The struggle which ended in the fens of Ely had wholly changed William's position. He no longer held the land merely as elected king, he added to his elective right the right of conquest. The system of government which he originated was, in fact, the result of the double character of his power. It represented neither the purely feudal system of the Continent nor the system of the older English royalty. More truly perhaps it may be said to have represented both. As the successor of Eadward, William retained the judicial and administrative organization of the older English realm. As the conqueror of England he introduced the military organization of feudalism so far as was necessary for the secure possession of his conquests. The ground was already prepared for such an organization; we have seen the beginnings of English feudalism in the warriors, the "companions" or "thegns " who were personally attached to the king's war-band, and received estates from the folk-land in reward for their personal services. In later times this feudal distribution of estates had greatly increased, as the bulk of the nobles followed the king's example and bound their tenants to themselves by a similar process of subinfeudation.
On the other hand, the pure freeholders, the class which formed the basis of the original English society, had been gradually reduced in number, partly through imitation of the class above them, but still more through the incessant wars and invasions which drove them to seek protectors among the thegns at the cost of their independence. Feudalism, in fact, was superseding the older freedom in England even before the reign of William, as it had already superseded it in Germany or France. But the tendency was quickened and intensified by the Conquest; the desperate and universal resistance of his English subjects forced William to hold by the sword what the sword had won, and an army strong enough to crush at any moment a national revolt was necessary for the preservation of his throne. Such an army could only be maintained by a vast confiscation of the soil. The failure of the English risings cleared the way for its establishment; the greater part of the higher nobility fell in battle or fled into exile, while the lower rhegnhood either forfeited the whole of their lands or redeemed a portion of them by the surrender of the rest. We see the completeness of the confiscation in the vast estates which William was enabled to grant to his more powerful followers.
Two hundred manors in Kent, with an equal number elsewhere, rewarded the services of his brother Cdo, and grants almost as large fell to William's counsellors, Fitz-Osbern and Montgomery, or to barons like the Mowbrays and the Clares. But the poorest soldier of fortune found his part in the spoil. The meanest Norman rose to wealth and power in the new dominion of his lord. Great or small, however, each estate thus granted was granted on condition of its holder's service at the king's call; and when the larger holdings were divided by their owners into smaller sub-tenancies, the under-tenants were bound by the same conditions of service to their lord. "Hear, my lord," swore the feudal dependant, as kneeling without arms and bareheaded he placed his hands within those of his superior: "I become liege man of yours for life and limb and earthly regard, and I will keep faith and loyalty to you for life and death, God help me." The kiss of his lord invested him with land or "fief" to descend to him and his heirs for ever.
A whole army was by this means encamped upon the soil, and William's summons could at any moment gather an overwhelming force around his standard.
Such a force however, effective as it was against the conquered, was hardly less formidable to the Crown itself. William found himself fronted in his new realm by the feudal baronage whom he had so hardly subdued to his will in Normandy, nobles impatient of law, as jealous of the royal power, and as eager for unbridled military and judicial independence within their own manors here as there. The genius of the Conqueror was shown in his quick discernment of this danger, and in the skill with which he met it. He availed himself of the old legal constitution of the country to hold justice firmly in his own hands. He retained the local courts of the hundred and the shire, where every freeman had a place, while he subjected all to the jurisdiction of the King's Court, which towards the close of the earlier English monarchy had assumed the right of hearing appeals and of calling up cases from any quarter to its bar. The authority of the crown was maintained by the abolition of the great earldoms which had overshadowed it, those of Wessex, Mercia, and Northumberland, and by the royal nomination of sheriffs for the government of the shires.
Large as the estates he granted were, they were scattered over the country in a way which made union between the landowners, or the hereditary attachment of great masses of vassals to a separate lord, equally impossible. In other countries a vassal owed fealty to his lord against all foes, be they king or no. By a usage however which William enacted, and which was peculiar to England, each sub-tenant, in addition to his oath of fealty to his lord, swore fealty directly to the Crown, and loyalty to the King was thus established as the supreme and universal duty of all Englishmen. The feudal obligations, too, the rights and dues owing from each estate to the King, were enforced with remarkable strictness. Each tenant was bound to appear if needful thrice a year at the royal court, to pay a heavy fine or rent on succession to his estate, to contribute an "aid " in money in case of the King's capture in war, or the knighthood of the King's eldest son, or the marriage of his eldest daughter. An heir who was still a minor passed into the crown's wardship, and all profit from his estate went for the time to the King. If the estate devolved upon an heiress, her hand was at the King's disposal, and was generally sold to the highest bidder.