Page images
PDF
EPUB

had put forward the claims of an heir to the throne of England, and not those of a conqueror; and that fact may have tended both to soften the authority of victory, and produce some of those curious contradictions which have been remarked in his conduct. In a synod, held under William's own immediate eye, those men to whose swords he owed the crown, were ordered to do penance for every blow they had struck in the very battle which had placed him on the throne, and he bade them mourn for the act, while he rewarded them largely for its success.

At the same time, his dealings with the Saxons were at first milder than perhaps they themselves expected. No general partition of the territories took place; means were employed to secure the persons and the property of the Saxons from the licentiousness of their Norman invaders; and few excesses were committed after that which signalized William's coronation, till the period of his departure for his continental dominions. Then, however, oppression on the one hand, and open resistance or covert treachery on the other, spread over the whole land. William had conveyed with him to Normandy many of the Saxon chiefs; so that the conquered people, wanting experienced leaders, obtained but little success in their various desultory insurrections, and afforded a very plausible pretext for the general pillage of their property, and the subversion of their laws and customs. On his return to England, William displayed towards the refractory Saxons the most barbarous severity. That severity only urged them on to the pertinacious resistance of despair, which again was constantly followed by defeat and punishment.

In the course of a few years scarcely one noble Saxon of any great power or wealth could be found who had not appeared in arms against the invader whom he had sworn to receive as his King, and who had not been overthrown in war, and stripped of his possessions. A part of the territories thus acquired, William retained as demesne of the crown ; but the rest was distributed amongst his Norman followers; and of course the recognized principle of feudalism was the rule of partition. Allodial lands were done away; each great leader received his fief from the King in chief, upon the condition of military service; and each again enfeoffed his vassals in smaller portions of the forfeited estates; and this was continued still farther, till the system of subinfeudation was complete. The King was held to be the possessor of the whole, and only to grant it upon

the ascertained conditions of the feudal system; nor was this principle by any means an impotent one, for the ultimate rights of the King were always to be kept in view by the vassal, in dealing with his fief; as his own contingent rights were always to be considered by his vavasors, and theirs by their subvassals through all the grades of subinfeudation. In fact, the permanence of the King's right formed the basis of feudal law; for on it were founded all those rules and regulations regarding wards and successions which compose the great bulk of a very voluminous code.

Thus the feudal system was established in England before the death of William the Conqueror, perhaps in as perfect a form as in any part of the world; for I cannot consider some of the customs, and even tenures which he received from the Saxons, as offering any anomaly. The state was now organized in the following grades: barons holding of the crown in chief: vavasors holding under them ; and valvasini holding under the vavasor, generally possessing one or more knight's fees. These were all military tenants, and took the field when called upon by their sovereign, with a number of armed men proportioned to their land. Below these came the yeomanry, holding by what is called free soccage, and owing no military duty except the general one of realm-defence; and last, appeared the villeins or slaves, who in some respects were in a better situation under the Norman than under the Saxon yoke; while the important fact that the Norman law tended strongly to their general enfranchisement, is proved by the rapid extinction of villeinage in England after the conquest.

It may be as well to notice that besides the tenures here mentioned, there were one or two others, amongst which were great and petty sargeantry. Great sargeantry was the tenure by which certain noblemen held lands of the King in chief, on the condition of certain services to be rendered to him in person. Petty or petit sargeantry was, in fact, a soccage tenure, whereby the holder of certain lands recognized his dependance upon the King as his territorial lord, by offering yearly some small implement of war. It was distinguished, I imagine, from every other kind of soccage, by being paid immediately to the King; and by the nature of the due, which was always of a military character, though the tenant was not bound thereby to military service. The tenure of Franc-almoign had been generally superseded under the Conqueror by knight service, the clergy not being required to take the field in person, but to furnish the number of soldiers allotted to their territorial possessions. That Franc-almoign, however, was not universally or permanently done away, we find from the text of Sir Thomas Lyttleton, who writes of it as a tenure actually existing in his own day; and we also discover that it was revived as an abusive means of depriving lords of their right.

Besides the military service which has been mentioned, the feudal tenant owed to his lord what was called suit—that is to say, attendance upon his court on certain occasions, as an adviser or counsellor ; and a regular subordination of courts existed under the feudal system, as well as a subordination of military grades. In these courts, whether they were the king's court, the county, the hundred, or the manorial courts, justice was supposed to be administered; and William, though he changed the forms of the Saxon constitution, rendering the feudal organization, perhaps, more perfect in England, as a system, than it was in any other country,

, retained the laws and many of the customs of the people he had conquered, and in several remarkable instances maintained different bodies of his new subjects in possession of their former privileges, even when those privileges were contrary to his general system. * One of his most remarkable operations, and one which may be said to have given a degree of perfection to feudalism which was unknown in continental countries, was the division of the whole territory into knight's fees; that is to say, into portions judged sufficient to furnish, each, one horseman completely armed to a feudal army. The quantity of land so charged, it would appear, varied in extent; probably on account of the nature and quality of the soil in different parts of the kingdom. Unfortunately, we have lost the data on which the calculation was first made; but in the latter part of William's reign, a general survey of the whole kingdom was undertaken and completed by commissioners empowered to empannel juries in the various hundreds, and to investigate the nature, quality, extent, and division of the soil. Every

* In the system itself there was no anomaly, or as few anomalies as can exist in any human scheme; but William excepted certain classes of his subjects from the operation of some parts of that system, in consideration of their previous state. I say this to guard against misconstruction.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »