How do the powers of a duke compare with that of a king or emperor?

How do the powers of a duke compare with that of a king or emperor? I’m particularly interested in the powers of dukes versus king or emperors in feudal systems.
I look forward to your feedback

Dukes rule a duchy, kings rule a kingdom, emperors rules an empire.

It depended on the particular kingdom/country, since there was never any universal feudal rank system. Usually, however, a duke (or the equivalent in a non-English system) is the most powerful non-sovereign noble. In the UK, I believe the ranking went (from the bottom) knight, baronet, baron, earl, viscount, duke, king/queen.

Things became complicated after 1066 when the Duke of Normandy invaded England. While William was still a vassal of the King France as a duke of Normandy, he was also an equal to the French king in his role as the new king of England.

Plus, the Dukes in France tended to have more power than the King of France, whose main area of control was Paris. It took several centuries for the French kings to gradually assert real control over all of France.

By contrast, in England, there were no Dukes until the 14th century. When the title was eventually created, it was the top of the peerage and went to powerful people, but the Dukes were definitely subordinate to the King.

I understand the pecking order but what is not so clear to me is the range of powers that a duke was able to exercise. Was he more powerful or less powerful than a viceroy?

“Viceroy” isn’t a noble title, it’s a position. No one inherits a viceroy position. He’s basically the sovereign’s representative in a particular place, so carries (as long as he’s in line with the sovereign’s wishes) the power of the sovereign, or at best one step down.

Thank you all. Very helpful indeed.

Probably the most important thing to remember, though, is that it’s not like a table in the old Dungeon Master’s Guide. There’s not one right answer for every system of nobility even in Europe, let alone the world. “How much power?” is a question that can only be answered within particular parameters, mostly of place and time. England before the Conquest is very different from England under Henry VIII which is very different from the UK in the 19th Century (complicated by the fact that there are different systems for England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Canada, while it was still under direct rule). And all of them are very, very different from Poland or France or Germany or Italy or Spain in whatever century you want to pick.

It’s kind of like asking “How powerful is the Catholic Church?” When? Where? What kind of power are we talking about? It’s just not a question with an easy answer. Or even ONE answer.

Not only that but the title is but one thing in the equation. I’m no UK history buff but I recall there were at times noblemen who might have been regarded as of lesser rank (by title) but who were wealthier and had greater land and men at arms at immediate disposal than the monarch. These noblemen would defer to the monarch vociferously - in all matters of form - but the realpolitik was very different.

Dukes who were closely related to the monarch could also themselves have rightful claims to the throne. When you have a powerful enough duke, you could have outright challenges to the king’s power. See the Duke of York and the War of the Roses.


Kind of like how “Is the Pope Catholic?” can have multiple answers depending on how you define “Is”, “the Pope”, and “Catholic” (or even “catholic”, to be staggeringly precise about this).

“Is” as opposed to “was”: Is there a Pope? Sedevacantists say no, there is not currently a Pope, and the man who claims to be a Pope is an Anti-Pope and a pretender to the throne.

“the Pope” as opposed to “the other Pope”: Related to the above, there are those who believe Pope Michael I (born David Allen Bawden September 22, 1959 in Oklahoma City, papacy began July 16, 1990) is the current Pope, as opposed to the Anti-Pope currently living it up in Rome.

“Catholic” as opposed to “Catholic” and “Catholic” and so on and amen: Multiple churches are all Catholic, by their own reckoning. This gets funnier later on, especially when you realize they don’t all fully recognize each others’ Catholic-ness.

“catholic”: Means all-encompassing. A catholic church must at least encompass all believers.

So: Is the Pope catholic? No, he’s parochial. He only believes in, and represents, a single fraction of a single religion. Isn’t language fun?[/hijack]

See also the Second Earl of Richmond, who won the battle that ended to Wars of the Roses, and became King of England without having been a duke.

In some times and places–such as Italy or Germany before their respective unifications–there were also sovereign dukes, who basically had (at least in theory) the same powers as a king, albeit generally over a smaller and less important territory. (I say “in theory” because if you ruled over some little podunk place like Saxe-Meiningen or Parma, everyone might be polite and say you were “sovereign”, but if some big country like France or Prussia wanted to fuck with you, your only hope was likely to find some other big country to protect you from Big Country A, and in the long run that wasn’t likely to end well for your “sovereignty”–see “Italy and Germany, respective unifications of”.)

Well, to be a duke, you have to have fought your way to being king, been dethroned, then fight your way up to being king again. So I’d say in my experience Dukes tend to have greater powers than kings, but sometimes they’re long in the tooth and a younger King could take 'em.

But then again, the SCA doesn’t have Emperors, so I couldn’t offer any comment there.

AKA a Grand Duchy

Also the Earl of Warwick:

He was widely considered (well Wikipedia and watching The White Queen) to be extremely powerful.

The more you watch period dramas and read up on this stuff - the more I get an appreciation for the fluidity of power and the necessity to form alliances through marriage and what not.

I think a lot of this stuff is subtle and hard to grasp without a true appreciation for the values and culture of the times.

But we all know the most powerful peer of last century is a Dowager Countess.

Yeah, but not necessarily. I mean, “Grand Duke” pretty much means “Duke who is sovereign”, but then there were plenty of examples of mere ordinary non-Grand regular Dukes who were nonetheless sovereign.

The German Empire was a federation of over two dozen formerly sovereign states, including four kingdoms*, six grand duchies, another five regular duchies (which however had been “sovereign”, that is, they not been part of some other kingdom before German unification), seven principalities, and three free cities. And Alsace-Lorraine. And a partridge and a pear tree.

*One of which, Prussia, was much bigger and more important than all the rest of this lot put together.

jayjay has the right of it - the answer is too complicated to go much farther than “it varied.” From title to title and period to period, even from duke to duke. Generally speaking it was status title directly below a royal title and it conveyed more real authority in the early middle ages than it did in the late. As with all noble titles the farther you move forward in time the more of a meaningless frippery it becomes.

So for example Bavaria under the native Liutpolding dynasty in the immediate post-Carolingian period was a large, virtually autonomous statelet, a former Merovingian/Carolingian sub-kingdom ( as most of the western duchies originally were ) competing for royal power with the early Conradines and Liudolfings. The Liutpoldings lost and were gradually dispossessed by the Liudolfings and Bavaria began to be partitioned.

From this large ‘stem’ Bavaria were spun off a multitude of new territorial units - Carinthia first, then Austria, Styria, the Tyrol, Merania ( named for the Istrian penninsula, but much of the landed power of the Andechs dukes of Merania lay in old Bavaria ). But the time the title ‘duke of Bavaria’ was taken from the Welf Henry the Lion and granted to the former Bavarian counts palatine the Wittlesbachs in 1180, it was essentially a hollow shell of a title. The Wittlesbachs were then able to partially reconstitute it via a multitude of inheritances and some probably rather dubious lucky confiscations of lapsed estates to create a new ducal state largely on family Wittlesbach lands. Which was subsequently frequently partitioned itself.

Between this time period ( say 900-1300 ) it was at various times a royal appanage, held by outside nobles with no particular base in Bavaria ( houses of Ezzonen, Northeim, Luxemburg ) or held by locally based dynasts ( Welfs, Babenbergs ). All of these varied in the kind of authority and power they wielded as dukes of Bavaria. Someone like Otto of Northeim scarcely gave a crap about Bavaria at all and wielded no great authority there - it was mostly a status title, his real interests were in his native Saxony.

And that’s just one ( really very, very thumbnail ) sketch of one duchy in one realm in one limited period of time. I edited out a shitload of detail above and we could talk about lots of other duchies of one sort or another - from titles divorced from geography like the ‘dukes of Zahringen’ to the fact that in some places and times you could find wealthier and more powerful counts than dukes. There is simply too huge a range of circumstances to attempt a neat answer.

True enough.