Norman England and Feudalism
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
It used to be assumed as a commonplace of history that the Normans introduced feudalism into England. At last there came a reaction, and we were taught that feudalism in England was already so far advanced that the Normans merely gave a slight extra impetus to its complete development As a matter of fact the advocates of these contradictory doctrines did not mean quite the same thing by feudalism, or at least they concentrated their attention on different aspects of it.
The basis of feudalism was the doctrine that the whole land was the property of the king and that the individual landowner was not in the full sense an owner, but held his land as a tenant of the king, by the grant of the king, on recognised conditions of military service.
Where this had not been the case originally, when the landowner had been there before the king, before the land had formed a part of the king's dominion, the same position had been arrived at by the process of Commendation; that is, the landowner had done homage to the king and become the king's man, himself surrendering his land to the king and then receiving it back on condition of military service.
In either case the practical result was the same. Every inch of the land within the king's dominion was the king's property, and was held from him by the landowner as his vassal on the recognised conditions of military service, carrying with them corresponding obligations on the king of protecting his vassal.
The same thing applied to the minor landholder who had either received his land by a grant from the greater landowner originally or had become his vassal by commendation. Finally, the small occupiers held their land not on conditions of military service, but of agricultural service or some equivalent, still with the corresponding obligation of protection; either by grants from the owner, or by commendation. Thus every inch of the soil was held on condition of military or other service either by a vassal of the king or a vassal's vassal, except what was retained by the king as his own estate.
Now, after the Norman conquest all this was literally true in England. The king had assumed the ownership of the entire soil. He assumed that it was forfeited to him by rebellion; and whether he distributed it among his Norman followers or graciously reinstated the English occupiers, it was on condition of homage and under feudal tenure. But before the conquest it had not been true. There was no theory that all the land was the king's land and had been granted by him on conditions of military tenure.
Under the feudal system when the king wanted an army to take the field he summoned his vassals to attend his standard in accordance with their feudal obligation. Under the Saxon system he summoned the freemen of the shire to attend the fyrd. But, on the other hand, the process of commendation had long been active.
Although the larger landholders did not hold from the king theoretically, except where the king had granted part of his estates as bocland, the small occupier habitually became the man of some bigger man than himself, rendering him service in order to enjoy his protection. But the theory that the whole of the land was the king's land held by the landowner as his vassal on feudal tenure did not as a legal theory exist before the conquest.
Of this there is one consequence of great importance. When the Norman wanted an army in the field he could raise one by summoning the feudal levies. But he could also attain his purpose by summoning the fyrd of the shires, and calling the freemen to arms without the peculiar limitations on the terms of service recognised under the law of feudal tenure, of which the elaborate details had hitherto been practically unknown in England.
If the feudalism introduced by the Norman conquest was something exceedingly different from feudalism so far as it had already developed in England, it differed also from the feudalism of the continent in a manner which had very important political results.
On the continent a king's personal vassals or feudatories were few; each of them had an estate which might be called a province. The province was parcelled out among the vassals of the feudatory and his vassal's vassals; and in each case the vassal did homage and owed allegiance to his own immediate overlord, but not necessarily to his overlord's overlord; therefore the feudatory who defied his overlord or suzerain could take the field with an army of his own vassals, who were sworn to serve him even against his suzerain.
But in England, as we have seen, the country was not parcelled out into a few great provinces but into many comparatively small earldoms and lesser estates; and, further, the smaller landowners for the most part held direct from the king. They were tenants-in-chief, i.e. with no overlord intervening between them and the king himself.
The result was that there was no feudatory who could bring a large army of his own into the field under any circumstances; and beyond this, from the Moot of Salisbury onward the king always required that his vassal's vassals should pay direct homage to him as well as to his overlord, the obligation to him overriding that to the immediate overlord.
Thus on the continent the moral responsibility for rebellion lay upon the great feudatory himself alone; the oath of his vassals required them, to follow him. But in England the moral responsibility rested on each individual; his oath bound him to the king's service in priority to that of his overlord.
The moral justification on the continent for the individual was that he had obeyed his overlord's summons as in duty bound; the only possible justification for the individual in England was that the king had forfeited his allegiance by breaking the feudal compact on his own side; whether negatively by failure to do right by his vassal or positively by making illegal demands upon him. Hence the central government in England was at all times very much stronger than in the continental states.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.