So says a Law of Alfred the Great. And despite most men at the time considering themselves to be free-men, Alfred's Law stated that a man must have someone to whom he can give service or perform duties, and to whom he was responsible to for his behavour.
These were called"thegns" (thane, noble, aristocrat) and were the prime landowners and local leaders. The thegn lived in a village or burgh (dwelling) surrounded by his family, servants and men-at-arms. His residence was a round, thatched barn-like Hall, grouped together with smaller buildings (bowers, stores, kitchen, church).
Thegns owned land equivalent to at least five hides (120 acres). All large grants of land were called bocland as the details were written down in a boc (book).
The thegns travelled with the King - they were bound to serve the King during times of war. The thegns were supported by the labours of their serfs and farmers. These villagers lived in huts nearby with their grazing lands beong the village.
The greatest of the thegns were the earldormen or earls who ruled the largest tracts of land. These men paid rent for their lands, and were entitled to attend the moot (meeting-place).
Next came the freemen - he too paid rent for his alnd and attended the moot, although as time passed, his independence was to be greatly reduced. The freeman would later become known as a churl. The freeman held a small farmland which provided for the needs of the thegn.
Lower than the churl was the gebur - a peasant or villein (agriculatural worker, farmer). He held land equivalent to approximately 30 acres, in return for which he owed his thegn two to three days' work per week, and various gifts.
The cottager had even less land and also gave service in lieu of paying rent. Labourers were free although they held no land and worked for pay.
Serfs - these were the lowest of all. They were also known as thralls or bondsmen. They held no land and were treated no better than slaves. These were the poorest - often a man would sell himself and his family into serfdom in return for food, shelter and work; a freeman who had lost everything (land, crops) might also become a serf; whilst a man whose father was a serf was also a serf. It was considered a most pious act to free a serf - and this could be done on the deathbed or through a will.
~~~ Melisende (first pub: 27/07/2006)