England on the Eve of the Norman Conquest


David Howarth

It was not a bad life being English in 1066 on the eve of the Norman Conquest; it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting: the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. Of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous, taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. for a long time, England had been wetter and colder thin it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Compared to today, village life was isolated. For every person who lived in England then there are forty now. In terms of population, the towns were negligible. London was unique, with twelve to fifteen thousand people; York may have had eight thousand, and a dozen others from fifteen hundred to four thousand. All in all, perhaps one Englishman in twenty might have called himself a townsman; the other nineteen were villagers.

A village was surrounded by a fence and its land by another outer fence. Beyond that were miles and miles of thick forest and heath, empty and wild, where men would venture by day to herd their pigs or gather logs for winter, but would not willingly spend the night for fear of wolves and spirits. Tracks for ponies led through the wilderness to other villages, winding among the thickets and marshy places and fording the streams. Somewhere, the tracks joined a road the Romans had built at least six hundred years before, grass-grown and neglected ever since; and somewhere even more remote, the road reached one of the little stockaded towns. It was said of that time of peace that even a woman with a baby could safely travel alone the length and breadth of England. But it would have been a very adventurous journey for anyone, safe enough perhaps from human enemies, with untold dangers of accident or sickness far from home or simply of losing the way. Nobody but the high and mighty with their escorts, or their messengers, or a few travelling merchants, had any compelling reason to try it. King Edward himself who had reigned for twenty-four years had never gone to the northern half of his kingdom. For ordinary people, to see the nearest town might be the event of a year or even a lifetime, to meet a stranger was a nine days' wonder. If a traveller approached the village, he blew a horn before he crossed the outer fence to show he was coming openly.

Within his own village, an Englishman knew everybody and almost every tree and animal. He knew his rights and duties, the favours he could ask of his neighbours and the favours he could offer in return. He knew the view from the tops of the nearest hills, and the tracks to the neighbouring villages, and from the sun he knew the direction of things, the north, south, east and west. He thought of himself and everyone he knew as English, and of England as the demesne of English kings, surrounded by sea except where the faraway hostile lands of Wales and Scotland joined it. But he had no conception of a map, no mental image of the shape of the country as it might be seen from hundreds of miles above, or of the relative positions of places in it. He lived in a world that had his own village as its centre. His image of England was the view from the village, the tracks that led away in each direction to impenetrable distances, ever mistier, vaguer and more daunting. With such an outlook, the village must have had an intense quality of homeliness that only the simplest people can experience.

Conversely, the news of the outside world that came into the village was vague, brought by pedlars, or filtering down from mouth to mouth from the house of the lord, or rumoured at the occasional district meetings. The great events of the time were written down by monks in their chronicles and so became history; but to the men and women who were living in the villages of England then, they were only oral tales of distant happenings, more or less twisted in the telling. Battles, the deaths of kings and rivalries of earls, were only important if they seemed to threaten the stable tenor of the village life, and the mutual kindness and custom that held it together. Worst of all, if they suddenly threatened to bring ferocious strangers tramping through the place, burning and slaughtering like the Danish and Norwegian Vikings in the bad old days.

It was those deprecations in the past, more than anything else that had given England the social structure it had in 1066. It was a farming country, land was its absorbing interest. Originally the men who settled and cleared the land owned the plots of land outright and the land had then been inherited their children. But such independent farmers had no defence against the Viking raids, or resources to tide them over other disasters like cattle sickness, a series of bad harvests, fire or storm. In the course of time, almost every man in the country had attached himself by mutual promises to somebody more powerful who could help to protect him and his family in times of stress. Small landowners had surrendered the nominal ownership of their land to their protectors - who in turn held the land in duty to somebody higher. This evolution has often been called a loss of freedom, and so it was; but absolute personal freedom had come to be, as perhaps it has always been, a dangerous illusion. Its loss was really a gain: the acceptance of the duties and mutual support of a social system, the end of anarchy.

By 1066, the system was elaborate and stable. There were many social strata. At the bottom were serfs or slaves; next cottagers or cottars; then ceorls, who farmed as much perhaps as fifty acres; then thanes, who drew rents in kind from the ceorls; then earls, each ruling one of the six great earldoms that covered the country; and above all, the King. And in parallel to this secular social ladder was the hierarchy of the church, from village priests to archbishops. None of these people could claim the absolute ownership of land. The ceorls, to use the old phrase, 'held their land of' the thanes, the thanes held it of an earl or the church or the King, and the King held it all of God's grace. Each of them, without exception, owed duties to the others above and below him. Of course, the system and the people were fallible and the duties were not always done; but it was the clear intention of the English that they should be done. The law gave remedies, and nobody in theory was above it (this point was to come to the fore again when king Charles I was tried for causing the second English Civil War). Only three months before the year 1066 began, the Earl of Northumberland had been rejected by his thanes who thought he had fulfilled in his duty to them; and the King had had to send him into exile and give them the earl they wanted Even the King himself could be dethroned.

It is hard to describe any social system in general terms; the generalities get lost among all the special cases and exceptions. This is especially so given that part of the country was still, in many ways, 'The Danelaw'. Besides, most people do not have to understand the whole of the social system they live under, only the bits of it that happen to affect them. For this ancient system, it is more illuminating to use a typical Wessex village and see how the system appeared to the people who lived there.

The village land was farmed as one large open field; and it was ploughed in strips, conventionally ten times as long as they were wide, because of the time and trouble and the wasted headland caused in turning a plough with a team of eight oxen. A standard farrow length, still called a furlong, was two hundred and twenty yards; the standard width of twenty-two yards, by some mysterious evolution, became the length of a cricket pitch when the game began, not very many years later. These strips of arable land were cropped on a three-year rotation; and although each ceorl planted and harvested his own crop on the amount of land he held, he might often be allotted different ploughlands. The pasture for sheep and cattle was held in common; perhaps also the herds themselves. So everyone's land, including the thane's, was mixed up together, except the yards and gardens round the houses where each family grew its fruit and vegetables and kept its hens and geese. The annual allotment, like most other things that happened, was decided at village meetings. Indeed in some villages in England, the drawing of lots for land use still continues.

As for the houses, they were hardly distinguished from the byres and barns except by the smoke of the fire inside which drifted out through the thatch of the roof. All had wooden frames, hewn of oak or cleft of chestnut, with walls of wattle plastered with clay. A big family had a communal kitchen house where everyone lived round the central fire, and separate sheds for sleeping. The thane's house was not much grander than the rest, but it was larger. It had to accommodate anyone who came on lawful business, and indeed the whole community if any danger threatened. To that end, it had a strong palisade, and among the buildings that clustered round it were the priest's house and the church. There were stone buildings, where the material was freely available, or where prestige was important. Some of the houses in the towns had the lower parts made of stone with the upper storey(s) of wood.

The sharing of work in the village was more a matter of custom than of law, but an unknown learned person, about the middle of that century, wrote a treatise in Latin on estate management which describes the usual duties of every kind of people from thanes to slaves. It is called Rectitudines Singularum Personarum.

There were few or no slaves in little hamlets or villages. There was a large number in England, but they tended to work in the households and demesnes of the rich and powerful. The number was falling, partly because the church on the whole encouraged owners of slaves to free them, and partly perhaps because one traditional source of slaves had failed: since time out of mind, prisoners taken in battle had been enslaved, but recently there had been a dearth of battles. Another source was punishment by the courts of law. A man could be enslaved for serious robbery, and so could his family if they were party to the crime or for persistently failing to pay his taxes or fines: the court condemned him to be sold, and took the profit. There were very few prisons in England then and probably none where men served long sentences. Enslavement then was the equal of long imprisonment now. No doubt it was more practical, since it made use of a convict's labour and saved the state the expense of keeping him shut up; and one cannot say it was never more merciful. It was also perhaps a final refuge for people too feeble minded to manage their own affairs.

When slaves were mostly men condemned for crime, it followed that they could only be kept on powerful estates which had a force of soldiery; in humble places, nobody would have wanted them, and nobody could have stopped them running away if they tried and becoming outlaws in the woods. Nevertheless, it was possible to buy a slave in any town, and their value can be guessed from the purchase tax that was paid on such transactions. if a horse was sold, the buyer and seller each paid a penny in tax, and if a man was sold they each paid fourpence.

Slaves therefore had no place in the lives or thoughts of the people of smallholdings: they were all free men. The humblest among them were the cottagers. Some of these may only have been labourers, but among them were probably part-time craftsmen - the miller, a blacksmith, a tinker, foresters, sawyers, or hurdle-makers, perhaps a bee-keeper or a potter. To judge by the Rectitudines, their cottages were provided by the thane, with up to five acres of the village land and their tools and equipment; and in return they had to work for him one day a week, and three days a week as reapers at harvest time. With few possessions of their own, they were tied to his service; but still, they were free, and if they disliked him enough they could move to another village. They paid no rent, but it was a symbol of their freedom that they paid their dues to the church. That was almost the only thing they needed money for, and their neighbours paid them in kind for the work they did.

The ceorls were more substantial people. Today the word has altered to churl, and it has a menial or derogatory meaning, but in 1066 these men were the most numerous of heads of families in the countryside, and thought of themselves with pride as being their own masters. They might also have called themselves by the older English title of geburas, or in the Danelaw; sokemen.

A ceorl's share of the village land, which he held of the thane, was often twenty or thirty acres; and the thane, as a rule, then helped him to start life on his holding by giving him two oxen, a cow, six sheep, seven acres already sown, farm implements and the furniture for his house. These gifts or their equivalent were reclaimed by the thane when the ceorl died, but normally awarded again to his heir to renew the bargain. In return, the ceorl owed a formidable list of duties: two days' work a week on the thane's own land, three days' a week at harvest and sowing, the ploughing (shared with the other ceorls) of all the thane's arable, seed corn for three acres of it, ten pence a year at Michaelmas, some barley and two hens at Martinmas, either a lamb or two pence at Easter, and a pig for the right to keep his herd in the forest, where they lived on the acorns and beechmast. Perhaps some of these duties were alternatives, but it looks as though the ceorl needed stalwart sons and daughters to help him, making the holding essentially a family affair. However, he could prosper, feed and clothe the family and keep the fires burning, build up his stock and produce a surplus of wool or hides or cheeses to sell once a year in the town, or to barter, as a communal enterprise, for salt to preserve the winter's meat and iron to make the tools. Salt was brought to non-coastal holdings by pedlars from the coast, where there were pans to evaporate sea water.

The ceorls' and cottars' labour and payments in kind set the local thane free from working his own landholding, so that he could do the duties expected of a thane. He paid a hundred shillings a year to the lord of whom he held the land. Many thanes could accepted as their lord whom they wished

Whoever he chose as lord, the thane was the only man in the village likely to travel far. He had to feed, escort and protect his lord's messengers, probably feed the lord himself and his court for one or more days in the year, look after his hunting rights, build fences and discourage poachers. He had some kind of responsibility for maintaining bridges, and he had to appear and share judgement of crimes and disputes in the hundred court, which met once a month, and perhaps in the shire court which heard more serious cases twice a year.

Above all, the thane was the man who had to give military service. Thanes, or perhaps their sons or deputies when they grew old, were the mainstay of the Fyrd, the army the King could call out, or the earls on the King's behalf, to defend the realm. Each was on call for two months in the year, with his battle-axe sword and mace, his helmet and his coat of chain-mail, or of leather with iron rings sewn on it, and his horse - but a horse for riding only, not for fighting: the English had not trained their horses for battle, but fought on foot. Wealthy could ceorls also perform Fyrd service. One way and another, the thane was often away from home, and then it was probably his wife or son who did his duties in the village content. Where the village or holding was rich enough, the thane could employ a kind of manager called a reeve.

The main thread that united the villages to the social system of England was not the town, but the hundred. Though rule at the top was autocratic, the English of that age were great committee men. The villages, organised their own affairs at a village meeting, a moot, and if they had a problem they could not solve, they took it to the hundred moot. Above that was the shire moot, and above all the witena gemot, the embryo parliament which advised the King in his lifetime and appointed his successor when he died. There was no formal election; the regular members of the higher moots were members ex officio, but in theory anyone could attend and speak his mind at any of them, even the witena gemot. In practice, if the village moot could not agree about a problem, it did at least agree in choosing one respected person to put the problem to the hundred moot, where he could discuss it with others from other local villages, who could usually think of a precedent and propose an answer.

One senior citizen of the village would therefore ride out once a month, perhaps with a solemn and important air, to attend the hundred moot, taking with him his village's problem if it had one, and his own wisdom to help to solve the problems of other places in the hundred. But his way was not to town. Rather the moot was held at a village, probably one belonging to the local earl or the church. Here also was the hundred court that the thane attained. The village emissary would talk with other men who had been as far afield as the shire court, where a bishop or a representative of the earl, or even the earl himself, presided; and when he was seen returning home, weary in the evening, one may imagine the other village people converging on his house, and another moot beginning, not only to hear the judgement of the problem but also the gossip of the neighbourhood and the world.

The women's view of village life is rather more a matter of surmise: not because it was a man's world, but because the writers of the era, who were monks, omitted to write much about women. They were far from powerless. A woman could be a landholder: normally they were of the same social standing as the thane, but sometimes they could be of the ceorl class or even a freed slave! High up in the social scale, it was common for bridegrooms to give estates to their brides, either as part of a marriage settlement or as the morning gift presented after a satisfactory wedding night - a pleasant custom that has disappeared in England but survives in Scandinavia, where new wives are given morning rings.

But there is an eternal quality in the life of farmers' wives which allows one to make a reliable guess at the way they lived; even now, there are wives in the remotest parts of Britain, for example the highlands and islands of Scotland, who do all the things the wives of in an English village in 1066 must have done, and do them in much the same way. They carded, spun and dyed and wove the wool and made the clothes, boiled meat and baked the bread, milked the sheep and goats, perhaps the cow, and made the butter and cheese, loved and scolded the children, fed the hens, worked in the fields at harvest, probably made the pots and brewed the beer, and made love or quarrelled with their husbands, or possibly both. And the children, not burdened by school, herded animals, geese or sheep or goats or pigs according to their size. Farmers' wives do not have much material reward, but it would have been a poor farmer in any age who went to town and came home without a fairing. Young men, one presumes, made the journey to buy the pairs of brooches which must have been the most personal possession a woman had and a lifelong symbol of an early love; for they were often buried with them.

What else did people do in the villages, beyond their endless work? There are some clues. Of course they went to church, where the village priest read a simple sermon composed for the purpose by a senior prelate. It was usual for the sermon and readings from Scripture to be in English. It is unlikely anyone else in the village could read, except perhaps the thane and his family. But the English were more fortunate than most of the people of northern Europe: the Testament, the lives of saints and many other religious works had been translated from the Latin into the everyday English they spoke. So they could hear them read and understand them.

But they were not particularly solemn people. Not much survives of their sense of humour, but a few riddles that happen to be written down and preserved are healthily bawdy. Certainly they were neither puritan nor prudish; young men and women of course amused each other. Adultery was illegal, and the penalty for rape was castration, but it is hard to imagine the law interfered very much with the love affairs of the villagers.

Out of doors they played some kind of football, and a game with a bat and ball that evolved in later years to the esoteric complexities of cricket. Indoors they played draughts or checkers, and clever people played chess: the kings and queens, bishops, castles and knights must have held for them a topical significance. Perhaps they recognised themselves as pawns. They hunted and fished through necessity, but both have always had an element of sport. In those low pollution days most rivers were teeming with fish, even salmon - water mills commonly paid a tax of hundreds or even thousands of eels - and the forest was full of game; but deer were strictly the king's or earl's prerogative, the penalties for poaching were fearsome, and archery was discouraged among the poor.

They were not merely ignorant yokels. The arts and crafts of England were known and valued then all over western Europe, especially the illumination of manuscripts, embroidery and gold and silver work; and there was a lively tradition of English prose and verse. Such works of art were mainly creations of the church or the patronage of the rich. But a national reputation usually reflects an inborn national aptitude and taste, and it is safe to assume that village people practised arts of their own and enjoyed the things of beauty they made or saw. Of the materials they could afford, wood, leather, wool or even iron, none was likely to last nine hundred years. The pagan custom of burying treasures with the dead had ended at the coming of Christianity: a woman was buried with nothing but her brooches, and a man with only his knife or hunting spear.

Above all for their amusement, the villagers had an astonishing number of feasts. There were the festivals of the church, and the pagan festivals they had managed to preserve in spite of the church So there was Christmas and the winter solstice, Easter and May Day, Whitsun, Rogation Day and Lammas, a harvest festival, a sowing festival and a ploughing festival, feasts on appropriate saints' days and feasts on finishing haystacks; not to mention betrothals, weddings and birthdays. They brewed great quantities of beer, and they were uproarious drinkers. One of the principal pleasures of village life, after recovering from one festival, must have been looking forward to the next!

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