The long struggle with the Danes could not fail to leave its mark upon English society. The history of the changes which took place is difficult to trace; in the first place because our information is scanty, in the second because things happened in one part of the country which did not happen in another. Yet there were two changes which were widely felt: the growth of the king's authority, and the acceleration of the process which was reducing to bondage the ceorl, or simple freeman.
In the early days of the English
conquest the kings and other great men had around them their
war-bands, composed of gesiths or thegns, personally attached to
themselves, and ready, if need were, to die on their lord's behalf.
Very early these thegns were rewarded by grants of land on condition
of continuing military service. Every extension of the king's power
over fresh territory made their services more important. It had always
been difficult to bring together the fyrd, or general army of the
freemen, even of a small district, and it was quite impossible to
bring together the fyrd of a kingdom reaching from the Channel to the
Firth of Forth. Ælfred's division of the fyrd into two parts, one to
fight and the other to stay at home, may have served when all the
fighting had to be done in the western part of Wessex. Æthelstan or
Eadmund could not possibly make even half of the men of Devonshire or
Essex fight in his battles north of the Humber.
The kings therefore
had to rely more and more upon their thegns, who in turn had thegns of
their own whom they could bring with them; and thus was formed an army
ready for military service in any part of the kingdom. A king who
could command such an army was even more powerful than one who could
command the whole of the forces of a smaller territory.
An Overview of Wines in Spain, 1882
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