Imperial Feudalism

Feudal Patterns of the Imperium

While precise details of the relationships among the empire's most powerful forces, the emperor, the Houses Major and Houses Minor, and the Navis Noblite, would fill a tome many times the size of this treatise, the fundamental feudalism of the empire has been established beyond all doubt. Feudalism is the only feasible way to efficiently govern such a widely dispersed empire of established planets — each with the capability to be self-sustaining while retaining unique characteristics — and a constantly expanding frontier of new planets. For an empire that lacks the technology necessary to efficiently offset the distances and differences between such planets, feudalism alone has the proper combination of stability and flexibility, centralization and decentralization, to make accommodation under one system possible. Even so, the feudal empire requires the most delicate balance of forces, of interlocking loyalties and responsibilities, to maintain it. Political power, civilization itself, rested upon a tripod made up of the emperor, his vassals, and their means of communication and contact — the Navis Noblite.

All power was centralized in the person of the Padishah Emperor, who, in name at least, owned the entire empire. Although the Imperial House could be said to reign over the entire galaxy, it ruled only a minuscule portion of that galaxy directly — most notably Earth, the seat of the Imperial Court, the Shrine Worlds and the Imperial Prison Planets. The rest of the galaxy was held in fief by individual Houses Major, any one of which could hold a large number of planets or even planetary systems in precaria from the emperor. Such fiefs were normally granted in perpetuity to a Great House.

The granting of a fief to the ruler of a House Major carried with it Imperial protection against violations of the Great Convention in House-to-House disputes, and against the threat of invasion by alien adversaries. An Imperial fief also guaranteed the holder status as a House Major and thus representation in the local Alverltstaag, membership (although not necessarily a directorship) in CHOCTAM, Navis Noblite shipping privileges (contingent upon Guild approval), and immunity from direct Imperial interference.

Indirect interference, in the form of spies, official "visits" by dignitaries, and even sabotage, was constant and expected (as detailed by Zhuurazh Nimkii, I Lived Three Lives: Memoirs of a Double Agent [Zimaona; Kinat]).

Feudal Obligations

The granting of planetary tenure without such nominal "immunity" gave the holder a "quasi-fief" in which governmental power was shared with a Lord-Militant of the Imperial Guard — an arrangement held to be eminently unsatisfactory by most Houses Major. In return, the recipient of a planetary fief agreed to accept the title of "vassal," swore perpetual homage and fealty to the Padishah Emperor, and pledged yearly tithes out of all profits accruing to the fief (exact amount set by the Administratum).

Other obligations include Military Service, this means providing supporting levies for the Imperial Guard forces amounting to no less than one-tenth of all military conscripts for planetary armies. In addition, various feudal "aids and incidents" had gotten attached to the system over the years and were regarded as inviolable through long custom.

These include:

1) "Relief," basically an inheritance tax payable upon the death of a vassal and the assumption of a fief by that vassal's legal heir. Typically this is a tax equal to 25% of the fief's gross annual revenue.

2) The "Incident of Marriage", to be paid by an heiress for the right to choose her own husband (in practice merely a wedding tax, but taken very seriously by the Imperium, as evidenced in the legal precedent of Lady Angelica Hagal vs. the Imperium [High Lord Archives 918M36], when the High Lords ruled that "marriage among the members of Houses Major cannot be construed otherwise than as a political and economic merger, and as such is under the direct jurisdiction of our Sublime Padishah Emperor himself"). The Incident is typically 10% of the gross revenue of the fief.

3) The "Incident of Ascension", to be paid by an vassals to help defray the costs of knighting the eldest son of an overlord, it is also demanded when a new viceroy is appointed to a sector to help secure the position of the new overlord (it also tends to solidify support for the viceroy since the great nobles don't want to pay the incident too often). The Incident is typically 10% of the gross revenue of the fief and can be demanded once in an overlord's lifetime.

4) "Escheat Delictum Tenantis", most fiefs are granted in perpetuity yet they could escheat to the Imperium in default of an heir to a House (a circumstance resulting more often from a House being forced into exile than from the failure of a genetic fine), or the Emperor (or the overlord if the fief is held from a lesser noble) could declare a fief forfeit owing to the failure of a House to fulfill its feudal obligations. Such reversions of a fief to direct Imperial control are, however, comparatively rare, except in the case of those fiefs that carry with them exceptional wealth and/or political power.

5) "Defensive War", a vassal is obligated to come to his overlord's aid if attacked and an overlord is obligated to defend his vassals if they are attacked. Suicidal measures are not required but a good faith obviously is. Failure by a vassal is treason, failure by an overlord is abandonment and leaves the vassal free to declare independence and negotiate his own terms.

6) "The Right of Hospitality" or droit de gite, dreaded by all Houses Major, since to entertain the emperor or his viceroy in the style to which he was accustomed could break all but the wealthiest of Houses. Fortunately, few viceroys made injudicious use of this right. Indeed, the emperor never has. The last viceroy to indulge in a processional circuit throughout his domains, Grand Duke Corrin XXII of Sacurus, 923M35-929M35, occasioned no fewer than 143 food riots on seventeen planets, dozens of Bills of Particulars laid before the Alvertstaag, and four successful revolutions (quickly overturned by his successor, Ezhar X) before succumbing to poisoning while still on procession on Bolchef (see The Last Banquet, by Lars Karden [Yorba: Rose]).

Imperial feudalism differed from historical feudal systems in one very important respect: the Padishah Emperor does not rely on his feudal vassals for his personal soldiery. True, he requires supporting levies for the Imperial Guard legions. However, the emperor relies, instead, on the Astartes, who are each rated a match for any ten ordinary Imperial Guard conscripts. This fact, combined with the knowledge that the Imperium’s weaponry and atomics could be matched only by the combined forces of all the Houses Major, and that Imperial House had almost unlimited wealth, give the Padishah Emperor the power to enforce his decisions if necessary, and more importantly, the authority to expect his decisions to be carried out without enforcement.

The Imperial Court

Such authority and wealth also gave rise to an Imperial Court (and bureaucracy) that grows every year in splendor and in Solaris spent. The Imperial Palace on Earth houses not only the emperor and his immediate relatives, their servants, bodyguards, and slaves, but also the emperor's slave-harem with its adjacent nursery for the offspring of the slave-concubines, and, on a higher level, quarter for the generally ignored-but-tolerated string of aristocratic visitors with suits, petitions, diplomatic errands, and the like. Lesser beggars waited out of doors. All, however, craved permission to enter the Imperial presence, to pass beyond the plasteel and marble doors, under the sculptured arches with the Imperial legend, "Law is the Ultimate Science," past the captive banners of defeated Great Houses, to stand within ten feet of the Golden Lion Throne, in the presence, finally, of Power itself. The great audience hall would be crowded with Imperial bodyguards, courtiers, pages, slaves, hangers-on, but still with only a fraction of those who clamored to get in; the audiences would seem endless, but would accommodate only a few petitioners out of the many who waited. The emperor, dressed in a gray Astartes shirt-sleeve uniform with only the Imperial crest on the helm to indicate his position — to indicate, if such a blatant reminder were necessary, exactly where the Imperial power lay — would listen as each petitioner stated his name and case in almost identical words, the formulae having been established through ancient usage: "I, the Lord of a Great House, an Imperial kinsman, give my word of bond under the Convention..."

With few exceptions, members of the Imperial family did not attend the myriad social functions which gave the Court its reputation for glittering splendor. Nor is it true that behind-the-scenes life on Earth consisted of perpetual orgies, feasts, and drinking bouts. The private diaries and journals of the Imperial Household indicate that Imperial duties, not privilege, held sway on Earth.

These duties included not only the administration of the Imperial planets and the management of feudal dues, obligations, and tithes, but also the day-to-day workings of various departments and ministries. There is the Imperial Census to be attended to every ten years (requiring quite a bureaucracy of its own: no one outside its offices claims to know the exact number of worlds under Imperial sway, yet the Census concerns itself with individuals); the Imperial Dictionary — ostensibly a record of Gothic only, but in need of constant revision and expansion; the Ecological, Botanical, and Zoological Research Centers (under strict control to limit technological advance); not to mention the Imperial Intelligence Agency. The emperor's day, excluding audiences, was a round of reports and conferences, requiring the services of a battery of mentat secretaries and aides. Regional and planetary courts of the Houses Major tended to ape the customs and fashions of the Imperial House. Dukes and Barons grandly held audiences, heard suits, and granted petitions all over the galaxy in imitation of their sublime overlord.


Most Great Houses, indeed, granted subfiefs to vassals of their own, lords of the Houses Minor, in a double effort to (a) increase their own prestige by creating personal vassals, and (b) reduce the personal work and expenditure necessary to govern a planet. This process of subinfeudation could continue, with Houses Minor granting subfiefs to other Houses Minor or even private individuals (or even, in extraordinary cases, to impoverished Houses Major), until a huge bureaucracy became necessary just to sort out who owed what obligations to whom.

The fall of certain Great Houses to the status of House Minor (entailing loss of Alverltstaag representation, Navis Noblite shipping privileges, and membership in CHOCTAM) can be traced directly to the House becoming entangled in a coil of conflicting loyalties and obligations. (See E. Alaynbat, The Fall of the House of Hidaka [Grumman: Lodni], for a detailed and interesting case history.) An astute and not-too-scrupulous House Minor could, of course, use the subinfeudation process to advance itself to the status of House Major, and many of the minor planetary intrigues and plots were designs of this nature.

The lord and lady of a planet were expected to be more than just political figures. As planetary governors, they were considered father and mother-surrogates to their people. Thus, in addition to ensuring peace and prosperity, they set and enforced certain social standards, patterns of courtesy as it were, among their populations. In practice, this duty came down to a velvet-gloved but iron-fisted enforcement of the faufreluches class system: "A place for every man and every man in his place."

A strict hierarchy of social privilege and rank prevailed throughout the empire, and each member of society took care to maintain his pride of place against the lower orders, from the emperor himself down through the Houses, the merchants, artisans, and freedmen, to peons, servants, and slaves. Mobility within the ranks was theoretically impossible, as one's status was determined at birth by the rank of the one's family and the educational opportunities open to the offspring of such a family. Official policy discouraged aspirations of upward mobility. Yet roads were open to those bold enough (or foolish enough) to try them. Evidence of potential mentat ability, or intelligence plus a willingness to allow one's Pyretic Conscience to be tampered with, could be a passport out of middle-class life, either legitimately through Collegia Psykanica, or not so legitimately (nor so safely) through renegade training at the hands of rogue psykers.

Psychologically safer, but still physically dangerous, the most common route out of the lower classes lay through the military. It was not true, as rumor would have it, that an enterprising young man could, through prowess and bravery, make his way into the elite corps of Adeptus Astartes, although many tried by means of the emperor's supporting levies. Yet a man could rise through the ranks of the Imperial Guard or local Planetary Defense Forces to become a commander, a general, even a Master of Assassins (for example, see Juniper Atreo, ed. Diary of an Assassin: A Biography of Geoffrey Hallenbeck, [Grumman: United Worlds], compiled from records found at the Great Library on Cadia.)

The third way around the hierarchy of the faufreluches was, as may be expected, financial. As new planets with new products and exports opened up, it was possible for legitimate businessmen, and their illegitimate cousins the smugglers, to make fortunes in trade: such wealth could be used to buy titles or House Minor (and even House Major) status through discreet negotiations in the proper quarters. The accusation of purse-nobility — that one's titles came out of one's pocketbook — was one of the deadliest insults in the Imperium.

At times whole populations lived outside the faufreluches system: one example is certainly outlanders of Necromunda. Another example, although possibly a legendary one (the records are fragmentary), is the planet(s?) of Tupile and the population, certainly great in rumor if not in fact, that sought sanctuary there over the millennia. The Imperial government, of course, consciously blocked all efforts to circumvent the faufreluches system.

The Imperium has not maintained its ascendancy for so many generations by encouraging change, or even the hope of change. The feudal pyramid must appear to all members of the Imperium as if carved in stone: no movement is easy, no revolt possible. Imperial agents cultivated a persistent pessimism among the population to bolster their power base. This pessimism acted as a psychological deterrent (in addition to religious restrictions) against technological and political innovation, keeping the empire safely feudalist for over 10,000 years. Those forces which could oppose the emperor — the Great Houses and the Navis Noblite — were absorbed into the feudal pyramid, indeed, were indispensable to its stability. The Federated Great Houses had been formed, initially, to constitute a defense against the Imperium, as each Great House lived in fear of finding the Astartes on its doorstep, perhaps disguised in another House's livery, and the Houses could fight the Astartes only in combination. In practice, however, the Great Houses acted as a self-policing agency; keeping House-to-House disputes from getting out of hand, supervising changes of fief, vendettas, and Wars of Assassins, enforcing the rules of the Great convention, so the emperor would have no need of using the Astartes. In any emergency, the Great Houses would act to safeguard profits, not rights, and for 10,000 years the profits had gone with the Imperium. The regional Sysselraads, formed by the Houses Minor in imitation of the Great Houses’ Alverltstaag, performed essentially the same function in miniature with regard to individual Houses Major.

The Role of the Navis Noblite

The third leg of the political tripod is the Navis Noblite, with its monopoly on interstellar travel and transport and thus on interstellar banking. Although it owed formal allegiance to the Imperial House, from whom it received its charter, the Guild was in actual fact equal in power to both the emperor and the combined forces of the Great Houses, should it choose to use that power. All communication, travel, trade, and military operations were dependent upon Guild approval. No Great House, including the formally all-powerful Emperor, dared endanger its Guild shipping privileges through ill-advised infringements of the Guild Peace, and the emperor himself was forced to employ spies and smugglers in an attempt to circumvent Guild control. Yet the Guild itself was a fundamentally conservative organization. Its conservatism was rooted in two sources: the fear that technological advances would break its monopoly through new methods of space travel, and the fear that its supply of mélange — which alone made such travel possible—would be cut off. The Guildsmen believes, rightly for over 10,000 years, that the Imperium with its feudal structure and religious strictures against technology was its only safeguard against these dangers.

To perpetuate itself, the Navis Noblite was willing to allow rubber-stamp control over its charter by the Emperor, and to balance its power against that of the Great Houses and any other threat to the established Imperial order.

Fatal error: Call to undefined function views_cache_get() in /home/iceriver/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 471