Feudalism in Medieval England

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Roman Britain
Saxon Britain
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Norman Britain
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500 BC
AD 43

Table of contents

  1. Beginning of feudalism in England: William the Conqueror
    1. William the Conqueror
    2. The Doomsday Book: Its all about land
    3. Castles and manors – symbols of feudalism
    4. The duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall
    5. The Earldoms of Anglo-Saxon England in 1025
  2. Structure of British nobility or the Feudal Structure
    • Royalty
    • Nobility
    • Common people
  3. Nobility in today’s England
    1. Land holdings and art treasures combined: £4.6bn fortune
    2. A spreadsheet of holdings
  4. From feudalism to capitalism


Viking voyages in England and Europe

  • 793 AD: The Vikings first invaded the monastery at Lindisfarne, a small holy island located off the northeast coast of England
  • 866 AD: The Vikings had arrived in York. They made York the second biggest city in the country after London.
  • 1066 AD: William the Conqueror became King of England after the Battle of Hastings.

1.1 Beginning of feudalism in England

The feudal system was introduced to England following the invasion and conquest of the country by William I, The Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)

When William the Conqueror, decided to invade England in 1066, he invited his three half-brothers, Richard FitzGilbert, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain to join him. Richard, who had married Rohese, daughter of Walter Giffard of Normandy, also brought with him members of his wife’s family.


Richard FitzGilbert, was granted land in Kent, Essex, Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk. In exchange for this land. Richard had to promise to provide the king with sixty knights. In order to supply these knights, barons divided their land up into smaller units called manors. These manors were then passed on to men who promised to serve as knights when the king needed them.

The Domesday Book

In 1085 William returned to England to deal with a suspected invasion by King Canute IV of Denmark. While waiting for the attack to take place he decided to order a comprehensive survey of his kingdom. There were three main reasons why William decided to order a survey. (1) The information would help William discover how much the people of England could afford to pay in tax.  The information about the distribution of the population would help William plan the defence of England against possible invaders. (3) There was a great deal of doubt about who owned some of the land in England. William planned to use this information to help him make the right judgements when people were in dispute over land ownership.

William sent out his officials to every town, village and hamlet in England. They asked questions about the ownership of land, animals and farm equipment and also about the value of the land and how it was used. When the information was collected it was sent to Winchester where it was recorded in a book. About a hundred years after it was produced the book became known as the Domesday Book. Domesday means “day of judgement”.

William’s survey was completed in only seven months. When William knew who the main landowners were, he arranged a meeting for them at Salisbury. At this meeting on 1st August, 1086, he made them all swear a new oath that they would always obey their king.

In later life William became very fat. In 1087 William was told that King Philip of France described him as looking like a pregnant woman. William was furious and on mounted an attack on the king’s territory. On 15th August he captured Mantes and set fire to the town. Soon afterwards he fell from his horse and suffered internal injuries.

William was taken to the priory of St. Gervase. Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and  William Rufus should become king of England. William said on his deathbed that “I tremble when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was too fond of war… I was bred to arms  from my childhood, and I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.”

The feudal system had been used in France by the Normans from the time they first settled there in about 900 AD. It was a simple, but effective system, where all land was owned by the King. One quarter was kept by the King as his personal property, some was given to the church and the rest was leased out under strict controls.

Coming back to England,  there are properly only two duchies, those of Lancaster and Cornwall. These duchies are the personal property of the monarch.  These are essentially corporations holding properties that provide income for the Queen (who is Duke of Lancaster) and the heir to the throne, who is the Duke of Cornwall. Currently, Queen Elizabeth is the Duke of Lancaster, and, Prince Charles (the Prince of Wales) is the Duke of Cornwall.

Both the duchies are run as private estates to provide income to the head of the British monarchy. The Duchy of Lancaster headquarters office is in Lancaster Place, London from where the business activities are run.  Also, for example, the Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate established by Edward III in 1337 to provide independence to his son and heir, Prince Edward. A charter ruled that each future Duke of Cornwall would be the eldest surviving son of the Monarch and heir to the throne. The current Duke of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales, is the longest serving Duke in history. The revenue from his estate is used to fund the public, private and charitable activities of The Duke and his children. 

Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales
Head of family: HRH The Queen
Will inherit up to £700 million

It is not just the hopes of the Royal Family resting on the shoulders of Prince William. There are several tabloid editors hoping that he will become as a big a circulation boost as his mother used to be. Tales of wild parties, friends linked to drugs and possible liaisons with everyone from Britney Spears to a string of debutantes, have kept the media happy.

In financial terms, come the day he inherits, Prince William will receive the Duchy of Cornwall – a huge estate of 147,000 acres, mostly in the west of England. It produces an annual income of about £6m for his father and is valued at £290m by the estate trustees. But the more accurate Inland Revenue Valuation Office figures for land in those counties, plus 30 or so acres in London, yields a figure closer to £700m.

He also inherits many millions from Princess Diana, as well as being likely to inherit from his grandmother and his great-grandmother. Highgrove, Prince Charles’s country house and estate, will also go to his eldest son, although the organic farming activities probably won’t add much in terms of cash income. The experience of his father suggests that the son could have a long wait.

A simple plan showing how the feudal system works:


Some people rebelled against the system

It did not stop barons rebelling against the king, or from torturing and slaughtering their peasants:

  • Archbishop Thomas Becket challenged the authority of the crown by suggesting that the Church had authority over the monarch.
  • King John was pressured by his barons to produce the Magna Carta agreement in 1215 which curbed the power of the monarch. King John had to follow the rule of law and his power to raise taxes from barons was restricted, whilst freemen had stronger legal rights.

In 1994, the historian Susan Reynolds argued successfully that there was never a ‘feudal system’ in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, many historians think that the ‘feudal system’ was just a propaganda myth put about by the knights to show themselves as hero-warriors. When poor people began to write in the 14th century, they portrayed themselves as sad, suffering people, who were forced to work to keep the lords in luxury.


Feudalism was a system of social, economic, and political organization. The system was based on the control of land. Under feudalism, the people of England belonged to one of three social groups.
1. Royalty – This was the king or queen and their families. The government was a monarchy
2. Nobility – This group included the “lords’ and “ladies” who had titles such as earl, duke, duchess, and baron. The noblemen worded for the monarchy and made it possible for the king or queen to control England.
3. Common People – These were the rest of the people. It included knights, soldiers of the king, merchants, and peasants. Peasants worked the land and were not free to leave the area in which they worked.

Serfdom and Freedom in Medieval England: A Reply to the Revisionists by Zvi Razi
The Decline of Feudalism and Rise of Capitalism: Part 1 Youtube


  • King
  • Duke
  • Earl
  • Baron
  • Peasants



The Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate established by Edward III in 1337 to provide independence to his son and heir, Prince Edward. A charter ruled that each future Duke of Cornwall would be the eldest surviving son of the Monarch and heir to the throne. The current Duke of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales, is the longest serving Duke in history. The revenue from his estate is used to fund the public, private and charitable activities of The Duke and his children.

The Marquess

For example, The Marquess of Cholmondeley (left) with the Duke of Norfolk (right). 

England’s Marquesses own nearly 100,000 acres of land and received at least £3.5million in public farm subsidies in 2016. Marquesses are the second-highest rank in the Peerage, below Dukes but above Earls, Viscounts and Barons. There are 34 extant Marquesses in the UK, 14 of whom own land in England (the rest have their estates in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, or else no longer possess lands at all). Examples”

  • The Marquess of Salisbury, whose 10,300-acre estates are registered offshore in Jersey;
  • The Marquess of Cholmondeley, the Lord Great Chamberlain (with authority over parts of the Palace of Westminster), who also owns his estates in Norfolk and Cheshire via an offshore company, Mainland Nominees Ltd;
  • The Marquess of Bath, who is the famously eccentric owner of Longleat house and safari park, part of his 9,226-acre estate in Wiltshire;
  • The Marquis of Hastings (Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings)
  • The Marquess of Exeter, whose extensive estate in Lincolnshire and Rutland is owned by the Burghley House Preservation Trust;
  • The Marquess of Milford Haven, whose Great Trippetts Estate in West Sussex appears to be registered offshore in the Turks & Caicos Islands, according to Private Eye’s map of offshore ownership.
  • See Google spreadsheet for a list of holdings.

England’s Marquesses now own only a tenth as much land as the highest tier of aristocracy, the Dukes – though to be fair, much of the 1 million acres of land owned by the Dukes is to be found in Scotland as well as England. It seems likely that the ‘lower orders’ of the peerage have fared less well than the Dukes in keeping their estates intact since the heyday of the aristocracy in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Even so, possession of nearly 100,000 acres is hardly to be sniffed at, and our present system of farm subsidies does much to prop up the Marquessates. 

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