Thursday, January 31, 2013

Growth of the King's Power in the 10th Century

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.

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