"The partition of England among a foreign aristocracy organized for war
was the chief immediate result of the Norman Conquest."
The new ruling class
One of the most far reaching consequences of the Norman conquest of 1066 was that the old Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish landowners were almost entirely dispossessed and replaced by a new entirely alien 'Norman' ruling class. Of course this new ruling class was not entirely Norman in the strictest sense of the word as William, Duke of Normandy had recruited men to support his invasion of England from all across northern France, so that his army included substantial contingents from Brittany and Flanders as well as Boulogne and Picardy. But despite this, the majority of these new men were members of a group of closely related individuals who were largely from the Norman heartlands around Rouen, most of whom where already significant landholders in Normandy itself.
The transfer of ownership was not necessarily immediate, as only those 'original' land holders who had fought against William at Hastings were dispossessed and thus many northern landholders (absent due to their participation on one side or another in the battle of Stamford Bridge earlier that same year) were initially spared. But the subsequent northern revolt of 1069 resulted in same pattern of expropriation being applied north of the Humber, as had previously been applied in the south. By the time the Domesday book was complied in the year 1086 only two 'native' landholders of any consequence are recorded; Thurkill of Arden and Colswein of Lincoln, the former likely being Danish and the latter probably English. 1
The Anglo-Norman Baronage
The results of this transfer of ownership was to create something in the order of 170 to a 180 feudal barons, all of whom had in some way contributed to the success of William's great enterprise and were thus rewarded with their share of the spoils. Each of these barons was allotted a composite lordship or 'honour', the name signifying that which granted a man dignity and a particular status in society.2
These honours did not, generally speaking, form a contiguous territorial unit but rather consisted of a number of different manors scattered across different counties, although often concentrated in a particular district. Although there are some examples of these honours arising as the result of a simple take-over from a preconquest antecessor, the vast majority appear to be new entirely Norman creations. It is therefore often presumed that their creation was therefore a result of the deliberate policy of William, and that the intention was to prevent individual barons from being able to establish dominance in any one particular district which could later be used as the springboard for revolt.
Each honour drew its name from the chief residence of the lord, usually but not exclusively a castle, so that we have the Honour of Pontefract, the Honour of Tickill and the Honour of Richmond and at the heart of the honour was usually a concentration of manors, a castellaria, designed to support the caput of the honour, although as noted above, the majority of the honour was composed of manors scattered across the country.
The nature of the feudal relationship
These barons did not own the land in the modern sense of the word, they were feudal tenants and were required to pay homage to the king in return for their landed wealth, and this homage entailed a personal obligation to provide military services as and when required.
This knight service was essentially a personal obligation to provide a given number of knights to serve the king whenever the need arose. The required numbers of knights appear to have been arbitrarily fixed round numbers, which were set at a far higher level than was customary within Normandy itself, justified by the requirement to police and control a conquered land. Hence Norman England has been characterised as "a military society which, if not actually at war, had to be always prepared for it".
In aggregate this theoretically provided the king with an army of some 4,000 knights and even the English Church was not exempt from the requirement to pay homage to the king and both bishops and abbots were required to provide a further 780 knights in respect of their temporalities or ecclesiastical lands.
In the early years of the conquest these obligations would have been met from the baron's own military household, however as time went on and resistance died down there was less need for each lord to maintain his own personal standing army to keep the locals in check. They would therefore grant one or more manors to one of their followers, in return for their promise to provide military service. Technically known as sub-infeudation, in modern terms these honourial barons sub-contracted their military obligations to their own feudal tenants, so that when they were summoned to arms by the king, they in turn would summon their tenants to at least partly fulfil their obligation to the king.
By this process the great baronial honours were further broken down into individual knights' fees and created a further class of landholding nobles. Whilst these men might not hold their land directly from the king, they were also men of note and thus classed as barons; the lesser barons or the knights of the shires, to be distinguished from their feudal masters the greater barons who were the tenants-in-chief of the crown.
This process of sub-infeudation was also useful as regards those ecclesiastical landowners noted above as, of course, individual bishops were not expected to personally turn up in response to a military summons (although there quite a number who did). Rather they parcelled their land out into individual knights' fees as well or dodged the whole issue by offering to pay cash instead. The king was naturally not averse to receiving cash in hand which could obviously be used to hire proper professional mercenary troops in any case. From this commutation of personal service into a cash payment came the scutage, the shield tax, one of the major sources of revenue for the crown.
The Curia Regis
The Curia Regis, the King's Council better known as the Great Council was a Norman innovation introduced by William the Conqueror. As explained by the Peterborough Chronicle;
thrice he wore his crown every year as often as he was in England; at Easter he wore it at Winchester; at Whitsunside a Westminster; at Midwinter at Gloucester: and then were with him all the rich men over all England, archbishops and suffragan bishops, abbots and earls, thegns and knights.
These meetings of the Curia Regis were great ceremonial events at which the king would don the crown, and the litany Christus vincit, Christus regnant, Christus imperat would be chanted; grand occasions which were part propaganda designed to impress upon everyone, the power and the majesty of the Norman kings of England. But the gathering together of all "the rich men over all England" also provided the opportunity for these men to discuss and decide upon the great issues of the day. The Great Council became the forum at which the king would seek support for all the major decisions regarding such matters as waging war and raising taxes. From the Great Council would later emerge the institution known as Parliament.
In those months between the meetings of the Great Council day-to-day decision making was the business of the court, where many of the great barons would be in personal attendance throughout the year. Beginning as simply "a gathering of men whom the king knew personally and with whose own affairs he was familiar", it later developed a more formal character with individual barons being allocated specific duties within the framework of the medieval state and so emerged the great offices of state.
Shires and Sheriffs
William the Conqueror regarded himself as the true heir to Edward the Confessor and thus tried to rule using the pre-existing structures wherever practicable. The Norman kings were ever anxious to insists that the same 'good' laws prevailed as in the time of Edward, even if they made their own additions to the existing body of law.
The structure of shires sub-divided into hundreds and wapentakes through which the law was administered and taxes were raised was retained. (And with good reason, the Old English tax-raising mechanism built to collect the Danegeld was remarkably efficient by medieval standards.) But whereas the Normans retained the structure of local administration, the Old English earldoms were swept away. They no longer relied on the eolderman or earl to administer the shire but rather relied upon the shire-reeve, the sheriff (or as 'vice-comes' or viscount as the Normans regarded the office in their own language) as the king's representative in the shire.
Unlike their Old English predecessors these new sheriffs were landholders of significance, men of much greater weight than their predecessors and eager to be appointed to a post which offered many opportunities for personal enrichment. As early as 1076 a commission was appointed to investigated abuses and this was to be a recurrent theme across the centuries and one of the constant complaints of various reform movements.
William the Conqueror did of course grant men the title of comes, or earl as the English would later call them, but initially such appointments were few and far between and limited to those border areas where there was a greater perceived threat to the stability of the Norman realm. Thus we have earls appointed to police the Welsh Border at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford and at Kent to supervise the communication route to Normandy and granted a palatine authority. In Northumbria William and his immediate successors followed the former practice of appointing earls to act as governors of a territory that was only marginally part of the kingdom of England. But the Normans unlike their Old English antecedents had no general need for earls as such in their administrative scheme; they relied on the sheriff to act as the king's local representative and earls were only created to serve a specified purpose. It is not until the later reigns of Stephen and Matilda that we see wholesale creation of earldoms by the two rivals as they competed for support amongst the barons.
Much of the subsequent history of England and even Great Britain as a whole, was determined by the arrangements made by its new Norman masters.
Historians have always debated the extent to which the Norman Conquest constituted a revolution in the government of England and to what extent its effects was simply a development of pre-existing trends, and probably always will. The truth is that faced with the same questions, rulers frequently reached similar answers. But it was the Norman answers to these questions that were to determine the future of England.
1 This only applied to those parts of the island of Britain that were actually under the direct control of the Kings of the English and thus excluded anything north of the Tees (Durham and Northumberland) and most of the north-west, Cumberland, Westmoreland and northern Lancashire as these areas had not been brought within the shire system. However it included parts of Wales, specifically Gwent and all of North Wales. (Although in the latter case Norman control was to prove only temporary.)
2 See defintion no 9 for honour by Webster 1913 Feudal Law : A seigniory or lordship held of the king, on which other lordships and manors depended.
- F.M. Stenton Anglo-Saxon England 3rd Ed (OUP 1971)
- A.L. Poole Domesday Book to Magna Carta 2nd Ed (OUP 1955)