How different were the Anglo-Saxons and Norman societies on the eve of the conquest? Each having the same ancestral heritage. Each were Scandinavian immigrants who had chosen to settle in a new land and take over from its ruling aristocracy. English and Norman social structures were very similar. Both societies, believed land was the defining currency. The Lord owned the land, and he parcelled it out amongst his followers in return for service. They in turn settled upon the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own good work they would receive the greatest gift; land.
Success in war generated more land which could be passed around. If a lord wasn’t successful in battle or not generous enough, it wouldn’t be long before his followers would desert him and seek out a ‘better’ lord. The warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves.
The basic building block of the system was the Hearth. On his land, the Lord owned a hearth-hall, which he housed his retinue of warriors. His tenants would bring their produce to this hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue. In return, the Lord provided all on his land with security. It was when he was unable to provide that security that the lord got worried: lack of security defined a ‘bad’ lordship.
10th Century Anglo-Saxon England had been complicated by a highly chequered history. Which had seen pre-Norman Britain become the most organised state in Western Europe. The king controlled land divided into shires, on which taxation was assessed and levied. These taxes were collected in coin from the burhs and fresh coin was minted 3 times a year in 60 royal mints arranged throughout the country. It was a very Roman system.
According to Anglo-Saxons, the Normans be second or third generation immigrants of Northern France, and according to their history, the land of Normandy was granted to their founder, Rollo in 911. His successors ruled the frontier on behalf of the Frankish king. So it was the Norman system was coloured by Frankish practice, each had their own way of who owned and looked after the land, and supplied warriors for battle.
On one hand the Norman Duke had the power to call out men who would down tools and join him in battle, he usually relied on his military, which was a complex set of family ties and loyalties he had established with the great magnates who occupied his land. By the time of William the Conqueror, this relationship had hardened which saw Norman nobles; his faithful men join him in battle.
Though Norman dukes controlled the coinage in their own domain, no coins had been minted since the time of William’s grandfather. The duke still called upon his nobles to provide an army when he wanted to go to war, and they obliged in the expectation of a share in the spoils of conquest.
In the crucial months leading up to the Battle of Hastings, Harold was faced with limitations when he called for warriors to defend Britain from the likes of these Norman warriors.
With both Britain’s Anglo-Saxons and France’s Normans both using similar hearth systems, when Britain lost the Battle of Hastings to William’s Norman knights, both systems could be integrated quite smoothly.
William introduced the Domesday Book, which illustrated that little had changed just name of the landlord. Villages remained much the same as they had for hundreds of years: woodland measured in the number of pigs it could support and mills and minor industries. Some villages were transformed with the addition of a Norman castle.
Normans introduced a major change into English law. Prior to the Conquest, cases were tried in front of juries selected from the hundred on the basis of Trial by Ordeal, or Trial by Oath Taking.
Oath Taking, a Saxon process whereby a man would rely on the oaths of his lord and peers to vouch for his innocence and good name – the higher the status of your oath-helper, the better your chances of success.
These were complemented by the Norman practice of Trial by Battle, in which the judgement of God was determined not by the speed it took you to heal from the Ordeal, but by the success of your champion in battle.