The Feudal System

A couple of definitions of the term "Feudalism"

  • The system of government based on the tenure of land.
  • The system of land tenure and of government in which the landholders are the governors.

The term "tenure" means the right of the person to hold the property. This is not necessarily the ownership of the land. The person is allowed to live on the land in return for services.

The structure of the feudal system was like a pyramid, where the king was at the apex (point at the top) and the villeins or peasants (common people) of the country were at the base. In between the two were several groups of people who were a vassal to those directly above meaning that they swore loyalty to them. Each group of people were granted land and protection by those above in return for services.

A form of the feudal system existed in Anglo-Saxon times even before the Norman Conquest. Across Europe the countries were organised in a structured way. In England the land was granted to the earls and barons, approved by the Witan, the highest council in the land. Each area of land was administered by the earl who ensured laws were enforced. The earl was given the full right to govern as he saw fit. Sometimes this meant the rule was a tyrannical one where the common people suffered great hardships.

Anarchy of Feudalism

In the early eleven hundreds France had descended into what is now known as the 'Anarchy of Feudalism'. Law and order had broken down and the Earls and Barons lived in fortified castles. Many of these lords robed from the surrounding land to make themselves rich. It was extremely dangerous to travel even on the main roads. Famines were common and trading had almost stopped. To stop the deterioration the Church introduced the Truce of God. The truce outlawed any kind of fighting from Thursday evening to Monday morning.

Norman Feudalism

When William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066 he introduced a new kind of feudal system into Britain. William confiscated the land in England from the Saxon lords and allocated it to members of his own family and the Norman lords who had helped him conquer the country. These people were known as tenants-in-chief. Unlike the older Anglo-Saxon form of feudalism these people did not own the land because the ownership remained with William the Conqueror himself. The land allocated to a tenants-in-chief was known as a manor and tended to be dispursed across the country rather than being one big area. The tenant-in-chief had to provide for himself and his family and to support a number of knights. To do this the lord sub-let his land to other lords lower on the social ladder. At the bottom the common people worked on the land growing crops and raising animals.

The tenants-in-chief did not get the land for free, they rented it from the king in exchange for services. If the services were not provided the tenant-in-chief would be removed, by force if necessary. This was an important change to the older Anglo-Saxon form of feudalism as it meant William could keep control of his land as bad tenants could be removed.

Oath of Salisbury

William the Conqueror summonsed his tenants-in-chief to a meeting at Salisbury in August of 1086. At the meeting the most powerful barons in the land swore an oath of loyalty to William ensuring William of their full support.

Military Service

The most important service a tenant-in-chief had to supply was a number of knights. The king would request the knights in time of conflict or war. They could also be used for defending the king's many castles. The tenants-in-chief would have passed the request for knights on to their tenants and so on down the feudal structure. Knights could be requested to serve the king for up to forty days at a time.

Religious Service

Religious houses were granted land in return for saying prayers for the lord's family members, caring for the sick and other general charitable functions. Through the Statute of Mortmain, in 1279, Edward I limited the ability of his tenants-in-chief to allocate land to religious houses requiring them to get royal approval. The reason for this was that normally when a land owner died the king was paid tax but the religious house was not a person and this tax could not the raised thus reducing the tax income.

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Chivalry defined the way in which a knight was supposed to behave and the ideas grew up in France during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries before coming to England. The knight was to show loyalty, morality and generosity. In other words the knight should always support his king or lord and be prepared to put his life on the line to protect him. The knight should always do the right thing and should be prepared to provide his time and energies for free. Chivalry is possibly best known for the courtly love between the knight and his lady.

Chivalry became so engrained in society that all the sons of the nobles either became members of the orders of knights or became members of the Church. It was a long and difficult process to become a knight. Boys at the age of seven were sent by their family to the home of a wealthy noble were the training would begin. The boy would serve as a page and would improve his fitness and skills by playing sports and through exercise. At the age of fourteen or fifteen the boy would become a squire, looking after the lord's armour and horses and possibly accompanying the lord into battle.

At the age of twenty-one he would then become a knight. In a ceremony held in the presence of the lord and other knights of the order he would swear an oath of loyalty and bravery and to defend God, the church and ladies. Finally, kneeling before his lord, the lord would place his sword on the new recruit's shoulder and declare him a knight.

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