Early Middle Ages

The Middle Ages period starts after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 [2]. The Western Roman Empire strived to control Europe and had footholds in nearly every major European nation you know of today. Since many countries rebelled against Roman rule, there were some leaders in Europe when the Western Roman Empire crumbled. 

But after the Western Roman Empire crumbled, many European people fought for power. People with more land had more power, and many landowners considered themselves lords. 

Monarchs were appointed in the early Middle Ages. They claimed that they were chosen by God to unite and rule the country, and they often fought others for the position of king. A king’s claim to the throne was fragile, and he had to produce heirs and prove that he was indeed the rightful king of the throne.

Many people fought for the title of king, so there were many different kings within a short period at the start of the Middle Ages. Moreover, foreign invaders threatened the security of the king’s position and the country’s safety more often than not.

For example, shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, small kingdoms known as the Angles and Saxons were fighting for power to create England when they were invaded by the Vikings [1]. So, in addition to fighting with your neighbor for power, you also had to defend your lands against foreign invaders. 

So there wasn’t really an official government system in Europe at the start of the Middle Ages. The order of the day was more about gaining more lands and power and fighting your way up to the top. The governmental system started taking shape but only truly appeared towards the high Middle Ages. 

Government In The High Middle Ages

By the high Middle Ages (1000 – 1300 CE), there was a more definite government power in Europe. By this time, a King was appointed, and his claim was legitimized by the Roman Catholic Church. With the support of the church, a king was granted the power to rule over the lands and people in his country. 

The monarchs in the Middle Ages were ambitious people and often fought for more land and power. So they sent soldiers to other territories to conquer the lands and assert their dominance. The king’s position was still fragile, but the church had to support the contender’s reign to overthrow the monarchy.

The Roman Catholic church held the most power in the high Middle Ages [5]. The pope appointed advisors to the king, and monks and priests were often in charge of managing the kingdom’s finances. Priests also served as tax collectors and writers for the king. This meant that the church had intimate knowledge of what the king was doing and how he was ruling his territory. 

It also meant that the church could remove a monarch from power if he was no longer loyal to the church by claiming that a new king has been chosen by God. The church often stated that the current monarch didn’t consider the people’s best interests and that he was a bad king. 

The Roman Catholic church had equal, if not more, power than the monarchy in the high Middle Ages, and priests often used this power to gain more power and money. Another governmental system at play during the High Middle Ages was the Feudal system [1].

The Feudal system describes the governmental system during the Middle Ages, where kings would grant land to noblemen. These noblemen then had peasants farming the lands. In return for their labor, peasants received lodging and were guaranteed protection in case of invasion [4]. 

Many of these landowners also served as advisors to the king, which helped to secure their position and gave the king better insight into the needs of his people and his position. Of course, many misused the Feudal system and treated their peasants poorly. It was simply a matter of time before the Feudal system would be questioned and replaced. 

Government In The Late Middle Ages

By the late Middle Ages, the government and Feudal system were well-established in Europe. However, there were also many problems in Europe at the time since weather changes brought about great famine. The 100 Years War between France and England also meant that soldiers and peasants were not flourishing [3]. 

People will be hungry and frustrated. They started feeling like the church and monarchy didn’t have their best interests at heart, and tensions rose throughout Europe. The crusades were also significant in the high Middle Ages and continued throughout the late Middle Ages [2].

But one event completely changed the Feudal system, power of the church, and governmental system in Europe during the late Middle Ages. That event was the bubonic plague, or the black death [3]. The bubonic plague was a disease previously unknown to Europeans, but it killed an estimated 30% of Europe’s population within 3 years [2].

Suddenly, there weren’t as many peasants on farmlands. The church lost most of its grip on society because the people felt it abandoned them in their time of need. Kings had to restore the people’s faith in them, and the entire continent had to rebuild after the bubonic plague.

With the church losing so much power, the king gained more of it and became the official head of state, now firmly placed above the church in terms of hierarchy. The king was directly responsible for forming the country into one nation loyal to him and united against foreign invaders. 

The Feudal system was still in place, but landowners had to pay taxes to the crown and were subject to the laws and rulings of the king. The country found some stability towards the end of the Middle Ages, which allowed for the Renaissance and Great Exploration to occur [3].

It took a long time for the government system to be established and enforced in Europe in the Middle Ages. So for an extended period, the government was whatever the king of the day decided it to be. But in the high Middle Ages and late Middle Ages, you can see a definite structure coming into play regarding the government of the time.

The Role Of The Church In The Governing Of The Middle Ages

Parish priests and their people in the Middle Ages in England.
Parish priests and their people in the Middle Ages in England.
Image courtesy: (CC0 1.0)

I’ve briefly mentioned the church’s role in the government of the Middle Ages, but this topic deserves further investigation. The church was integral in establishing and securing lands in the Middle Ages. For a person to become king, he had to have the support of the church and the pope. 

The church essentially was the state and served as the government in the early and high Middle Ages [5]. There was no decision made without the church’s knowledge and input. The king had power over the people, but the church had power over the king. 

If the church felt that a king was no longer acting in the church’s best interest, the priest could oppose the king’s position, and a new king could be appointed. It was, therefore, crucial that the king followed the advice and ruling of the church if he wished to remain in power. 

The church was involved in every aspect of all social classes, meaning that it had the best insight into the needs and opinions of every person in a country. They could offer the best advice to the king that would benefit the most people. 

Unfortunately, some church heads (popes and priests) misused their power, contributing to the downfall of the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages. After the bubonic plague, the church lost most of its power over the king and people, and they never managed to regain this power [2].

Feudalism In The Middle Ages

In addition to the church, the nobles and lords held much power in the Middle Ages. In return for their titles, noblemen had to supply the king with troops and money to go to war and gain more territory. Noblemen also had a lot of influence over the king, and the more property and wealth you had, the more your voice was heard in court. 

The feudal system remained in place for the Middle Ages but also experienced changes after the bubonic plague. Suddenly, there weren’t as many peasants to farm the lands or serve as soldiers, which meant that peasants were in higher demand [2].

They could demand more wages and better living conditions. Many peasants moved to cities, where they could sell their crops and earn a better living than they did on the farms of noblemen. This transition gave the peasants more power, and their livelihoods changed as noblemen realized they had to comply with the people’s demands to remain in power. 

The revolutions were still a while away in Europe and would only come after the Renaissance periods. But the Middle Ages set the stage for the Renaissance that was to come, and the government system that emerged during the Middle Ages would remain for centuries. 


The government changed a lot in the Middle Ages. It went from being non-existent to being managed by the church. Finally, the government was headed by the king and his advisors, which consisted of noblemen and clergymen.



Header image courtesy: (CC0 1.0)