CHAPTER II. THE SUBMERGENCE OF ENGLAND

1066-1272

For nearly two centuries after the Norman Conquest there is no history of the English people. There is history enough of England, but it is the history of a foreign government. We may now feel pride in the strength of our conqueror or pretend claims to descent from William's companions. We may boast of the empire of Henry II and the prowess of Richard I, and we may celebrate the organized law and justice, the scholarship and the architecture, of the early Plantagenet period; but these things were no more English than the government of India to-day is Hindu. With Waltheof and Hereward English names disappear from English history, from the roll of sovereigns, ministers, bishops, earls, and sheriffs; and their place is taken by names beginning with "fitz" and distinguished by "de." No William, Thomas, Henry, Geoffrey, Gilbert, John, Stephen, Richard, or Robert had played any part in Anglo-Saxon affairs, but they fill the pages of England's history from the days of Harold to those of Edward I. The English language went underground, and became the patois of peasants; the thin trickle of Anglo-Saxon literature dried up, for there was no demand for Anglo-Saxon among an upper class which wrote Latin and spoke French. Foreigners ruled and owned the land, and "native" became synonymous with "serf."

Their common lot, however, gave birth to a common feeling. The Norman was more alien to the Mercian than had been Northumbrian or West-Saxon, and rival tribes at last discovered a bond of unity in the impartial rigour of their masters. The Norman, coming from outside and exempt from local prejudice, applied the same methods of government and exploitation to all parts of England, just as Englishmen bring the same ideas to bear upon all parts of India; and in both cases the steady pressure of a superimposed civilization tended to obliterate local and class divisions. Unwittingly Norman and Angevin despotism made an English nation out of Anglo-Saxon tribes, as English despotism has made a nation out of Irish septs, and will make another out of the hundred races and religions of our Indian empire. The more efficient a despotism, the sooner it makes itself impossible, and the greater the problems it stores up for the future, unless it can divest itself of its despotic attributes and make common cause with the nation it has created.

The provision of this even-handed tyranny was the great contribution of the Normans to the making of England. They had no written law of their own, but to secure themselves they had to enforce order upon their schismatic subjects; and they were able to enforce it because, as military experts, they had no equals in that age. They could not have stood against a nation in arms; but the increasing cost of equipment and the growth of poor and landless classes among the Anglo-Saxons had transferred the military business of the nation into the hands of large landowning specialists; and the Anglo-Saxon warrior was no match for his Norman rival, either individually or collectively. His burh was inferior to the Norman castle, his shield and battle-axe to the weapons of the mailed and mounted knight; and he had none of the coherence that was forced upon the conquerors by the iron hand of William and by their situation amid a hostile people.

The problem for William and his companions was how to organize this military superiority as a means of orderly government, and this problem wore a twofold aspect. William had to control his barons, and his barons had to control their vassals. Their methods have been summed up in the phrase, the "feudal system," which William is still popularly supposed to have introduced into England. On the other hand, it has been humourously suggested that the feudal system was really introduced into England by Sir Henry Spelman, a seventeenth-century scholar. Others have maintained that, so far from feudalism being introduced from Normandy into England, it would be truer to say that feudalism was introduced from England into Normandy, and thence spread throughout France. These speculations serve, at any rate, to show that feudalism was a very vague and elusive system, consisting of generalizations from a vast number of conflicting data. Spelman was the first to attempt to reduce these data to a system, and his successors tended to forget more and more the exceptions to his rules. It is now clear that much that we call feudal existed in England before the Norman Conquest; that much of it was not developed until after the Norman period; and that at no time did feudalism exist as a completely rounded and logical system outside historical and legal text-books.