Feudalism

Feudalism in England was established by William the Conqueror and the Normans following the defeat of the English Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The system and structure of feudalism had been well established in Europe for some time and the Normans imposed Middle Ages feudalism in England following the Norman Conquest.

Feudalism is a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service or levy to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal levy’s, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.

Military tenure or general freehold levy’s

  • by Barony – such tenure constituted the holder a feudal baron, and was the highest degree of tenure. It imposed duties of military service and allowed the right of attendance at parliament. All such holders were necessarily tenants-in-chief.
  • by Knight-service – this was a tenure ranking below barony, and was likewise for military service, of a lesser extent. It could be held in capite from the king or as a mesne tenancy from a tenant-in-chief.
  • by castle-guard – this was a form of military service which involved guarding a nearby castle for a specified number of days per year.
  • by scutage – where the military service obligations had been commuted, or replaced, by money payments.

Non-military tenure levy’s

  • by serjeanty – such tenure was in return for acting as a servant to the king, in a non-military capacity. Service in a ceremonial form is termed “grand serjeanty” whilst that of a more functional or menial nature is termed “petty sergeanty”.
  • by frankalmoinage – an ecclesiastical body held land in return for saying prayers and masses for the soul of the granter.
  • by fee-farm – a grant of the right to collect and retain revenues in return for a fixed rent. Usually a royal grant.
  • by copyhold – where the duties and obligations were tailored to the requirements of the lord of the manor and a copy of the terms agreed was entered on the roll of the manorial court as a record.
  • by socage – a form of tenure, involving payment in produce or in money.
  • Pimp tenure – required the holder to keep whores for the king or his army. A named variety of serjeanty.
  • Free burgage (burgher) – tenure within a town or city

Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces. Fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. “Fealty” also refers to an oath that more explicitly reinforces the commitments of the vassal made during homage. Such an oath follows homage.

Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another. The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was to “aid”, or military service, but other levy’s as described above were possible. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial or at the king’s court itself. It could also involve the vassal providing “counsel”, so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. On the manorial level this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but also included the handing down by the lord of sentences for criminal offences, including capital punishment in some cases. Concerning the king’s feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war.

Feudalism in England/Scotland can be easily described through a hierarchy:

  • At the top of the feudal hierarchy was the King
  • The King claimed ownership of the land
  • The King granted the land to important nobles – these nobles then pledged their loyalty by swearing to serve and protect the king
  • The king also granted land to the less powerful military men (the knights) who were called vassals
  • The vassals also agreed to fight for the king in exchange for their land
  • The land was worked by the peasants or serfs. They belonged to the land and could not leave without permission – the bottom of the feudal hierarchy.

The hierarchy of power that defined the feudal system ran to a strict ‘pecking’ order – during the medieval period of the Middle Ages everyone knew their place. The order of rank and precedence in the medieval feudal system was as follows:

  • The Pope
  • The King
  • Nobles
  • Knights / Vassals
  • Freemen
  • Yeomen
  • Servants
  • Peasants / Serfs / Villeins
1 2 3 4