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Ordinary people in country and town


There were probably between 1.5 and 2 million people living in England in 1066. The Domesday Book tells us that nine-tenths of them lived in the countryside.


Life in the countryside was hard. Most of the population still lived in villages in southern and eastern parts of England. In the north and west there were fewer people, and they often lived apart from each other, on separate farms. Most people lived in the simplest houses. The walls were made of wooden beams and sticks, filled with mud. The roofs were made of thatch, with reeds or corn stalks laid thickly and skillfully so that the rain ran off easily. People ate cereals and vegetables most of the time, with pork meat for special occasions. They worked from dawn to dusk every day of the year, every year, until they were unable to work any longer. Until a man had land of his own he would usually not marry. However, men and women often slept together before marriage, and once a woman was expecting a child, the couple had no choice but to marry.


The landlord expected the villagers to work a fixed number of days on his own land, the "home farm". The rest of the time they worked on their small strips of land, part of the village's "common land" on which they grew food for themselves and their family. The Domes day Book tells us that over three-quarters of the country people were serfs. They were not free to leave their lord's service or his land without



permission. Even if they wanted to run away, there was nowhere to run to.


In the early days of the Conquest Saxons and Normans feared and hated each other. For example, if a dead body was found, the Saxons had to prove that it was not the body of a murdered Norman. If they could not prove it, the Normans would burn the nearest village.


The Norman ruling class only really began to mix with and marry the Saxons, and consider themselves "English" rather than French, after King John lost Normandy in 1204. Even then, dislike remained between the rulers and the ruled.

Every schoolchild knows the story of Robin Hood, which grew out of Saxon hatred for Norman rule. According to the legend Robin Hood lived in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham as a criminal or "outlaw", outside feudal society and the protection of the law. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and he stood up for the weak against the powerful. His weapon was not the sword of nobles and knights, but the longbow, the weapon of the common man.

In fact, most of the story is legend. The only thing we know is that a man called Robert or "Robin" Hood was a wanted criminal in Yorkshire in 1230. The legend was, however, very popular with the common people all through the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, although the ruling class greatly disliked it. Later the story was changed. Robin Hood was described as a man of noble birth, whose lands had been taken by King John. Almost certainly this was an effort by the authorities to make Robin Hood "respectable".


Most landlords obtained their income directly from the home farm, and also from letting out some of their land in return for rent in crops or money. By 1300 the population was probably just over four million (up to the nineteenth century figures can only be guessed at), about three times what it had been in 1066. This increase, of course, had an effect on life in the country. It made it harder to grow enough food for everyone. The situation was made worse by the Normans' love of hunting. They drove the English peasants out of the forests, and punished them severely if they killed any forest animals.


The peasants tried to farm more land. They drained marshland, and tried to grow food on high ground and on other poor land. But the effort to farm more land could not match the increase in population, and this led to a decline in individual family land holdings. In the years of bad harvest people starved to death. Among richer people, the pressure on land led to an increase in its value, and to an increase in buying and selling. Many villagers tried to increase their income by other activities and became blacksmiths, carpenters, tilers or shepherds, and it is from the thirteenth century that many villagers became known by their trade name.


Feudalism was slowly dying out, but the changes often made landlords richer and peasants poorer. Larger landlords had to pay fewer feudal taxes, while new taxes were demanded from everyone in possession of goods and incomes. As a result many could not afford to pay rent and so they lost their land. Some of these landless people went to the towns, which offered a better hope for the future.




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