From Medieval to Early Modern
The period between 1066 and 1485 saw many changes in English life. Foreigners came to dominate Anglo-Saxon land with the successful invasion and subsequent conquest by William of Normandy in 1066. By the time of Henry Tudor’s invasion and unlikely conquest four centuries later, English life thoroughly transformed and became quite unique amongst European kingdoms, especially in terms of its economic and social development.
It can be argued that England became one of the first true nation-states in Europe. This relative cohesion is related to a couple of important factors. First, England is an island, which isolated most of the population from much of what occurred on the continent. Another important factor is that of language. In relation to European nations, there was a relative uniformity of language usage, although the language evolved over time. The Angles and Saxons brought their Germanic language, and Anglo-Saxon tended to overtake the Celtic languages such as Welsh and Gaelic as the Anglo-Saxons consolidated their control over the southern half of the island. The invasion of William the Conqueror caused another linguistic shift in the language spoken by medieval Britons by introducing Norman to the court and, hence, England. What resulted was what could be referred to as a “bastard language,” but its uniformity contrasted the polyglot society that existed in many lands on the continent.
While it cannot be accurately said that William introduced feudalism to Britain, it can be argued that the feudalism that William instituted was its most perfect representation in all of Europe. William established a form of feudalism in England that prohibited the practice of subinfeudation, which was common in other feudal societies. In the English feudal system, all land belonged to the king, and the feudal lords held their land only at the monarch’s pleasure. Since all feudal oaths invoked the king, there was little confusion as to where allegiance should lie. In other feudal societies, feudal lords had various vassals under them that took their oath of allegiance to the vassal, and not necessarily the king, which led to questions of allegiance from time to time. In England, all oaths and fealty in theory belonged to the king.
To implement his feudal system, William redistributed the land. Before the Norman invasion, Anglo-Saxons controlled much of the land in England. By the publication of The Domesday Book in 1087 at William’s behest, Norman lords who owed their allegiance to William directly (as a result of the conquest, in addition to their oaths) held fifty percent of the land. The church controlled about a quarter of the land, and the king controlled seventeen percent. Anglo-Saxon control of the land dropped to only 5.5 percent.
Under Henry II, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine, English possessions grew to include much of the French coast, southern France, Gascony, and Aquitaine. Henry also dominated Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Henry refined his government by implementing scutage or shield money as a tax for vassals who did not want to provide military service. During the reign of Henry II several other important changes took place. The use of shire reeves (sheriffs) as tax collectors improved. He also appointed coroners and Justices of the Peace. Itinerant royal judges started to travel the country to hear cases and precedent became important, setting up the common law. In addition, Henry set up Courts of Common Pleas and the Court of King’s Bench and the use of twelve-person juries came into use. The reign of Henry II saw the start of much of what is unique in English legal proceedings.
If Henry’s reign in the late twelfth century saw changes in the legal system, the thirteenth century saw developments that, while they did not start England down the road to a democracy, they nonetheless set some important precedents for a limited monarchy. John had conflict with the pope and his nobles, who basically forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 that set a precedent for a slightly limited monarchy. In 1265, Henry III called what amounted to the first Parliament. While the body of Parliament can trace its origin to this early date, the first assembly was anything but a democratic body. Only nobles, churchmen, and burgesses held seats. The so-called “Model Parliament” of 1295 included the lords temporal and spiritual, as well as two knights from every shire and two representatives from each borough. Those who mattered in a thirteenth century view of the world formed the body politic and held votes for the representatives—less than five percent of the population actually voted. While Henry III was a strong king, he set a precedent that would cause problems for later monarchs. Henry used Parliament to ratify taxes, thus establishing the precedent of taxation only permitted with the consent of Parliament.
English-style feudalism, much as feudalism in other lands, failed to provide a great life for the serfs and peasants who made up the majority of the population. Perhaps the best thing that happened to English peasants in the long run was the Black Death. In the early 1340s, the Plague swept through Europe and reached England. An estimated third or more of the population died in a very short period of time. Although England did not see as large a loss as some of its neighbors, this great loss of life contributed to a major shortage of labor. Wages rose, and nobles started to compete for serfs. Serfs could even pay to get out of serfdom in some instances. Marriage patterns changed, as free and unfree peasants began to intermarry. This practice almost never happened before the Black Death. It is without doubt that the epidemics of the fourteenth century hurt feudalism in England greatly.
While medieval England had a great deal of social stratification, there were a few opportunities for upward mobility for certain segments of society. The masses worked the land as peasants or serfs and lived in small nuclear families. During the late medieval period, surnames related to occupations became common (i.e., Baker, Miller, Smith), which showed an increasing specialization of labor during this period. This diversity became important in towns for trade, industry, and markets.
In all of England there were around 200 noble families. The Dukes held their title by virtue of blood relation to the king, while the lesser nobles were great landowners without royal blood. Gentlemen and gentry did not work the land that they owned and could purchase more land. Yeoman farmers actually worked their land, but they could purchase more land and hoped to reach the level of a gentleman who did not dirty his hands with work. Town merchants were free of any feudal control because the towns had their own separate charters outside the feudal system. In many instances, merchants had to obtain special skills such as languages, bookkeeping, or knowledge of the law. Trade with foreigners made these skills especially important and provided a means for upward mobility and more wealth. One final means of social mobility was employment in the service of God. Churchmen were often younger sons of important families, but they could also come from lower levels of society and could reach the level of bishop or archbishop. Bishops could at times hold multiple benefices, and although they did not own the land themselves, they could definitely benefit from the wealth that the land produced and the tithes that the diocese collected.
Medieval England was a highly patriarchal society, as was basically all of Europe. With few exceptions, men held the property, rights, and power in England. Women would at times even have to answer to their sons, although they did get dower rights over about one-third of their husband’s wealth. Aristocratic women had their landed wealth protected by trusts. Peasant women had a difficult life, as did their husbands. They were responsible for the “kitchen garden” and took part in cottage industries. Widows of craftsmen actually became sought-after women because the men wanted to take over their shops.
During the late medieval period, the economy diversified. The population drop after the Black Death cut the need for cultivated land, and landowners saw an opportunity to make more money by raising sheep than could be had growing grain. Enclosure increased in the years after the Black Death, and wool became the biggest English export. Fish, dairy, and wheat were also exports, but wool was the main trade good. Peasant families contributed to the wool trade with women doing the carding and spinning of the wool and men doing the weaving.
Late medieval England differed from other European nations in its unique form of feudalism, although the nobility won several concessions on monarchical power. Taxation by consent, an assembly that was somewhat representative of certain segments of society, and common law based upon precedent were important developments. The enclosure of common land increased England’s export industry. Although England did not have the empire that it would later have by the rise of Henry Tudor in 1485, many of its traditional structures were in place or developing.
 Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, AD 1250-1350 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 19.
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Chris Price (author) from USA on June 11, 2012:
Thanks for reading and the comments, dmop. I actually thought about trying for a PhD in medieval history at one point, until I saw the language requirements. Now I'm glad I didn't. I've talked to medievalists who say that 10 job postings in the US for a year is a good year for that field.
dmop from Cambridge City, IN on June 11, 2012:
I have always been interested in the medieval time period. I especially like any movie set in this time, though the history may be obscured for the sake of entertainment in many cases. Great article, voted up, useful, and interesting.
Chris Price (author) from USA on June 04, 2012:
I find the medieval period very interesting. Don't think I'd like to go back and live there, but it's definitely fun to study. The transition from the medieval to the early modern is also interesting.
Brett Osteen on June 04, 2012:
Interesting, I can never get bored of reading about the medieval period :)
Chris Price (author) from USA on May 22, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, Joan. I enjoy early modern England/Britain. So much of what happened there impacted the America we live in today.
Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on May 22, 2012:
Hi, very good Hub and well written! I always enjoy reading about the development of the English nation and later on, the consolidation of Britain, maybe because I don't actually live there! Voted up, etc.
Chris Price (author) from USA on February 12, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, Viking. It was actually my response for a take-home essay exam from a course on the British Empire. Glad you liked it. Fortunately for me, the prof liked it, too.
L M Reid from Ireland on February 12, 2012:
Wow that was a great article! Very interesting facts about the history of how England developed over the centuries.
Voted up and interesting
Thanks for sharing!