This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol1 Introduction To The Study Of Law Legal History", by Albert H. Putney. Also see: Popular Law-Dictionary.
It was at this period, that a most remarkable character first appeared upon the scene of English history. Dunstan, the monk of Glastonbury, began his public career during the reign of Eadmund and upon the assassination of the latter in 946, and the succession of his brother Eadred, he rose at once to the leading place in English politics; a position he was to hold save for the few years embraced in the reign of Eadwig, until the death of Eadward the Martyr, in 978. Dunstan stands forth, not only as the first, but also as the greatest of that long line of English ecclesiastical statesmen, who play so prominent a part in English history for seven centuries.
The work of Aelfred the Great for his country was hardly greater or more many sided than that of Dunstan. In fact, Dunstan, throughout the thirty years during which he held sway in England, seemed to have largely endeavored to follow in the paths marked out by the greatest of England's kings. At the very outset of Dunstan's sway came the submission of the Danes and the final union of England; and then followed the greater work of consolidation and advancement. The cornerstone of Dunstan's policy was to bring about an English rather than a West Saxon administration. He was accused of showing too great favor to the Danes; and West Saxons, Mercians, Northumbrians and Danes alike appeared as the holders of high positions under the government.
The son and grandson of Aelfred had been unable to appreciate or sympathize with the former's efforts for advancement in law and learning, but the work which Aelfred's descendants could not do was taken up by Dunstan. The reign of Eadgar, under whom Dunstan's power was at its height, was the Augustan period of Saxon history in law, in church development, and in learning. "Eadgar's laws" the memory of which was to be cherished in later time, were mainly the work of Dunstan.
The tenth century was the witness of great sociological changes in England. On the one hand slavery was being gradually crushed out, while on the other, the mass of the population were sinking into the position of serfs. The principles of the feudal system were at last forcing themselves into English life. It was not, however, the feudal system of the Normans or of Continental Europe, which we find among the Saxons. The difference between the two are so marked, as to have led many to deny that the feudal system existed in England at all, until its introduction by William the Conqueror. This view is, however, probably incorrect. The various aspects and phases of feudalism are many and diverse, as must necessarily be the case with any institution, which we find in so many lands and extending through so many centuries. Such differences must arise from the differing habits and characteristics of race, the slow changes, and the different ways in which we find feudalism being introduced. Especially striking is the difference between the origin of feudalism with Saxon and with Norman. Feudalism began with the Normans upon their invasion of France; the land which was ceded to the leader, he in turn divided among his chiefs, who again subdivided it among their followers; from the outset the possession of the land by tenant or sub-tenant carried with it the duty of military service and homage. It has already been shown how different was the conquest of Britain by the Saxons. There was no general conquest, no common leader, no general owner of the soil. Each band became the owner of the land which their sword had conquered. The relationship of Dux and Comites, indeed, existed, and the Dux divided much of his land among his Comites, who thus supplanted the old nobilities in power and dignity. But this land was given absolutely, rather as a reward for past services than with the purpose of securing services in the future. The first beginnings of the feudal system in England appear in the reign of Aelfred. Two causes combined at this time to produce this result. The first was the re-organization of the military forces, which compelled each five hides of land to send an armed man to war and supply his expenses. The second was the unsettled condition of the times which furnished so little security to the small land holder, that he was forced to seek the protection and become the vassal of some one of his more powerful neighbors. A landholder, however, who became a vassal in this fashion, would occupy a far more advantageous position than in the case of one under the Norman feudal system. In both cases the vassal swore allegiance and the lord promised protection; but in the one case the vassal brought the land to the lord, while in the other the lord gave it to the vassal. In Normandy the feudal system existed at the beginning and was the foundation; in England it was introduced after the existence of the private ownership of land and after the development of a system of real estate law. The result was, that in Normandy, the law governing the land was created to harmonize with the feudal system and was in fact an integral part of it. With the Anglo-Saxons, feudalism was modified by the force of the existing law of real property. The Norman law was naturally much better adapted for the high development of the feudal system; we find there the rule of primogeniture, and the rigid restriction on alienation, which were absent among the Anglo-Saxons. The whole tendency of the age was towards the strengthening of the feudal system, and it is possible that the Anglo-Saxon might themselves have drawn nearer to the feudalism of the continent, even if they had not been conquered a century later by the most highly feudalized nation in Europe.
The desire of Dunstan to form a single strong nation out of the various tribes and races in England caused him to seek to increase the power of the king at the expense of the nobles. His success in this direction, while it went far to make one England out of the old seven kingdoms, secured for him the enmity of the greater nobles. Once in the early part of his career during the reign of Eadwig, he was driven from the country, only to return upon the accession of Eadgar, stronger than ever. The murder of Eadward and the accession of Eathelred in 978, however, gave the control of the government to his opponents, and in the end forced the retirement of Dunstan.
Of the four conquests of England, the Danish occasioned the least change in the character of the inhabitants of England, their laws and institutions or in the course of English history. "When the wild burst of the storm was over, land, people, government reappeared unchanged. England still remained England; the conqueror sank quietly into the mass of those around them and Woden yielded without a struggle to Christ. The secret of this difference between the two invasions (i. e. the Anglo-Saxon and the Danish) was that the battle was no longer between men of different races; it was no longer a fight between Briton and German, between Englishman and Welshman. The life of these northern folk was in the main the life of the earlier Englishmen. Their customs, their religion, their social order were the same; they were in fact kinsmen bringing back to an England, that had forgotten its origin, the barbaric England of its pirate forefathers. Nowhere over Europe was the fight so fierce, because nowhere else were the combatants men of our blood and speech. But just for this reason the fusion of the northern with their foes was nowhere so peaceful and so complete."1 The force of the first stream of Danish invasion was checked by the states-menship and military skill of Aelfred, and the result was a division of England instead of a conquest; a second invasion, resulted in the complete subjugation of England by the Danes near the beginning of the eleventh century. The great Danish King Canute, however, instead of trying to make England Danish, became himself an Englishman. His ambition was to make England the center of a great northern Empire, which in size and power might rank on equal terms with the Holy Roman Empire to the south. His domestic English policy was closely based upon that of Aelfred and Dunstan. He sought to weld Dane and Anglo-Saxon into one nation just as predecessors had labored to unite Northumbria, Mercian, and West Saxon. A continuation of Canute's policy might have accomplished his designs; but such a result was prevented by the character of his sons, and their early and violent deaths were followed by the restoration to the English throne of the old West Saxon line.
The accession to the throne of Eadward the Confessor, marks the termination of the period of Scandinavian immigration and influence in England. The history of Norway and Denmark which for the prevoius two centuries had been so closely united with that of England, now widely diverged. The dream of Canute of a great northern empire, purely Teutonic not only in blood but in laws and institutions was to fail of realization. The future foreign relations of England were to be with her neighbors across the English Channel instead of the North Sea, and with the new stream of immigration which was about to pour itself upon England were to come laws and institutions of a different and non-teutonic origin. Roman law, which won its greatest victories on the continent, after Rome itself had fallen, was to influence, although it could not overthrow, the great English common law system, which was rapidly developing in England. But, although England was again to be conquered by continental invaders, although her private law was to adopt much of the civil law, although Norman Feudalism in all its refinements and high development was to succeed the rudimentary feudalism of the Anglo-Saxon, one thing was to remain practically unaffected. The constitutional law of England was destined to be of indigenous origin and growth, little affected by the work of Norman conquerors or Roman lawyers.
1 Green's History of England.
Eadward the Confessor, famous in history as the last of the Saxon Kings of England, was in reality almost as much the first of the Norman kings. Half Norman in blood, more than half Norman in his inclinations, entirely Norman in education, Eadward in every way encouraged Norman immigration and prepared the way for the Norman coniquest. The whole reign of Eadward the Confessor, was a continual conflict between the influence of the foreign favorites of the king, on the one side, and the national English spirit on the other, led and protected by the House of Godwin.
The reign of Eadward the Confessor was likewise one of disintegration and an undoing of the work of consolidation of Eadward, Aelfred, Dunstan, and Canute. The Kingdom became divided into the four great earldoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. With the rise of the power of the earls, united England gradually passed away. At this period it was the earls, who stood for the English people, while the king had become the mere creature of foreign favorites. But the effect of the growing power of the earls, had it not been checked by a foreign conqueror, would have been to throw England back into the position which she had held during the old rivalry of the seven or of the three kingdoms.