Law in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon law isn’t a still life, it’s more like a movie. Between the time between the Roman withdrawal and the Norman invasion, Ango-Saxon England changed from a tribal society to a centralized kingdom. The laws changed. The kings changed. Towns and cities appeared in what had been a rural landscape. Kingdoms swallowed kingdoms swallowed yet more kingdoms until only one was left.

And to complicate the picture, Christianity became the dominant religion, and the Christian church wasn’t shy about throwing its weight around in law, politics, and pretty much any other aspect of society. 

We’ll ignore the Viking invasions and the Viking settlements. We’ve got enough moving parts to oil about sparing them any. But even without oiling any Vikings, what’s true in one year and in one kingdom won’t be true in another year and in another kingdom. So even though I’ve smoothed out the edges for the sake of coherence, incoherence may be a truer picture.

 

Murder and money

By way of an overview, let’s borrow from a BBC article, which says (more or less) that crime starts out as an offense against an individual and his or her family but under King Alfred (a.k.a. Alfred the Great, 871–899) it becomes an offense against society as a whole. Which now that someone mentions it is a huge change.

Anglo-Saxon law grows out of Germanic traditions, not Roman ones, and when it gets written down it’s not written in Latin but in Old English (known at the time simply as English–they think it’ll age better than it turns out to).

Irrelevant photo: mallow

In contrast, most of the European continent lean Romeward in their legal traditions. That’s not entirely relevant, but it is interesting.

Until the 10th century, most injuries to another person are measured in money. You just killed someone? Sit over there by the wall while we figure out if it was your fault and what your victim’s worth. First, how important were they? Did you declare the killing openly or try to hide it? What sort of reason did you have? Were you drunk or sober? 

Now we’ll call together a court made up of your neighbors (that’s your free neighbors, not your enslaved ones), who’ll base their judgement on what they know of your character and history and your victim’s character and history, as well as on the witnesses that you and your victim’s family bring. 

The witnesses are there to testify about your character, not necessarily about what happened. They didn’t necessarily witness the killing itself.  

Okay, they just found you guilty–sorry; these things do happen–and they’ve figured out the dead person’s wergild. That’s the money you’ll have to pay to compensate their family for their death. After you pay up–well, the event won’t be forgotten, but legally you can put it behind you.

But death’s an extreme example and most people hate sad endings anyway, so you don’t have to have killed anyone, okay? We’ll let you try out some other crime, because you make restitution in money for almost all of them. If, say, you injure someone ( this is under Aethelbert’s and Alfred’s laws; remember, it all keeps changing) the fine is higher if you injure someone in a visible way, probably because that injures their honor: They now have to walk around looking like someone who’s not powerful enough to defend themselves. That damages their standing in the community. (Tuck that thought away somewhere. We’ll come back to it.)

 

Feuds and physical punishment

Not everyone who commits a crime has the money to pay a fine, and the alternative is physical punishment–anything from whipping to maiming to execution. Since slaves (who own nothing or almost nothing) and coerls (who are the lowest level of free people and own damn little) are the least likely to pay a fine, they’re the most likely to face physical punishment, although in the later Anglo-Saxon period physical punishment spread up the social ladder. Athelstan’s Second Code of Laws (we’re in the early tenth century here) says that if a moneyer–the person who mints coins–is found guilty making them too light or mixing in cheaper metals, “the hand shall be cut off with which he committed the crime, and fastened up on the mint.” (That’s from Rober Lacey and Danny Danzier’s The Year 1000.)

On the other hand, let’s say you’re convicted of killing someone and can afford the fine but refuse to. Or you can’t come up with the money but you have enough status that somehow no one discusses executing or maiming you.

Well, you may have just set off a feud involving your family and the dead person’s family, and at least for part of the Anglo-Saxon period that’s a perfectly legitimate way to handle the problem. Because this is a tribal–or if you like, communal or familial–society. You’re not just you, you’re a member of your family, and whether you like it or not, a representative of it. Your honor is their honor. Your crime is their crime, and so’s your battle. 

Neither family can afford to be seen as weak. 

This can get messy easily, and assorted kings try to put a lid on it. Edmund tries to limit revenge to the perpetrator alone, leaving the family out of it. Alfred (among other things) insists that the wronged family has to wait twelve months to see if the other family will pay up. He bans secret attacks. He insists that you ask for your payment before you attack.

None of this eliminates feuds, it just limits them.

 

Closed communities and strangers

Now let’s go back to that court of your free neighbors. Both accused and accuser bring witnesses to their character, and at least at the beginning of the era, this will be happening in a small community, so the neighbors already know who they’re dealing with. They come with all their loyalties and long standing grievances and biases. And let’s not kid ourselves that family status doesn’t weigh heavily as well. This is a hierarchical society. Fear of a powerful family will factor in heavily.

Thou shalt not convict the local lord’s darling, even if he is a little psychopath.

The closeness of a small community means that some crimes we take for granted don’t happen–or don’t happen often. Breaking into someone’s house and stealing their stuff? Unlikely. Everyone not only knows you but knows your stuff. It’s kind of like being eight years old and coming home with a phone. Your mother takes one look as it and says, “Where’d you get that?” 

“Um–”

“Right. Get your jacket. We’re taking it back.”

So no, you can’t take that fancy knife your neighbor had made. Because he didn’t just show it to you, he showed it to everyone else too. 

There’s no evidence (says Sally Crawford in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England) that people had locks on their doors in the early Anglo-Saxon settlements, although some people did have locked chests.

What about someone from out of town stealing your stuff? Strangers aren’t common, and to be an outsider is to be suspected of–well, either something that already happened or something that might. 

If you’re the stranger, the best thing you can do is ask for the protection of someone local–and preferably someone both local and powerful. But once you’ve done that, any crime you commit will reflect on your patron, who won’t be pleased with you. 

 

Women in Anglo-Saxon law

If you’re going to be a woman in medieval Europe, you might as well get yourself born into Anglo-Saxon England, because relatively speaking women’s status isn’t bad, although the emphasis is on relatively. In general, it wasn’t a good time to be born a woman.

Women can inherit property and control it. As surely as every man has a wergild–a value for every kind of injury against him–so does every woman, and any offense against her will be settled with reference to it. If she’s high enough up the social scale, the money will be paid to her, not her husband. If she’s too low on the social scale to collect the money, that stems not from her sex but her status. The same is true of men.

She can take a case to court the same way a man can. She can leave a marriage, and if she takes the children and supports them, half the property goes with her. (You notice how this leans heavily toward people who have property?) Marriage is a secular arrangement, although a couple might stop at the church for a blessing–and breaking up a marriage is equally secular. 

 

Outlawry

In a society based on family, the worst thing (other than execution, of course) that you can do to someone is to outlaw them. The outlaw has no family, no protection, no one to fight for them or with them, and no one to avenge them. That’s one reason people are suspicious of strangers: Who can tell that they’re not outlaws?

Anyone can be outlawed, even a king. The Anglo-Saxons don’t believe in the divine right of kings (at least until late in the game) or in a king’s eldest son automatically taking the throne when the father dies. The king’s chosen and can be unchosen, as King Cyneheard of the West Saxons was when he pissed off his witan–that’s the group of aristocrats who counseled him. 

King C. was killed by a swineherd, Since he was an outlaw, he was fair game. Or so the story goes. 

*

This is part of a series of posts on English law and courts. I haven’t a clue where it’ll go next, but stick around and we’ll all find out.

 

36 thoughts on “Law in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. A very interesting post! From our actual point of view, the content of the common law of these long gone times seems rather awkward… and I’m happy to live now, not then!!
    Another beautiful example: In late medieval Germany, there were only two legal ways to prove that someone has committed a crime. Either you could present two witnesses, or the accused person confessed the crime. Well, a little bit of torture could prove quite helpful to procure a “sincere” confession 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    • The use of torture continued for centuries, and it’s only recently that it’s been frowned on for the police to beat up suspects in the interests of justice. It hasn’t stamped out the practice but it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

      Thanks for the example from Germany.

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  2. Wow! I almost stopped reading even you booted out my ancestors, the Vikings— bastards that they were— but alas I read on and as one who spent 20+ years in justice system this all quite interesting. 🧐 so thx for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Law in Anglo-Saxon England – Nelsapy

  4. Well – some of these practices weren’t a s primitive as might be expected. Obviously, as it is today, “progress” is “one step forward two steps back !” Thanks again for another learning experience !

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s an interesting prospect, and I could argue both sides of basing a conviction on a person’s past. In a small community, people would have a pretty good idea who did what, or at least who was likely to. On the other hand, it means that people would get categorized early and never have a chance to get away from other people’s opinions of them. It also means that the local roughneck would be accused of whatever happened, regardless of who did it.

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  5. Pingback: Law in Anglo-Saxon England — Notes from the U.K. | Vermont Folk Troth

  6. History in a nutshell, full of interesting details that I will probably forget (sorry, not the most serious of students) but one that will definitely discourage me from being a criminal. investigator 😊 . Enjoyed the post

    Liked by 1 person

    • True. Apparently. I haven’t seen anything that comments on the extent to which that worked its way down the line to women who had no property to own. Odds are there’s no evidence left. It’s something I’d love to know.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Your ten-minute history of the English courts | Notes from the U.K.

    • I watched one “Arthurian” battle re-enactment. It involved mud (lots of mud), wooden swords, and a fair bit of yelling. I wouldn’t say look to it for accuracy, although the mud would’ve been authentic, I’m sure. The high point, for me, was watching a pack of them pile into a red phone box (this was a long time ago) and one guy standing in front of the public toilets saying to the world at large, “Well, I see where it says ladies and I see where it says gents, but where does it say thugs?”

      Liked by 1 person

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