SOUTHALL: A Brief History

The Norman Conquest and the feudal system

In 1066 Normans from northern France defeated an English army at Hastings. These Normans, or Northmen had come from the same country and at the same time as the Vikings who had invaded England two centuries before. Settling in France they had abandoned their own language in favour of French, and they had also adopted a concept of government different from that of their relatives in England. The feudal system was already being established in England under the Saxons and Danes, but it was left to the Normans finally to consolidate it. To guard and command their new domains the conquerors built heavily fortified castles, to start with mostly of wood but quickly replaced with strong stone buildings. The Saxon thegn’s manor had seldom been elaborately fortified.

Under the last Saxon king Edward the Confessor, the church had become much stronger as more rigid ideas of celibacy and asceticism had been brought over from France. The Norman Conquest reinforced the trend that was already taking place: the conquest had begun long before the Battle of Hastings, for Edward’s sympathies were toward Norman patterns of government and the superior culture of France. The battle merely ensured that the trend already begun should continue.

Henceforth for some centuries what happened at the manor was important for the rest of the domain. The peasant slowly cleared the forest and heathland and ploughed up more and more land. The unchanging pattern of his life persisted for many generations. His produce was only partly his as the greater part was due to the lord of the manor. The lord’s land was attended to before the peasant saw to his own strips. Each village was centred around the lord’s manor house and the church: from this nucleus the fields stretched out to the surrounding forest land, if any intervened before the next village. Most communities had some common land near them where the villagers could gather firewood and graze their sheep and cattle and keep a few geese. In a typical village like Southall life for most people was extremely monotonous and circumscribed until the increase of commerce and industry in the 19th century permitted them to move much more freely, and then they frequently decided to abandon agriculture altogether.

The lords of the manor were the final arbiters for almost all local affairs. They were legislature and judiciary. They had power of life and death over all the villeins. They gathered the taxes and distributed charity if it were needed. The only other force in the village was the parish priest, not often of great singificance when compared to the lord but very very important in the eyes of the fearful and superstitious villeins. The whole life of the peasant was divided between the manor house and the parish church: the most crucial link in the chain of feudal heirarchy rested in the control excersised over the villeins by lord and priest. Changes were made at a level of government beyond the vision of the peasant but the effect on him was very gradual.

If I seem to have spent rather a long time explaning the detail of Saxon and feudal England it is because the subsequent history of Southall has less meaning without an understanding of what it was evolving from. The feudal system lasted so long and its effects were so strongly stamped on the character of the place that we do well to recognise its importance and purpose before going any further.