Primary History

Anglo-Saxons: Kings and laws

  • One king or many?

    Each group of Anglo-Saxon settlers had a leader or war-chief. A strong leader became 'cyning' - Anglo-Saxon for 'king'. Each king ruled a kingdom and led a small army. There were many quarrels and wars between kings, to see who was the strongest.

    By around AD600 there were five important Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. They were Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent and East Anglia. From time to time, the strongest king would claim to be 'bretwalda' - which meant ruler of all Britain.

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  • A king's burial

    In 1939, an amazing discovery was made at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. When they dug into a large earth mound, archaeologists found traces of an Anglo-Saxon ship and many precious objects. This was the grave of a king, probably King Redwald of East Anglia. He died around AD625.

    The treasure buried with the king included coins (with dates on), the remains of clothes and armour, a shield, drinking cups, shoes, a lyre, a gold belt buckle, a sword and a helmet. It's clear this was the burial place of a great leader.

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  • Who was Offa?

    Offa was King of Mercia from AD757 to 796. Mercia was the strongest kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England, and Offa was the most powerful English king. His fame spread to Europe. Offa was treated almost as an equal by Charlemagne, the greatest ruler in Europe at the time.

    Offa issued England's first penny coins, in silver - known as 'Offa's pennies'. He built an earth wall and ditch for defence along the border with Wales. This bank is called Offa's Dyke. About 80 miles/129 km of it can still be seen.

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  • Crime and punishment

    The Anglo-Saxons didn't have prisons. People found guilty of crimes were either executed or punished with fines. If they ran away, they became 'outlaws' (outside the law), and anyone could hunt them down - unless they hid in a church. The fine for breaking into someone's home was 5 shillings (25p), paid to the home-owner. For minor crimes like stealing, a nose or a hand might be cut off.

    If a person killed someone, they paid money to the dead person's relatives. This was 'wergild'. The idea was to stop long quarrels or 'blood feuds' between families.

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  • Free or Slave?

    Most people in Anglo-Saxon society were either freemen or slaves. A freeman owned land and slaves. A slave owned nothing. A slave might be a prisoner captured in war, or someone born into slavery. The richest and most powerful freemen were the thanes who helped the king rule the land.

    While kings and thanes lived in large halls (big wooden houses), free peasants or ceorls (churls) lived in small huts. Poor slaves were glad of a cowshed or barn to sleep in at night. Many slaves were badly treated. They could not leave their owner unless they were sold or set free.

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Fun Facts
  • The body of the Sutton Hoo king was not found in his ship-burial. The body may have 'dissolved' in the soil.

  • Measuring skeletons shows that many Anglo-Saxon men were tall, 1.8 m/6 feet or taller.

  • Cow-stealing was a common crime. There are records of people tracking down stolen cows, like detectives.

  • Razors found in graves show that some men shaved off their beards, although most had moustaches.

  • Offa's Dyke was too high (8 m/25 ft) for cattle-thieves to get stolen cattle over it.

  • The quickest way to get from London to York in the 800s was by ship, not by road.

  • England was famous for making thick woollen coats and cloaks. Charlemagne wrote asking Offa to send him some more coats - but the right size this time!

  • In the time of King Alfred, wergild for a thane was 6,000 pennies. The king's was 90,000!

  • Some of Offa's coins were copies of Arab gold coins. They had Arabic on one side and Offa's name, in Latin, on the other side.

  • Travellers used Offa's pennies to buy things in Europe - rather like we use euros today.

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Jump to: A-D | E-L | M-R | S-Z

A to D

ale
Drink made from barley.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildings that are buried under the ground.
barn
A farm building.
Bayeux Tapestry
An embroidery telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Bede
An English monk and historian. He lived from about 673 to 735.
Beowulf
A long poem about a hero, probably made up before AD 800, and written down later.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
capital
The main town or centre of government of a country.
Celts
People in Britain before the Romans invaded in AD43.
Charlemagne
King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
court
The place where a king meets his followers and gives commands.
cremate
To burn a dead body to ashes.

E to L

evidence
Objects and facts that give clues as to what happened long ago.
freeman
A person who was not a slave and owned land.
Hadrian's Wall
Wall marking the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
historian
A person who studies the past.
hearth
A fireplace, usually in the middle of a house, and with no chimney.
influence
The effect of a person or things on another.
invaders
People who attack and try to take over land from other people.
Latin
Language of the Romans.
longship
Viking ship with a sail and oars.
loom
Machine for weaving cloth.
lyre
A small harp played at Anglo-Saxon feasts.

M to R

mail shirt
Armour made from chain mail, worn on the upper body.
monastery
The building where monks live.
monk
A male member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
nun
A female member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
oxen
Strong cattle used to pull carts and ploughs.
pagan
A person who worships many gods.
Picts
People who lived in Scotland at the time of Roman Britain.
Pope
Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
potter
Person who makes pots, jars and bowls from clay.
raider
An enemy who attacks and then goes away.
rank
Status or position in society.
Reconstruct
To rebuild something as it was.
riddle
A puzzle based on playing with words.
Romans
People who ruled an empire 2,000 years ago
runes
The letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

S to Z

Scots
People in Scotland; they called themselves Gaels - 'Scots' was a name the Romans gave them.
settlement
A place where people make their homes.
slave
A person who is not free but is owned and made to work by another.
smith
A worker who makes things from metal, usually iron.
strip fields
Long narrow ploughed fields.
Sutton Hoo
Site in Suffolk, England, of a king's ship-burial.
thane
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who owned land.
thatch
A roof covered in straw or reeds.
tribe
A group of people who share a common background and culture.
Vikings
People from Scandinavia who were fighters, sea-travellers, traders and farmers.
walled
Having a defensive wall or wooden barrier around it, such as a walled town.
warrior
A person trained to fight in battle.
weaving
Making cloth.
well
A hole dug to supply drinking water to a settlement or house.
Wergild
Money paid to a murdered Anglo-Saxon's family by the murderer.
will
A document setting out how a person wants their possessions shared out after death.