Feudalism was a normal way of life within Medieval England and it was many centuries before this changed.
The Feudal system was first introduced by William I, often referred to as William the Conqueror. After defeating King Harold’s English army, William wanted to take control of the country. However, as a foreigner who had fought his way to the throne, he was not well liked among the population and was not immediately accepted as King of England.
Slow modes of transportation in the 11th Century made it impossible for William to win over his subjects and rule the country alone, and as the Duke of Normandy he was also responsible for maintaining control over his land in France.
In an attempt to ensure people in England became - and remained - loyal, William constructed his own castle in London, also known as the Tower of London, which overlooked the city. Additionally, he went on to build a castle in nearby Windsor, where the motte can still be seen today. However, the country simply saw these buildings - and the soldiers that resided within them - as a threat.
William needed to create a more widespread and acceptable way of governing the country, and this led to the introduction of the Feudal System.
Under this system, the country was separated into sections of land that were similar to the counties we know today. Each of these sections was put under the management of a nobleman who had fought on William the Conqueror’s behalf in battle, based on William’s logic that those willing to die for him would remain loyal. Additionally, however, each of these noblemen was expected to take an oath, collect taxes in their region and provide the king with soldiers as required.
The men chosen by William to receive the land packages - who came to be known as tenants-in-chief under the Feudal system - were all of high standing and often the most highly regarded person within their region, such as earls, dukes and barons.
Some of the land packages were still too large for some of the tenants-in-chief to manage alone, prompting many to divide the land up further and ‘gift’ it to equally trustworthy Norman knights. Like William’s noblemen before them, each of these knights were trusted to swear an oath to the tenant-in-chief, as well as collect taxes and provide soldiers.
England’s lord were ruthless in their mission to keep law and order on their land, using the threat of Norman soldiers to ensure those living within their borders remained in support of the King and under Norman control. This was important work - any knight or nobleman found to be neglecting their duty could be withdrawn from their position at any time.
Under the Feudal system, the noblemen were officially labelled as tenants, while knights were considered sub-tenants. For both groups, this meant they were essentially renting out their land from its real owner, William the Conqueror. However, this system allowed William to maintain control of the country from afar, which forced the English to choose between obeying their new ruler or facing the consequences.
While William the Conqueror is often thought to have been a harsh ruler, many also consider his actions necessary. Having taken England by force, William had to ensure his subjects were in no doubt of his power, and the introduction of the Feudal System was an effective means of achieving this. William’s decision to split the country into different areas also prompted him to demand a survey of the whole of England, which resulted in the creation of the Domesday Book.
See also: Feudal Services
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