Norman Kings of England: William I the Conqueror – The Norman Conquest

William I (the Conqueror), a man of medium height, corpulent, choleric, but majestic in
person and a great soldier, governor, centralizer, legislator, innovator.




Speedy submission or reduction of the south and east. The Confessor’s bequest, acceptance by the witan, and coronation “legalized” William’s title. Reduction of the southwest (1068). Reduction of the rest of England (1067–70): a series of local risings leniently dealt with; construction by forced native labor of garrison castles (Norman mounds). Great rising of the north (Edwin and Morca’s second) with Danish aid (1069) put down by William in person. The “harrying of the north” (1069–70), a devastation (often depopulation) of a strip from York to Durham (the consequences survived to modern times), ended Scandinavian opposition in England.

Norman fusion, conciliation, innovation:

Feudalization on centralized Norman lines (on the ruins of the nascent Saxon feudalism) followed military reduction and confiscation of the rebel lands (1066–70). Theoretically every bit of land in England belonged to the crown; in practice only the great estates changed hands and were assigned to William’s followers on Norman tenures. The king retained about one-sixth of the land; less than half of the land went to Normans on feudal tenures. Except on the border, few compact holdings survived; the earldoms, reduced in size, became chiefly honorific. Some 170 great tenants-in-chief and numerous lesser tenants emerged. A direct oath (the Oath of Salisbury) of primary vassalage to the crown was exacted from all vassals, making them directly responsible to the crown (1086). Construction of castles (except on the borders) subject to royal license; coinage a royal monopoly;
private war prohibited. The Anglo-Saxon shires (34) and hundreds continued for local administration and local justice (bishops no longer sat in the shire courts and the earls were reduced) under the sheriffs (usually of baronial rank), retained from Anglo- Saxon days, but subject to removal by the king. The sheriffs were an essential link between the (native) local machinery and the central (Norman) government. Communities were held responsible for local good order; sporadic visitations of royal commissioners. Anglo-Saxon laws little altered. Early grant of a charter to London guaranteeing local customs. Innovations of the centralizing monarch: a royal council, the great council, meeting infrequently (three stated meetings annually), replaced the Anglo-Saxon witan and was of almost the same personnel: tenants-in-chief; the chancellor (introduced from Normandy by Edward the Confessor); a new official, the justiciar (in charge of justice and finance, and William’s viceroy during his absences); the heads of the royal household staff. This same body, meeting frequently and including only such tenants-in-chief as happened to be on hand, constituted the small council, a body that tended to absorb more and more of the actual administration.




The Church

The Church retained its lands (perhaps a fourth of the land in England). Pope Alexander II had blessed William’s conquest, and William introduced the (much-needed) Cluniac reforms (See 1012–46). Archbishop Stigand and most of the bishops and great abbots were deprived or died, and were replaced by zealous Norman reformers; Lanfranc (an Italian lawyer, a former prior of Bec), as archbishop of Canterbury, carried through a wide reform: celibacy enforced, chapters reorganized, new discipline in the schools, numerous new monastic foundations. By royal decree, episcopal jurisdiction was separated from lay jurisdiction, and the bishops were given their own courts, a decisive step in the evolution of the canon law of the Church and the common law as separate jurisdictions. William refused an oath of fealty to Pope Gregory VII for his English conquests and (despite the papal decree of 1075) retained control of the appointment of bishops and important abbots, from whom he drew his chief administrators (thereby making the Church, in effect, pay for the administration of the state). No papal bull or brief, no papal legate might be received without royal approval, and no tenant-in-chief or royal officer could be excommunicated without royal permission. The king retained a right of veto on all decrees of local synods. The great prelates were required to attend the great council, even to do military service.

The Domesday Book

The great Domesday survey. Royal commissions on circuit collected on oath (sworn inquest) from peoples of the counties and vills full information as to size, resources, and present and past ownership of every hide of land. The results, arranged by counties in the Domesday Book, gave a unique record as a basis for taxation and administration. Recent research on the Domesday Book allows tentative and approximate population estimates for England in 1086: slaves, 9 percent (in some western counties, such as Cornwall, 20 percent); serfs, 85 percent; burghers and townspeople, 3.5 percent; clerics (priests, monks, nuns), .5 percent; knights and nobles, 1 percent.

Royal finance nonfeudal revenues: Danegeld, shire farms, judicial fines; the usual feudal revenues: relief (inheritance tax on great fiefs), scutage (paid in lieu of performance of knight’s service).

Military resources of the crown

(nonfeudal) the old Anglo-Saxon fyrd (including ship fyrd) was retained (i.e., a national nonfeudal militia, loyal to the crown, was used, as against the Norman rebellion of 1075);  (feudal) about five thousand knights’ fees owing service on the usual feudal terms. The prosperity of England under Norman rule was great, and an era of extensive building (largely churches, cathedrals, and monasteries) began under the Conqueror and continued even through the anarchy of Stephen and Matilda.