But the decrease of slavery went on side by side with an increasing degradation of the bulk of the people. Political and social changes had long been modifying the whole structure of society; and the very foundations of the old order were broken up in the degradation of the freeman, and the upgrowth of the lord with his dependent villeins. The political changes which were annihilating the older English liberty were in great measure due to a change in the character of English kingship. As the lesser English kingdoms had drawn together, the wider dominion of the King had removed him further and further from his people, and clothed him with a mysterious dignity. Every reign raised him higher in the social scale. The bishop, once ranked his equal in value of life, sank to the level of the ealdorman. The ealdor-man himself, once the hereditary ruler of a smaller state, became a mere delegate of the king, with an authority curtailed in every shire by that of the royal reeves - officers despatched to levy the royal revenues and administer the royal justice. Religion deepened the sense of awe. The king, if he was no longer sacred as the son of Woden, was yet more sacred as "the Lord's Anointed "; and treason against him became the worst of crimes.
The older nobility of blood died out before the new nobility of the court. From the oldest times of Germanic history each chief or king had his war-band, his comrades, warriors bound personally to him by their free choice, sworn to fight for him to the death, and avenge his cause as their own. When Cynewulf of Wessex was foully slain at Merton his comrades "ran at once to the spot, each as he was ready and as fast as he could," and despising all offers of life, fell fighting over the corpse of their lord. The fidelity of the war-band was rewarded with grants from the royal domain; the king became their lord or hlaford," the dispenser of gifts;" the comrade became his "servant" or thegn. Personal service at his court was held not to degrade but to ennoble. "Cup-thegn," and "horse-thegn," and "hordere," or treasurer, became great officers of state. The thegn advanced with the advance of the king. He absorbed every post of honour; he became ealdorman, reeve,bishop, judge; while his wealth increased as the common folkland passed into the hands of the king, and was carved out by him into estates for his dependents.
The principle of personal allegiance embodied in the new nobility tended to widen into a theory of general dependence. From aelfred's day it was assumed that no man could exist without a lord. The ravages and the long insecurity of the Danish wars aided to drive the free farmer to seek protection from the thegn. His freehold was surrendered to be received back as a fief, laden with service to its lord. Gradually the "lordless man" became a sort of outlaw in the realm. The free churl sank into the villein, and changed from the freeholder who knew no superior but God and the law, to the tenant bound to do service t0 his lord, to follow him to the field, to look to his court for justice, and render days of service in his demesne. While he lost his older freedom he gradually lost, too, his share in the government of the state. The life of the earlier English state was gathered up in its folk-moot. There, through its representatives chosen in every hundred-moot, the folk had exercised its own sovereignty in matters of justice as of peace and war; while beside the folk-moot, and acting with it, had stood the Witenagemot, the group of "wise men " gathered to give rede to the king and through him to propose a course of action to the folk.
The preliminary discussion rested with the nobler sort, the final decision with all. The clash of arms, the "Yea" or "Nay" of the crowd, were its vote. But when by the union of the lesser realms the folk sank into a portion of a wider state, the folk-moot sank with it; political supremacy passed to the court of the far-off lord, and the influence of the people on government came to an end. Nobles indeed could still gather round the king; and while the folk-moot passes out of political notice, the Witenagemot is heard of more and more as a royal council. It shared in the higher justice, the imposition of taxes, the making of laws, the conclusion of treaties, the control of war, the disposal of public lands, the appointment of great officers of state. There were times when it even claimed to elect or depose the king. But with these powers the bulk of the nobles had really less and less to do. The larger the kingdom the greater grew the distance from their homes; and their share in the general deliberations of the realm dwindled to nothing. Practically the national council shrank into a gathering of the great officers of Church and State with the royal thegns, and the old English democracy passed into an oligarchy of the closest kind.
The only relic of the popular character of English government lay at last in the ring of citizens who at London or Winchester gathered round the wise men and shouted their "Ay" or "Nay" at the election of a king.
It is in the degradation of the class in which its true strength lay that we must look for the cause of the ruin which already hung over the West-Saxon realm. Eadgar was but thirty-two when he died in 975; and the children he left were mere boys. His death opened the way for bitter political strife among the nobles of his court, whose quarrel took the form of a dispute over the succession. Civil war was, in fact, only averted by the energy of the primate; seizing his cross, he settled the question of Eadgar's successor by the coronation of his son Eadward, and confronted his enemies successfully in two assemblies of the Wise Men. In that of Calne the floor of the room gave way, and according to monkish tradition Dunstan and his friends alone remained unhurt. But not even the fame of a miracle sufficed to turn the tide. The assassination of Eadward was followed by the triumph of Dunstan's opponents, who broke out in "great joy" at the coronation of Eadward's brother aethelred, a child of ten years old.