Story of England - S. B. Harding

The Rule of the Normans


How William treated the English who rebelled; what region suffered most severely; what he did with the lands of the English.

What was meant by fief, vassal, homage, fealty, villain, aids; the condition on which a lord granted land to a vassal.

How William prevented his barons from becoming too powerful; in what way his rule was a benefit to England; the "New Forest"; "Domesday Book."

How William I. died; when; by whom he was succeeded in England; in Normandy.

The character of William II.; how he died.

The dates when Henry I. was King; how he ruled; how Normandy was reunited to England; his plan for succession.

The condition of England under Stephen; how this was ended; by whom.

For five years, after he became King, William was chiefly occupied in putting down English revolts. The disturbances arose in all parts of the country, but the northern counties were the most obstinate. The city of York repeatedly served as a center of resistance. Terrible punishment was finally inflicted upon that rebellious region. The inhabitants were driven out or put to death. Not a house or building of any kind was left standing. Nothing was spared which could serve as food or shelter for human beings. The entire region was left uninhabited and desolate, and for centuries afterward it bore the mark of the Conqueror's vengeance.

By such a cruel treatment, William at last convinced the English that he was determined to be master of their country. Those who had supported Harold, or had resisted the Normans, he punished by seizing their lands on the ground that they were forfeited. To many of the English he restored their lands, after they had taken an oath to support and serve him. Other forfeited lands were used to reward his followers. Norman lords thus took the place which English thegns and earls had held as landlords, and the common people became subject to the Normans, as they had formerly been to their English masters. The method of landholding which William established was already well known in Normandy, and other countries of western Europe, and is what we know as "feudal tenure."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

William I, The Conqueror

Under this system, all the land belonged in theory to the King; but most of it was occupied by great lords, who held it on condition that they assist the King in war. Each lord was bound to furnish a certain number of armed and mounted warriors, in proportion to the size of his estate. To get men with whom to fulfill this obligation, these "tenants-in-chief," as they were called, granted portions of their lands to "sub-tenants," on similar conditions. These in turn sub-let to others; and so it went on, down to the simple peasants (called "villains"), who actually tilled the soil. The name given to an estate which was held on condition of military service was "benefice" or "fief." The fiefholder became the "vassal" or personal dependent to his lord. When he was put in possession of his land, the "vassal" knelt unarmed before his lord, placed both hands in his, and swore to be "his man" (homo, in Latin), and to serve him as a vassal ought to serve his lord. This was called "doing homage." Then the vassal arose, and the lord gave him the kiss of peace, and the vassal swore "fealty,"—that is, fidelity,—to him. Fiefs were generally hereditary, the son of a deceased vassal being permitted to succeed to his father's estates, on condition that he paid a sum of money, did homage, and swore fealty to the lord of the fief.

The lords owed their vassals "protection," while the vassals owed "service" to their lords. This service was partly military service, as mounted knights, for forty days each year. The lord could also call upon his vassals to come to his court, at certain times, and assist him with their counsel and advice. In addition, he might call upon them to serve him on certain occasions by giving him money—which they in turn collected from their villains. These payments were called "aids," and could be collected on three occasions,—when the lord's eldest son was made a knight, when his eldest daughter was married, and to ransom the lord himself, if he should be taken captive.

On the Continent, the feudal system weakened the power of the King because it created a tie between the lords and their tenants which was stronger than the tie which bound them to the King. Thus, if a great lord in France rebelled, his tenants supported him rather than the King, and the whole land was filled with confusion. In England, William took pains to prevent his lords from becoming too powerful. The estates of the great landowners were scattered in different parts of the country, so that no man might be able to collect a great army in one place. He also kept up the old hundred and shire courts, and refused to allow the lords such judicial independence as they enjoyed on the Continent. Above all, he required every landholder to take an oath of allegiance to support the King, before and above his immediate lord. With these changes, William made the feudal system a means by which he could control not only the conquered English, but his Norman barons as well.

Against such control the haughty Normans protested. The result was that no sooner were the English conquered than the Norman barons rebelled. This was the first of a series of revolts which lasted for a hundred years, in which the barons of England sought to win for themselves the powers possessed by the feudal nobles of other lands. In putting down such rebellions, William and his successors could count upon the support of the English people and of the great churchmen; for these saw that the rule of the King, harsh though it might be, was better than the tyranny of the feudal barons. Thus these feudal revolts failed, equally with those of the conquered English.

Under William's stern rule, certain and terrible punishment was the lot of all evil-doers.

"The good order which William established was such," says the Chronicle, "that any man might travel all over the kingdom, with a bosom full of gold, unmolested; and no man durst kill another, no matter how great was the injury which he might have received from him."

Like all the Normans, William was very fond of hunting, and reserved the forests of England for his own enjoyment.

"He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. He forbade also the killing of wild boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Hunting the Stag

He even drove whole villages from their homes, and destroyed houses and churches, in order to make a great New Forest for his Hunting.

One deed of William's, which seemed to his subjects an act of oppression, we now see was a wise and statesmanlike act. This was making the "Domesday Survey." He caused commissioners to go throughout the land, and prepare a census of all the lands, with the names of their owners, and their value.

"So very narrowly did he cause the survey to be made," says the writer of the Chronicle, "that there was not a single rood of land, nor—it is shameful to relate that which he thought it no shame to do—was there an ox, or a cow, or a pig passed by, and not set down in the accounts."

When the inquiry was finished, the results were set down in a great book, which still exists, and is called the "Domesday Book,"—perhaps because its entries were like those of the Last Judgment, which spare no man. William's object in taking this survey was to find out what taxes he could levy, and what men he could raise for England's defense in time of war. But the chief value of Domesday Book now is that it gives us so much information concerning the condition of England in that far off time.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

A Portion of Domesday Book

Even after his conquest of England, William continued to be Duke of Normandy, and ruled that land as a vassal of the King of France. Quarrels between the French king and his too powerful vassal were frequent, and whenever a rebellion broke out against the Norman power the French King was sure to aid it.

Towards the close of William's life, his eldest son Robert asked to have Normandy as a fief of his own; and when William refused this, Robert joined the French King in making war. This war caused William's death, in 1087. William had captured and burned the city of Mantes, in France, and while he was riding about in the ruined city his horse stumbled in the hot ashes. The King was thrown violently against the pommel of his saddle. He was very fat and was already ill, and this injury was such that he never recovered from it.

Before his death, it is said that he bequeathed Normandy to Robert, and England to his second son, William.

"And what do you give me, father?" cried Henry, the youngest of his sons.

"Five thousand pounds weight of silver out of my treasury."

"But what can I do with silver, if I have no lands?" cried the boy.

"Be patient, my son," said the dying King, "and have trust in the Lord; let thine elders go before thee, and thy time will come."

And so it proved, for although William II. ruled England after his father's death, and Robert ruled Normandy, in the end both England and Normandy came into the hands of their younger brother Henry.

William II. (1087-1100) was called William "Rufus," or "the Red," because of his complexion. He had the bad qualities of his father, without the good traits. He was selfish, cruel, and wicked, and broke all his promises of good government. Even the good Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, was so persecuted that he fled from the kingdom, and he did not return until this reign was finished.

The Red King's death was as violent as his life was wicked. He was slain while hunting alone in the New Forest, which his father had made; and his dead body was found by a charcoal burner, with an arrow piercing his heart. Who shot the fatal arrow, and why, no man can tell.

William Rufus left no children, so his younger brother Henry I. (1100-1135) now secured the English crown, and kept it in spite of the claims of his older brother Robert. Henry I. was born in England, spoke English, and had an English wife; moreover, he issued a "charter" in which he promised the people good government. The English, therefore, came to his help when Robert attempted to secure the crown. With an English army, Henry later invaded Normandy, where he defeated Robert and his knights in a great battle. Robert was captured, and spent the rest of his life as a prisoner in an English castle, while Normandy was again united with the English crown. With the exception of this war, Henry's reign was a peaceful one. He ruled for thirty-five years, with such strictness and order that he was called "the Lion of Justice."

King Henry's only son was drowned while returning from Normandy. Henry then planned to leave his crown to his daughter, Matilda. Although England had never had a woman as ruler, he persuaded the barons to swear allegiance to Matilda as their future Queen, and he married her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, in France.

After Henry's death, however, Matilda's cousin, Stephen of Blois, seized the crown. The London citizens and a majority of the barons supported him, but the others supported Matilda. The result was a civil war which continued throughout Stephen's reign. The suffering caused by this war was increased by the cruelty of the barons, whom neither party could control.

"The rich men," says the English Chronicle, "filled the land full of castles. They greatly oppressed the wretched people by making them work on these castles, and when the castles were finished they filled them with devils and evil men. Then they took those whom they suspected to have any goods, by night and by day, seizing both men and women, and they put them in prison for their gold and silver, and tortured them with pains unspeakable, for never were any martyrs tormented as these were. I can not, and I may not, tell of all the tortures that they inflicted upon the wretched men of this land; and this state of things lasted the nineteen years that Stephen was King, and ever grew worse and worse."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

The Norman Castle of Rochester

This anarchy was ended by Henry II., the son of Matilda and Geoffrey. His father took Normandy for him, from Stephen. Then, upon his father's death, young Henry became Count of Anjou, as well as Duke of Normandy. By marriage with the heiress of the duchy of Aquitaine, he gained another vast territory in France. Then, as a youth of nineteen, he turned to England to conquer the remainder of his mother's inheritance.

Henry of Anjou was more vigorous and skillful than Stephen, so he won from him fortress after fortress. When Stephen's son died, Stephen gave up the struggle. In a treaty made at Wallingford, it was agreed that Stephen should be King for the remainder of his life, but that upon his death the crown should go to Henry of Anjou.

The civil war thus came to an end; and Stephen and Henry joined forces against the barons, and destroyed the castles which had sprung up all over the land. About a year later, in 1154, Stephen died, and the crown of England passed to Matilda's son, Henry II., the first of the "Angevin" or "Plantagenet" line of Kings.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Map of Possessions of Henry II


  1. Was the Norman Conquest a good or bad thing for England? Why?
  2. In what ways were William I. and Henry I. better Kings than Ethelred and Edward the Confessor?
  3. Find out what you can about the origin and development of the feudal system.
  4. Was William I. lawfully King of England? Was Henry I.? Was Stephen? Give your reasons.
  5. What is the lesson taught by the anarchy during Stephen's reign.