FeudalismPosted: November 7, 2011
Following the invasion and the conquest of England, Feudalism was introduced to Medieval England around 1066 AD by William the Conqueror. William needed to fulfill his promises to reward the men who helped him to conquer England and to prevent the English nobles from a rebellion. This system had been effectively used by the Normans in France from the first time they settled there in around 900AD. Feudalism demanded that everyone owed allegiance to their immediate superior and their King.
The Feudal system was a simple, but effective system, where all land was owned by the King. Most of the land was leased to barons, a portion of it was given to the church as a gift, and the rest was kept by the King. The King owned all the land and decided who the land would be leased to.
Therefore only men who had the kings trust were leased the most important and the most land. Before they were given any land however, they had to swear an oath to remain faithful to the King at all times and to provide their protection and services should the occasion arise.
Barons were extremely wealthy and powerful and had complete control of the land they were leased from the King. They also established their own justice system and minted their own money and set the taxes for their area. From the land they were given from the king, they kept what they wanted for themselves and divided the rest amongst their knights, who had sworn fealty to them.
The knights fought for their Baron and swore to protect the Baron, his family, and the manor. The Knights kept as much land as he wanted and gave the rest amongst the villeins. Although knights were not as rich as Barons, knights were still considered quite wealthy.
Villeins (serfs), were given land by Knights. They had no rights and were not allowed to leave the Manor and had to ask their Lord’s permission before they could marry. If a Villein ran away or married out of his manor without his lords permission the family would be heavily fined. Villeins were seen as part of the soil and was sold with it into the service of whoever purchased the land.
The Feudal System was sustained by the special privileges given to the Nobles and in most cases was put into place by strict laws. This made it nearly impossible for the underprivileged villeins to change ranks or move up a class. In some rare cases however, villeins were able to break through the ranks and become knights. Of course this was rare.
Everything was a source of privilege for the nobles, which made the nobles allegiance to the King stronger as he was practically their source of land and could take away their land and possessions in an instant. The nobles had thousands of excuses for taxing their vassals, who were generally considered “taxable and to be worked at will.” Taxes for the nobles however, was very little if not any. This further kept the distance between the nobles and the working classes strong.
Decline of Feudalism
During a difficult period of plagues in the Middle Ages, Feudalism steadily began to decline and peasants got a foothold into society.
One reason for the decline was the revival of commerce which was led by the use of money, rather than goods as means of exchange. A merchant class developed which rented land suitable for trade, near castles or abbeys. These places soon became flourishing marketplaces for all kinds of merchandise. Many Lords were willing to grant them land to ensure a marketplace for local farming produce nearby and rented out commercial settlements which soon established itself as a town and gave them the authority to govern itself.
As the holy crusades were situated during the middle of the feudalistic period, it played a major role in the decline of feudalism. As they believed that the crusades would help win them a place in Gods eyes and a guaranteed place in heaven, most who could afford it went to the crusades and thousands of knights and barons mortgaged their lands and properties in order to raise money for their expedition funds, into which the peasants got a foothold in society.
Another reason was because of the major shortages in labor which made the villeins more important. A number of plagues, including the Black Plague, killed thousands of people in England, many of which were villeins and serfs. As the Black Plague continued to spread across the country, to prevent their villeins from running into hiding, most landlords offered rewards and better terms for their villeins, which caused them to negotiate the terms further. The revival of commerce changed the relations between the feudal lord and serfs and some serfs were able to swap their method of feudal obligations for money payments and by the end of the Middle Ages, most of the feudal lords had become landlords and many serfs had become able to purchase their freedom.
As security and stability in England was progressively restored during the middle ages, the demand for feudal knights military service was diminished as now if needed monarchs could assemble large mercenary armies which they could use to take back feudal domains and to reestablish royal authority. People became more loyal to their King than the baron.
All of these reasons led to the decline in feudalism and although tiny remnants of feudalism was still evident people were soon obligated only to be loyal to their King.