Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

everything. The few, who were called thegns, served the king, generally by fighting his enemies, while
the many worked for themselves and for those who served the king. All holders of land, however, had to

serve in the national levy and to help in maintaining the bridges and primitive fortifications. But there

were endless degrees of inequality in wealth; some now owned but a fraction of what had been the

normal share of a household in the land; others held many shares, and the possession of five shares

became the dividing line between the class from which the servants of the king were chosen and the rest

of the community. While this inequality increased, the tenure of land grew more and more important as

the basis of social position and political influence. Land has little value for nomads, but so soon as they

settle its worth begins to grow; and the more labour they put into the land, the higher rises its value and

the less they want to leave it; in a purely agricultural community land is the great source of everything

worth having, and therefore the main object of desire.

But it became increasingly difficult for the small man to retain his holding. He needed protection,
especially during the civil wars of the Heptarchy and the Danish inroads which followed. There was,

however, no government strong enough to afford protection, and he had to seek it from the nearest

magnate, who might possess armed servants to defend him, and perhaps a rudimentary stronghold within

which he might shelter himself and his belongings till the storm was past. The magnate naturally wanted

his price for these commodities, and the only price that would satisfy him was the poor man's land. So

many poor men surrendered the ownership of their land, receiving it back to be held by them as tenants

on condition of rendering various services to the landlord, such as ploughing his land, reaping his crops,

and other work. Generally, too, the tenant became the landlord's "man," and did him homage; and,

thirdly, he would be bound to attend the court in which the lord or his steward exercised jurisdiction.

This growth of private jurisdiction was another sign of the times. Justice had once been administered in
the popular moots, though from very early times there had been social distinctions. Each village had its

"best" men, generally four in number, who attended the moots of the larger districts called the Hundreds;

and the "best" were probably those who had inherited or acquired the best homesteads. This aristocracy

sometimes shrank to one, and the magnate, to whom the poor surrendered their land in return for

protection, often acquired also rights of jurisdiction, receiving the fines and forfeits imposed for breaches

of the law. He was made responsible, too, for the conduct of his poorer neighbours. Originally the family

had been made to answer for the offences of its members; but the tie of blood-relationship weakened as

the bond of neighbourhood grew stronger with attachment to the soil; and instead of the natural unit of

the family, an artificial unit was created for the purpose of responsibility to the law by associating

neighbours together in groups of ten, called peace-pledges or frith-borhs. It is at least possible that the

"Hundred" was a further association of ten frith-borhs as a higher and more responsible unit for the

administration of justice. But the landless man was worthless as a member of a frith-borh, for the law had

little hold over a man who had no land to forfeit and no fixed habitation. So the landless man was

compelled by law to submit to a lord, who was held responsible for the behaviour of all his "men"; his

estate became, so to speak, a private frith-borh, consisting of dependents instead of the freemen of the

public frith-borhs. These two systems, with many variations, existed side by side; but there was a general

tendency for the freemen to get fewer and for the lords to grow more powerful.

This growth of over-mighty subjects was due to the fact that a government which could not protect the
poorest could not restrain the local magnates to whom the poor were forced to turn; and the weakness of

the government was due ultimately to the lack of political education and of material resources. The mass

of Englishmen were locally minded; there was nothing to suggest national unity to their imagination.

They could not read, they had no maps, nor pictures of crowned sovereigns, not even a flag to wave;

 

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