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Much is made by many authorities of 'feudalisation' of English society, where the holding of land was subject to military service due to the feudal lord, after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. But the obligation of a landholder to either provide military service personally in the local 'fyrd' (militia) or the fleet, or payment to provide an equivalent substitute had become firmly established during Saxon times, long before the Norman conquest. The warring between the seperate Saxon kingdoms before the supremacy of Wessex and the threat of raid and invasion by the Vikings or Danes made such an arangement necessary and, indeed, shaped the villages and shires with which we are so familiar.

Not only was the thegn obliged to either attend the Fyrd himself, or provide a substitute, he was also required to provide four horses (two of which were saddled), which indicates that he was required to be accompanied by at least one mounted attendant.

Every Saxon was required to have a lord.

It is also known, not only from legal documents, but also from poetry of the time that ceorls were also required to serve in the Fyrd. We can only conclude that the ceorl served either alongside his lord or his lord's nominee.

The Saxon 'thegn' became the Norman 'knight', a word derived from the Old English 'cniht', or youth, his mounted attendant became the 'squire'.

Under the Normans, a landholding of five hides obliged the holder to service as a knight - exactly the same as that binding the earlier Saxon thegn to his service in the fyrd.

It is estimated that England was divided into some 60,000 knight's fees each of which, based on statements by Ordericus Vitalis, was worth about £20 per annum and liable to supply one fully armoured knight for the king's service for forty days in each year.

It seems likely that the Conqueror enfeoffed his tenants-in-chief verbally on a personal basis and not strictly on a territorial basis of knight service.

The tenant-in-chief could fulfill his military obligation to the king by hiring knights for either moeny payments or grats of land - while every knight owed service directly to the king, he did not necessarily holda knights fee in land.

Strictly applied, 'feudalism' describes the military society which developed in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. While feudalism undoubtedly reached its most extreme development under the Normans in the 11th century, it is a best very doubtfull that they are responsible for its introduction into England.

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Feudal Incidents

The holders of land were also obliged to pay their lord sums of money known as 'incidents' at irregular intervals. As owner of the body and land of the feudal tenant, the monarch had prior claim to the incidents over the tenant's immediate lord, if he cared to exercise the right.

The feudal incidents included;

Three 'Aids' which were payable to ransom the lord's person from captivity (the result of battle), on the marriage of his eldest daughter and on the knighting of his eldest son.

'Reliefs', or duties payable on succession.

'Wardship', the lord's right to guardianship over a tenant during the tenant's minority and of recieving the income from the ward's estate.

'Marriage', the lord's right to give a ward in marriage and of recieving either a payment (dowry) from the suitor or compensation from the ward for refusing the marry the suitor proposed by the lord.

'Escheat'; the resumption of the estate by a lord on the failure to produce heirs or on conviction for a felony.

The 'Feudal Incidents' continued long after the demise of the feudal system and wardship and marriage proved the most burdonsome. They were fianlly abolished on the accession of King Charles II in 1660 when they were replaced by poundage and tonnage for life and a grant of £100,000 per annum.

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Feudal Theory

Feudal society was a heirarchical pyramid with the monarch at the top and a large class of serfs, tied to the land, at the bottom. Outside this system, there were also a class of slaves, not tied to the land but to a lord personally, and 'outlaws', felons who were, quite literaly, deemed to be outside society and the law and its protection.

The feudal system was all about possession of land and the obligation of military service. Until the development of the wool industry, England had no exports other than the common staples and the possession of land equated wealth.

In theory, at least, the monarch owned all of the land within his kingdom. Immediately below the king were his 'tennants-in-chief', the major landholders, the great lords and magnates of the kingdom, who held their land directly from the monarch. In return for their land holding, the magnates swore fealty to the monarch, and were obliged to render the monarch military service, together with retainers and equipemnt commensurate with their holdings.

The tenants-in-chief let out land to their tenants, the lesser barons and lords, on the same terms, if diminished in scale. This process was repeated all the way down to the knight, the local lord of the manor.

The militaty service a tenant was liable for was proportional to his land holding; a knight might be obliged to attend with four horses and one or two attendants, a great tennant-in-chief was obliged to attend the monarch with a small army.

Mediaeval government was, more often than not, incapable of guaranteeing peace and order. The feudal landholder, whether lord of the manor or a great magnate, had to ensure the security of his own family and his tennents. The local landholder might erect a defensible manor house but the property of the great magnates was spread throughout the country and necessitated the establishment of several bases, most frequently these took the form of castles.

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The Cinque Ports

The Cinque Ports confederation and their 'limbs' had rendered 'ship service' to the crown in Saxon times and were granted rights and privileges in a succession of royal charters which treated the confederation as a corporate body.

The arrangement had come about because of the necessity to provide a navy for defence against the attacks of the Vikings and the Danes. After the Norman conquest, with the monarch possessing English and Norman lands across the English Channel, it was inevitable that the Cinque Ports confederation should grow in importance.

Essentailly, the confederation excercised it rights and privileges in return for supplying an predetermined number of ships and crews for forty days of each year.

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French Feudalism

Feudalism in France developed in a different manner to that of England. Although the early French kings were the suzerians of their subjects as in England, they failed to make their suzerianity real.

The powerful French barons ruled their domains with virtual autonomy in most cases, exercising judicial authority, making their own coinage, wars and concluding foreign treaties. The populations of these territories swore allegiance to their lords and were obliged to follow them into battle even against their monarch, notionally at least their fuedal master.

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End of Feudalism

Many have claimed the year 1485, when Henry, Earl of Richmond won the Battle of Bosworth Field and the Wars of the Roses to found the Tudor dynasty as King Henry VII, as the end of the 'feudalism' and the 'Middle Ages' in England.

While the Tudors enforced the King's law in the land by freeing the Privy Council and law courts from the grip of the barons and placing them under the control of the Crown and forbade the personal retainers which, for example, allowed the Duke of Norfolk to besiege Caister Castle in 1469 in a private quarrel over right of possession, the process was one of gradual change. In the north, subject to the more-or-less regular raids of the Scots, the marcher barons enjoyed considerable autonomy and many aspects of the feudalism remained until the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland by James I in 1603.

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by 1324De Praerogativa Regis (Royal Prerogative) provided for management of estates of incapacitated tenants to ensure their maintenance, with profits going to the crown
1350Statute of Treasons; distinguishes petty treason from high treason
1469Caister Castle beseiged by 3,000 men of the Duke of Norfolk in a private quarrel over right of possession
1485Henry VII becomes monarch by battle establishing the House of Tudor and ending the Wars of the Roses
1660.MayAbolition of the Feudal Incidents on the restoration of Charles II
1989Escheat (Procedure) Act 1887 (50 + 51 Vict. c.53.) repealed

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Political History of England, 1066-1216
  by Adams, publisher

Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest
  , publisher Oxford UP, 1962

Recommend a Book for this Page

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