Domesday and the Salisbury Oath

william the conqueror. jpeg

William, Duke of Normandy raising his visor to show that he is unharmed. Depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.

William the Conqueror died on 9th September 1087.  The years following 1066 had not been peaceful ones.  He may have secured the Crown with the death of Harold at Hastings but there was the small matter of resistance and revolt. In 1067 Eadric the Wild revolted, he was followed by the Northern earls and then in 1070 King Sweyn arrived from Denmark.

Let’s not forget Malcolm Canmore who made a bit of a habit of invading the North of England. In 1072 William returned the compliment by taking his army into Scotland

William’s family proved disloyal. In 1077 Robert Curthose – or Robert “shorty-pants” rebelled against his father because he wanted some real power.  Even worse William’s wife Matilda supported their son.    William’s brother Odo the Bishop of Bayeux who features on the tapestry as William’s right hand man found himself arrested and carted off to Rouen without trial in 1082. The following year Matilda died and Robert went on a European jaunt.  William must have felt particularly betrayed by his brother because he refused to include Odo in his death bed amnesty of prisoners.

 

So there’s the back drop.  The Danes were contemplating invading England and William’s son was endangering William’s position in Normandy by making an alliance with King Philip of France.  His brother, on whom William had relied, proved greedy, ambitious and untrustworthy.  In 1086, William’s health was failing, having been described by the French king as looking as though he was pregnant – William ordered an evaluation for tax purposes of his English territories.  He was expecting trouble and wanted to know how much revenue he could draw on.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes how the king sent men across England to find out how many hundred hides of land there were (120 acres) in each shire, what William owned and what his income ought to have been in terms of taxation.  He also wanted to know what his bishops and earls owned.   The result is unique.

In addition to taxation William wanted guarantees of loyalty.  With this in mind he summoned the great and the good to Salisbury in August 1087 along with a range of landowners.  Normally, in the feudal system, a king took oaths of fealty from his tenants-in-chief and they took oaths in their turn.  At Salisbury William extended the oath taking beyond his chief land owners.  There were one hundred and seventy tenants-in-chief

The ceremony took place at Old Sarum and included sub tenants as well as tenants-in-chief.  Essentially William understood that although the 170 chiefs owed their allegiance to him that their tenants owed their allegiance to the chiefs rather than to him – as in my vassal’s vassal is not my vassal!  This demonstrates that the centralised pinnacle of the feudal system wasn’t yet in place in England in 1087.  The Order Vitallis says that William  distributed land to some 60,000 knights – a huge number – and even if it is wrong (600 is rather nearer the mark) it is useful to demonstrate how the Oath of Salisbury changed things- At Salisbury William gained oaths of allegiance from everyone who held land – they were now all his vassals and owed him service not just the 170 bigwigs.

Cassady, Richard. The Norman Achievement

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