By slow and steady steps some of the feudal lords gained more and more power until they became strong monarchs at the head of national states. The period of the Renaissance saw the feudal system with its decentralization and disorder being replaced by strong national governments. During the feudal period the kings often had no more power than some of the nobles.
With the rise of commercialism, the feudal system was further weakened because many of the vassals left the rural areas and became artisans or merchants in the cities, with interests similar to those of the trading classes. They then became interested in maintaining law and order, so that commerce could be carried on unmolested. The many wars carried on by the barons with their neighbors were a menace to the growing commerce and trade. The commercial classes were, therefore, interested in a stronger government and were willing to submit to taxation. They were ready to furnish the king with money so that he could employ soldiers who might break up private warfare and destroy the bands of robbers who also had been a menace to commerce.
Some of the cities received charters from the kings, by which their citizens became freemen of the town, with special privileges. For these privileges the cities paid sums of money which in turn enabled the rulers to set up a stronger central government. By this process the powers of the king increased, while the power of the feudal lords declined. The former vassals began to look to the national government for protection and for the administration of justice. Many of the nobles in turn became mere courtiers, or attendants to the king; that is, they made up the king’s court, often without much authority in the administration of the government.
Another important factor which led to the decline of feudalism and the subsequent rise of national states was the invention of gunpowder, in the thirteenth century. Soon small cannon throwing stones or iron balls came into use. Muskets replaced crossbows. A revolution in warfare made possible by gunpowder put the peasant on more nearly even fighting terms with the nobles. When cannon could be aimed at the noble’s castle, it was no longer a safe retreat.
By the fifteenth century, strong national states had replaced the feudal system. Among these national states were England, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands. These states soon became conscious of their nationality and began struggling for more wealth and power, while their kings claimed to rule by divine right.