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Five Factors That Contributed to the Decline of Feudalism in England

Matthew Flax enjoys writing about history which was the only subject he was good at in school.

What Caused the Downfall of Feudalism?

For all its flaws, feudalism was the system that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and into something approaching order.

The Dark Ages were a time of chaos and lawlessness, as various warlords sought to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Barbarians roamed the countryside, pillaging as they pleased.

Castles provided a powerful defense and a pillar of stability that the people could rally around. Peasants who had previously been at the mercy of barbarians and bandits could now count on their lord and his knights for protection, although that protection came at a price.

The price was their freedom. The plight of the peasant was to toil away in the dirt, only for the lord to take a portion of his produce and provide nothing in exchange except the promise of protection. Peasants (or serfs) made up 85% of the population of Medieval Europe but had barely any rights. They were effectively the property of their lord and could not leave the manor without his permission.

But all things must come to an end, and over the course of centuries, the system known as feudalism would weaken and eventually crumble. The reasons varied from one country to another; here are some of the factors that contributed to the decline of feudalism in England.

Plaque in Weymouth, England, noting the entrance of plague into the country.

Plaque in Weymouth, England, noting the entrance of plague into the country.

1. The Black Death

The bubonic plague was probably the single most significant factor contributing to the decline of feudalism, not just in England but throughout Europe. Also known as the Black Death, the plague was an apocalyptic event that profoundly impacted society.

There was always some plague or another besetting the European population during the Middle Ages, but the bubonic plague tore through the continent, inflicting unprecedented death and suffering. Such a cataclysm was bound to shake European civilization to its very foundations.

And so it did. The Black Death killed one-third of Europe's population, creating a labor shortage that gave the peasants a degree of bargaining power they never had before. Noblemen certainly had no idea how to till the fields; they were utterly reliant on peasant labor, which was now harder to come by.

Peasants found themselves able to demand money in exchange for services and to move around as they wished since work opportunities were now plentiful. The nobility made some feeble attempts to suppress wage growth, which resulted in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The serfs not only had more rights but were unwilling to give them up.

Thus, two fundamental pillars of feudalism were weakened; the obligation of peasants to provide grain in exchange for protection and the chains that bound them to a single location.

Magna Carta King John signing the Magna Carta reluctantly by Michael, Arthur C (d 1945).

Magna Carta King John signing the Magna Carta reluctantly by Michael, Arthur C (d 1945).

2. Magna Carta

In 1215, the tyrannical King John met with rebellious barons in a meadow by the River Thames. Weakened and deserted by his followers, he begrudgingly agreed to sign a document known as Magna Carta ("Great Charter").

Magna Carta stipulated that the king was subject to the rule of law. It upheld the rights of merchants, noblemen, and clergymen; gave the king's subjects the right to forcibly remove him if he did not obey the charter; and, most importantly, ensured that no one could be imprisoned without trial.

At first, Magna Carta was only intended to protect the rights of noblemen and the church. But as time went on, its protections would be extended to the common people as well. It didn't end feudalism, but by limiting the monarch's power and guaranteeing certain individual rights, it had sewn the seeds of democracy.

3. The Longbow

In 1346, the ninth year of the Hundred Year's War between England and France, King Edward III's forces assembled on the fields of Crécy to face a much larger French army. The French knights, clad in gleaming steel armor and mounted upon mighty steeds, made for an imposing sight; but the English had a secret weapon: the longbow.

Wielded by professional archers who had been trained since childhood, the longbow could fire arrows at a much greater range and with such power that they could pierce armor.

The weapon had a devastating impact at the Battle of Crécy, obliterating French crossbowmen and nullifying the French cavalry charges as knights fell by the score amid panicking horses. In the end, the English won a decisive victory with low casualties, while the French suffered a humiliating military defeat.

So what did this mean for feudalism? Well, knights remained a powerful force on the battlefield, but the fact that an army of commoners armed with bows had proven so decisive against noblemen was brand new, especially since the knights were equipped with the best armor that money could buy. This meant that kings and barons were no longer completely reliant on highborn knights to fight their wars for them.

Feudalism was borne of the need for lords to provide land in exchange for military service, but now they had other options.

The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the final battle of the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor defeated Richard III and founded the Tudor Dynasty.

The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the final battle of the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor defeated Richard III and founded the Tudor Dynasty.

4. The Wars of the Roses

In 1453, Richard Plantagenet of House York marched his forces against King Henry VI of House Lancaster, sparking a civil war between the two factions that would rage across several decades.

It finally ended in 1485 when the last surviving Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and married Elizabeth of York to unite the warring houses. Ascending the throne as Henry VII, he enacted reforms to weaken feudalism and lay the foundations for centralized government.

The Wars of the Roses demonstrated the instability of the feudal system. Ambitious noblemen with the wealth to maintain powerful private armies could become more influential than the king, leaving the people unsure as to where authority lay.

How could they rely on the rule of law if the law was dictated by whoever had the strongest army?

Magna Carta had limited the power of the monarch, but the power of the nobility had to be restricted as well if England were to become a nation rather than a collection of fiefs.

The Wars of the Roses achieved this by bringing about the deaths of about half the nobility in the land, significantly weakening the upper class while leaving the middle and lower class relatively untouched.

This, combined with reforms introduced by Henry VII (such as a limit on the number of private retainers a lord could amass), laid the foundations for centralized power.

Henry VII distrusted the nobility, so he promoted people from the lower classes to powerful positions based on merit rather than birth. He also increased the power of the royal council, through which he could rule the land directly. This was the precursor to a modern government.

Joan of Arc, who rallied French forces to drive back the English and reclaim their homeland.

Joan of Arc, who rallied French forces to drive back the English and reclaim their homeland.

5. The Rise of Nationalism

The year is 1429. The war between France and England has raged for nearly a century. All hope seems lost for the French, who are on the verge of seeing their once-mighty kingdom become little more than an English vassal state.

But then, something miraculous happens. A peasant girl named Joan arrives at the court of Charles VII, heir to the French throne, and claims to have received divine visions calling on her to help Charles reclaim France from the invaders.

Impressed by the charismatic 17-year-old. Charles VII agrees to send Joan with a relief force to the city of Orleans, currently under siege by the English. Inspired by Joan's arrival, French forces were able to lift the siege and drive the English back. They win another victory at the Battle of Patay and march on Rheims, where Charles VII is officially crowned with Joan beside him.

Joan continues the campaign but is eventually captured by Burgundian forces allied with England and handed over to the English for trial. She is convicted of heresy and burnt at stake, but the English have only succeeded in making her a martyr.

Her death sparks a major French resurgence that culminates in victory at the Battle of Castillon, which is considered the final battle of the Hundred Years War. By this point, England had lost all the territory that had been captured under King Henry V and more.

The humiliating defeats suffered by the English during this period were a major factor leading up to the Wars of the Roses. It cast a shadow over the reign of King Henry VI and significantly weakened his position.

Joan of Arc fought not just for a king but for the idea of France as a nation. She is seen as the preeminent symbol of nationalism, which in turn would play a role in the decline of feudalism by inspiring loyalty to a nation rather than a collection of lords.

References

  • Maren Clay. Drop Dead, Feudalism: How the Black Death Led to Peasants’ Triumph Over the Feudal System (University of Colorado Denver). Retrieved from https://clas.ucdenver.edu/nhdc/sites/default/files/attached-files/entry_147.pdf
  • Mark Cartwright. 2020, 19 February. The Wars of the Roses: Consequences & Effects (World History Encyclopedia). Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1504/the-wars-of-the-roses-consequences--effects/