Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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.

 

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