Following the defeat of the Anglo Saxon at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conquer and the Normans laid the groundwork for the middle ages feudal system. However even before this, there were structures and systems that had already paved way for feudalism in much of England.
The Growth of the Feudal System
Feudalism as an economic and social system was at its peak in the 9th to 15th century in middle ages Europe. The system entailed the structuring of the middle ages society around land tenures that were owned and given by nobility in exchange for manual labor.
The medieval castle played a significant role the Middle Ages feudal system. The feudal system itself was highly structured and hierarchical and took a pyramidal shape. There was an inherent belief that God owned the land but gave authority to the kings to manage and administer it among the people.
Thus, land in the medieval society was largely in the custodianship of the king. However, the kings had to contend with the knights for military loyalty and the nobility or the lords who would secure the loyalty of the peasants on behalf of the king. The king thus offered the knights and lords pieces of land in an effort to maintain civil loyalty and order.
After receiving land from the king, the lords would rent out some of their lands to the freemen and other peasants who were looking to make a living from working in the fields. Life within this feudal system demanded loyalty and allegiance to the king (in the case of knights and lords) and to the lords (in the case of the peasants).
Anyone who used the land was to pay for it in the form of working in the land as manual laborers and paying a fee for using some of the land, this was typically required of the peasants. The knights would pay for their land by fighting for the king and the lords would provide the king with soldiers and sometimes provide equipment that the knights and other fighters would need to go to battle.
Although the middle ages feudal system was highly hierarchical, it was possible for one to move from one category to another. A lord had the capacity to employ as many people as was needed to work in his castle. However, the number of people not only depended on the size of the castle but also the lord’s rank. A Duke had the capacity to employ as many as 250 people including pages, squires and knights in addition to the peasants who worked in the fields.
Above the lord was the king at the top of the medieval feudal structure. The King was required to perform his duties in accordance with the concepts of rights and justice. However if he contravened this, the Pope would be the one to intervene. The Church with the pope as its head was very power and influential even within the feudal system. Most of the clergy worked in the interest of the local lords and the Church worked in tandem with the king’s council to establish the laws of the land. However, the church also had the power to remove and replace kings who were seen as working against the interest of the society.
The middle ages feudal system functioned well for many years. The fall of this system came when the lords were allowed to pay soldiers to fight for them instead of fighting on their own accord. This led to the sprouting and recruitment of mercenaries all across Europe. Because they were not adherents of any particular kingdom, they did not show any allegiance to the lords or the king who had hired them; their only concern was the money.
The mercenaries were also unruly and completely ruined the structure that had maintained the feudal system i.e. the transactions that took place between the kings, the knights and the lords. Once this structure began to crumble, so did the entire medieval feudal system.
Manorialism, derived from the term manor, represented the economic aspect of the middle ages feudal system. This system was based on a rural economy yet it also went above the basic transaction of land for labor. The manor was the basic unit of the feudal system in which the lord was in charge. The lords provided land to both the freemen and the serfs and in return, they would offer their manual labor and land rent or taxes. Those who worked within the estate also lived within it and abided by the laws of the land.
The Magna Carta
The Magna Carta was one of the most important charters that sought to maintain order within the feudal system. When the lords received land, they would divide it and rent it to vassals who were just below them. However, the vassals or servants would become too powerful that even the king would have a problem overseeing them. By the year 1100, some of these servants had grown their wealth so much so that they built castles that were larger than that of the king. They were significant threats when the king failed to meet their demands.
Towards 1215, the barons in England formed an association that compelled King John to assent to the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta did not necessarily offer rights to the ordinary person, but it was adamant that the powers of the king be limited. The agreement also required that trials be held before a punishment is issue. The Magna Carta saw the monarchy regulated by the law for the first time. But it also strained the relationship between the lords and the kings who were instrumental in maintaining the feudal system.
Peasants were at the bottom of the feudal system but they were an important part of it too. They are the ones who worked in the fields to produce food for themselves and for the lords. The lords would offer the peasant a piece of land in which they would use to grow their own food. In addition to this, the lord would also require that the peasant serfs work in their in the demense or piece of land too. The peasant serf would pay taxes for the land that they were working on in addition to their labor.