By RaGena C. DeAragon
Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (1998)
Introduction: Marriage has been a means of climbing he social ladder in most societies, and post-conquest England was no exception. The Conquest had provided a sweeping opportunity or men of all strata of the feudal hierarchy to gain lands and wealth in England, but high social status and prestige remained the prerogative of magnate families who had constituted he aristocracy of Normandy and northern France before 1066. Most of these families had themselves risen only recently to wealth and power through ducal patronage, but by 1066 they were firmly entrenched in their Norman estates and in the duke’s inner circle of advisors. Many magnates possessed comital titles and ties of kinship with the Norman duke-kings, and all profited greatly rom he Conqueror’s victory at Hastings and his subsequent redistribution of English lands. Families such as the Beaumonts, Montgomerys, Clares, Mandevilles, and Warennes continued to enjoy the highest aristocratic honors in Anglo-Norman society.
In the second generation after he Conquest, a number of men of lower social standing amassed land and political importance through service to William Rufus and Henry I, desiring to be accepted as peers by the great magnates. Their striving for social success is illustrated by William of Malmesbury in his History of the Kings of England. In recounting the plan of William fitz Osbern to marry the widow of Count Baldwin of Flanders, the chronicler ascribed his motives to a desire “to increase his dignity.” Many men also wanted to impress the lower orders of society with their rank. Orderic Vitalis’s contemptuous tale of one of Henry’s ‘new men’, Richard Basset, suggests hat acquisition of social prestige was a possible motive for marriage. Having married daughter of the earl of Chester, Basset returned to Normandy and made a show of superiority to all his peers and fellow countrymen by the magnificence of his building in the little fief he had inherited from his parents.