It remains to speak of the most important change which William's rearrangements made in the polity of England. It is of course untrue to say as was so often done by early historians that he introduced the feudal system into England. In some aspects feudalism was already in the land before he arrived: in others it may be said that it was never introduced at all. He did not introduce the practice by which the small man commended himself to the great man, and in return for his protection divested himself of the full ownership of his own land, and became a customary tenant in what later ages called a manor. That system was already in full operation in England before the Conquest. In some districts the wholly free small landowner had already disappeared, though in the regions which had formed the Danelagh he was still to be found in large numbers. Nor did William introduce the system of great earldoms, passing from father to son, which gave over-great subjects a hereditary grip on the countryside. On the contrary, as has been already said, he did much to check that tendency, which had already developed in England.
What he really did do was to reconstruct society on the essentially feudal theory that the land was a gift from the king, held on conditions of homage and military service. The duties which under the old system were national obligations resting on the individual as a citizen, he made into duties depending on the relation between the king as supreme landowner and the subject as tenant of the land. Military service and the paying of the feudal taxes, aids, reliefs, and care incidents of the bargain between the crown and the grantee to whom land has been given. That grantee, the tenant-in-chief, has the right to demand from his sub-tenants, to whom he has given out fractions of his estate, the same dues that the king exacts from himself. As at least four-fifths of the land of England had fallen into the king's hands between 1066 and 1074, and had been actually regranted to new owners, foreigners to whom the feudal system was the only conceivable organization of political existence, the change was not only easy but natural. The few surviving English landholders had to fall into line with the newcomers. England, in short, was reorganized into a state of the continental type, but one differing from France or Germany in that the crown had not lost so many of its regalities as abroad, and that even the greater earls had less power than the ordinary continental tenant-in-chief.
The English people became aware of this transformation in the theory of the state mainly through the fact that the new tenants-in-chief, bringing with them the ideas in which they had been reared, failed to com,prehend the rather complicated status of the rural population on this side of the Channel. To the French or Norman knight all peasants on his manor seemed to be villeins, and he failed to understand the distinction between freemen who had personally commended themselves to his English predecessor but still owned their land, and the mass of ordinary servile tenants. There can be no doubt that the first effect of the Conquest was that the upper strata of the agricultural classes lost the comparative independence which they had hitherto enjoyed, and were in many cases depressed to the level of their inferiors. The number of freemen began to decrease, from the encroachments of the landowner, and continued to dwindle for many years: even in districts where Domesday Book shows them surviving in considerable numbers, it is clear that a generation or two later they had largely disappeared, and became merged in the villein class.
In this sense, therefore, England was turned into a feudal state by the results of the work of William the Conqueror. But it would be wrong to assert that all traces of the ancient social organization of the realm were swept away. The old Saxon customs were not forgotten, though they might in many cases be twisted to fit new surroundings. Indeed William and his successors not infrequently caused them to be collected and put on record. The famous Domesday Book of 1086 is in its essential nature an inquiry into the state of England at the moment of the Conquest, compiled in order that the king may have a full knowledge of the rights that he possesses as the heir of King Edward.
Being primarily intended to facilitate the levy of taxation, it dwells more on the details of the actual wealth and resources of the country in 1066 and 1086, and less on the laws and customs that governed the distribution of that wealth, than could have been wished. But it is nevertheless a monument of the permanence of the old English institutions, even after the ownership of four-fifths of the soil has been changed. The king inquires into the state of things in 1066 because it is on that state of things that his rights of taxation depend. He does not claim to have rearranged the whole realm on a new basis, or to be levying his revenue on a new assessment made at his own pleasure. Nor is it in the sphere of taxation alone that William's organization of the realm stands on the old English customs.
In the military sphere, though his normal army is the feudal force composed of the tenants-in-chief and the knights whom they have enfeoffed, he retains the power to call out the fyrd, the old national levee en masse, without regard to whether its members are freemen or villeins of some lord. And in judicial matters the higher rights of royal justice remain intact, except in the few cases where special privileges have been granted to one or two palatine earls. The villein must sue in his lord's manorial courts, but he is also subject to the royal courts of hundred and shire. The machinery of the local courts survives for the most part intact.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.