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- The History of England - 3/23 -

pieces under his worthless sons, the restoration of Ecgberht's line in the person of Edward the Confessor merely provided a figurehead under whose nominal rule the great earls of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia fought at first for control of the monarchy and at length for the crown itself. The strife resolved itself into a faction fight between the Mercian house of Leofric and the West Saxon house of Godwine, whose dynastic policy has been magnified into patriotism by a great West Saxon historian. The prize fell for the moment on Edward's death to Godwine's son, Harold, whose ambition to sit on a throne cost him his life and the glory, which otherwise might have been his, of saving his country from William the Norman. As regent for one of the scions of Ecgberht's house, he might have relied on the co-operation of his rivals; as an upstart on the throne he could only count on the veiled or open enmity of Mercians and Northumbrians, who regarded him, and were regarded by him, as hardly less foreign than the invader from France.

The battle of Hastings sums up a series and clinches an argument. Anglo-Saxondom had only been saved from Danish marauders by the personal greatness of Alfred; it had utterly failed to respond to Edmund's call to arms against Canute, and the respite under Edward the Confessor had been frittered away. Angles and Saxons invited foreign conquest by a civil war; and when Harold beat back Tostig and his Norwegian ally, the sullen north left him alone to do the same by William. William's was the third and decisive Danish conquest of a house divided against itself; for his Normans were Northmen with a French polish, and they conquered a country in which the soundest elements were already Danish. The stoutest resistance, not only in the military but in the constitutional and social sense, to the Norman Conquest was offered not by Wessex but by the Danelaw, where personal freedom had outlived its hey-day elsewhere; and the reflection that, had the English re-conquest of the Danelaw been more complete, so, too, would have been the Norman Conquest of England, may modify the view that everything great and good in England is Anglo-Saxon in origin. England, indeed, was still in the crudest stages of its making; it had as yet no law worth the name, no trial by jury, no parliament, no real constitution, no effective army or navy, no universities, few schools, hardly any literature, and little art. The disjointed and unruly members of which it consisted in 1066 had to undergo a severe discipline before they could form an organic national state.




For nearly two centuries after the Norman Conquest there is no history of the English people. There is history enough of England, but it is the history of a foreign government. We may now feel pride in the strength of our conqueror or pretend claims to descent from William's companions. We may boast of the empire of Henry II and the prowess of Richard I, and we may celebrate the organized law and justice, the scholarship and the architecture, of the early Plantagenet period; but these things were no more English than the government of India to-day is Hindu. With Waltheof and Hereward English names disappear from English history, from the roll of sovereigns, ministers, bishops, earls, and sheriffs; and their place is taken by names beginning with "fitz" and distinguished by "de." No William, Thomas, Henry, Geoffrey, Gilbert, John, Stephen, Richard, or Robert had played any part in Anglo-Saxon affairs, but they fill the pages of England's history from the days of Harold to those of Edward I. The English language went underground, and became the patois of peasants; the thin trickle of Anglo-Saxon literature dried up, for there was no demand for Anglo- Saxon among an upper class which wrote Latin and spoke French. Foreigners ruled and owned the land, and "native" became synonymous with "serf."

Their common lot, however, gave birth to a common feeling. The Norman was more alien to the Mercian than had been Northumbrian or West-Saxon, and rival tribes at last discovered a bond of unity in the impartial rigour of their masters. The Norman, coming from outside and exempt from local prejudice, applied the same methods of government and exploitation to all parts of England, just as Englishmen bring the same ideas to bear upon all parts of India; and in both cases the steady pressure of a superimposed civilization tended to obliterate local and class divisions. Unwittingly Norman and Angevin despotism made an English nation out of Anglo-Saxon tribes, as English despotism has made a nation out of Irish septs, and will make another out of the hundred races and religions of our Indian empire. The more efficient a despotism, the sooner it makes itself impossible, and the greater the problems it stores up for the future, unless it can divest itself of its despotic attributes and make common cause with the nation it has created.

The provision of this even-handed tyranny was the great contribution of the Normans to the making of England. They had no written law of their own, but to secure themselves they had to enforce order upon their schismatic subjects; and they were able to enforce it because, as military experts, they had no equals in that age. They could not have stood against a nation in arms; but the increasing cost of equipment and the growth of poor and landless classes among the Anglo-Saxons had transferred the military business of the nation into the hands of large landowning specialists; and the Anglo-Saxon warrior was no match for his Norman rival, either individually or collectively. His burh was inferior to the Norman castle, his shield and battle-axe to the weapons of the mailed and mounted knight; and he had none of the coherence that was forced upon the conquerors by the iron hand of William and by their situation amid a hostile people.

The problem for William and his companions was how to organize this military superiority as a means of orderly government, and this problem wore a twofold aspect. William had to control his barons, and his barons had to control their vassals. Their methods have been summed up in the phrase, the "feudal system," which William is still popularly supposed to have introduced into England. On the other hand, it has been humourously suggested that the feudal system was really introduced into England by Sir Henry Spelman, a seventeenth-century scholar. Others have maintained that, so far from feudalism being introduced from Normandy into England, it would be truer to say that feudalism was introduced from England into Normandy, and thence spread throughout France. These speculations serve, at any rate, to show that feudalism was a very vague and elusive system, consisting of generalizations from a vast number of conflicting data. Spelman was the first to attempt to reduce these data to a system, and his successors tended to forget more and more the exceptions to his rules. It is now clear that much that we call feudal existed in England before the Norman Conquest; that much of it was not developed until after the Norman period; and that at no time did feudalism exist as a completely rounded and logical system outside historical and legal text-books.

The political and social arrangements summed up in the phrase related primarily to the land and the conditions of service upon which it was held. Commerce and manufactures, and the organization of towns which grew out of them, were always exceptions to the feudal system; the monarchy saved itself, its sheriffs, and the shires to some extent from feudal influence; and soon it set to work to redeem the administration of justice from its clutches. In all parts of the country, moreover, there was land, the tenure of which was never feudalized. Generally, however, the theory was applied that all land was held directly or indirectly from the king, who was the sole owner of it, that there was no land without a lord, and that from every acre of land some sort of service was due to some one or other. A great deal of it was held by military service; the tenant-in-chief of this land, who might be either a layman or an ecclesiastic, had to render this military service to the king, while the sub-tenants had to render it to the tenants-in-chief. When the tenant died his land reverted to the lord, who only granted it to the heir after the payment of a year's revenue, and on condition of the same service being rendered. If the heir were a minor, and thus incapable of rendering military service, the land was retained by the lord until the heir came of age; heiresses could only marry with the lord's leave some one who could perform his services. The tenant had further to attend the lord's court--whether the lord was his king or not--submit to his jurisdiction, and pay aids to the lord whenever he was captured and needed ransom, when his eldest son was made a knight, and when his eldest daughter married.

Other land was held by churchmen on condition of praying or singing for the soul of the lord, and the importance of this tenure was that it was subject to the church courts and not to those of the king. Some was held in what was called free socage, the terms of which varied; but its distinguishing feature seems to have been that the service, which was not military, was fixed, and that when it was performed the lord had no further hold on the tenant. The great mass of the population were, however, villeins, who were always at the beck and call of their lords, and had to do as much ploughing, sowing, and reaping of his land as he could make them. Theoretically they were his goods and chattels, who could obtain no redress against any one except in the lord's court, and none at all against him. They could not leave their land, nor marry, nor enter the church, nor go to school without his leave. All these forms of tenure and kinds of service, however, shaded off into one another, so that it is impossible to draw hard and fast lines between them. Any one, moreover, might hold different lands on different terms of service, so that there was little of caste in the English system; it was upon the land and not the person that the service was imposed; and William's Domesday Book was not a record of the ranks and classes of the people, but a survey of the land, detailing the rents and service due from every part.

The local agency by which the Normans enforced these arrangements was the manor. The Anglo-Saxons had organized shires and hundreds, but the lowest unit, township or vill seems to have had no organization except, perhaps, for agricultural purposes. The Danegeld, which William imposed after the Domesday survey, was assessed on the hundreds, as though there were no smaller units from which it could be levied. But the hundred was found too cumbrous for the efficient control of local details; it was divided into manors, the Normans using for this purpose the germs of dependent townships which had long been growing up in England; and the agricultural organization of the township was dovetailed into the jurisdictional organization of the manor. The lord became the lord of all the land on the manor, the owner of a court which tried local disputes; but he rarely possessed that criminal jurisdiction in matters of life and death which was common in continental feudalism; and if he did, it was only by special royal grant, and he was gradually deprived of it by the development of royal courts of justice, which drew to themselves large parts of manorial jurisdiction.

These and other matters were reserved for the old courts of the shire and hundred, which the Norman kings found it advisable to encourage as a check upon their barons; for the more completely the natives and villagers were subjected to their lords, the more necessary was it for the king to maintain his hold upon their masters. For this reason William imposed the famous Salisbury oath. In France the sub-tenant was bound to follow and obey his immediate lord rather than the king. William was determined that every man's duty to the king should come

The History of England - 3/23

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