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12 July 2014
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Anglo-Saxon Law and Order

By Michael Wood
Racial tension

Anglo-Saxon illustration of Viking ship
Anglo-Saxon illustration of Viking ship ©
You had to be careful of local feeling, during Anglo-Saxon times, and good kings usually were. That's not to say that there weren't many tensions in the early English polity. We know that freedom of access across the Watling Street border between the English Midlands and the Danish Midlands seems to have been allowed from Athelstan's time onward, presumably for traders.

But there are hints in the 960s that some people thought Edgar had allowed too many foreigners and foreign customs into the country. There is even a letter in which somebody in southern England complains about his brother adopting too many Danish customs and wearing his hair in an un-English style.

'I tell you, brother Edward, now that you ask, you do wrong to abandon the good English practices of your fathers, and in falling in love with heathen ways… insulting your ancestors by dressing in Danish fashion...' - Letter from an unknown Anglo-Saxon (source: British Library)

'Just as today, there were times when resentment against immigrants could create tensions and be exploited by politicians. '

Which reminds us, as if we ever need reminding, that the people of the past are people like us; and it reminds us too that just as today, there were times when resentment against immigrants could create tensions and be exploited by politicians.

It seems possible, for example, that at the height of the Danish attacks in 1002, Ethelred the Unready tried to fan racial hatred against Danish settlers in southern England. According to a later tradition, the paranoid Ethelred gave orders (sent by letter to all his agents in the towns) inciting the English to massacre Danish communities in southern towns. The grounds he gave were that they intended to depose and kill him, along with members of his council.

These orders do not appear to have been widely carried out - perhaps even then people saw through the spin and were reluctant to turn out at the exhortation of a manipulative leader. But there is a later tradition that the Danes in Oxford took refuge in the church of St Frideswide, where they were burned by a mob inflamed by anti-Danish rhetoric.

That a late Old English government could try to harness this kind of hatred suggests the tensions which lay under the surface of their state. As their law codes reveal, they faced massive problems of social order, and on a smaller scale had to deal with many of the same sorts of practical political problems that we do today. Perhaps that helps us to be realistic about the extent of their achievement, as well as the difficulties they faced.



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