The Norman Conquest and Feudalism

The Norman Conquest and William I the Conqueror (1066-1087)

The Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon Britain is completely carried out  with the memorable Battle of Hastings (1066)  which is generally considered a milestone in British history, it is accomplished by William the Conqueror. This renowned battle caused Harold’s death and the defeat of his followers, the Anglo-Saxon rule thus came to an end and the Normans, led by William Duke of Normandy, took over power in Britain. The Normans could do so first of all through military superiority, but also by introducing and implementing a new administrative system known as Feudalism which had already proved successful in the rest of Europe.

The Battle of Hastings 1066

As we have discussed in the previous chapter, Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, had no children and had chosen William, Duke of Normandy, as his heir. At his death, though, the Wintan elected Harold as King of England and William, summoning a great fleet and army, invaded England, defeated Harold, and claimed the throne; he was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066 as, William I the Conqueror.

Harold’s Defeat

The Normans, or the men from the North as they were known, descended from Vikings who had settled in Northern France, they were Christians but maintained the old fierce and skilful military culture which allowed them to conquer the Anglo-Saxons even though the latter ones were incredibly superior in number. The complete conquest of the land took the Normans over five years and during this time they subdued the many violent revolts thanks to their military skilful superiority and through the introduction of the Feudal system.

The Chain of Agreements

William I claimed not only the throne but along with it he claimed all the best and fertile land and its forests which he then used to guarantee himself and his descendants the loyalty of the new aristocracy that he created through what was later called The Chain of Agreements. In fact William I, established the new aristocracy in order for him to hold power in a hostile land. This policy consisted in assigning land to his French supporters and to those Saxons who had pledged him their loyalty, in exchange they gave the king their military services, becoming his tenants-in-chief. This aristocracy also comprised high prelates, moreover they were all allowed to sublet their land to lesser tenants, the knights, who offered their military services as well so as to assemble big armies united in fighting for the king and his causes. At the very bottom of this order were the peasants, the peasants were not free men, on the contrary, they belonged to the land, they were the agricultural labourers and provided food for the entire community, yet they could not, under any circumstance, leave the land where they were born, and they could not own property or move freely from one place to another. They were almost slaves, in fact, if a free man was caught killing a peasant he would not be charged of murder but of damaging someone else’s property. The hierarchy that was thus implemented can be shown as follows:

Feudal Hierarchy

Political Stability and Economic Prosperity

William I’s reign assured peace and stability to England which also became eventually a prosper land, so much so that even the landscape, in time, showed its growing prosperity. The major tenants-in-chief began building castles, monasteries and cathedrals.

The wealth of the Tenants-in-chief was also tangible proof of the power they could exercise on  lesser nobility or on common people, at first these buildings were in wood, but as their wealth and power increased they needed to underline their status so they rebuilt them in stone and longer-lasting architectural structures as a display of their true worth.

The Domesday Book

Yet, William I proved to be an efficient monarch under other aspects as well, about twenty years after the conquest he sent out trustworthy officials to inspect the actual economic status of his territories and he ordered them to collect the information they gathered from this survey in a document called the Domesday Book. This inspection would give the king the exact extent and distribution of his tenants’ wealth and therefore provide him with the necessary data to collect the “geld”, a property tax exacted according to the income detained by each. That is why it came to be known as the Domesday Book, or day of judgement since the contents would compel landowners to pay a tax and there would be no subterfuge that they could enact to avoid payment. This document is important to us because it gives us a wider picture of England’s social structure during that time.

Peter’s Pence and the Common Law

William I’s deep political insight is also underlined by the changes he brought about in his relationship with the Church. He valued the Pope’s support, in fact he had had Rome’s blessing and approval for the conquest and his coronation, and he was aware of the great importance of maintaining a good relationship with the Church so he continued paying Peter’s Pence, an annual tax to Rome, at the same time though, he wanted to be free of the Church’s interference in judicial affairs as he intended to allow the development of the Common Law. Therefore to achieve this goal he separated the fields of religious and lay justice by assigning religious cases to specific ecclesiastical courts.

As far as Common Law is concerned, it must be said that this is what England’s law system is based on. In other words, Britain’s system of laws is not based on a written constitution adapted from the Civil Law of the Roman Empire and the Canon Law of the Church, as is the case for many other countries, on the contrary, it is a mixture of experience that comes from the comparisons of previous cases and of the previous decisions made to solve those cases and from custom, in addition, Common, because it was applied and used everywhere in the reign.

William the Conqueror

William I’s Succession and Civil War

When William I died his sons, William II (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-1135), succeeded him on the throne of England and they both greatly contributed in progressively reducing the gap between the old Anglo-Saxon society and the new French conquering aristocracy, yet, despite this long lapse of peace and prosperity, a Civil War broke out at the death of Henry I in 1135. Henry I had wanted his daughter, Matilda, to ascend to the throne at his death, unfortunately though, not all the barons supported her thus the break of the Civil War which was ended by a compromise: Matilda’s cousin, Stephen (1135-1154), would be king and, at his death, he would be succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry.

The Norman Conquest and its effect on the English Language

Another important issue that we must address in relation to the Norman Conquest regards the English language and the great changes it undergoes throughout the following two centuries. After the Norman conquest three languages were regularly used in England. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English resisted among the conquered natives, French was used by the Norman aristocrats and Latin by the clergy and in written documents, along as being the language of learning.

Between 1100 and 1450 Middle English developed as a blend of the previous three although it completely lost the Anglo-Saxons inflections, we still see traces of the noun declensions in the “–s” endings of plurals or the genitive singular (possessive case), yet the definite article “The” and the adjectives lost their gender differences or plurals becoming invariables, while the infinitive ending “–an” was replaced by the “To” preceding the base form of the verbs. Finally, the richness of vocabulary and synonyms of the English language is mainly due to the three different languages, so, for instance, we normally say “ask” (Saxon), but “interrogate” (Latin) or “question” (French) for official purposes; or “pig” and “sheep” (Saxon), as they were the animals looked after by the Saxon peasants, and “pork” or “mutton” (French), is the meat eaten by the rich during the Conquest.


K. O. Morgan, The Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1984.

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© L. R. Capuana