950 years ago today, the world changed – for those living in England, at any rate. They had a new king, and new masters, and history had a brand new reference point – 1066. But legally, administratively, and ecclesiastically, how much did William change?
William of Normandy was not opposing the old regime in England, he was claiming his right to carry on the government of a kingdom of which he said he was the rightful king. The England to which he came in 1066 was a soundly organised country in most respects. William abolished nothing, and introduced little new; his reign consisted of a successful attempt to fuse old and new, building upon the already existing structure.
The power of the nobility in Anglo-Saxon England was being strengthened from two levels of the social scale. The king gave grants of almost anything that was in his power to give: land, privileges, and judicial powers. From the inferior classes came men seeking the protection of a lord. Here was the beginning of a process which came to be known as feudalism. There were at this time only two aspects: a personal bond between two free men – a superior (the lord) and and inferior (the vassal) – and a method of land tenure, whereby the vassal held a benefice of his lord. The personal relationship entailed the vassal putting himself under the protection of this lord, and in a symbolic gesture of submission he would place his hands between those of his lord and swear an oath of fealty. Under this solemn contract the man was obliged to serve and obey his lord, and the lord was obliged to protect and maintain the man.