When William of Normandy was crowned at Westminster by Archbishop Aldred of York and acknowledged as king by the witan, it is certain that few Englishmen understood the full importance of the occasion. It is probable that most men recalled the election of Canute, and supposed that the accession of the one alien sovereign would have no more permanent effect on the realm than that of the other. The rule of the Danish king and his two short-lived sons had caused no break in the social or constitutional history of England. Canute had become an Englishman, had accepted all the old institutions of the nation, had dismissed his host of vikings, and had ruled like a native king and for the most part with native ministers. Within twenty years of his accession the disasters and calamities which had preceded his triumph had been forgotten, and the national life was running quietly in its old channels. But the accession of William the Bastard meant something very different.
Canute had been an impressionable lad of eighteen or nineteen when he was crowned; he was ready and eager to learn and to forget. He had found himself confronted in England with a higher civilization and a more advanced social organization than those which he had known in his boyhood, and he accepted them with alacrity, feeling that he was thereby getting advantage. With William the Norman all was different; he was a man well on in middle age, too old to adapt himself easily to new surroundings, even if he had been willing to do so. He never even learnt the language of his English subjects, the first step to comprehending their needs and their views. Moreover, unlike his Danish predecessor, he looked down upon the English from the plane of a higher civilization; the Normans regarded the conquered nation as barbarous and boorish. The difference in customs and culture between the dwellers on the two sides of the Channel was sufficient to make this possible; though it is hard to discern any adequate justification for the Norman attitude. Probably the bar of language was the most prominent cause of estrangement. In five generations the viking settlers of Normandy had not only completely forgotten their old Scandinavian tongue, but had come to look upon those who spoke the kindred English idiom not only as aliens but as inferiors. For three centuries French remained the court speech, and the mark of civilization and gentility.
Despite all this the Conquest would not have had its actual results if William, like Canute, had been able to dismiss his conquering army, and to refrain from a general policy of confiscation. But he had won his crown. not as duke of Normandy, but as the head of a band of cosmopolitan adventurers, who had to be rewarded with land in England. Some few received their pay in hard cash, and went off to other wars; but the large majority, Breton and Angevin, French and Fleming, no less than Norman, wanted land. William could only provide it by a wholesale confiscation of the estates of all the thegnhood who had followed the house of Godwine. Almost his first act was to seize on these lands, and to distribute them among his followers. In the regions of the South, which had supplied the army that fell at Hastings, at least four-fifths of the soil passed to new masters. The dispossessed heirs of the old owners had either to sink to the condition of peasants, or to throw themselves upon the world and seek new homes. The friction and hatred thus caused were bitter and long enduring. And this same system of confiscation was gradually extended to the rest of England.
At first the English landowners who had not actually served in Harold's host were permitted to buy back their lands, by paying a heavy fine to the new king and doing him homage. What would have happened supposing that England had made no further stir, and had not vexed William by rebellion, it is impossible to say. But, as a matter of fact, during the first few years of his reign one district after another took up arms and endeavoured to cast out the stranger. As it became gradually evident that Williams whole system of government was to be on new and distasteful lines, the English of the Midlands, the North and the West all went into rebellion. The risings were sporadic, illorganized, badly led, for each section of the realm fought for its own hand. In some parts the insurrections were in favour of the sons of Harold, in others Edgar Aetheling was acclaimed as king: and while the unwise earls Edwin and Morcar fought for their own hand, the Anglo-Danes of the East sent for Sweyn, king of Denmark, who proved of small help, for he abode but a short space in England, and went off after sacking the great abbey of Peterborough and committing other outrages. The rebels cut up several Norman garrisons, and gave King William much trouble for some years, but they could never face him in battle. Their last stronghold, the marsh-fortress of Ely, surrendered in 1071, and not long after their most stubborn chief, Hereward the Wake, the leader of the fenmen, laid down his arms and became King William's man.
The only result of the long series of insurrections was to provoke the king to a cruelty which he had not at first shown, and to give him an excuse for confiscating and dividing among his foreign knights and barons the immense majority of the estates of the English thegnhood. William could be pitiless when provoked; to punish the men of the North for persistent rebellion and the destruction of his garrison at York, he harried the whole countryside from the Aire to the Tees with such remorseless ferocity that it did not recover its ancient prosperity for centuries. The population was absolutely exterminated, and the great Domesday survey, made nearly twenty years later, shows the greater part of Yorkshire as waste. This act was exceptional only in its extent: the king was as cruel on a smaller scale elsewhere, and not contented with the liberal use of the axe and the rope was wont to inflict his favourite punishments of blinding and mutilation on a most reckless scale.
The net result of the king's revenge on the rebellious English was that by 1075 the old governing class had almost entirely disappeared, and that their lands, from the Channel to the Tweed, had everywhere been distributed to new holders. To a great extent the same horde of continental adventurers who had obtained the first batch of grants in Wessex and Kent were also the recipients of the later confiscations, so that their newly acquired estates were scattered all over England. Many of them came to own land in ten or a dozen counties remote from each other, a fact which was of the greatest importance in determining the character of English feudalism. While abroad the great vassals of the crown generally held their property in compact blocks, in England their power was weakened by the dispersion of their lands. This tendency was assisted by the fact that even when the king, as was his custom, transferred to a Norman the estates of an English landowner just as they stood, those estates were already for the most part not conterminous. Even before the Conquest the lands of the magnates were to a large extent held in scattered units, not in solid patches. Only in two cases did William establish lordships of compact strength, and these were created for the special purpose of guarding the turbulent Welsh March. The palatine earls of Chester and Shrewsbury were not only endowed with special powers and rights of jurisdiction, but were almost the only tenants-in-chief within their respective shires. These rare exceptions prove the general rule: William probably foresaw the dangers of such accumulation of territory in private hands. He made a complete end of the old English system by which great earls ruled many shires: there were to be no Godwines or Leofrics under the Norman rule. This particular feudal danger was avoided where earls were created, and they were but few, their authority was usually restricted to a single shire.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.