Recent BSc Economics and Economic History graduate Luke Oades reveals the importance of the distribution of resources in ensuring the stability and persistence of the Norman regime after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. In the process, he shows the relevance of modern political science concepts in the context of mediaeval England.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 was one of the most successful state-building feats ever seen. Yet despite a wide variety of research analysing its ethnographic, institutional, and linguistic consequences, little research has investigated the process of state building and regime stabilisation that followed.
By comparing the distribution of land amongst landholders in England before and after the conquest, and analysing the responses of key feudal lords to attempts to destabilize the regime, I show that King William used land distribution amongst his peers as a tool to consolidate power and establish a resilient political order. This fits in neatly with the 21st century political science concept of ‘selectorate theory’, and thus my findings reveal how the fundamental elements of regime stabilisation are relevant to historical contexts vastly different from modern society.
The Domesday Book shows us that there was a significant shift in land distribution between the Anglo-Saxon regime of early 1066 and the Norman regime by 1086. Figure 1 categorises landlords into groups based on the rough sizes of their landholdings (‘small landholders’, ‘large landholders’ etc.) and then shows the total proportion of English land that was held by these groups in the regimes pre- and post-Conquest. After the conquest, landholdings were more concentrated in the hands of a small group of elite landholders.
Very small and small landholders owned 4% and 18% of land (by value) before the conquest, afterwards they represented only 0.2% and 2% respectively. In contrast, the proportion of land held by large landholders increased from 43% to 64% over the same period, and the monarch’s holdings increased from 12% to 23%. King William radically altered the distribution of land in England.
Note: ‘Very small landholder’: Aggregate land value is less than or equal to £1; ‘Small landholder’: Aggregate land value is greater than £1 but below or equal to £10; ‘Mid-sized landholder’: Aggregate land value is greater than £10 but below or equal to £100; ‘Large landholder’: Aggregate land value is greater than £100. Number of landholders also stated.
Source: Domesday Book
Why do we witness such a radical change in the distribution of land after the Norman Conquest? The patterns revealed can be explained by ‘selectorate theory.’ The theory argues that political stability is determined by the distribution of resources by the leader of a given political system (de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith, 2003). It models political systems as relationships between two sets of people: those who help to initially choose the system’s leader (the ‘selectorate’), and a subset of the selectorate whose continuous support is required by the leader to maintain their rule (the ‘winning coalition’).
King William’s selectorate were the Norman knights and nobles who amassed troops and fought alongside him to aid his invasion, and his winning coalition were those amongst this group who later served in his regime and played an instrumental part in maintaining order after and conquest.
According to selectorate theory, the size of the winning coalition relative to the selectorate will determine how the leader acts once in power. Where the winning coalition is a substantial proportion of the selectorate, it may be more cost-effective to provide public goods on a large scale to satisfy the winning coalition. But where the winning coalition is comparatively small, leaders will distribute resources privately to its members and neglect the interests of the wider selectorate.
As a feudal king, the most crucial resource at William’s disposal was land. Selectorate theory predicts William would redistribute land rights to the members of his winning coalition to ensure the stability of his regime once he had been crowned. It also implies the size of the estates granted would be proportional to the relative power wielded by each member of the winning coalition. Selectorate theory therefore gives us an explanation for the trends presented in Figure 1: a near-zero correlation between the land distribution amongst tenants-in-chief pre- and post-Conquest, and the significant increase in inequality that materialised under the Norman regime.
The politics of the events that followed the Conquest allow us to understand the mechanisms connecting post-conquest land redistribution and regime stability. Two examples stand out: the crushing of the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 by members of William’s winning coalition whilst the monarch himself was away in Normandy, and the power struggles involved with controlling the earldom of Northumbria in the decades after the Norman invasion.
The Revolt of the Earls demonstrated how some of the most well-rewarded members of William’s regime voluntarily put down a key rebellion even in William’s absence, despite this rebellion providing them with an opportunity to participate and seek power under a new regime.
In the case of the Northumbrian earldom, William first attempted to integrate pre-Conquest northern nobles into his new regime, but after a prolonged period of native earls rebelling, he eventually chose to gift the earldom to more reliable Normans. In doing so, he implied that the distribution of land was tied to the loyalty of winning coalition members.
The dramatic redistribution and concentration of land ownership post-1066 was central to King William’s strategy for regime stabilisation, and is captured well by ‘selectorate theory.’ This is confirmed by an analysis of the responses of members of the winning coalition to destabilisation attempts.
Selectorate theory has been used to model political situations as diverse as the provision of public goods in Ancient Sparta after the Peloponnesian War, to the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, to North Korea under Kim Jong-Il, but until now it has never been used to help understand the Norman Conquest. That such a clear-cut example of the importance of resource distribution within the selectorate has been revealed in 11th century England highlights impressive continuities in the dynamics of regime survival across political cultures and across time.
De Mesquita, B.B., Morrow, J., Siverson, R.M., and Smith, A., 2003. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.
De Mesquita, B.B., Morrow, J., Siverson, R.M., and Smith, A., 2004. “Testing Novel Implications from the Selectorate Theory of War.” World Politics 56, no.3 (April 2004): 363-388