In the early Middle Ages, the concept of ‘feudalism’ existed. While the term was created at a later time, it was used to identify the system that was in place back then. Feudalism is a system of rights between a ruler, nobleman or even the church to one who promises allegiance to that lord. This agreement can only exist between the one in authority and a free man (ie not a slave or a serf). The one promising allegiance becomes a vassal to them.
Basically, what happens is the vassal is granted right of use of the lord’s land (called a fief) if the vassal offered continued support and assistance to them. The land granted them is worked by slaves, free peasants or serfs, although these actually are not included within the system.
Vassals included people such as knights (who would perhaps have fought for their lords) and church officials who had promised themselves and loyal to the church. So, the big land owners were the noblemen and the church.
However, as more and more vassals appeared, they became more and more powerful as they “lorded” over their own fiefs. As time progressed, things became more and more chaotic and as fiefs were handed down, generation by generation, it was often forgotten who owned the land in the first place. And so, the vassals grew more and more powerful as power decentralized and the fiefs became more and more independent.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the new rulers successfully manipulated feudal institutions to build up their own power, and slowly but surely the feudal system transformed into a monarchy after the new rulers had to overcome two major problems – that of the powerful vassals who had armies loyal to them, and that of the church with its authority higher than that of any secular power. There were many actions and developments involved within this process and this essay shall discuss several key elements that changed society at this time.
To give a little background and foundation to this, we need to look at some events and changes around Europe leading up to 1066. Firstly, we shall look at the great Charlemagne from the time of the late 700’s. His biographer, Einhard, tells us that during his rulership of the Franks, “Such are the wars, most skillfully planned and successfully fought, which this most powerful king waged during the forty-seven years of his reign. He so largely increased the Frank kingdom, which was already great and strong when he received it at his father's hands that more than double its former territory was added to it.” At the time of his death, he had all of what is known as modern day France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, a large part of Germany, half of Italy and into Eastern Europe. He was such a key player in the early Middle Ages.
Despite these conquests, he was also known as a very generous man and had added much to the coffers of the Catholic Church and had even given money to poor Christians in far off lands not ruled by him. This shows his kindness and compassion to foreigners that Einhard speaks of. He also established a series of reforms to update the defective old Frankish law to work better within his new empire.
His reign was to last until his death in 814.
From 980 to the turn of the millennium, a portrait of Otto III shows this German king a very prominent figure. In comparison to the other figures in the painting, nobles on one site, church bishops on the other, he is slightly larger than they are to draw out his importance. Encyclopedia Britannica tells us he was planning to govern from Rome and be above both the state and the church. He failed.
So, the scene is set, we are slowly seeing shifts from smaller tribes or manors, to more central forms of rulership, but what was to happen in 1066 would really set the tone for the ages to come.
In 1066, William the Normandy led an army from the north coast of France, sailed across the Channel and landed on the south coast of England near Hastings. There ensued the Battle of Hastings between the forces of William and the English king, Harold. Harold was defeated, leaving William to become the new king of England (and some might say rightful king anyway, as the throne had been originally promised him by Edward the Confessor).
As is understandable when a new conqueror takes over power, rebellions arise. William had one to deal with around 1068 from the north of England. Two brothers Edwin and Morcar, who had grown wealthy and powerful due to the feudal system, rebelled after William had broken a promise in giving his daughter in marriage to Edwin. The two brothers then set back to their northern realms and staged a rebellion. Blethyn, king of Wales also came to support it, and other inhabitants were urged to conspire against the Normans. York became the focal point of the unrest, but William moved swiftly to survey the most inaccessible, but strategic parts of England and fortified them. The result was that the English were unable to resist and so Edwin and Morcar were forced to back down and the rebellion failed. The fortifications had worked and over the next twenty years, many castles were built to act as deterrents.
These castles, such as the one at Richmond in North Yorkshire, were built on terrain such as hills where they would be very difficult to penetrate and attack. Indeed, they were so well built, that many of them today are still standing, almost a thousand years after construction.
A map from the book ‘Domesday England’ shows locations of castles around England. Many were dotted around various inland strategic positions and it is interesting to note that how many were built on the southern English coastline. This further improved the natural defense offered by the English Channel to ward off any overseas attack, such as the one William had waged in 1066. Since then, England has never been successfully conquered on its own soil.
With the rebellion eliminated and England fortified by William, the feudal system had received its first major blow and a step towards a medieval state evolved.
Some twenty years later, we can see in ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ how further along towards a medieval state things progressed. This short passage indicates all the vassals have submitted to William to become his vassals. Or put into another word, his subjects.
The Assize of Clarendon (1166) marks another major step away from feudalism. The king in power at this time is Henry II of England and we see a series of ordinances initiated to improve procedures in criminal law. Several parts are highlighted for examination, and through it can be seen that the system is moving away from nobles lording over their serfs and peasants, and a more centralized method of policing introduced.
In the first part of the ordinance, we see an establishment of a hierarchy to report to regarding a series of stipulated crimes within a county. The second part deals with determining the guilt of the accused with “ordeal by water”. Skipping the third part and onto the fourth, we are told about where the accused is to stand before the justice, if a justice is not set to take place in the hundred (a part of the county) for a while. The fifth part declares the punishment of the guilty party by the king taking all his goods. The seventeenth part shows the jurisdiction and operating boundaries of the sheriff and finally the eighteenth part sets forth instructions for sheriffs to compile a list of all fugitives so that they may be sought after throughout all of England.
From this, we can see that some form of centralization of government is being developed in order to better control its citizens and to move control and power towards the king.
The Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) were controls to limit the power and effect of the ecclesiastical privileges of the church, and to further give overall control to the king. This constitution is what ultimately led to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Although the archbishop of Canterbury had originally agreed to the sixteen articles of the constitution, within a year he had rescinded this decision and was then pushed into exile for 6 years. On his return, his martyrdom took place and this led Henry to ease off his attack on the church, although nothing was changed on the constitution.
Meanwhile, over in mainland Europe the coronation of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had taken place in 1152. At this time, things between the state and church couldn’t have been better. Both were happily working well together with mutual respect. On the day of the coronation of Frederick (who had been voted into kingship from his fellow princes as was the custom; rulership was not hereditary there), the same bishops who had crowned him, also consecrated another Frederick as Bishop of Munster. Gesta Frederici, the commentator states “…so that in truth the highest king and the priest believed this to be a sort of prognostication (or prophecy) in the present joyfulness that, in one church, one day saw the unction (anointing) of two persons, who alone are anointed sacramentally with the institutions of the old and new dispensations and are rightly called the anointed of Christ…”
A great departure from what was happening in England over the previous hundred years or so. Or was it?
Within five years of the coronation, we see from ‘The Deeds of Barbarossa’ that this special relationship had changed drastically. In a letter from the Pope, a critical argument arose regarding whether the German empire was dependent or not on the Papacy. It hadn’t taken long for secular rule to try to oust the church in order to reign supreme.
We move on another thirty years and back to England, for the coronation of a new English king, Richard the Lionheart in 1189. In this text, we read about a very regal and overly ceremonious coronation. It almost appears as church and state are one, but on closer reading, it now appears that the church is becoming subject to the king. The text lists the bishops, earls, barons, clerks and so on walking through Westminster Abbey carrying various golden sheaths, royal scepters etc, and “last of all came Duke Richard, having a bishop on the right hand, and a bishop on the left, and over them was a silk awning”. It almost makes one think of Jesus and the way he sometimes conferred with just two of his disciples, normally Peter and John.
Perhaps this was a reflection with the two bishops either side, or perhaps not.
However, it is important to note, that “Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury anointed him king in three places…” The key word here is anointed, it was now believed that the king was anointed by God and thus this would likely increased the king’s power over the church some more.
Finally, we turn to the Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in English history. It was the original English charter and was signed by King John on 25 July, 1215. It was drawn up to proclaim certain liberties towards nobles and so that the king could not rule arbitrarily. The king’s powers in the past had grown too great, and now the king was being pulled back. It was forced upon him by his subjects in order to limit his powers and to protect their rights. Although it appears a swing back towards feudalism, it wasn’t, it was another stage in the development of the medieval state. Encyclopedia Britannica states “it became a symbol and battle cry against oppression.”
So, over the course of 400 years, from 814 to 1215 times had changed drastically. What had the biggest impact? Was it the dramatic and efficient rule of Charlemagne that set the tone for the future? Or the Magna Carta that went some way to bringing the king back down to earth and giving some control back to the nobles? Or was it the attempts to centralize control and law over the land with the Assize and Constitution of Clarendon? Certainly all have had a significant impact to the evolution of the State to how it existed in 1215, but I personally believe it to be the quashed rebellion two years after the Norman conquest. This is what set matters in motion into bringing the king more power, to establish strongholds throughout the country in the form of castles and other fortifications. Also, it was the start of the struggle to gain control over the church which by 1534, a certain Henry VIII had finally succeeded by pulling away from Catholicism to form his own church, the Church of England. Of this, he and every ruler of England since has been head of, as well as being head of State.