Feudalism in England

The Norman conquest of England introduced feudalism to these islands with several modifications, some apparently intended to improve on the system operating in Normandy, others as the result of the adoption of existing Saxon instruments of government. Of the 5,000 or so knights who formed the expeditionary force, only about half were Normans and the remainder were Frenchmen, Bretons, Aquitanians, and Flemings serving as mercenaries or seeking their fortunes. William’s own tenants refused to follow him as such, since feudal service was not obligatory outside the realm, and only the promise of conquered lands induced them to set out. As no prior feudal obligation to his own men existed, and as eventually all the important English landowners were dispossessed, William was able to make a fresh start and introduce a more or less uniform system over the whole country, and to modify such Continental customs as he found dangerous. Since the loyalty of his men was at first assured because their future depended on his holding his new kingdom successfully, he could impose on them any conditions he thought necessary. Private wars between his barons, limited in Normandy, were forbidden in England, and quarrels between them had to be brought to his courts. Private warfare was not successfully suppressed in France until the reign of St Louis (1226–70). William partitioned out the land to something under 200 great lords, many of them his tenants-in-chief in Normandy, in return for the services of a stipulated number of knights, often apparently in fives or multiples of five. The Church was granted land in return for the service of some 780 knights, allocated to abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries, and churches, exactly as if they were lay land-holders. The quotas were larger than the equivalent ones in Normandy and were entirely at the disposal of the king, unlike the custom of the Duchy, where only a fraction of the knights enfeofed on an estate was due to the duke and even fewer to the over-lord, the king of France. The Bayeux Inquest of 1133 shows that of the knights owing military service to the Bishop of Bayeux only one-sixth owed service to the duke and only one-twelfth to the king of France. Varying periods of service by half-armed knights, common in Normandy and elsewhere, were apparently unknown in England. The King himself kept the largest single group of estates in his own hands, and he placed his most trusted lieutenants in the key positions; his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, for example, at Dover, the main Channel port, and William fitz-Osbern at Hereford to guard the Welsh Marches.

The tenants-in-chief each received many manors scattered up and down the land. There seem to have been three reasons for this; firstly, because the country was only conquered piecemeal; secondly, because the only estates confiscated at first were those of Saxons who had fought at Hastings or been slow to submit, and it was only after the great revolt of 1069 that wholesale confiscation of Saxon lands took place; thirdly, because in some cases one Norman might be given the lands held by a single Saxon before the Conquest, and these might not necessarily have been all in one shire. Geoffrey Alselin held the entire lands of the thegn Toki, son of Outi, scattered all over the Danelaw. These lands were held by Geoffrey for the same dues paid by Toki to King Edward, as well as for military service. In a very few cases Saxon land-holders were allowed to buy back their land, in others they became sub-tenants under a Norman lord. In the case of some of the most important baronial castles the bulk of the estates of its lord were grouped round it to form a castellaria for its support, although other estates belonging to its lord might be scattered all over England. An example of this is the ‘honour’ of Henry de Ferrars for the maintenance of Tutbury Castle on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with 114 estates in Derbyshire and eight in Staffordshire, and lands more scattered and less numerous in twelve other shires. The fiefs of great continental barons were also scattered, though in this case by the accidents of their acquisition over a very long period rather than by any plan imposed by their sovereigns. The estate of a Norman was usually called his ‘fee’, that is, the land with which he was enfeofed, and if an important one held by a tenant-in-chief it was called his ‘honour.’ Although normally referred to as ‘Normans’ many of the new settlers of all ranks were French, Flemish, or Breton.

Apparently no system was laid down as to how the tenantsin- chief were to produce their servicium debitum. Some hired knights, when the king required them, from the many landless younger sons seeking their fortunes and hoping to win a knight’s fee of their own in return for services. Others kept knights permanently in their households to escort them from manor to manor in their travels between England and Normandy and to guard their castles. As the land settled down and the danger of an English rising receded, the necessity for keeping large numbers of household knights grew less, and the great majority of lords granted parts of their estates to lesser barons or to individual knights in return for their military service. Even as late as 1166, the Cartae Baronum shows some honours with insufficient enfeofed knights to complete their quotas, indicating that household knights or pure mercenaries must have been employed to make up the required numbers. Church magnates must have found it particularly irksome to have rough knights permanently quartered in their halls, but equally they were unwilling to lose control of land by enfeofment. Originally these grants of land were apparently not hereditary; the earliest three charters confirming enfeofment of this sort, all of the reign of William I, stipulate that the grant is for one life only, although one is to the son of the previous holder and this particular holding is known to have become hereditary in this family at a later date. By the reign of Henry I the knight’s fee normally descended to the heir without question.

The sub-vassal holding several knight’s fees in the honour of a great tenant-in-chief stood in a similar relation to his lord as the lord did to the king. He helped to administer the honour, filling the baron’s subordinate offices as steward, marshal, butler, or constable, as the great barons did at the royal court, advising in the honour-court, and leading his own servicium debitum to join that of his lord when summoned to do so. It was probably from this class, as well as from minor tenants-in-chief, that the officer known in the fourteenth century as the ‘banneret’ was originally drawn.

The annual period of military service for knights in France, Normandy, and northern Italy, recorded in many documents, was 40 days in peace or war. In England, however, only one document mentions the length of service for knights, and this is a grant made about 1140 by none other than the King’s Marshal, John fitz-Gilbert, of a fief in return for knight’s service for two months in time of war and 40 days in time of peace, and the wording suggests that this was customary. Since it is not normally stated, the period of service may have been so well known as not to need stating and this particular grant may therefore refer to an exceptional period. However, the period served by the pre-Conquest fyrd was certainly also two months, and if this was continued after the Conquest the period of service by knights could very well have been made to conform with it. Castle guard, another knightly service, at Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, is also recorded as being for two months. Later in the twelfth century the period was probably reduced to the 40 days customary elsewhere, as sergeants and infantry of the shire are both recorded as serving for this period by the end of the century. In France, but apparently not in England, the tenant of a fraction of a knight’s fee sometimes served for the same fraction of 40 days; the holder of half a fee would serve for 20 days.

In 1086, late in his reign, William 1 ordered an oath of personal fealty to himself to be taken at Salisbury, by, or on behalf of, all landholders of any account, regardless of who their overlord might be. He realised that the normal oath of fealty of a sub-vassal to his lord, which excluded his duty to the king, was insufficient to prevent the sub-vassal from following his lord if the latter revolted. It is unlikely that a knight of that period, still a fairly insignificant person socially, would have been considered of sufficient importance to be called to the oath taking, and probably only the larger sub-vassals were summoned.

This personal oath to the king was repeated on a number of later occasions, most important of which was the oath of 1166 when Henry II ordered a survey to be made of the state of the knighthood of the kingdom, so that all those knights who had not yet done homage to him might do so before a certain date. He asked his tenants-in-chief how many knights each had enfeofed on his estates at the time of the death of Henry I, how many were enfeofed at the time of writing, and how many more had to be provided to fulfil their servicium debitum. The answers to this survey were recorded in the Cartae Baronum. One result of this was an increased assessment of the quotas in 1168. In fact, in many cases many more knights had been enfeofed than were due. As early as 1135 the Bishop of Durham had enfeofed 64 knights although his servicium debitum was only ten; however, this may have been because of the need to defend the frontier from Scottish raids.

Alongside knight’s tenure was also tenure by sergeanty (insergentaria): tenure by some specified service less than knight’s service and very often rendered personally to the lord. It might be a purely civilian service such as keeping a hawk or hound for the king, providing the table-cloths for a specific animal feast, or providing the king with a meal of roast pork when he hunted in Wychwood; on the other hand it might be military service such as carrying the king’s banner on campaign in Wales, or leading the forces of the hundred in which the man lived. Some tenants in sergeanty did actually owe the service of a knight to the army but this was exceptional. The characteristic of the service is that it differs from sergeant to sergeant and, therefore, unlike knight’s service, must be fully described in any grant. Where the service was military it was normally for 40 days at the expense of the sergeant, although shorter periods are also recorded. One sergeant was to provide an infantryman for service in Wales supplied with a side of bacon; when this was eaten he was free to go home. Some sergeants had to provide horsemen, others footmen, and the supplying of bowmen and crossbowmen is also recorded. In 1213 John’s summons of the army to Dover included the servientes and implied that they were to serve mounted, but the sergeants of the French demesne recorded in the Prisia Servientum of 1202–3 were infantry. Sergeants from fairly early times were able to serve by proxy and by the thirteenth century they had very often commuted their service for a money payment.

The medieval chronicler frequently described the lower ranks of the army as sergeants (servientes) but this includes many more than the tenants in sergeanty. These would be present in the army without doubt; the military sergeants fulfilling their tenurial obligations, the others serving because of the personal obligation of all freemen to do so. The towns and ecclesiastical tenants of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem are described by John of Ibelin as owing the service of 5,025 sergeants in time of great need and within the realm. In some cases these may have been lightly armed horsemen and horsebowmen. William of Tyre, writing about 1170–80. refers to lightly armed horse.

As far as mounted sergeants are concerned, it is normally assumed that they were less well armed than the knights, and it is true that they are occasionally encountered on campaign carrying out reconnaissances, a traditional light cavalry role, and in later documents the service of two sergeants is frequently equated with that of one knight. Fees in sergeanty were occasionally changed to half a knight’s fee, and knight’s fees were sometimes commuted for the service of two sergeants. For instance, the muster rolls for the campaign in Wales in 1245 show that the services of two sergeants might be accepted in place of those of a knight. Nevertheless, chroniclers describe sergeants as taking part with the knights in cavalry actions, and they must therefore have been similarly equipped.

The servientes armorum (sergeants-at-arms) were raised, apparently by Philip Augustus, to act as a body-guard against the Assassins on the Third Crusade. They were later copied by most European kings and can normally be identified in medieval paintings by the maces they carry. Although originally a guard, their constant presence around the king meant that he inevitably used them as messengers to deliver his orders, and also to carry them out. At a time when few people could read, the royal arms on their mace was their means of identification and thus the weapon itself became the sign of their royal authority. By the fourteenth century the French royal sergeants’ maces were silver mounted and had the royal arms enamelled on them.

As well as these Norman innovations, William I also used Saxon institutions of government which were more highly developed than those on the Continent; the writ – the king’s formal letter of instructions – the shire- and hundred-courts, and the excellent Saxon coinage, as well as the annual tax, the Danegeld. Norman barons were given office as sheriffs, and until the revolt of 1069 many Englishmen were employed in high office; like Earl Morcar of Northumbria. The most important English institution William used was the prefeudal military organization, comprising the right to call upon the service of every freeman in time of war, the selective service by which those who stayed at home equipped and paid the man who served on their behalf, and the summons of the force by a writ to the sheriff. This force, later known as the shire levy, together with similar levies from the towns, augmented the feudal army and could be used against over-powerful tenants-in-chief even if they had called out their sub-vassals against the king.

Although William had forbidden his barons to fight each other, they were violent men unused to such restraint, and his own reign and those of his sons were disturbed by numerous baronial wars and revolts. Saxon thegns and freemen fought for the king alongside his loyal feudatories in the baronial revolts, such as that of Eustace of Boulogne in 1067 and of the Earls of Hereford and East Anglia in 1075. As early as 1068 Englishmen were fighting against the forces of Harold’s sons, and the commander of the forces of Somerset on that occasion was Eadnoth, who had been one of King Edward’s household officers. In the following year the men of London, Salisbury, and Winchester were employed in putting down a revolt in Somerset and Dorset. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis again and again describes Englishmen fighting for the king against rebels. The continuation of pre-Conquest military institutions is shown for instance by the Domesday Book, which in several places refers to military service owed by ordinary sub-tenants at the time of King Edward’s death and still owed at the time of the survey. There are a number of references to the duty of serving by land and sea which suggests a survival of the Saxon ship-fyrd obligation. The right to collect fyrdwite, the fine for failure to serve in the fyrd, is mentioned in post-Conquest documents. A number of small land-holders holding by sergeanty are recorded as doing so in return for leading the local forces or carrying the banner of their hundred. The large numbers of Englishmen summoned for service in 1094 were infantry and were almost certainly representatives of the select fyrd, since they each had 10 s. which the king took from them and which, it has been suggested, was their subsistence money mentioned in the Berkshire passage in Domesday. Englishmen, as distinct from Anglo-Normans, certainly served in France in the campaign of 1078 against Fulk of Anjou, when Ordericus speaks of ‘Normannos et Anglos’ and also records the name of one, Toki, son of Wigot of Wallingford, present at the siege of Gerberoi. The presence of men of the fyrd in France is explained by the early twelfth-century Leis Willelmi which lay down that freemen are obliged to serve beyond the seas. The disappearance of select service is unrecorded but the basis of fyrd service, the obligation of all freemen to serve the king in time of war, remained to be incorporated in the Assize of Arms of 1186. The development of the Anglo-Norman feudal army of later periods was greatly influenced by the incorporation of the Saxon military system.

Although a somewhat similar organization existed on the Continent, the arrière-ban, which could be summoned in time of war, William cannot have failed to have been impressed by the quality of the Saxon select fyrd at Hastings. In France the arrière-ban seems to have been called out only very occasionally, and, untrained and probably poorly armed, seems to have been of little use against cavalry. The king of France was forced to rely on the men of his own demesne lands and such vassals as remained loyal when a revolt broke out.

What evidence there is shows that the English continued to fight as infantrymen and, in fact, their methods influenced the Normans, since at Tinchebrai (1106) the Normans dismounted to fight, and at the Standard (1138) the north countrymen and the Norman knights stood shoulder to shoulder on foot, almost like Harold’s army at Hastings.

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