Landholding in England/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II.—UNDER THE NORMANS


THE word "feudal" is probably derived from the word "fee" or stipend. But if it is derived, as some think, from the Old French for "faith," its practical meaning is the same—it means property held in return for a promise of something—rent, or personal service, or both.[1] Under the feudal system, the tenant, or vassal, owed his overlord military service; he was required to serve himself, and—if he had tenants under him, to raise a certain number of men, to serve in the wars for a certain time—usually forty days. He also had to pay certain "fines," and "recoveries," on his accession to the inheritance—we now call these "death-duties." If he held of the Crown (which was called holding in capite), he had to pay his share of the "relief" which the King demanded of his faithful subjects when he married or knighted his eldest son, or married his eldest daughter. This custom also survives under the form of a grant from Parliament.

Probably the chief change as to land at the Conquest was at first one of persons—the substitution of Norman barons for the deprived Saxon earls; and another and more real change, the great increase of book-land, owing to the many confiscations, which throw much land into the gift of the Crown. But confiscations were not wholesale. The old system was not abolished; a new system was indeed introduced, but it existed side by side with the old. Two hundred and fifty years later, Edward II. swore to observe the laws of the Confessor. In all popular agitations, the demand is always for the old Saxon laws, and king after king swears to observe them.

The position of the serfs remained unchanged by the Conquest: they were no better off. But when the first horrors of conquest were over, the freemen of England suffered less than those of France from the operation of the feudal system. This was partly because the masterful Norman kings took care to delegate as little power as possible to their equally masterful barons—who considered themselves the King's "peers," his equals in all but precedence; but it was still more because our kings long remained foreigners, far more interested in the affairs of France than in those of England. Thus the line of cleavage went from highest to lowest of the nation, and soon the barons themselves cast in their lot with "the English," because their own great interests now lay in England, and not in Normandy across the sea.

William of Normandy was not a mere soldier of fortune. He was one of the most astute of rulers. He knew when to strike and when to spare. He soon saw that he could not hope to maintain his hold on both England and Normandy unless he made friends with the body of the English people. He did not rely wholly on his sword: he presented himself for election, according to the old Saxon custom—of which we still retain a trace in our Coronation service. And, however much we may believe that the election was a farce, it was a concession to public opinion, and as such was an abandonment of the purely military claim of a conqueror. He went much further than a sham election. Master Wace, in the "Chronicle of the Conquest,"[2] says: "Then he called together all the barons, and assembled all the English, and put it to their choice, what laws they would hold to, and what customs they chose to be observed; whether the Norman or the English; those of which lord and which king. And they all said, 'King Edward's; let his laws be held and kept.' They requested to have the customs which were well-known … and it was done according to their desire, the King consenting to their wish."

This seems to have taken place immediately after the Conquest. Hut there was a later confirmation. From the year 1082, William was constantly harassed by the fears of a Danish invasion, to co-operate with Hereward—still holding out with a remnant of desperate men in the swamps of Ely. Twice had a Danish fleet reached our shores, and twice had it sailed home again, afraid to strike. Not daring to trust the English, William brought in great numbers of mercenaries from Normandy and Brittany, and quartered them on the English, whom they ate out of house and home. In 1085 another invasion was feared. At Christmas a great Council was held at Gloucester, and it was determined to make a survey of the whole land of England. The survey was ready by the Easter of 1086— it was the great Survey called Domesday Book.'[3] This could not have been done in the time if there had not already been in existence a complete description of lands, based on the old Anglo-Saxon charters. At Easter, 1086, the King summoned all the freeholders of England to meet him at Salisbury, there to take the oath of allegiance. It has been supposed by some historians that this marks a radical change in the position of English landowners. But an old chronicler, Eadmerus, a monk of Canterbury, who wrote in the reign of Henry I., gives the 71 Laws of Edward the Confessor, and says: "These are the laws and customs which King William granted to the whole people of England after he had conquered the land, and they are those which King Edward, his predecessor, observed before him." These freemen were not vassals-vassalage was unknown to the Saxons. They were the holders of "udall" land. Having thus made it their interest to be faithful to him, William went back to Normandy, for his last war of devastation; his famous career ended ignobly with the burning of Mantes.

The Norman manor answered pretty exactly to the Saxon hide. The names given to both in Domesday are all equivalents for "homestead."[4]

A careful study of Domesday Book will, I think, convince us that slaves (called servi) were at anyrate nothing like so numerous as any of those classes of men who were more or less free.[5]

First above the servi seem to have come the colliberti—described as "half-free"; free as to person, but not as to tenement.[6] They could go where they chose, "but not with their land."[6]This refers to a curious right under the Saxons, whereby a man could choose a suzerain. This suzerain became his protector, and could demand service in return. Besides any other advantages, the price paid to a man's family if he happened to be murdered or injured, was higher in proportion to the dignity of the suzerain who was thus deprived of his services.

The villein[7] has been called "the highest of the unfree." In Roman times he was the slave who worked upon the villa,[8] the country estate of a great man. He was called a "villanus," because he was enrolled as belonging to a villa (quia villae adscriptus est), and adscriptus glebae, as belonging to a glebe or meadow. There were two kinds of villeins — villeins regardant, and villeins in gross. The villein regardant was so called because "he hath the charge to do all base or villeinous services" within the manor, "and to gard the same from all filthieor loathsome things that might annoy it; and his service is not certaine, but he must have regard[9] to that which is commanded unto him" (Coke). A villein in gross belonged not to the manor, but to the person of the lord, who could sell him if he chose. The chattels of the villein regardant were his own, or rather they belonged to his holding.[10] He was called a tenant-in-villenage, and the part of the manor which he tilled was a villagium, or "village," to distinguish it from the demesne, or part farmed by the lord, which of course usually surrounded the manor-house. We call it "the home farm." The villein paid the land tax, and sometimes even commuted his personal service for rent. A female villein was called a "niefe"—a word derived from the Latin for "native," "because for the most part niefes are bond by nativitie"—that is, are born unfree.

That the villein was not a slave is proved by the fact that he could bring an action against any person, except his lord.[11] And in certain cases, he even had an appeal against his lord, and if his appeal succeeded, he was enfranchised for ever. The rights of the lord over him were strictly limited by law. If a villein sued his lord, and the lord answered, the villein could demand a trial. This became of great importance to the villeins, when they were attempting to obtain freedom to go where they would.

"Freedom," in the classes above the servi, was not quite what the word means to us. There were two great features of freedom—freedom to go where he would and to sell his land as he would. These two constituted complete freedom, and there was a sort of sliding scale of freedom, down to the actual serf whose body could be sold. Sometimes this serf was called a "villein in gross.'" Most villains were villeins regardant—they could not be removed from the land. Many were considerable farmers. At Fulham, we find a villein with half-a-hide—which must have been at least 30 acres, or anything above that up to 60 acres. He paid 4s. "for his house." Another, with the same quantity of land, paid 8s. Thirty-four others had each half-a-virgate; 5 had each 1 hide. In Hampshire, 4 villems had 1 carucate. At Basingstoke, 20 villeins and 41 bordars had 11 carucates, and 20 villeins and 8 bordars had 12. Here there were but 6 servi.

The Normans were not Frenchmen, and the Anglo-Saxons were not Teutons. Both were of kindred Gothic stock. But for the two hundred years after the Conquest, the kings of England had as great a stake in France as in England. They lived half their lives in France; the wars they made were more often with France than with the Scots. In Saxon times a tenant in "common soccage" paid in money, not in person. But with these perpetual wars, men were wanted as much or more than money, and this tended to fixity of tenure. The Norman kings, and the barons under them, wanted a man to perform the duties of the fief, and were not extreme as to whose son that man should be—a son-in-law, or an adopted son who married the old tenant's daughter, would serve the turn of providing a fighting man. Primogeniture seems to have been rather a custom than a law—nor does any law in the Statute Book establish it.

There were only two ways by which a serf could become free: he could enter into religion, or he could get into a walled town. Magna Charta does not trouble itself about serfs. The barons did indeed win a great battle for liberty, but their motive was to preserve themselves and their own rights from the aggressions of such a king as John.

The change was great. The whole theory of the State was altered. The old Saxon idea of the community slowly dwindled and died, as feudal lordship developed. And though the Saxon leaven long remained as a modifying influence, it cannot be said to have triumphed. To other causes than the land we owe the political freedom we have attained, and it cannot be said that even yet the land is free. The incubus of feudal domination broods upon it to this day. The towns have won their freedom; in the country, the Norman laws still hold good in practice.

There is yet another legacy, which affects every rural district in the kingdom. "Another violent alteration of the English constitution," says Blackstone, "consisted in the depopulation of whole countries, for the purposes of the king's royal diversion … the slaughter of a beast was made almost as penal as the death of a man. In the Saxon times, though no man was allowed to kill or chace the king's deer, yet he might start any game, pursue, and kill it upon his own estate. But the rigour of these new constitutions vested the sole property of all the game in England in the king alone. … From a similar principle … though the forest laws are now mitigated, and by degrees grown entirely obsolete, yet from this root has sprung a bastard slip, known by the name of the game laws … but with this' difference; that the forest laws established only one mighty hunter throughout the land, the game laws have raised a little Nimrod in every manor."[12]


  1. "The grand and fundamental maxim of all feudal tenures is this, that all lands were originally granted out by the sovereign, and are therefore holden, mediately or immediately, by the Crown."—Blackstone's "Commentaries," II. c. 4.

    Fee is the Old French, Fe ; Latin, Fides; and a fee, anything granted by one and held by another, upon promise of fealty or fidelity.—Richardson's Dict. sub. voce.

  2. Taylor's translation, 1837. The "Chronicle" is written in Norman French, and in rhyme.
  3. Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, and Northumberland are omitted. We possess only an abridged version of Domesday—the original version counted everything, down to swine.
  4. Mansa, mansura, contignatio, hospitium. Our word "mansion" is derived from mansa.
  5. At Enfield, where 17 villeins held each 1 virgate (a quarter of a hide); and 36 had half-a-virgate each, and 7 cottagers had 23 acres, and 5 other cottagers had 7, the entry finishes thus, "and 18 cottagers and 6 servi." At Calbourne in Hants, 27 villeins and 5 bordars had 14 carucates, while there were only 11 servi. 25,000 servi are given in Domesday, but the Survey is not complete. The population of England was then at least 2,000,000.
  6. 6.0 6.1 The tenure of a collibertus seems to have been nearly the same as that of a sokeman—that is, aid in ploughing for a certain number of days. Coke says that "coleberti, often also named in Domesday, signifieth tenants in free socage by free rent … Radmans and radchemistres (rad, or rede, signifieth firm and stable) … are free tenants who ploughed and harrowed, or mowed or reaped on the lord's manor (ad curiam domini) … and they are many times called sochemans, because of their plough service." They were persons who had bought their freedom—"ransomed" men.

    The "bordar" (bordarius), whose name has occasioned much con- controversy, was a cottager with land (Borde, Norman French for "cottage"). His service was to supply the table of the lord with small provisions, such as poultry. Some bordarii paid rent. There were bordarii in the burgs. Coke says that bordarii are "in effect bores or husbandmen, or cottagers," and that those mentioned in Domesday are "bores holding a little house with some land of husbandry bigger than a cottage … coterelli are mere cottagers," who hold a cottage and a garden. Censores were free tenants at a fixed money rent.

  7. "Villani in Domesday are not taken there for bondmen … such as are bondmen are there called servi."—Coke, "Of Fee Simple."
  8. "Vil" or "Villa" now usually refers to a "town." In ancient Italy it meant an estate, and the villani were the tillers of the estate.
  9. "And it is to be understood, that nothing is named regardant to a manor, etc., but a villeine. But certaine other things, as an advowson, and common of pasture, etc., are named appendant."—Littleton.
  10. The fine for killing a villein was paid to his kindred, not to his lord.
  11. The villein is called a freeman in the Laws of Henry I. (c. 70-76). These laws are the Confirmation of the Laws of the Confessor.
  12. "Commentaries on the Laws of England," Bk. IV. pp. 408-409.