Can 13th Century England Be Described As A Feudal Society

Nowadays, England is an example of a country, where democracy is successfully combined with monarchy. Nevertheless, the democracy was integrated in the government system not so many years ago. In the thirteenth century England borrowed the feudal system from France, and, on the one hand, it seems that feudalism saved its original face in this country. The main proof of it is the preservation of the tradition to build the relationships between nobility and vassals on the principle of servitude, more specifically, the exchange of favors into services. On the other hand, the fact that the system is modified reveals that England did not plagiarize the French feudalism but adapted it to its government model. Therefore, English feudalism of the 13th century has the peculiar features on the military, politic, economic, and social levels. That is why the 13th century England may be described as a feudal society with a nontraditional understanding of political and social systems.

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General Description of Feudalism and Its Implementation in France

Feudalism was a common governmental model, which dominated most of the European countries in the 9th – 15th century. It appeared as the result of the continuous need to protect the borders of own territories and the desire to conquer new ones. The founder of feudalism in France was the military leader Charles Martel. He created the system of favors known as benefices or fiefs in the response to the increased need of Merovingian dynasty to enrich the army with professional soldiers, especially trained cavalrymen. The main objective of this structure was to provide men with land in return for military service. Additionally, the initial requirement was loyalty and serving the ruler. The traditional term of military servitude had 40 days feudal service limit. The main benefits, which people got with the help of feudalism, were the mechanism of making fortune with the agricultural production. In addition, vassals could gain the political power due to the fact that they had under their control the majority of peasants. Nevertheless, feudalism brought not only advantages but also some problems. Firstly, as the number of vassals rapidly increased, it became difficult to dislodge their children. As a result, the lands were not transmitted to other knights but inherited. Consequently, the feudal lands turned into first medieval castles, which were passed from generation to generation. Secondly, as lords could create more than one manors within their demesne, knights used it as an opportunity to gain more land. In other words, warriors served to several barons to expand their property. In many cases, it led to the decrease of the military effectiveness of knights. Moreover, the race for the land turned feudalism into a corruptive system, where everyone wanted to acquire personal benefits through the power abuse.

General Description of Feudalism in England

The Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror brought the feudal system to England. Initially it was similar to the French structure. First of all, feudalism was based on the principle where kings allocated land to the vassals in exchange for servitude and loyalty. Secondly, lands were not only used for agriculture but also were considered as family property, which could be inherited by the children of lords. Finally, fortification was a mean of land protection. Due to it, feudalism contributed to the creation of castles in England.

Nevertheless, the living conditions in England were different to those in France. Firstly, the relationships between king and knights built on obligations only, could not help in forming an effective army, which could protect the borders from the continuous attacks. Secondly, the continuous division of land between the vassals of different levels created the chaos in England. Knights preferred to be loyal to the people, who provided them with lands and not to the king. Thirdly, as England was exhausted by continuous wars, it did not have an opportunity to follow a significant allocation of the resources, which was required by the rules of traditional feudalism. Finally, the social peculiarities of life of the 13th century England such as bubonic plague did not permit to pay primary attention to the army.

Special Features of Feudalism in England on the Military Level

As there were many problems with the traditional feudal system borrowed from France, English kings decided to bring some changes. Firstly, they made some modifications to the military. After 1270, in the response to the degradation of overlordship in other countries, they developed a new form of contracted military service, under the name of bastard feudalism. The main principle was the exchange of military service not for the land but money payment. The soldiers signed a written contract, in which the amount of payment as well as the term of servitude were indicated. It brought many benefits to England. Firstly, bastard feudalism was highly efficient in forming army for the foreign wars. It is a prototype of the modern practice of army organization. The people chose military service as their profession and received monthly payments for it. Secondly, bastard feudalism was built according to the principles of law. The written contract gave an opportunity for the soldiers to gain the revenue not through the corruption practices but for the time spent on performing the military service. Thirdly, bastard feudalism helped to save the lands from the increased privatization. In addition, it contributed to the protection of land as the resource of agriculture. Nevertheless, bastard feudalism was also one of the main reasons for the decline of feudalism in England and Europe in general. Monetary relationships between vassals and sovereign eliminated the essential function of feudalism – military service. Vassals preferred to pay a certain sum, called scutage or shield money, to the lords instead of completing personal military service. It was estimated that by the early 13th century, 80 % of the 5, 000 knights in the country paid fines instead of performing their military duties.

Special Features of Feudalism in England on the Political Level

Moreover, the changes were made on the political level. William the Conqueror, who brought the French version of feudalism to London, prohibited using the system of sub-vassals in this country. In other words, he proclaimed that it is necessary to swear allegiance directly to the king. Accordingly, the common law of the king and the king’s courts gradually replaced local laws – feudal, tribal, and regional. For example, in England royal law replaced the law of Mercia, Wessex, and the Danelaw, which were operative in the 12th century. The main document indicating this change is known under the name of Magna Carta, or Great Carter. It was an agreement between the barons and the king. In it, the barons recognized the right of the king to be the central ruling power. The king was obliged to observe common law and the rights of common people (especially barons and the representatives of church). For instance, king promised to inform barons and church officials before implementing new taxation system. In addition, he agreed that that every person should have a right to protect his/her interests. Consequently, no one could be jailed without the lawful basis for it, including the law of the land or lawful judgment of peers. On the one hand, this political change made a positive influence on feudalism. It deprived England from chaotic relationships between lords and vassals and created a certain order within the society. In addition, it provided the British monarchy with additional power branch, which led to the centralization of power. On the other hand, implementation of Magna Carta destroyed the basic principles of feudalism. It proved that it was possible to live according to the common rules but not to the interests of those, who had mechanisms of influence such as property or land. It means that Magna Carta showed the promise for the future existence of democracy in England, the system, which was opposite to feudalism.

Special Features of Feudalism in England on the Economic Level

Furthermore, the changes were made on the economic level. England of the 13th century could not follow the prices of cavalry servitude, established in the 12th century in France. For example, in 1214, the Earl of Devon who was required to pay the knights 2 shillings per day, managed to supply only 20 knights, rather than 89 he actually owned. As a result, specially created laws limited the number of knights serving one lord. The example of such a law was the Unknown Charter, issued before Magna Carta. According to it, anyone who owns ten knights should have their service reduced in order to avoid bankruptcy. As a result of this limitation, the family of Courtenay city (one of the most noble English families), who owed 92 knights, was allowed to support only three, and Robert of Newborough's quota was reduced from 15 to 12 (but he actually managed to support only two knights). On the one hand, the limited number of knights made a positive impact on English feudalism. It assured that the knights would get their payments. On the other hand, the reduction of the number of knights meant the reduction of army, which was the essential element of feudalism.

Special Features of Feudalism in England on the Social Level

Lastly, the changes were made on the social level. The 13th century was marked by the deadly disease – plague. The historians estimate that from the 13th to 14th century 24 million people in Europe died as a result plaque. The deaths of so many citizens could not leave feudalism unchanged. After the plague, common people took a different role in the relationships with nobles. More specifically, there was a shift of power from the nobles to the commons. There were a number of reasons for it. Firstly, as there was a lack of workers, people, who remained alive after plague, could demand more rights. Secondly, many serfs did not want to stay in the feudal manors because, it was possible to find better opportunities in the cities. Consequently, feudal system weakened. The social conditions of the 13th century created the basis for the destruction of feudalism in the 14th century. The proof for it was the revolt of English Peasants in 1381. The rebels succeeded to not only enter London but also present their demands for freedom and equal rights to the king Richard II.

Comparison of Feudalism of England with Feudalism of Scotland and Wales

The analysis of English feudalism from the military, political, economic, and social perspectives shows that it was completely different from the traditional understanding of this system. The comparison of English feudalism with feudalism of other countries also proves its uniqueness. For example, in Scotland, feudalism remained the original French shade. Scottish kings sponsored Norman immigration from England or directly from France to build up a nobility familiar with the common principles of administrative and military law. The same situation was happened in Wales. This country was treated as a passive receiver of European feudal tradition. For example, the Anglo-Norman Marcher barons found shelter in the territory between England and Wales, when English feudalism underwent significant transformations. There, they were able to continue living according to the old rules. In addition, Welsh rulers paid homage to English kings intermarried with Anglo-Norman nobility. Thus, England was the only country from the British Isles, who managed to stand against the traditions of French feudalism and transformed it according to the local peculiarities of life.


To sum up, the analysis of historical sources proved that the 13th century England could be treated as feudal society only to some extent. On the one hand, it acquired the French tradition to build the relationships between nobility and vassals on the principle of servitude and the exchange of favors with services. On the other hand, England created a new system of feudalism known under the name of bastard feudalism. It introduced money instead of land payments. In addition, feudalism was weakened by such factors as the extension of the rights of common people due to Magna Carta, reduction of the number of cavalry due to the economic inexpedience, and shift of the power from the nobility to common workers due to the consequences of plague. Moreover, the comparison of England with the related countries such as Scotland and Wales shows that England was the only country from the British Isles, who managed to save its unique face under the influence of Norman assimilation.

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