It was not the first time the Northman had invaded England. But never before had he come bringing a higher civilization, and under the banner of the Church! In a few weeks Harold, last king of the Saxons, was dead, and William, Duke of Normandy, was William I., King of England.
Philip, King of France, saw with dismay his richest province ruled by a king of England, and his own vassal wearing a crown with power superior to his own! A door had thus opened through which would enter entangling complications and countless woes in the future.
While William was trampling England into the dust, and with pitiless hand rivetting a feudal chain upon the Saxons, another and greater centre of power was developing at Rome, where the monk Hildebrand, who had now become Pope Gregory VII., claimed a universal sovereignty from which there was no appeal. Christ was King of Kings. So, as His vicegerent upon earth, the authority of the pope was absolute in Christendom.
The moment of this supreme elevation in the Church was reached at Canossa, 1072, when Henry, the excommunicated Emperor of Germany, came barefooted, in winter, and prostrated himself before Gregory VII. If Charlemagne had worn the Church as a precious jewel in his crown in the ninth century, now in the eleventh the Church wore all the European states as a tiara of jewels in her mitre. With supreme wisdom, and with a sure instinct for power, her supremacy had been rooted first in the hearts of the people, then the mailed hand laid upon their rulers.
The corner-stone of the social structure in France was the dogma that work was degrading; and not only manual labor, but anything done with the object of producing wealth was a degradation. The only honorable occupation for a gentleman was either to pray or to fight.
Society in France was, therefore, divided into three classes: the Clergy, called the “First Estate”; the Nobility, composing the “Second Estate,” and the working and trading classes, the “Third Estate,” or Tiers Etat.
Out of reverence for their spiritual office, precedence in rank was given to the clergy. But the actual ruling class was the nobility. The business of the clergy was to minister to souls. The business of the nobility was warfare. That of the third estate, the toiling class, being to support the other two. And whatever existed in the form of property or wealth in feudal times was produced by the Tiers Etat.
The lowest stratum of the third estate was composed of “serfs.” A serf belonged absolutely, with all that he possessed, to his lord. He was attached to his land, as are the trees which are rooted in it. There was, however, a class of serfs above this whom we should now call slaves, but who were by French law then designated as Freemen.
A freeman might go and come under certain restrictions. But this did not by any means imply that he was freed from the proprietor to whom he belonged, to whom he was inevitably bound for military service, or for such contributions or claims as might be levied upon him.