Anglo-Saxon England II

Offa of Mercia


 Anglo-Saxon warfare

bullet 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 deadly wounds.


bullet 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.
bullet 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

"Ic Ine, mid Godes gife Wesseaxna kyning, mid geđeahte 7 mid lare Cenredes mines fder 7 Heddes mines biscopes 7 Eorcenwoldes mines biscopes mid eallum minum ealdormannum 7 m ieldstan witum minre đeode 7 eac micelre gesomnunge Godes đeowa ws smeagende be đre hlo urra sawla 7 be đam staole ures rices;  tte ryht w 7 ryhte cynedomas đurh ure folc gefstnode 7 getrymede wron, tte nnig ealdormonna ne us undergeđeodedra fter am wre 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 our dooms].

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.

bullet The earliest surviving law code is that of thelberht of Kent (early seventh century). That of Ine of Wessex (amended by Alfred the Great in the 880s) was particularly important.
bulletAnglo-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 victim.
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 1/3 pence
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.


bullet The criminal's relatives or "guild-brothers" were held responsible for paying the fine if the criminal failed to do so.


Anglo-Saxon social structure

bullet Anglo-Saxon society was not egalitarian. "Eorls" (high noblemen) outranked "thegns" who in turn stood above "ceorls" (ordinary freemen).
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet A freed slave was still essentially under his lord's control, but was no longer his responsibility.
bullet 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.

bulletA 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.
bulletCeorls 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.
bulletDuring 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.

Anglo-Saxon brooch

bullet Eorls or gesiths (companions to the king) stood at the top of the social scale. Just below them were thegns - royal servants.


a ws Geatmcgum         geador tsomne
on beorsele         benc gerymed;
r swiferhe         sittan eodon,
ryum dealle.         egn nytte beheold,
se e on handa br         hroden ealowge,
scencte scir wered.         Scop hwilum sang
hador on Heorote.         r ws hlea dream,
dugu 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 was composed.

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.

Gathered 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).


bullet 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.


 Local government

9th century royal rings

bullet Instability at Anglo-Saxon courts did not translate into local disorder, for Anglo-Saxon England soon established a stable system of local government.
bullet 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.
bullet Anglo-Saxon England was far from poor. The burial site at Sutton Hoo, 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.


bullet Anglo-Saxon expansion gradually pressed the British westward and divided them into separate kingdoms - Dumnonia in the South West; Strathclyde in the western lowlands of Scotland; and the "Welsh" kingdoms - Dyfed, Powys and Gwynedd.
bullet It was the Anglo-Saxons who called the Britons wealhas (which meant foreigners, and later slaves) - this became corrupted to Welsh. The earliest Welsh poetry expresses the same tribal values and warrior ethics as that of the very same Anglo-Saxons whom the Britons had so long resisted. Although the British in Wales retained their independence for many more centuries, virtually all Roman culture had disappeared.
[Contemporary DNA testing in western Wales shows virtually no Anglo-Saxon DNA - only ancient British].
bullet The Welsh were the only Britons to retain effective independence well into the Middle Ages. Strathclyde - the British kingdom centered on the fortress of Dumbarton, not far from modern Glasgow - was invaded by Vikings in the 9th Century, and merged into Scotland in the early 1000s.
Athelstan (924-39) reduced Dumnonia and effectively ended local independence there, although a small sub-kingdom hung on in Cornwall.

[Modern DNA testing shows Cornwall has far more genetic input from the Britons than the North and East of England where Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Viking genetic markers abound].




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