The feudal system and Domesday Book
Home learning focus
Learn about the feudal system theory and the Domesday Book survey.
This lesson includes:
- an animation about William I and the origins of the Domesday Book
- an animation about how the Domesday Book survey was carried out
- two activities to recap on what you have learned
The feudal system was a way of organising people in the Middle Ages.
Historians in the 20th Century looked back at the past and thought that society was grouped in to a set of ranks and responsibilities. The King who ruled the country was at the top, and below him were barons who had land and power - normally given to them by the King.
The next rank was knights who fought for the king and country. On the bottom rung of the ladder were the peasants who did the majority of the work - like farming - and paid rent or dues to landowners.
William I, who invaded England in 1066, created the Domesday Book in 1086. He sent out officials across the country to find out who owned what, and to assess how much it was worth - this even included counting the animals on each farm.
The Domesday Book reveals that medieval society was more complicated than the feudal system suggests - and historians today debate whether it really existed.
Watch this short animation to find out more about how William ruled England after he invaded in 1066.
Origins of the feudal system
Twentieth century historians thought the roots of the 'feudal system' could be traced back to the 8th century.
Some historians argued feudalism began during the Dark Ages as people felt insecure and in such danger that they would keep a local warrior in luxury in return for their protection.
Historians also said feudalism began with weak kings, who would buy support from nobles by giving them land in return for their allegiance.
When William I conquered England in 1066, he confiscated land from the Saxons who had owned it under Edward the Confessor and King Harold.
He then distributed the land amongst the barons who had supported his invasion.
Watch this short animation to find out more about why - and how - the Domesday survey was carried out.
Domesday Book key facts
The main things William wanted the Domesday Book to tell him was:
- how much land there was
- who had owned it in 1066, and who owned it now in 1086
- what the land was like, and who lived there
- how much it was worth in 1066 and how much now in 1086
Society and the feudal system
Historians thought the feudal system was a way in which a king could rule a violent society, with access to a large army of knights, whilst the majority of the population provided them with the resources to do so.
The knights in the feudal system developed ideas of 'chivalry', which is taken from the French word 'cheval' meaning 'horse'.
These ideas of chivlary have given us many of our beliefs about what is 'good' conduct like loyalty, courage and defending the weak.
However, people did rebel against their kings.
Archbishop Thomas Becket challenged the authority of the crown in 1170 by suggesting the Church had authority over the monarch.
In 1215, King John was pressured by his barons to produce the Magna Carta agreement which reduced the monarch's power.
Did the feudal system actually exist?
The 'feudal system' was a term used by historians to describe a theory of how medieval power was organised - it wasn't a phrase used in the Middle Ages.
The idea of the 'feudal system' became popular in the 1960s and still appears in many school textbooks.
In 1994, the historian Susan Reynolds argued there was never really a 'feudal system' in the Middle Ages.
Nowadays, many historians think the 'feudal system' was just a propaganda myth put about by knights to show themselves as hero-warriors, and that when poor people began to write in the 14th century, they portrayed themselves as suffering people being forced to work for their lords.
Try these activities to test what you have learned and use your knowledge of the feudal system and the Domesday Book.
For this you will need a pen or pencil. Either print out the worksheet or copy down the headings on to a piece of blank paper.
The King was a very important role in the Middle Ages. This activity encourages you to think about how important their leadership would have been.
There's more to learn
Have a look at these other resources from around the BBC and the web.