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in two ways: first, by emphasizing its military aspect, thus rendering it more independent of the peod; secondly, by helping to initiate a rudimentary feudalism.
At a very early stage in Germanic history, it may be remembered, there had existed a class of men whose relations with their lord, though intimately personal, were not primarily those of blood kinship. That strongest of all ties which bound the comes to his princeps, the thegn to his hlaford, consisted rather in the oath of allegiance than in community of blood. Now in the years of strife which followed the conquest of England, it was the thegns who were primarily responsible for the triumph of a successful king, and they reaped their reward in the shape of land-grants. To faithful warriors were assigned tracts of territory as reward and retaining fee, on condition that cultivation was properly upkept thereon. At first strictly personal, these grants tended to become hereditary, and in this way there grew up a landed class whose power and prestige were intimately connected with the prosperity of the monarchy in whose service they discovered their readiest path to advancement. Further, the introduction of Christianity had placed at the king's disposal a body of learned massthegns, equally useful as finance ministers and diplomatists. These men also received their share of royal land grants: and beside the gesithcund man holding land, there is found the godcund man similarly endowed. Thus was there introduced a new aristocratic principle, that of royal service, which gradually transformed the older principle of nobility based upon sanctity of blood.? The king now bulks so largely in the state that from being the chief of kindred he has become the fountain of honour. To be the king's servant is to be other men's master. The new aristocracy being territorialized, there has emerged one primary element of feudalism, the beneficium, or grant of land by the king to his peod in recognition of their
Laws of Ine, 63. 64. Liebermann op. cit. i, 118.
?In Eddius, Life of S. Wilfred (Raine I. 32) there is a passage which shows clearly how the two principles of nobility of blood and nobility of office might exist for long side by side: Principes quoque saeculares, viri nobiles, filios suos ad erudiendum sibi dederunt, ut aut Deo servirent, si eligerent: aut adultos, si maluissent, regi armatos commendaret.
relation towards himself and as retaining fee for their services. The second element of feudalism, commendation, was brought into prominence as a consequence of the attacks of the Northmen.
“In his (Berhtric's) days came first three ships of the Northmen from Herethaland. The Reeve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the King's town: for he knew not what they were: and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that
sought the land of the English nation." In these words the West Saxon annalist introduces the most terrible series of invasions which the British Islands have ever experienced. Among their first consequences was a fresh increase in the power of the kingship. By a process of natural selection the supremacy of England had just fallen into the hands of the West Saxon dynasty, and the House of Cerdic found thernselves exalted into the position of national champions against the national foe. The struggle was terrible. Under the Hammer of Thor England was shattered to fragments None the less, the evil brought good in its train: the fragments were welded into unity by the very force to which they owed their existence. The royal line of Wessex weathered the storm to become unquestioned sovereigns of an orderly, a feudalized society. If Freeman's classification of the Northern invasions be adopted, it may be said that the period of "plunder" ministered to feudalism by bringing commendation to the fore: that of "settlement", by making it universal: while the third period, “political conquest", produced an aggravated type of feudalism in complete development.
The first epoch of the invasion brought commendation into prominence in three ways. First, it increased the numbers and the importance of the gesithcund class, who became by their military traditions and habituation to arms the most efficient defenders of the country. Secondly, the inability of the central government to cope with the demands made upon it threw the burden of defence upon the local authorities: and England became virtually parcelled out among the local magnates. These were for the most part royal officials, bound to the king by the oath of allegiance and the grant of land: they in their turn were surrounded by gesiths who were bound to them by a similar relationship. Thirdly, the prevailing dis
order strengthened the tie between these lords and the mass of the free population: the average man found himself in danger of going to the wall, and was under the strongest of induce ments to surrender his land to great lord or great lord's gesith. Fortified with an assurance of protection, he was well content to receive back his property burdened with a new obligation of suit and service.
It was in the course of the second epoch of invasion that the practice of commendation became universal. Nor did it at this time arise entirely from below, as it were, spontaneously; it was now deliberately encouraged from above. The West Saxon kings soon realized that the old bonds of status and kin were no longer sufficient to hold society together. It became their policy to enforce upon everyone a contractual feudal obligation, which, they hoped, would prevent the threatened disintegration of the social organism. Such a policy finds expression in the law of Athelstan ordaining that 'men without lords, of whom little or no legal satisfaction can be obtained' are to be forcibly provided with a lord who will hold them to right." The State is thus incorporating within the bounds of feudal society those elements of disorder which would longest of all resist inclusion-in other words, it is rounding off a process virtually complete. Obviously this policy must have added considerably to the dignity and power of the official nobility: each man of them would find himself the centre of a local organization consisting of his commended men, who looked to him for guidance in difficulty and support in danger. Thus in England, as in the rest of Europe, the new ‘nobility of service' surrounding the king is being changed by force of circumstances into a feudal aristocracy. All ranks of society begin to assume a feudal aspect. The final triumph of the new ré gime was intimately associated with the reconquest of the Danelaw-a gradual process which may be regarded as complete by 930. It became necessary to devise some method of
8Laws of Ine, 21. 27. 39. 63. 70. Alfred 49. 7. Liebermann op.cit. 44-5, Af. 1. These officials already possessed privileges and dignities which distinguished them from the ordinary king's thegn Ine 45. 6. 2. Liebermann, op. 90, 108.
'Aethelstan, 'Aet Greatanleage' 2. Liebermann op. cit. 1. 151.
admitting these new alien subjects of the House of Wessex to a position in the English polity. They were therefore permitted to 'commend themselves to their new lord, the king: and it is from this time that we can trace the growth of the idea that the ordinary Englishman, no matter who his master may be, is in some sort the King's mar.. By 943 the process was perfect: in that year Edmund the Magnificent exacted a uniform cath of homage and fealty from all his subjects in England.10 This marks the zenith of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, and decline quickly began. The House of Cerdic had gained empire and lost sovereignty: the extension of Wessex was too great for its intension, and that which its kings had won at so great a cost was enjoyed, not by themselves, but by a turbulent feudal aristocracy.
The Northern invasions, entering upon their third and last stage, lent a powerful impetus to the forces making for an aggravated feudalism. In proportion as the supremacy of Wessex had extended itself over England, the old style ealdormen, rulers of single shires, 11 had given way to a new body of duces or viceroys, often of the blood-royal, who administered whole provinces of conquered peoples: commanding the levies, presiding over the shire moots, and playing Earthly Providence in the name of their distant master. Now these rulers, in their private capacity as members of the 'nobility of service,' held broad lands from the Crown. As might be expected, there was a marked tendency on the part of these landricas—if I may employ a suggestive contemporary expression—to confound their public with their private functions in such wise that their spheres of administration came little by little to be regarded as transmissible principalities, withdrawn from the control of the Crown. The baleful glare of renewed invasion from the North threw into strong relief the impotence of the monarchy under Ethelred II. Men learned to look upon the local lord as their one refuge in time of trouble; and thus the land passed more and more under the control of a few great nobles. It was at the hands of Cnut that the authority of these great feudatories received official confirmation.
10 Eadmund 'Apud Culintonam' I. Liebermann op. cit. 1, 191.
Ruling as he did a Scandinavian empire, Cnut was forced to allow the growth of provincial particularism in England. His legislation recognized these rulers as a separate social class, with dignity and precedence above their fellows:12 and in 1017 he went so far as to divide England for the moment into four great earldoms.
Having thus traced the rise of a noble caste around the feudal monarchy, we can now proceed to concentrate our attention upon the nobility in its conciliar function, in the exercise of which its members were generally termed Witan or Sapients. The first thing to be noticed is the absence of any recognized expression for "Meeting of the Witan" in early times: for the term Witenagemot, popularized by Kemble and Freeman, is unofficial and of late occurrence. Does not this seem to show that at first the constitution of the meeting was never accurately determined, and that the qualification for membership was in great measure personal? Probably the Anglo-Saxon monarchs summoned whom they would to the assembly: it is at all events clear that at the earliest time at which we have definite information, the Witan were an aristocratic and restricted body. There is no reason to doubt that at first, as in later days, the bulk of them were members of the official nobility, lay and clerical, which presided over every branch of the administration. As to the functions of the assembly, it is sufficient here to say that while there is little reason to suppose that the Witan exercised any normal constitutional control over their master, yet throughout the whole period their support was indispensable to a well-meaning monarch.
From the landbooks of the period, as well as from the surviving fragments of pre-Conquest legislation, it is clear that each of the great kingdoms constituting the so-called Heptarchy possesed its own body of Witan; and in cases of Northumbria and Mercia, a certain amount of information with regard to each body is available. But since the Witan of the West Saxon monarchy were ultimately destined to stand for the Witan of England, it will save time if we turn our attention at once to them. The component elements of the Wessex
1211 Cnut 71. 1-72. 2. Liebermann op. cit. 1. 357-359.