IV. THE NORMANS.
The invasion of William of Normandy led to results which have been represented by some writers as having been the most momentous in English history. I do not wish in any way to depreciate their views, but it seems to me not to have been so disastrous to existing institutions, as the Scandinavian invasion, which completely submerged all former usages. No trace of Roman occupation survived the advent of the ANGLO-SAXONs; the population was reduced to and remained in the position of serfs, whereas the Norman invasion preserved the existing institutions of the nation, and subsequent changes were an outgrowth thereof.
When Edward the Confessor, the last descendant of Cedric, was on his deathbed, he declared Harold to be his successor, but William of Normandy claimed the throne under a previous will of the same monarch. He asked for the assistance of his own nobles and people in the enterprise, but they refused at first, on the ground that their feudal compact only required them to join in the defence of their country, and did not coerce them into affording him aid in a completely new enterprise; and it was only by promising to compensate them out of the spoils that he could secure their co- operation. A list of the number of ships supplied by each Norman chieftain appears in Lord Lyttleton's "History of Henry III." vol. i., appendix.
I need hardly remind you that the settlers in Normandy were from Norway, or that they had been expelled from their native land in consequence of their efforts to subvert its institutions, and to make the descent of land hereditary, instead of being divisible among all the sons of the former owner. Nor need I relate how they won and held the fair provinces of northern France - whether as a fief of the French Crown or not, is an open question. But I should wish you to bear in mind their affinity to the ANGLO-SAXONs, to the Danes, and to the Norwegians, the family of Sea Robbers, whose ravages extended along the coasts of Europe as far south as Gibraltar, and, as some allege, along the Mediterranean. Some questions have been raised as to the means of transport of the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Angles, but they were fully as extensive as those by which Rollo invaded France or William invaded England.
William strengthened his claim to the throne by his military success, and by a form of election, for which there were many previous precedents. Those who called upon him to ascend it alleged "that they had always been ruled by legal power, and desired to follow in that respect the example of their ancestors, and they knew of no one more worthy than himself to hold the reins of government."
His alleged title to the crown, sanctioned by success and confirmed by election, enabled him, in conformity with existing institutions, to seize upon the lands of Harold and his adherents, and to grant them as rewards to his followers. Such confiscation and gifts were entirely in accord with existing usages, and the great alteration which took place in the principal fiefs was more a change of persons than of law. A large body of the aboriginal people had been, and continued to be, serfs or villeins; while the mass of the FREEMEN (LIBERI HOMINES) remained in possession of their holdings.
It may not be out of place here to say a few words about this important class, which is in reality the backbone of the British constitution; it was the mainstay of the ANGLO-SAXON monarchy; it lost its influence during the civil wars of the Plantagenets, but reasserted its power under Cromwell. Dr. Robertson thus draws the line between them and the vassals:
"In the same manner Liber homo is commonly opposed to Vassus or Vassalus, the former denoting an allodial proprietor, the latter one who held of a superior. These FREEMEN were under an obligation to serve the state, and this duty was considered so sacred that FREEMEN were prohibited from entering into holy orders, unless they obtained the consent of the sovereign."
De Lolme, chap. i., sec. 5, says:
"The Liber homo, or FREEMAN, has existed in this country from the earliest periods, as well as of authentic as of traditionary history, entitled to that station in society as one of his constitutional rights, as being descended from free parents in contradistinction to 'villains,' which should be borne in remembrance, because the term 'FREEMAN' has been, in modern times, perverted from its constitutional signification without any statutable authority." The LIBERI HOMINES are so described in the Doomsday Book. They were the only men of honor, faith, trust, and reputation in the kingdom; and from among such of these as were not barons, the knights did choose jurymen, served on juries themselves, bare offices, and dispatched country business. Many of the LIBERI HOMINES held of the king in capite, and several were freeholders of other persons in military service. Their rights were recognized and guarded by the 55th William I.; [Footnote: "LV. - De Chartilari seu Feudorum jure et Ingenuorum immunitate. Volumus etiam ac firmiter praecipimus et concedimus ut omnes LIBERI HOMINES totius Monarchiae regni nostri praedicti habeant et teneant terras suas et possessiones suas bene et in pace, liberi ab omni, exactione iniusta et ab omni Tallagio: Ita quod nihil ab eis exigatur vel capiatur nisi servicium suum liberum quod de iure nobis facere debent et facere tenentur et prout statutum est eis et illis a nobis datum et concessum iure haereditario imperpetuum per commune consilium totius regni nostri praeicti."] it is entitled:
"CONCERNING CHEUTILAR OR FEUDAL RIGHTS, AND THE IMMUNITY OF FREEMEN.