What actually happened to medieval lords who ran out of money?

I was watching The Last Duel the other night, and a major plot point is how Matt Damon’s character, Sir Jean de Carrouges was having financial difficulties. Indeed, a major plot point in a lot of medieval stories (both fictional and non-fictional) involves the financial problems of various nobility.

So what actually happened to lords if they ran out of money and couldn’t, say, marry into a wealthy house or find some patron to let them bum around their castle? Did they potentially lose their land and title? Did they keep their title as “Duke Whoever…the guy who shovels shit for Dave the Pig Farmer”? Was whatever lord they were a vassal to expected to take care of them, but they get stuck with whatever accommodations they were given?

One option was to kill the Jews who had lent him money and seize their assets.

Or Knights Templar.

This is an extremely interesting question. Following.

I don’t know if it happened in Britain, but in Germany: declare a feud and rob your neighbors.

HERE[moderator note - link removed] is a cite which discusses the history of selling titles.

Thomas Hardy based Tess of the D’Urbervilles on the premise of families losing their titles. In the 1880s, John Durbeyfield, a poor peddler, is told by a parson with an interest in genealogy that he’s actually “Sir John”, the descendant of a family that came to England with William the Conqueror and were still nobles under Charles II, in the 1670s. The family is now considered “extinct” and Durbeyfield had no idea that they were ever noble. He’s only heard that the family had seen better days and that his great-grandfather had secrets and didn’t care to talk about where he came from.

“Sir John” asks the parson what he might do to recover the family estates and titles. The parson tells him there’s nothing he can do and that there are several peasant families in the county with similar histories.

Another once-noble character mentioned in Hardy’s Tess is the milkmaid Retty Priddle, from a family who were once the Paradelles. In a conversation with Robert Graves, Hardy said that the Priddles were an actual “ancient family long decayed into peasantry”.

At this time wealth, basically, was land, and you can’t run out of land. You can neglect your land and you can manage it badly, and be financially stressed as a result, and run up debts. But the land is still there, and your more competent heirs can try to redeem the situation.

It’s important that, at this time, you can’t sell your land and you can’t mortgage it in a way that would allow a lender to acquire permanent title. When you die, the land will go to your heir-at-law (who you don’t get to choose), so you can only give away your own lifetime rights - you can alienate the future rental income of the land, but only during your own life. The ability to completely ruin yourself and your family requires freedom of sale and freedom of testamentary disposition, and in the medieval period you don’t have these.

Given that they are literally trying to sell you something, I don’t think that’s a particularly reliable source.

(I removed the link from the quoted portion because I don’t think it’s reputable)

Moderator Note

I removed your link since the purpose of the site is to sell “noble titles”, put in quotes because the vast majority of these types of sites are selling fake titles and are not worth anything, not even what you pay for them.

I have no idea if the history section of that site is accurate or not. Many facts may be misrepresented to give a false impression of how titles were sold historically just to make the modern sale seem more legitimate.

This is in no way a punitive action. I believe that you posted the link in good faith, as the history section of that site does seem legitimate and does not at first glance appear to be malicious in any way. I will also note that if you search for the history of noble titles being sold, that link is the first result.

All the nobles of the time were it seems, perpetually short of funds and looking for means to finance their lifestyle. The whole history of most medieval kingdoms is about the shortage of funds. Even in the 1600’s, Chuckie I lost his head due to a shortage of funds - he tried to bypass parliament. As others pointed out, the Templars were persecuted due to the desire to steal their treasure. Henry VIII took advantage of a feud with the pope to take possession of the church lands (apparently 10% of the kingdom). He proceeded to distribute some to his nobles so they would also have the financial incentive to keep the pope out of England and unable to reclaim church property. The American Revolution was a result of tax issues for the English government. The French revolution was due to a funding shortfall. The need for money from indulgences triggered Luther and the Reformation.
Money makes the world go 'round,…

Assorted levels of nobles (especially the king) were also not unknown to sell various offices and permissions in return for a consideration. The king just had more to sell. Buying an officer’s commission in a regiment was a common thing up to recently. You obviously see that in those days, dowries were very important too.

I have a book of some of Lord Lisle’s letters. Henry VIII was well aware of his father’s tenuous claim to the throne and careful about what his nobles were up to. Lord Lisle was the administrator of Calais for a time, and one of the last Plantagenets; Henry was wary that restive nobles might use him as a cause for rebellion, so had spies keeping track of him. Part of a noble’s jockeying for recognition was endless rounds of gift-giving between nobles and to the king, in order to be front of mind when lucrative favours were handed out. One chapter lists a massive number such gifts, from the trivial to the extravagant to the bizarre. (Seal meat pie??) This was the lifestyle that consumed so much of a lord’s expenditures and why they were constantly short of funds to keep up appearances.

So obviously, if a Lord could not sell his lands, nor mortgage the income of future generations, how does a noble family fall on rough times beyond one generation? Or were heirs feeling honor-bound to try to meet their parent’s obligations? Or did ruin come later, when the rules against selling land were no longer applicable?


For a start, see this 2019 paper published under the auspices of Cambridge University:

Medieval Property Investors, ca. 1300–1500

(This article is based on research conducted as part of a three-year project: The First Real Estate Bubble? Land Prices and Rents in Medieval England c. 1200–1550.)


This paper uses a data set of freehold land and property transactions from medieval England to highlight the growing commercialization of the economy during that time. By drawing on the legal records, we are able to demonstrate that the medieval real estate market provided the opportunity for investors to profit.

Careful analysis of the data provides evidence of group purchases, multiple transactions, and investors buying outside their own localities. The identification of these “investors” and their buying behaviors, set within the context of the English medieval economy, contributes to the early commercialization debate.


The subject of this article is the role of freehold land and property in the developing commercial economy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As we will detail, in many circumstances, property in medieval England could be bought and sold as a means of accruing profit.

During our research we have created the largest data set of English property buyers and sellers to date, detailing close to 100,000 records.

By analyzing the data and identifying trends, we will argue that this type of commercial activity signals the beginning of the development of property as an asset class. Speculation enabled “medieval investors” the ability to “profit” both in terms of the social advancement that landownership bestowed and from the economic value of the real estate equity and rental incomes. …

Another paper:

…freehold land constituted approximately 50 per cent of all the landholdings in England c. 1300.

A market in freehold land is argued to have emerged in the late twelfth century following the legal reforms of Henry II, which allowed for the title to property to be legally defended under the common law and enforced in the royal courts.

A wealth of deeds and private charters recording grants, sales, leases and settlements of disputes relating to freehold property survive from this period onwards; these have been the focus of a number of regional studies. …

Also note that it’s impossible to generalise about medieval Europe. There were huge variations over time and in different places.

Are we talking about 700 AD, or 1100 AD, or 1400 AD?

At a particular period, are we talking about England, or France, or Spain, or Germany, or Italy, or Scandanivia, or Poland, or Russia, or the Byzantine Empire? They were all very different.

If we’re talking about France, which part of France? Northern or Southern? Which semi-independent Dukedom or County with its own laws and customs?

Thank you for this observation, as it was indeed merely a link that I used to try to justify my supposition that titles were sold as a means to raise revenue. I didn’t read the link the whole way through, so I apologize if it was a solicitation for money.

I was coming to post this. Back in medieval times (I’m talking about England, but probably maps for other places too), a title wasn’t just a title. It gave you title to land. A title also came with responsibility - you can expect your feudal Lord or the King to rope you into helping to run his government, collect his taxes and lead various wars, for which you will receive rewards in the guise of more land.

Of course, none of this is true anymore, so it’s perfectly possible to be an Earl with a modest home and a desk job at the local council office.

But that isn’t to do with a family losing wealth - more likely, that’s either falling out with the King and having your titles forfeited, or the line of succession being unclear, without any ‘heir’ having a clear right to claim the title. There’s a stately home near me where the family line essentially died out in the 1950s, with no one to claim the baronetcy which had existed since the 1300s. Presumably there’s some distant relatives somewhere who could stake a claim, but they aren’t forthcoming.

Only if you mean before 1290. I mean, you could do it even before then, but you’d probably need a middleman.

Attainder was the penalty which the propertied class feared - you lost all your assets and your heirs wouldn’t inherit anything.
If you run out of money, then you’ve got one chance - marry someone with lots of it. History is full of examples of this - Consuelo Vanderbilt marrying the Duke of Marlborough, for instance. The marriage would be brokered by relatives anyway, so being attracted to the other party wasn’t necessary. Marriage was a political, financial, and dynastic act, and only the poorest classes married for love.

I thought that was a criminal penalty. Not necessarily a consequence of going broke.