Saturday, August 28, 2010

The impact of the Norman Conquest

The so-called Domesday Book of 1086 offers us an interesting insight into the totality of the change after 1066. The entry in the survey records this:
Three thanes held this manor. One of them, Godwin, Earl Harold's man, had 10 hides; the second, Thori, one of King Edward's guards, had 7 1/2 hides; the third, Aelfric, Queen Edith's man, had 2 1/2 hides; they could all sell to whom they would.
I should pause to explain the hide - a unit of measurement now unfamiliar to us as we subsequently measured land in acres and now apparently in hectares, which are about as much as a mystery as hides! The hide was understood to be the amount of land that could support a household and is generally considered to be 120 acres. The measurement could be elastic. A hide of poorer land would cover more actual terrain than a hide of good arable soil. The hide was used for tax assessment purposes. In Wolverton's case we can take the 120 acre measurement as pretty close since it was assessed at 20 hides and the measured coverage of the Wolverton Manor is about 2,500 acres.

After the Conquest Maigno le Breton acquired some 15,000 acres, most of it in Buckinghamshire, but some in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Herfordshire. The best of it may have been Wolverton and this may be in part why he centred his barony here.

The three thanes were well-connected. Godwin served King Harold (always referred to as Earl Harold in Domesday since William did not acknowledge his title to the throne); Thori was one of King Edward's housecarles and Aelfric was a guard for Queen Edith. Aelfric does not appear anywhere else in Domesday, so his 2 1/2 hides was a relatively small holding, although sufficient to maintain himself as a fighting man. Godwin's 10 hides, or 1200 acres, also appears to be the limit of his landholdings, but Thori owned the Manor of Thornborough and a few other parcels which gave him about 2,800 acres. I don't think we can accurately determine which parts of the manor each had, but we could deduce that Godwin had the northern land based on Manor Farm, Thori, the western part based on warren farm, and Aelfric, the smaller eastern part based on Stonebridge House farm, or possibly Bancroft.

The significant phrase "they could sell to whom they would" meant that their rights to the land were not tied to service as it became after the conquest. In other words it was understood that they had free title.
This became meaningless after the Conquest because the land was simply appropriated by the invaders. It is highly probable that all three men and their brothers and sons were part of the army that tried to resist the invasion. They may not have survived, but even if they did, they were dispossessed. What happened to them and their families is unrecorded.

One of the important distinctions between Saxon and Norman society lay in land ownership. Thanes were granted land by the king for their service. This land could be inherited by the Thane's heirs and in this way some families built up extensive estates. Burgred of Olney, for example, not only had the manor of Olney but also possessed several manors in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. His son, Edwin, owned the manors of Lathbury and Sherington, so there were indications of dynastic growth. The Norman's changed this. William appropriated everything to the crown and then allocated most of it to his tenants-in-chief. They in turn let their holdings to their supporters. The land could be, and was, taken back by the king for any treasonous or disloyal behaviour, so nobody really "owned" anything. People enjoyed customary rights to land which could be passed to their inheritors but their was no land ownership in the sense that the Saxons understood it nor as we would understand it today. This system held until the 19th century.

Land ownership by the Thanes meant that their land could be and was subdivided, for example between two sons. The system of primogeniture practised scrupulously by the Norman aristocracy was not necessarily a part of Saxon culture. The consequence of this can be seen in the rather large number of Thanes with relatively small landholdings. There were about 4,000 Thanes recorded in Domesday - all in the top rank of Anglo Saxon society (at least in theory) but in many cases little better off economically than the average Ceorl. (A Ceorl rented but did not own land.)

Governance must have changed. Three smaller lords on the manor were replaced by a powerful magnate. The interests of Wolverton were now a part of a much larger estate. The transformation may have been akin to Parish Councils being replaced by more centralized bodies in the last century.

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