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Count palatine is a noble title, used to render several comital styles, in some cases also shortened to Palatine, which can have other meanings as well.

Importance of a Count Palatine in Mediaeval Europe

Comes palatinus

This Latin title is the original, but also pre-feudal: it originated as a Roman Comes, which was a non-hereditary court title of high rank, the specific part palatinus being the adjective derived from palatium ('palace').

But after the fall of Rome, a new, feudal type of title, also known simply as palatinus, started developing. The Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty employed a high official, the comes palatinus, who at first assisted the king in his judicial duties and at a later date discharged many of these himself. Other counts palatine were employed on military and administrative work.

The system was maintained by the Carolingian sovereigns (see the twelve legendary Paladins). A Frankish capitulary of 882 and Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, writing about the same time, testify to the extent to which the judicial work of the Frankish Empire had passed into their hands, and one grant of power was followed by another.

Instead of remaining near the person of the king, some of the counts palatine were sent to various parts of his empire to act as judges and governors, the districts ruled by them being called palatinates. Being in a special sense the representatives of the sovereign, they were entrusted with more extended power than the ordinary counts. Thus comes the later and more general use of the word palatine, its application as an adjective to persons entrusted with special powers and also to the districts over which these powers were exercised.

Related terms

Pfalzgraf is an exclusively German title (from the above Latin comes palatinus 'count of the palace'), rendered in English also (recorded since 1548) as palsgrave since medieval times for the permanent representative of the Frankish king, later of the Holy Roman Emperor, in a palatial domain of the crown (pfalz). Grafio is probably from the Greek grafein 'to write', hence 'scribe'; it plausibly comes via the Byzantine Greek grapheus or suggrapheus "he who calls a meeting, i.e. the court, together", which denoted a civil servant, rather than a feudal count. There were dozens of these royal Pfalzen throughout the Empire, and the monarch travelled between them. The empire had no real capital. This practice of a mobile, somewhat omnipresent king, thus also 'eating his taxes' literally wining and dining, was common in early feudal Europe. Travel was often already required because of military considerations. The count responsible for these places was thus responsible for the palace during the king's absence.In the empire the word count palatine was also used to designate the officials who assisted the emperor to exercise the rights which were reserved for his personal consideration, like granting arms. They were called comites palatini caesarii, or comites sacri palatii; in German, Hofpfalzgrafen.Both the Latin form (Comes) palatinus and the French (comte) palatin have been used as part of the full title of Dukes of Burgundy (a branch of the French royal dynasty) to render their rare German title Freigraf, which was the style of a (later lost) bordering principality, the allodial countship of Burgundy (Freigrafschaft Burgund in German) which came to be known as Franche-Comtémarker.

In early medieval Poland the Palatinus was next in rank to the King. As he is also the chief commander of the King's army the rank is merged with Wojewoda, with the latter replacing the title of Palatine. During the Fragmentation of Poland each Prince would have his own voivode. When some of these Principalities are reunited into the Kingdom of Poland the Palatines are infeudated with them as there is no local Prince anymore. Or rather on behalf of the King to whom all these princely titles returned. The Principalities are thus made Voivodships (sometimes translated as Palatinates). In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Voivodes sit in the Senat. Throughout its history the dignity remained non-hereditary or semi-hereditary. Today voivodes are government officials.

Mediaeval social structure and development of the Count Palatine

During the 11th century, some imperial palatine counts became a valuable political counterweight against the mighty duchies. Surviving old palatine counties were turned into new institutional pillars through which the imperial authority could be exercised. By the reigns of Henry the Fowler and especially of Otto the Great, comites palatini were sent into all parts of the country to support the royal authority by checking the independent tendencies of the great tribal dukes. We hear of a count palatine in Saxony, and of others in Lorraine, in Bavaria and in Swabia, their duties being to administer the royal estates in these duchies.

Next to the Dukes of Lotharingia, Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony, who had become dangerously powerful feudal princes, loyal supporters of the German Emperor were installed as counts palatine.

The Lotharingian palatines out of the Ezzonian dynasty were important commanders of the imperial army and were often employed during internal and external conflicts (e.g. to suppress rebelling counts or dukes, to settle frontier disputes with the Hungarian and the French kingdom and to lead imperial campaigns).

Although a palatinate could be rooted for decades into one dynasty, the office of the palatine counts became hereditary only during the 12th century. During the 11th century the palatinates were still regarded as beneficia, non-hereditary fiefs. The count palatine in Bavaria, an office held by the family of Wittelsbach, became duke of this land, the lower comital title being then merged into the higher ducal one; and with one other exception the German territorial counts palatine soon became insignificant, although, the office having become hereditary, Pfalzgrafen were in existence until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

The exception was the Count Palatine of the Rhine, who became one of the four lay electors and the most important lay official of the empire. Junior branches of his family also bore this title.

The term count palatine was not used on the British Islesmarker. Just as Count always remained reserved for continental territories, even though the equivalence of earl became clear by rendering it in Latin also as Comes, earl palatine was the exclusively British title for the incumbent of a British county palatine.

Sources and References




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