Anglo-Saxon Law and Order

By Michael Wood
The Anglo-Saxon kings were adept at framing laws that reflected their authority. But they had the sense to take local customs into account when doing so.
Detail from stained-glass window, showing an Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia 

Regional sensibilities

It's easy to forget, as we contemplate today's British monarchy drained of its once magical aura, that kingship was one of the great medieval institutions. And English medieval kingship again was a creation of the tenth century (we even still use their coronation order!). This was the institution on which the ultimate responsibility for social order rested. And it was the kingship of Alfred of Wessex and his successors that gave substance to the English state.

The Anglo-Saxon kings who were most praised and best remembered were kings whose power base wasn't just in southern England. Athelstan grew up in the Midlands and presumably spoke with a Midlands accent, even though he was the son of a southern king. Although men like Athelstan and Edgar, his brother, were kings of Wessex, their interests and their friendships needed to be more national.

Success as a medieval king depended on maintaining a delicate approach which paid close attention to local sensibilities. You can see this particularly well in the law codes. Edgar's code, issued in 962-3 for example, specifically talks about:

'...measures common to all the nation, whether English, Danes, or Britons, in every province of my kingdom, to the end that poor man and rich may possess what they rightly acquire...'

Regional customs

Image of Anglo-Saxon farmers
Anglo-Saxon farmers, working the land
We can see that, by the 960s, the Anglo-Saxon kings were taking into account several different linguistic groupings. These comprised those of the southern English, the West Saxons, the Mercians, the East Angles, and the Danes.

They also included the 'Britons' - speakers of Celtic languages (Welsh speakers on the English side of Offa's Dyke, Cornish speakers in the south-west, Cumbrians in the north-west). It is obvious from their legislation that they allowed for regional difference in custom too. At one point, Edgar actually says:

'It is my will that secular rights be in force among the Danes according to as good laws as they can best decide on... Among the English, however, whatever I and my advisors have added to the customs of my ancestors for the benefit of all the nation.'

'It was they [the Danes] who evolved the 12-man jury system. This was soon borrowed by the English ...'

For example, in the lands settled by the Danes, people had marriage customs particular to the region. Their administrative practice and land tenure were also different in practice and terminology. In the north, people had 'wapentakes' instead of hundreds to describe administrative areas, and they counted in 'carucates' instead of hides. A hide was an area of about 120 acres, the amount of land traditionally believed to be adequate to support one family.

The legal traditions of the Danes were also different. It was they who evolved the 12-man jury system. This was soon borrowed by the English, who exported it to the rest of the world, and now claim to have invented it.

lmage of Anglo-Saxons sowing seed
Sowing seeds

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.

The oath of loyalty

Image of Anglo-Saxon kings
Anglo-Saxon kings were prolific law-makers
So how did such early societies create an allegiance? How do you create a sense of mutual obligation and responsibility in a people? It is of course a frequently asked question even today - the question of the balance between rights and duties.

In any state you need law, a written statement of the social norms that society, as represented by a governing body, seeks to enforce. And the Anglo-Saxon state produced lots of law - legal texts are among its most distinctive and most characteristic productions.

Of course, to govern a medium-sized state (in early medieval terms) you had to meet rather different concerns from those for which law had previously provided. Early English law had been framed for tribal societies, and was based on the feud, on redress of injury, rather than on a mutual sense of responsibility to the community. In the Viking era, law-making begins to change to reflect new social conditions.

'Crime is no longer only an injury to the victim, but a crime against society at large.'

Although no innovator himself, Alfred laid the foundation for a lawful society, making his principal parallel with the Biblical law of Moses. As he saw it, the English could - and should - be a chosen people, answerable to God. In the tenth century, when the English state was created, that perception became the underpinning of the king's law. Crime became no longer an injury to the victim only, but a crime against society at large, against the English nation - the same nation we read of in Archbishop Wulfstan's sermons, or in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'.

Law and order

Image of Anglo-Saxon crowns
Anglo-Saxon crowns
The new conception of royal justice was aggressive. The Anglo-Saxons had brutal corporal and capital punishments at their disposal, including 'the ordeal' and grisly mutilations. And they also tried to persuade, cajole, or enforce allegiance with the common oath. Like many traditional societies, the Anglo-Saxons placed a high value on a person's word, their sworn promise.

At the heart of the tenth-century state was the oath, taken by all freemen from the age of 12, to abstain from and denounce any major crime. This common oath enshrined the sense of social community and responsibility that underpinned the law. In this light, theft was seen as an act of disloyalty. If you had broken your oath and committed a serious crime your entire kin could be punished. In the old days the local assembly or the king's court would try you. In the new Anglo-Saxon state there was a hierarchy of courts in each shire and borough, and revamped local courts known as 'hundred' courts.

The presiding officials of these courts were, in effect, local agents of the king - royal appointees. Local cases would be heard in the hundred courts and it was the obligation of the hundred to find the miscreant and bring him back to face justice and, if necessary, to punish the kin.

The hundred would organise the pursuit of notable criminals who fled, and punishment could include exile - you could be transported with your kin group to a completely different part of the country. Harsh methods, to be sure, but these were harsh times.

'The Christian king must severely punish wicked men... He must be merciful and yet austere; that is the king's right - and that is the way to get things done in a nation.' - Archbishop Wulfstan

Crime and violence were the central problem for the early English kings, all the more so as they were Christians who saw it as their job to be Christ's vicar on earth. In one of his law codes, King Athelstan is recorded apologising for the bad state of public order: 'I am sorry my peace is kept so badly. My advisors say I have put up with it too long'.

'King Athelstan... was concerned about the number of young people being executed ... '

With brutal punishments at their disposal, it would have been easy for a king to respond with an iron fist. Which makes the mitigating touches of humanity that we occasionally find all the more touching. King Athelstan, for example, is reported saying to his councillors that he was concerned about the number of young people being executed under the death penalty, 'as he sees everywhere is the case'.

In his day, the penalty could be enforced on anyone 12 years old or over, but the king raised the age of criminal responsibility to 16 because, as he said simply, 'it is too cruel'. That, remember, is around 930, while as late as the early 19th century there are cases of ten, nine and even eight year olds being executed for sheep stealing!

The story provides a salutary warning against having a patronising attitude to the people of the past, or assuming our ancestors of 1,000 years ago were more cruel, or less civilised, than we are. This was a genuine effort to create a humane government, however unpalatable some of its methods may seem to us now, and however ineffectual the king sometimes admitted they were at the time.


Image of a coin from Athelstan's reign
A coin from Athelstan's reign
The tenth century sees the beginnings of a money economy in England, and coinage is one of the great achievements of the later Anglo-Saxon 'state'. Indeed, it is one of our key pieces of evidence for the very existence of an Anglo-Saxon state.

By Edgar's day, there were many mints in southern England. You had to collect your new coins from a local mint, or take old ones back there to be 'recoined'. By Edgar's day there was nowhere in mainland England, apart from the most mountainous rural areas, that was more than 15 miles from a mint. By then, the government could announce that they were going to recoin - presumably in response to inflationary pressures in the economy.

'... the English monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence survived until the United Kingdom went decimal, in 1971.'

The new coins would carry a new design so there was no confusion with the old issue. This amazingly sophisticated system was far more developed than in any other European country, and remained so for long afterwards. And to cap it all, they allowed regional variations in the coin design. Some, for instance, dispensed with including the king's head in the design altogether, perhaps to appease regional sentiment - something which even today's devisers of the euro feel unable to do.

The way this was organised and executed is in itself a testimony to the success of the Anglo-Saxon state - the English monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence survived until the United Kingdom went decimal, in 1971. Even in 2001, the election opinion polls showed a residual reluctance, on the part of the British public, to part with the British pound and replace it with the euro of the European Community. Perhaps that is not surprising, for the pound is the last symbol of the royal currency put in place all that time ago.

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