The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Norman Conquest and the Establishment of Feudalism in England

Category: 11th century

The end of the tenth century in England is marked by the advance towards feudalism. At this period the Danish invasions were renewed under king Sweyn, who had managed to unite Denmark and Norway. The attacks against England were now organized on a very interesting commercial plan. The invaders demanded a payment of money as a condition of withdrawal.

These payments of Danegeld or Danish moaey as it was called were made several times and they formed a huge sum of money later turning into a permanent property tax when Danish invasions ceased. .The tax was an important part of the budget of the kings used to maintain a standing army and fleet.

The Danish invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries gave a powerful fillip to the development of feudal relations in England. Many free peasants were ruined by the raids and fell into bondage. The heavy taxes impoverished the free peasants too ^ind a considerable number had to give up independent farming. A sizeable part of the peasants’ lands was seized by the big landlords and many peasants lost their freedom being turned into serfs. ( The principal features of feudal social relations — ‘No man without a lord’ ana’No land without a lord’,— can be widely applied to England from this time. However, despite these developments feudalism was still making slower progress in England as compared with the Continent/Th 1017 Canute (1017 — 35), son of Sweyn, became king of England as well as of Norway and Denmark. However, this unity was artificial and therefore it ended with the death of the king. Canute’s rule also witnessed the development of local rulers called the earls. He organized the country into four earldoms, and as a concession to his English subjects he allowed them to retain their old laws and customs. It must be marked that within the reign of Canute we witness the rise of the Saxon house of Godwin, whom Canute had made Earl of Wessex.

When Canute died his sons were incapable of holding his kingdom together and the Witan restored the old English line without serious opposition. The new king, Edward the Confessor (1042—66), was a descendant of the old English royal line. However, Edward had spent his youth in Normandy, so when he became king of England he brought to the court his Norman advisers and supporters, which in turn led to increased rivalry between the newcomers and the Saxons mainly represented by the Godwins.

As for Normandy itself it emerged in the ninth century when another branch of the Northmen of Scandinavia plundered the northern coast of France. Eventually they settled on land conquered from the French king and formed a territory called Normandy. They themselves were known as the Normans. The newcomers acquired the customs, traditions of the French people, as well as their language. By the 11th century feudalism had been established in France. The Normans were subordinate to their duke who in turn acknowledged the French king as their overlord though this was a formality because the king’s domain was smaller than the Duchy of Normandy and his power was inferior to that of the duke.

Speaking of Edward’s reign it is necessary to say that Westminster Abbey was built under his sponsorship in December 1065. Though the recorded history of Westminster Abbey begins in Edward the Confessor’s time, there are glimpses of its existence before that. On an island in the Thames, already called Westminster Eyot, he set about to build a great church and monastery for the monks. It was built in the style then prevalent in France, and for that reason termed the Norman style. The Abbey was completely rebuilt by Henry III again after the style then prevailing in France in the 13th century. In subsequent years it was partly reconstructed.

The building taken as a whole remains one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture, and it contains many works of art in the wax °f monuments, pictures, plate and fabric.

It has become the place where the history of the nation is exhibited in pageantry and has been made permanent in stone.

At the beginning only royal personages and high ecclesiastics were buried in the Abbey, but later on the nobility began to acquire vaults. In the 17th century the great English poets joined the nobility forming the Poets’ Corner; in the 18th century the burial of people of distinction in other spheres added new lustre. Later on monuments began to be erected to those who were buried elsewhere, for example Shakespeare. The ashes and the likenesses of many scientists have accumulated in modern times round the monument of Isaac Newton. Statues and slabs in the floor in memory of British statesmen can be seen here too. It is also the place of the coronation of British monarchs starting with Harold in the 11th century.

During the last part of Edward the Confessor’s reign the most important man in England was Harold, son of Earl Godwin. However, Harold had the bad luck of being taken prisoner in Normandy when a ship which he was in was driven by winds on to the coast of Normandy. The ruler of Normandy, Duke William, made Harold promise that he would have William chosen king on Edward’s death. It is said that Harold promised to support William, after which William released him. Now it happened that, when Edward died, the Witan chose Harold to be king in January 1066.

Duke William said that he had been tricked, and prepared an army for the invasion of England. This was only a pretext, for Norman influence had already been established before the Conquest.

All through the summer of 1066 Harold waited in Sussex for the Normans to land. Early in September Harold learnt that William’s ally the King of Norway had landed in the north and taken York. With his men Harold rode swiftly north and defeated the invaders at Stamford Bridge. It was a great victory but it was his last. On the first of October he learnt of the landing of William. On the 14th of October at Hastings the decisive battle took place. Though the Saxon army fought bravely it was defeated and Harold was killed in battle.

Immediately after this victory William and his army proceeded to London and took it. He was crowned king on the 25th of December 1066 at Westminster as William I though he is widely known as William the Conqueror. This conquest opens up the period of final establishment of feudalism in England. After being crowned king, William proceeded to suppress rebellions against his authority. Wherever he encountered opposition the Conqueror seized the lands of his foes and established fortified castles in their districts. By such methods he presently ended all opposition to his rule. It was under his order that the White Tower of London was erected to guard the town against outside attack.

Work on this stronghold began in 1078 and since then it has been the scene of many momentous events of British history. As king succeeded king, the fortress was enlarged by building walls and smaller towers around the central keep. Today it is an irregular agglomeration of buildings surrounded by wall and moat, standing on the bank of the Thames at the south-east angle of the old walled city.

Feudal relations by the time of the Conquest had already made serious inroads in Saxon society. The Normans strengthened and organized the feudal system of society. Twenty years after the Conquest in 1086 William ordered a record, or register, of all land-holdings to be made. In this register, which Saxons called the Domesday Book, the officers who took down the records were so meticulous and merciless that the English thought that Judgement Day had come.

Moreover, the necessary information in each shire was prepared for the royal officials by a special commission of the wealthiest and most respectable representatives of the community. The Anglo-Saxons were afraid of the registration and hated it. They were threatened to be severely punished for false information as on Doomsday, when according to the Bible, God will judge them on the last day of the world. This explains why the book with all its collected accounts was called by the people the Domesday Book./Despite its ruthless character, we know now that the population of England at that time was about two million and that 90 per cent of the population were serfs. Thus this recording indicated the extent of feudalism in the country. Moreover, it may be regarded as the first population census in European history.

The feudal yoke of the Normans meant cruel suffering for the people of England. The Norman feudal lords and those of the Saxon lords who accepted Norman rule organized the increasing exploitation of the toil of free and unfree peasants (or villeins as they were called), who were obliged to pay large dues to their landlord in kind. This was accompanied by forced labour on the lord’s land carried out by the villein. The latter could not leave the manor. The great estates of the king, dukes, barons and bishops and monasteries were divided into manors each under the control of its bailiff. The forced labour of the peasants was controlled by the reeve. The manor court presided by the lord himself decided all cases in dispute with the tenants. Besides the nobility, with the rank of baron, there were also the’lesser feudals, usually with the title of knight. Besides the villeins there were freeholders (a tiny minority as recorded by Domesday Book) or yeomen who cultivated their land without paying dues to the greater landlords. Most of the villeins were very poor.

Though England was a typical feudal country, it had certain peculiarities which were unique in European history. Just because England was conquered within a few years and the political institutions of feudalism were imposed from above by the conquerors, the system here reached a higher regularity and completeness than in most other countries of Europe. Elsewhere the king’s ownership of all the land was a fiction. Here it was fact, and the king granted land to his vassals on his own terms, terms extremely favourable to himself. The state organization was built around William’s power as a military leader of a victorious army. The king was far stronger than any baron or any likely combination of barons. England had, therefore, a development that was unique in European history. From the start the power of the state was greater and the power of the feudal nobility less. Private wars between nobles (so characteristic of France) was the exception rather than the rule and private armies and castles were watched by the Crown and prohibited as far as possible. These peculiarities of feudalism in England undoubtedly contributed to the development of the state which began to make early progress.

The Norman invaders brought their language with them too. They spoke a Norman dialect of French and it became the tongue of court circles, administration, the official language of the state. Latin was the language of the Church, law and learning. The wealthy Anglo-Saxons copied their superiors and also learned to speak French. However, the common people, the peasantry and the inhabitants of towns, continued to speak English.

The Norman conquerors had to communicate with the natives and this made them learn to speak English in time. Moreover, many of the Normans married the Anglo-Saxons and their children grew up to know only English. In a few generations the Norman descendants knew no other tongue than English.

However, this was a slow and gradual process. In its development English borrowed many French words relating to feudal relations, administration, war, etc. Latin too exerted a positive influence. In the 14th century the enriched English language emerged as the language predominantly used in speech and writing — the official language of the State.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.