I’ve often come across the term ‘knight’s fee’ in my reading and not known what it meant, so this week I decided to do some reading in order to find out. You’re probably already wondering how the picture of peasants working in a field above has anything to do with knights. I hope all will become clear.
Knight’s fee is a term that applied mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was the amount of land that came with the obligation of military service. All land in England was held, in theory at least, by the king. William the Conqueror gave large chunks of it to his tenants-in-chief in return for military service. The tenants-in-chief, in turn, gave bits of land to men further down the chain who owed them military service. This obligation was inherited and confirmed by their descendants. The military service was up to forty days a year, which is why you’ll occasionally read about men returning home on the forty-first day. This service was unpaid. It was, of course, the king’s option to pay for more. The knight wasn’t obligated to accept, but it probably wasn’t a wise move to turn the king down.
These knights should not be thought of in the same way as the knights who trained for war since childhood and went off to fight in armour on the backs of magnificent horses, although some of them were that sort of knight. Many of them turned down the opportunity to become a knight of this kind, as the costs were too high. They were, rather, the lowest level of the landholding classes and were sometimes not much wealthier than the peasants who worked their land.
These men usually had one manor from which they had to raise enough money to look after their family and meet their military obligation. Fairly quickly this requirement to go to war themselves was replaced by a tax or fine known as scutage. Henry II collected it as a tax every four years; under other kings it was simply a way in which the landowner could pay for a knight to fight in his stead, either by hiring a knight himself or paying the money to the king.. These men would not all have been trained knights, so paying the king so that he could employ trained soldiers was probably a good option for many of them.
Even in the twelfth century there was no realistic expectation that the tenants-in-chief would be able to call on as many knights as their landholdings indicated should be available. The knights themselves must rarely have performed military service as they might have been too old, too young, too ill or disabled. Scutage, the tax or fine, allowed them to pay for someone else to go in their place.
Towards the end of the twelfth century the size of a manor sufficient to require a knight’s fee was five hides. A hide was generally considered to be 120 acres, but in this context it was usually understood as an amount of money rather than the size of the land itself. A hide was the area that would support a family for a year or that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Both measures would indicate different amounts of land in different parts of the country, since a family could live for a year on a smaller piece of land in an area where the soil was good than they could where it was poor. The hide was a taxation tool more than anything else.
Around 1300 there were about 1,100 to 1,500 knights who technically owed the knight’s fee. By the start of the Hundred Years War in 1327 the vast majority of soldiers, including knights, were paid. In 1352 Edward III stopped trying to call men for their obligatory service and all soldiers who served thereafter were paid.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer