The Feudal Power Structure

by Teresa Eckford

The feudal system was introduced to England by William the Conqueror in 1066. As king he claimed all the land and granted portions of it, known as fiefdoms, to his loyal followers (tenants-in-chief) with the promise of "good lordship". They, in return, swore to be loyal to him and provide him with a specified number of armed men for 40 days service every year as well as a specific amount of money. These knights were known as vassals and they in turn would often grant portions of their land to lesser knights. These fiefdoms were hereditary, passing from father to first born son - a system known as primogeniture.(1)

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The higher ranking churchmen, including bishops and abbots, also held land from the king, thus making them part of the feudal system as well - and they owed "knight service, prayers, and counsel."(2) Not all churchmen were purely pious - many, such as King Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and later, Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York - took an active part in the government of the country.

As long as the king lived up to his promise of "good lordship", the majority of his knights/barons remained loyal, but when they felt the king was abusing his privileges and taking advantage of them, they rebelled. King Stephen, King John, Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II all faced challenges from disgruntled barons who felt their monarch wasn't ruling effectively and relied too heavily on favourites (this was true in every case but that of King John.) Each of these kings was forced to make concession to the barons or face being overthrown, because they depended on these great magnates to help them defend the country in case of war, and also depended on their annual feudal dues for money to run the government. If enough barons opposed the king they could force him to their will, especially if the Church sided with them as happened in 1215 when King John signed the Magna Carta.

Notes:

1. Roberts Clayton and Roberts, David. A History of England, Prehistory to 1714 - Volume One. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall, Inc.. 1985 (Second Edition) pp. 75-77

2. Ibid., p. 82

 

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