Anglo-Saxon England II
Offa of Mercia
Anglo-Saxon society revolved
around warfare. Freemen were automatically warriors and were expected
to fight from early adolescence. Teenage boys were often taken into
a chieftain's household to be trained as warriors.
Saxon spearhead - 6th century
|Anglo-Saxon warriors were equipped with javelins
and throwing axes as well as swords and shields. A "scramasax" -
a single-bladed dagger - was used for close-quarter fighting.
Needless to say, such weapons could inflict
Gesiths (serving-men and companions to
the king) fought for their hlaford (lord/ breadgiver). Freemen were rewarded for their military
service with (at first generally temporary) grants of land. The need to obtain
more land for distribution encouraged policies of conquest, and the
kings of Wessex were particularly successful because they were able to
expand into Cornish territory.
Prisoners of war were enslaved and provided the
labor to work the land.
Law codes and wergild.
Preamble to the laws of Ine; c. 690
mid Godes gife Wesseaxna kyning, mid geđeahte 7 mid lare
Cenredes mines fæder 7
Heddes mines biscopes 7 Eorcenwoldes mines biscopes mid eallum
minum ealdormannum 7 þæm ieldstan witum minre đeode 7 eac
micelre gesomnunge Godes đeowa wæs smeagende be đære hælo urra
sawla 7 be đam staþole ures rices; þætte ryht
æw 7 ryhte cynedomas đurh ure folc gefæstnode 7 getrymede wæron,
þætte nænig ealdormonna ne us undergeđeodedra æfter þam wære
awendende đas ure domas."
[I, Ine, by God's grace king of
the West Saxons, with the counsel and with the teaching of
Cenred my father, and of Hedde my bishop, and of Eorcenwold my
bishop and my ealdormen and the most distinguished witan of my
people, and also with a large assembly of God's servants, have
been considering of the health of our souls and of the stability
of our realm; so that just law and just kingly dooms might
be settled and established throughout our folk, so that none of
the ealdormen nor of our subjects should hereafter pervert these
|The Anglo-Saxons were very unusual in framing
laws in their own language - during the 6th and 7th centuries,
the kingdoms of the Continent used
Latin for their law codes.
The earliest surviving law code is that of
of Kent (early seventh century). That of Ine of Wessex (amended by Alfred
the Great in the 880s) was particularly important.
|Anglo-Saxon law aimed at compensating those who
were harmed by crime. The compensation paid for death or injury was
called "wergeld" or "wergild" ("man-yield"). The
price payable often varied according to the wealth or social status of the
In some cases - for example, disturbing a public assembly or folkmoot
- compensation also had to be paid to the king.
Victim compensation in the time of Alfred
the Great (871-99).
|An ear, 30 shillings
an eye, the tongue, a hand, or a foot, 66 shillings 3
the nose, 60s
a front tooth, 8s
a molar, 4s
an eye-tooth, 15s
a thumb, 30s
a thumbnail, 5s
a first finger, 15s; its nail, 3s
a little finger 9s; its nail, 1s
a big toe, 20s
a little toe, 5s.
||The criminal's relatives or "guild-brothers"
were held responsible for paying the fine if the criminal failed to do
Anglo-Saxon social structure
Anglo-Saxon society was not
egalitarian. "Eorls" (high noblemen) outranked "thegns" who
in turn stood above "ceorls" (ordinary freemen).
The lowest rank was that of "theow"
(slave). Slaves did have some minimal rights - including the
possibility of earning money and eventually buying their freedom.
In the early Anglo-Saxon
period, slaves were generally British captives - a common Anglo-Saxon
term for a slave was "wealh" (from which we get "Welsh;" it
also meant "foreigner.") There were
also slaves by "wite-theow" (penal enslavement),
and people sometimes sold themselves or their children into slavery in
order to settle their debts.
The Christian Church urged the manumission of
slaves as a pious act (in part perhaps because only freemen had to pay
tithes). On manumission the slave was generally given a small plot of
land to support himself and family.
A freed slave was still essentially under his
lord's control, but was no longer his responsibility.
A "gebur" was not quite a slave, but had
to work unpaid for his lord, and any land he farmed returned to the
lord at the gebur's death.
7th Century cross found at Stanton, Suffolk.
|A ceorl's wergild was a sixth of a nobleman's, and in
legal proceedings the word of a thegn counted for as much as that of
six ceorls. However, ceorls were freemen.|
|Ceorls were liable for military service in the
fyrd (army), but by
the 8th Century kings seem to have preferred to levy noblemen who
were better trained and equipped.|
|During the Anglo-Saxon period, the status of ceorl
gradually declined. During the 9th and 10th Centuries, most
ceorls became bound to work on their lords' lands.|
Eorls or gesiths (companions to
the king) stood at the top of the social scale. Just below them were
thegns - royal servants.
Geatmæcgum geador ætsomne
on beorsele benc gerymed;
þær swiðferhþe sittan eodon,
þryðum dealle. þegn nytte beheold,
se þe on handa bær hroden ealowæge,
scencte scir wered. Scop hwilum sang
hador on Heorote. þær wæs hæleða dream,
duguð unlytel Dena ond Wedera.
|The surviving version of
Beowulf dates from the late Anglo-Saxon period, after the
spread of Christianity. However, in its lines survive the
values of the violent pagan world in which its first version
Noblemen fought beside the king in battle and
drank beside him in his hall. Anglo-Saxon poetry portrays a world of
hard fighting and hard drinking.
together, the Geatish men
in the banquet-hall on bench assigned,
sturdy-spirited, sat them down,
hardy-hearted. A henchman attended,
carried the carven cup in hand,
served the clear mead. Oft minstrels sang
blithe in Heorot. Heroes revelled,
no dearth of warriors, Weder and Dane.
(Beowulf, Chapter 7).
In early Anglo-Saxon England, the king granted
land to noblemen only for their lifetime; it reverted to the king at
death. This gave the king considerable power, but his position was
still insecure; disputes about the succession and attempts by
relatives to seize the throne were common.
9th century royal rings
Instability at Anglo-Saxon
courts did not translate into local disorder, for Anglo-Saxon England
soon established a stable system of local government.
England was divided into
administrative areas of about 50 to 100 square miles, and in each of
these was a king's "tun." The king travelled regularly around these
districts, collecting taxes and resolving disputes at the tun
and staying at the king's hall in the area (sometimes but not often
the same place as the tun). The king's visit to the tun
was often the occasion for markets, fairs, and festivities.
Anglo-Saxon England was far
from poor. The burial site at
for example, shows that Raedwald of East Anglia (died 624) could afford
beautiful and expensive artwork.
Survival of British kingdoms
Offa's Dyke -
a massive earthwork stretching 150 miles; it was constructed
during the 8th Century to mark the frontier between Mercia and
the Welsh kingdoms.