The New Social Hierarchy


THERE are those that maintain that the old feudal system has never really gone away.

In the Middle ages, and certainly into the Renaissance period of the 1500s, society was structured along the lines of a hierarchical pyramid.

And while society and technology has changed immeasurably since the Middle Ages, has the hierarchical pyramid ever really gone away?

In middle history, the power of this social pyramid and social hierarchy was such that to move outside such was seen to be an abomination outside of the law, society and beneath the eyes of God.

Courts administered ear loppings, dunkings and public pillories as the more ‘benign’ treatments to those who thought they were either above or below their definite social standing.

Imagine a pyramid extending downwards from all social areas from the capstone at the top.

The monarch sat atop such, and certainly in the days of the presumed divine right of kings, the monarch, (or in Catholic countries, the Pope), was God’s anointed representative on earth.

Immediately beneath the monarch were the Royal Family, the Royal Court, and then the entourage of Parliament, the Star Chamber and the House of Lords and Houses of Commons.

The structure first came about, and remained for so long, because of the great size of the land the kings had under their control.

The kings held land by what they believed was an asserted "divine right"; the right to rule granted by God and then passed on through heredity and hierarchy.

However, there was no physical way for a king to govern all the land effectively because there was no quick communication system - and it often took several days to travel from one part of the country to the other, even in a relatively small country such as England.

As a solution, the king formed a contract with his barons; indeed the Barons’ Revolt under King John (nicknamed Lackland) arose as a failure of the monarch to stick to the terms of Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta of 1215 contained clauses which in theory noticeably reduced the power of the king, such as clause 61, the "security clause".

This clause allowed a group of 25 barons to override the king by way of force should the need arise.

The new charter effectively cemented the feudal system by weakening the king and giving (some) power to the barons and the social network beneath them. 

But it would also lay the seeds for a hitherto unknown ‘freedom’ away from the feudal system  - for those who dare to revolt.

Under feudalism, barons were given a large portion of the king's land, known as fiefs or manors and in turn, they had to pay "homage and fealty" to the king.  The word ‘fealty’ comes from the Latin ‘fideles’ meaning loyalty.

They did this by giving their support to the king at all times, governing the land that was given to them, and being ready to provide troops and fight for the king when the need arose.

They also had to pay taxes whenever the king called for them; whenever a baron died, his fief was passed on by heredity and the receiver of a fief had to pay an inheritance tax.

One of the key ‘problems’ of the system was whenever a baron was granted or inherited a fief, he was made into a vassal of the king. In effect they became high ranking slaves to the monarch.

Also, because the barons became lords of their fiefs, the barons had the same problem the king had.

They made the same type of agreement the king made with them, except with their underlings - usually a trusted knight or relative.

Over time, the holdings of these lords were passed from generation to generation.

The large amount of land surrounding the castle provided a means for peasants to acquire enough money and food to live by farming.

The average farmer was given a plot of land on which he could farm.

He also got a sense of security by living near a castle and potential protection from danger and they also had the privilege of passing their land on through inheritance after their deaths.

While they had grazing and field rights around their village, they also had the right to building materials in the area.

They did not, however have the right to hunt most wild game.

Lovers of The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn will recall how Much the Miller’s son, a peasant, is threatened with death at the hands of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the inimitable Basil Rathbone)  for killing one of the king’s deer.  

The peasants also had some local political rights and often formed their own manorial courts, called halimotes.

Claims against one another were settled by a village court, usually of twelve village representatives.

In return for these rights, the peasant had to fulfil their end of the bargain and was required to work a certain number of days a week on the lord's land.

In this way, power was ‘transmitted’ via a feudal network from the very top of the hierarchical pyramid down to the very broad base – and it was a very broad base.

Some peasants may never have heard of a king or queen, let alone seen him or her. As with the Roman Empire, most subjects would only have seen their monarch on a rudely stamped coin.

(As a brief aside, those who recall Monty Python and the Holy Grail will remember Michael Palin’s scrabbling peasant who is shocked when he is confronted with the sight of Graham Chapman as his king (King Arthur).

Speaking in the vernacular of what could be a 20th C union leader, and commenting on how Arthur came to be king i.e. thanks to the spurious Lady in the Lake (of Arthurian legend) handing him Excalibur,  he spouts:

“Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony….”. The full script can be read at this endnote.[i]).

Knights were given land by a baron in return for military service when demanded by the King. They also had to protect the baron and his family, as well as a manor, from attack.

The knights kept as much of the land as they wished for their own personal use and distributed the rest to villeins.

Although not as rich as the barons, knights were quite wealthy.

Villeins, sometimes known as serfs, were given land by knights.

They had to provide the knight with free labour, food and service whenever it was demanded.

Villeins had no rights. They were not allowed to leave the manor and had to ask their lord's permission before they could marry.

Although such peasants were generally viewed as being the broadest class, this broad stratum also included the wandering peasants, beggars and itinerant class, including thieves, pickpockets , clip-purses and other undesirables.

Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale, is a wandering beggar and peddler, and the archetypal loveable rogue.

But he also typified an underclass which was prevalent in both town and country.

The changes of the (First) Industrial Revolution in the mid to late 1700s would eventually make a whole class of people – weavers, spinners, agricultural workers etc.  (the so called ‘mechanicals of Shakespeare’s plays) who had previously enjoyed a bucolic life in the cheery if impoverished countryside,  effectively unemployable.

Hogarth’s engravings of Beer Street and Gin Lane in 1751 might seem harmless cartoons, but they show the flipside of both prosperity and poverty.

Many of the inhabitants of Gin Lane would have been from the agricultural class newly made impoverished by the agrarian reforms brought about by the new industries.

On the flipside, those enjoying the benefits of Beer Street, would likely have been nouveau riche merchandisers of the new industries, beneficiaries of the increasing mercantile expansion.  

By the middle of the 18th C the feudal system was long dead and buried but so too was any sort of ‘social security’ beneath such a overlordship pyramid, as rudimentary as this might have been.  Peasants might have been peasants but they were still ‘needed’ by a lord, if only in the same way a producer of foie gras ‘needs’ his geese.

Under the feudal system, the king’s immediate authority was perpetuated by a Star Chamber, in effect, the beginnings of Privy Council or Cabinet.

The power of the Court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the House of Stuart, and by the time of King Charles I, it had become synonymous with misuse and abuse of power by the king and his circle.

King James I and his son Charles used the court to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It came to be used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower court.

Charles I, he who would become the headless one, used the Court of Star Chamber as a Parliamentary substitute during the eleven years when he ruled without a Parliament.

He made extensive use of such to prosecute dissenters, including the Puritans who fled to New England.

The Star Chamber also became notorious for judgements favourable to the monarch.

In 1571 Elizabeth I set up an equivalent Court in Ireland, the Court of Castle Chamber, to deal with cases of riot and offences against public order generally.

In the early 1900s, American poet, biographer and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters, 1868–1950, commented:

‘In the Star Chamber the council could inflict any punishment short of death, and frequently sentenced objects of its wrath to the pillory, to whipping and to the cutting off of ears.

‘With each embarrassment to arbitrary power, the Star Chamber became emboldened to undertake further usurpation.

It also summoned juries before it for verdicts disagreeable to the government and fined and imprisoned them.

Abolished in 1641, it vanished amongst that great social upheaval of the Civil War until the Restoration in 1660.

The bishops of the established church sat in the House of Lords which itself emanated out of the old Parliament of England.

In 1569, the authority of Parliament was for the first time recognised not simply by custom or royal charter, but by an authoritative statute, passed by Parliament itself.

During the early fifteenth century, both Houses exercised powers to an extent not seen before.

The power of the nobility suffered a decline during the civil wars of the late fifteenth century, known as the Wars of the Roses.

Much of the nobility was killed on the battlefield or executed for participation in the war, and many aristocratic estates were lost to the Crown.

Through sheer opportunism, it also saw the rise of the Tudors – who were at one point a largely Welsh family descended from the Welsh Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr.

But feudalism by then was dying, and the feudal armies controlled by the barons were becoming obsolete.  A new Parliamentarism would arise in the shape of Cromwell.

Beneath Parliament were the aristocracy and the land owning classes of the county – which included parts of the Church, and which typically voted with the Tory party.

The large mercantile tier or traders, often formed into Guilds, represented much of the trade in England/Britain, many of whom looked to the Whigs as their political representatives.

The Whigs played a central role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (the ultimate overthrow of James II and the Catholic threat to England), and were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholic.

The Whigs took full control of the government in 1715, and remained totally dominant until King George III, coming to the throne in 1760, allowed the Tories back in.

The Whigs thoroughly purged the Tories from all major positions in government, the army, the Church of England, the legal profession and local officials.

Both parties were founded on rich politicians, more than on popular votes: the Whig tendency supported the great aristocratic families, the Protestant Hanoverian succession, and toleration for nonconformist Protestants (the "dissenters," such as Presbyterians), while some Tories supported the exiled Stuart royal family's claim to the throne (Jacobitism) -  and virtually all Tories supported the established Church of England and the gentry.

Later on, the Whigs drew support from the emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants, while the Tories drew support from the landed interests and the royal family.

By the first half of the 19th century, however, the Whig political programme came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but also Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and expansion of the vote – that ultimate destroyer of feudalism.

Why was the feudal system necessary?

Apart from a devotion to God, which reinforced the pyramid, the barons and nobles, and the monarch effectively wanted to maintain a power network which would be far reaching and have an iron grip.

The key points of the feudal system were that ultimately the King retained control, and that payment of some kind was made. True personal land ownership was impossible because the title one held was always subservient to the King.

Back in the day there were rebellions.

The peasants who survived the Black Death (1348-1350) believed that there was something special about them – almost as if God had protected them.

Therefore, they took the opportunity offered by the disease to improve their lifestyle.

Feudal law stated that peasants could only leave their village if they had their lord’s permission. But many lords were short of desperately needed labour for the land that they owned.

After the Black Death, lords actively encouraged peasants to leave the village where they lived to come to work for them. When peasants did this, the lord often refused to return them to their original village.

Peasants could demand higher wages as they knew that a lord was desperate to get in his harvest.

So the government faced the prospect of peasants leaving their villages to find a better ‘deal’ from a lord, thus upsetting the whole idea of the feudal system which had been introduced to tie peasants to the land.

Ironically, this movement by the peasants was encouraged by the lords who were meant to benefit.

In 1381, and under the leadership of ‘heroes’ such as Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, the peasants marched to London in order to present a petition to the king.

Sixty thousand strong, the petitioned called for the abolition of serfdom, tithes and the game laws as well as the right to freely use the forests. The peasants also demanded that the poll tax be abolished.

John Ball, a priest who spoke regularly to the people gathered in the marketplace, expressed the sentiments of the revolt.

The rallying cry of the peasants was a rhyme which spread dissension across the South of England:

"When Adam Delved and Eve Span/Who was then the Gentleman?"

John Ball and the other leaders urged the peasants to go to the king in London to plea their case. Workers in the cities, especially London, rose in support of the peasants and their demands.

Richard II, then only fourteen years of age, offered to meet the peasant demands.

Under the command ofTyler, the rebels camped at Blackheath where they waited for word from Richard II.

The king agreed to meet with the rebels but the crowds that had assembled made it difficult for him to land at Greenwich.

The frustrated rebels attacked the prison at Marshalsea and Richard returned to his mother at the Tower.

The rebels plundered Lambeth Palace, burned books and furniture, crossed London Bridge and joined the London mob.

They made their way to Fleet Street, opened the Fleet prison and determined to take London by force.

The Savoy Palace, home of the King's uncle John of Gaunt, was burned to the ground.

On June 14, Richard looked down upon the mob from his room in the Tower and managed to arrange an interview with the rebels at Mile End where, among other concessions, he granted their requests for the abolition of feudal services and their right to rent land at an agreed price.  Some of the rebels returned home.

But for those who remained near the Tower, violence was about to escalate.

One historian has described the event in the following way:

"In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Gaunt's physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax.

“They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city."

The next day Richard again met with the rebels.

At the Smithfield conference further concessions were granted the rebels: the estates of the church would be confiscated, all lordships except the kings would be abolished, and all the rebels would be pardoned.

Wat Tyler rode up to the king, his "horse's tail under the every nose of the king's horse, which angered the mayor of London.

He knocked Tyler off his horse with a broadsword and as Tyler lay on the ground, one of the king's squires stabbed him in the stomach, killing him.

The English Peasants' War was over.

 Wat Tyler's head was cut from his corpse and displayed on London Bridge. John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of Richard II and his quarters were displayed in four other towns as a warning to other rebel.

Jack Straw was executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. The promises made to the rebels by Richard II were quickly withdrawn although the poll tax was abolished.

For several hundred years, the feudal system would thus remain in place and it would take the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the English Civil war to ultimately sweep away the last vestiges of the system.

Feudal baronies became extinct on the abolition of feudal tenure during the Civil War and passed under the Restoration which took away knights’ service and other legal rights.

Many baronies by tenure were converted into baronies by writ. The rest ceased to exist as feudal baronies by tenure, becoming "free" contracts requiring payment of monetary rents.

Thus baronies could no longer be held by military service.

At the other end of the scale, medieval and Renaissance English kings and queens used acts of attainder to deprive nobles of their lands and often their lives.

Once attainted, the descendants of the noble could no longer inherit his lands or income. Attainder essentially amounted to the legal death of the attainted person's  family.

Attainded nobles were considered commoners, and as such, could be subjected to the same treatments, including torture and methods of execution.

Has the feudal system ever really gone away?

Many would argue as long as we have a constitutional monarchy, however democratic, then the remnants of the feudal system, or at the very least the hierarchical pyramid it put in place will always persist.

Much land is Britain is still is held by the Crown and members of the so called nobility.

The Duchy of Cornwall has a financial investment portfolio and owns land totalling 540.9 km² (or 208.9 sq. mi.).

Nearly half of the holdings are in Devon, with other large holdings in Cornwall, Herefordshire, Somerset and Wales.

For the fiscal year 2011, the duchy was valued at £728 million, and annual profit in 2011 was £18.3 million, thus yielding 2.8%.

The government considers the duchy to be a crown body and therefore exempt from paying corporation tax.

The Duchy of Lancaster, the other royal duchy,  comprises 18,700 ha (46,000 acres), including key urban developments, historic buildings, and farm land in many parts of England and Wales, as well as large holdings in Lancashire.

In the financial year ending 31st March 2013, it was valued at circa £429 million.

The Sovereign is not entitled to the capital of the portfolio or to capital profits. Revenue profits are distributed to the Sovereign, and are subject to income tax. It is the personal inherited property of the monarch and has been since 1399.

The Dukedom of Lancaster merged with the crown after Henry Bolingbroke disposed it from Richard II.

Aside from that, many landowners who are not part of the aristocracy still have vast tracts of land.

Others have suggested that a type of corporate feudalism now exists. To wit, that the feudal barons were effectively captains of industry back in the day who not only held land through titular right, but who also effectively used the power and position to act as canny businessmen, trading within their fiefs, exporting where they could, and operating effective local monopolies of goods in their own counties.

How different then are the captains of industry today who safeguard their own interests for profit and the benefit of shareholders. At least under the feudal system, a workers’ co-operative could said to exist.

As multi-national organisations arise (also in many cases land and property owners), have HR departments become the knights and guarantors of the business landscape, safeguarding the interest of CEOs while many immigrants and the low paid slave in menial professions?

It took numerous changes to destroy the last remnants of the feudal system; many have argued what these might have been, but certain among them were the Dissolution of the Monasteries; the English Reformation, the printing press, a greater distribution of the Bible; the agrarian reforms of the late Renaissance and the eventual industrialisation of England, and last but by no means least the English War of the Roses, the later Civil War, and Cromwell.

Today, ‘radicals’ argue about a power above monarchy and government – those so-called shady New World organisations which reputedly pull the strings of power.

Whether this is fancy or not, there is little doubt that as the 21st C progresses, that multi-national organisations as well as the not for profit global organisations will continue to have huge sway.

Governments generate little money directly, only businesses.

As the income and debt crisis continues in the West, the importance of large businesses as revenue generators goes without saying. But where the social conscience?

For years before the turn of the 20th C, the peasant and working class had little or no Parliamentary representation.

Keir Hardy’s Labour Party was the first to represent the lower classes.

As business in the 21st C become more cut throat, perhaps a social conscience is necessary in the long term, before anything approaching the chains, structures and strictures of a corporate feudal system, fuelled by new technology, arises again. The danger is that in the face of a huge National Debt, such social niceties might fall by the wayside and that the survival of the fittest holds sway.

But then again, perhaps that was how the overlords of the feudal system rose to power in the first place, as well as their masters and monarchs?


[i] WOMAN (Terry Jones) :  I didn't know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous collective.

  DENNIS (Palin):  You're fooling yourself.  We're living in a dictatorship.

      A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--

  WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.

  DENNIS:  That's what it's all about if only people would--

  ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives

      in that castle?

  WOMAN:  No one live there.

  ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?

  WOMAN:  We don't have a lord.

  ARTHUR:  What?

  DENNIS:  I told you.  We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  We take

      it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

  ARTHUR:  Yes.

  DENNIS:  But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified

      at a special biweekly meeting.

  ARTHUR:  Yes, I see.

  DENNIS:  By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,--

  ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

  DENNIS:  --but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more--

  ARTHUR:  Be quiet!  I order you to be quiet!

  WOMAN:  Order, eh -- who does he think he is?

  ARTHUR:  I am your king!

  WOMAN:  Well, I didn't vote for you.

  ARTHUR:  You don't vote for kings.

  WOMAN:  Well, 'ow did you become king then?

  ARTHUR:  The Lady of the Lake,

      [angels sing]

      her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur

      from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,

      Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

      [singing stops]

      That is why I am your king!

  DENNIS:  Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

      is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power

      derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical

      aquatic ceremony.

  ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

  DENNIS:  Well you can't expect to wield supreme executive power

      just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

  ARTHUR:  Shut up!

  DENNIS:  I mean, if I went around sayin' I was an emperor just

      because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they'd

      put me away!

  ARTHUR:  Shut up!  Will you shut up!

  DENNIS:  Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

  ARTHUR:  Shut up!

  DENNIS:  Oh!  Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

      HELP! HELP! I'm being repressed!

  ARTHUR:  Bloody peasant!

  DENNIS:  Oh, what a give away.  Did you here that, did you here that,

      eh?  That's what I'm on about -- did you see him repressing me,

      you saw it didn't you?