Friday, October 14, 2016

Did the Conqueror Build Upon Existing Foundations?

by Annie Whitehead

950 years ago today, the world changed - for those living in England, at any rate. They had a new king, and new masters, and history had a brand new reference point - 1066. But legally, administratively, and ecclesiastically, how much did William change?

Falaise, Lower Normandy; 
William was born in an earlier building here
William of Normandy was not opposing the old regime in England, he was claiming his right to carry on the government of a kingdom of which he said he was the rightful king. The England to which he came in 1066 was a soundly organised country in most respects. William abolished nothing, and introduced little new; his reign consisted of a successful attempt to fuse old and new, building upon the already existing structure.

The power of the nobility in Anglo-Saxon England was being strengthened from two levels of the social scale. The king gave grants of almost anything that was in his power to give: land, privileges, and judicial powers. From the inferior classes came men seeking the protection of a lord. Here was the beginning of a process which came to be known as feudalism. There were at this time only two aspects: a personal bond between two free men - a superior (the lord) and and inferior (the vassal) - and a method of land tenure, whereby the vassal held a benefice of his lord. The personal relationship entailed the vassal putting himself under the protection of this lord, and in a symbolic gesture of submission he would place his hands between those of his lord and swear an oath of fealty. Under this solemn contract the man was obliged to serve and obey his lord, and the lord was obliged to protect and maintain the man.

In the eleventh century the Church and most of the aristocracy held some book-land; a royal grant by book creating an estate which could be passed to heirs and which could not be lawfully resumed by the king. Leases were common, and peasants who had lost the absolute ownership of their lands became tenants of their lord, rendering rents and service in return for the use of his property.

Feudal elements then were certainly present in England before the Conquest, but the nobility were not yet vassals of the king, and it would appear that few substantial landowners held property on loan. Nevertheless, most of the characteristics of feudalism could be found in the old English kingdom.

With the Norman Conquest came the completion of the establishment of feudalism. William took land from the English earls and granted it to his followers as a reward for their military service. The new barons were enfeoffed with the scattered estates of the English, but no man was allowed to conquer for himself, except on the Welsh and Scottish borders. The land was granted by the king to be held under all the old conditions. The only changes lay in the revision of the military service required by the king, and in the closer tie of feudal vassalage. The barons in turn leased their lands to lesser barons. To curb the warlike aristocracy, William had them swear an oath of fealty to him direct. Thus the whole social structure from the king down to the poorest ceorl (churl) was brought under the control of the feudal system. William had completed the process with a natural progression, and had at the same time consolidated the royal position and organised the social system under him.

Swearing the oath of fealty
The judicial powers of the Anglo-Saxon kings were small; the king was not yet the fount of justice. A man looked to the popular courts to protect and enforce his rights under the law. This process of law was personal and local, and customs differed even from estate to estate. The Shire court, which met at least twice a year, was concerned with the traditional cases under folk law, mainly theft and violence. The townships and Hundreds sent representatives to the meetings. By Edward the Confessor’s day, the function of declaring Shire law and passing judgement had passed to the king’s thegns. The Shire Court had become an instrument of local government, receiving royal writs, and executing the king's demands. The administrative drive passing from the king via the writ to the Shire court was beginning to unite the country. Even more closely connected with the crown were the Hundred courts. Their main purpose was the administration of police schemes which the king had devised, and they met every month.

William I made few changes to the existing judicial system. Feudal law was introduced to govern the personal and tenurial relationships of the new aristocracy. But the only changes to affect the English were the introductions of Forest and Church courts. In time, the new feudal law influenced all land holding, and in the end provided England with a new land law. William made no radical changes to the existing law, and merely introduced laws out of  necessity to govern his new aristocracy.  Gradually the system filtered through to affect all the people. William therefore supplemented the existing system, which, although it made the judicial system initially more complex, meant that eventually the two peoples came under the same law, and brought more control for the king.

The Anglo-Saxon Church appeared more as a loose confederation of bishoprics under the king than as an independent hierarchical organisation. The absence of an active hierarchical principle had led to a confusion in the territorial organisation of the Church. Many bishops held more than one see, and the dioceses too were losing the character of distinct units. The general confusion brought about by an attempt to model the English Church on the Roman administration and organisation was eradicated by William’s total disregard for the papacy during his attempt to give the Church a greater structural coherence.

Lanfranc *
William replaced the English bishops with foreigners. The number and size of the dioceses remained unchanged but several of the episcopal sees were re-sited in cities in accordance with canon law. Dioceses were gradually divided into archdeaconries, which were then divided into rural deaneries. As the diocese often perpetuated the boundaries of the ancient sub-kingdoms, and the archdeaconries and rural deaneries corresponded to the Shire and Hundred, the territorial framework of the Church remained thoroughly English. However, the loose confederacy of bishoprics was reorganised on a strictly hierarchical principle and feudal ideas were incorporated into this reorganisation. The southern bishops were subordinated to Canterbury, and oaths of canonical obedience were required, which resembled the fealty of the vassal. As the Church became divorced from folklaw and traditional customs, it felt the control of the king. Church lands were treated as baronies and the bishops as vassals, bound to do homage and swear fealty.

William, working with Archbishop Lanfranc, achieved the primacy of Canterbury over York, but the situation was unstable because of the increasing power of the papacy, and a tendency for the pope to deal direct with the bishops. Primacies everywhere were being weakened by the increasing papal power. William ignored the papal attempt to deprive the laity of its traditional rights in the Church. He admitted no papal legates, and forbade any of his bishops to go to Rome, even Lanfranc. The establishment of the Archbishop of Canterbury as primate of all England provided the kingdom with a single supreme ecclesiastical court, and appeals could go no further than this without the king's’ permission. William succeeded in his ambition to restrict the already limited connection between the English Church and Rome, attaining power over the Church in the same way as he had with the laity. The English Church was unified under the primacy of Canterbury, in turn answerable to the king.

Signatures at the council of Winchester.** The large crosses are the signatures of
 William & Matilda, the one under theirs is Lanfranc's, and the other bishops' are under his.

Anglo-Saxon England, it would seem, was basically well organised and in need only of strong direction. With William I’s reign came that direction. William was no innovator; he took existing basic institutions and strengthened and co-ordinated them, added to them where necessary, and was successful in establishing a peaceful and workable fusion of the English and Norman peoples, without needing to make radical changes with revolutionary ideas, but merely by improving upon that which had had inherited.

Whether those people who now came under the yoke of new Norman masters felt the same way, is another story…

Further reading:
English Society in the Early Middle Ages - DM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1215 - F Barlow
The Norman Conquest - GH Browning

* Near contemporary picture of Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury - Bodleian Library
**Accord of Winchester signed 1072 by William the Conqueror & his wife. This elevated Canterbury over York as to whose archbishop would be the highest primate in England.

(all the above images are in the public domain)


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, has also been awarded an indieBRAG gold medallion. Most recently she has been involved in a collaborative project, a collection of stories by nine authors re-imagining the events of 1066 and asking 'What If'?
Annie's Author Page
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
Annie's Website
Annie's Blog
1066 Turned Upside Down


  1. I really enjoyed this article, Annie. We usually read about the battles and the Norman castle-building so it was fascinating to hear about the 'administrative' nature of William's conquest.

  2. Thanks Char - glad you enjoyed it. I've always been interested in the idea that that in fact the basic elements of feudalism were ready in place. Maybe William was so tired after all that fighting that he didn't have too much energy left for innovative ideas! :)

  3. Excellent post! A smart conqueror doesn't fix what isn't broken. That would be an invader.

    1. Thanks :) Conqueror, invader, - it might be a case of semantics to many! ;)

  4. Very enjoyable. The Saxons, though, elected their kings, admittedly from a small group, but elected nevertheless! The Normans changed that. The Normans also destroyed all the Burrhs, and built their own forts, confiscated all the lands of the Ealdormen and other landholders, gave them to their soldiers, ...I could go on.

    1. Thanks Peter, yes, I agree. Although elections, as you say, were from a very small group, and almost always through close family connection to the king, or, of course, by conquest. The Yorkists/Lancastrians had nothing on some of those earlier dynastic disputes! A lengthy topic, this, and of course many things did change after 1066, but I wanted, for this essay, and in the time allowed, to examine specifically what didn't change. My comfort zone is pre-1066 in any case, so I don't like to stray too far over the line :-)


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