Feudalism was the method by which society was structured across the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Essentially the tenant-in-chief was the monarch. William the Conqueror regarded the whole of conquered England as his along with the deer, the boar and the wolves who were owned by no one except God and since God had clearly given William England by right of Conquest then the large beasts which roamed the land must also be his….
The monarch then distributed land or fiefs to his lords – the lands varied in size and location. There was a promise of military and legal protection along with the land. In return the monarch’s tenants, or vassals, promised obedience through an act of homage and payment in the form of military service and/or goods. Sometimes a lord might pay for mercenaries to take his place rather than offering military service himself – this was called scutage. One of the advantages for William was that he was able to call on a large army when he needed one but it was not a standing army which he would be required to pay for – it also ensured that he was able to reward is supporters.
The lords or barons as medieval history tends to term them, who received land from the monarch often had more than they could manage themselves and in different parts of the country. These vassal of the king would sub-let land, manors and estates to their own adherents, the knightly class or less important barons, in return for loyalty, military service and goods. Just as the baron expected protection so the baron’s tenant would expect the lord to protect him militarily and legally as the lord was himself protected by the king.
The knights might in their turn give land to freemen to hold in return for goods and service.
All of the above would be served by peasants who might hold their land in return for labour and a percentage of their crops or by serfs who were tied to the land.
Clearly it was more complicated than this but this is the basic pyramid that we learn at school.
Bastard feudalism was not what a serf might describe the social structure as being (sorry – couldn’t resist.) Bastard feudalism developed during the fourteenth century and was at its most influential during the fifteenth century. This system was different from feudalism in that it was based on a contract that involved much more than land in exchange for service and loyalty. Edward III had the twin problems of the black death and a weakened kingdom thanks to his mother and her lover deposing his father.
Put very simply, the black death meant that there were insufficient villeins/serfs to work the land. Rather than being tied to the manor where they were born or having no choice in how much they were offered for their services, land owners now found that the people who worked their land were valuable commodities that had to be paid for.
Edward III needed the support of his nobility. He did not require another Mortimer situation on his hands. Therefore he gave his nobility more concessions than earlier medieval monarchs had done. This ultimately weakened the crown – again this is putting things at their most straight forward.
Titled noblemen or important members of the gentry (we’ve moved away from barons) developed networks or affinities as a consequence of the greater freedoms that Edward III had been forced to grant them. He also created the “super-noble” in the form of his royal sons who he made dukes. John of Gaunt’s Lancaster Affinity is the most widely signposted example of an affinity. Basically the person at the centre of the affinity created a network of retainers who provided him and his family with military service, domestic service and political and legal support – there was no prerequisite for land to exchange hands- the affinity was superglued into place by extended family – someone who was part of an affinity might reasonably expect an advantageous marriage to be arranged within the affinity either for themselves or their children. In return the network of retainers would expect protection, office, power and money. Bastard feudalism and the widespread use of these powerful networks was once the reason given for the Wars of the Roses – think of the feuds between the Nevilles and the Percys. However, it would be fairer to say that feudalism and bastard feudalism required a strong monarch to control the various factions.
An additional factor in the equation of bastard feudalism and social structure is the Hundred Years War. When the English were winning it was an opportunity for younger sons and those lower down the social ladder to gain wealth which they spent on upping their position within the social hierarchy. Militarily talented men might gain battlefield knighthoods and jump up the social ladder at a stroke but they would need the patronage of someone more powerful if they were to continue their upward journey. Then when the English ultimately lost the Hundred Years War there were powerful nobles who had financed armies and put men in the field who were now looking for political influence. Again, I have presented the case in its most straight forward format.
Year seven pupils (eleven-year-olds) are required to have a grasp of the feudal pyramid as a social structure introduced by William the Conqueror. Clearly social structures were more complicated than this. The Church needs to fit into the equation along with the merchant classes and the impact of a changing economy.