Medieval English society

The Free

At the top of the English social scale stood the king and nobility. Senior churchmen (abbots and bishops) were also barons with noble status. About 200 of these men formed England's ruling elite. Crown, nobility and church owned about 75% of English land.

Immediately below the nobility were knights. Knighthood was not hereditary; instead, men were made knights as a reward for outstanding service or because they had become wealthy enough.

The other class of freemen were "sokemen" (or socmen.) Roughly one in six of the population were sokemen, and they owned about twenty per cent of the land. They were especially numerous in East Anglia. Sokemen held in socage; they had security of tenure provided they carried out certain defined services often including light labor services and paying a fixed rent. Their land was heritable.

The Unfree

The largest class of the population were villani. (Those born to servile status were also called nativi.) About four in ten people were villani tied to the land. They did not own the land but farmed their own holdings (about 45 per cent of all English land,) which they were allowed to occupy in exchange for labor services on the landowner's demesne. The exact services required from villani varied in accordance with local customs and agreements. A common arrangement was three days work each week (more in harvest time).

A lower class of villeins were known as bordars or cottars. These occupied very small plots of land for personal use, which like the villani they did not own, but for which they had to pay rent and/or labor services. Although they constituted about one third of the population, bordars only occupied about five per cent of the land.

At the very bottom of the social scale were slaves who owned no land at all. These constituted slightly less than one in ten of the population at the time of Domesday Book. During the 12th Century many of these slaves were given holdings and became bordars.