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History Scroll

The History Of England

by Peter Williams Ph.D


Chapter Six: Anglo-Saxon Law


From the Roman historian Tacitus we get a picture of the administration of law on the Continent long before the Saxons settled in Britain. His Germania tells us of the deliberation of the chiefs in smaller matters and the deliberation of all in more important ones: "Yet even those matters which are reserved for the general opinion are thoroughly discussed by the chiefs... in the assembly, actions may be brought and capital crimes prosecuted. They make the punishment fit the crime."


It was not long after the conversions of the Saxon peoples to Christianity that written laws began to be enacted in England to provide appropriate penalties for offences against the Church (and therefore against God). King Aethelbert of Kent (60l-04) was the first to set down the laws of his people in the English language; his laws constitute by far the earliest body of law expressed in any Germanic language. They were influenced by the Lex Salica, issued by Clovis for the Salian Franks.


The basis of Kentish society in Aethelbert's time was the free-peasant landholder. As an independent person, he had many rights, and though he had no claim to nobility, he was subject to no lord below the king himself. As head of a family, he was entitled to compensation for the breaking of his household peace. If he were to be slain, the killer had to compensate his kinfolk and also pay the king.
The king's food-rent was the heaviest of the public burdens. Early on, it had consisted of providing a quantity of provisions once a year from a particular group of villages sufficient to maintain a king and his retinue for 24 hours. Long after Aethelbert's reign, the king's servants of every degree were still being quartered on the country as they traveled from place to place to carry out their duties.


Other Kentish laws date from the reigns of Hlothhere and Eadric, brother and eldest son respectively of Egbert. They show a somewhat elaborate development of legal procedure, but they also recognize a title to nobility which is derived from birth and not from service to a king. More significant, however, is the fact that the men who direct the pleas in popular assemblies are not ministers of the king, but "the judges of the Kentish people." All in all, the laws show a form of society little affected by the growth of royal power or aristocratic privilege.


Under Wihtraed (695-96), laws were set down mainly to deal with ecclesiastical matters. They were primarily to provide penalties for unlawful marriages, heathen practices, neglect of holy days or fast days, and to define the process under which accused persons might establish their innocence. The Church and its leading ministers were given special privileges, including exemption from taxation.
The oath of a bishop, like those of a king, was uncontrovertible, and the Church was to receive the same compensation as the king for violence done to dependents. Within 90 years, the Church that Aethelbert had taken under his protection had become a power all but co-ordinate with the king himself.


By the early part of the l0th Century, the government had begun to regard the kin as legally responsible for the good behavior of its members. There had been earlier passages that ignored or deliberately weakened this primitive function of kin. For example, a ceorl who wished to clear himself at the altar must produce not a group of his kinsmen, but three men who are merely of his own class. Mere oaths from his own family circle were looked upon with suspicion by the authorities, and thus encroachments upon the power of the kin to protect its own members constituted a rapid advancement of English law before the end of the 7th Century.
From the laws of Ine (688-726), the strongest king in Southern England during his long reign, it is clear that he was a statesman with ideas beyond the grasp of his predecessors. His code is a lengthy document, covering a wide range of human relationships, entering much more fully than any other early code into the details of the agrarian system on which society rested. They were also marked by the definite purpose of advancing Christianity.


Ine's laws point to a complicated social order in which the aristocratic ideal was already important. The free peasant was the independent master of a household. He filled a responsible position in the state, and the law protected the honor and peace of his household. He owed personal service in the national militia (the fyrd); and unlawful entry through the hedge around his premises was a grave offense. In disputes concerning land rights, which he farmed in association with his fellows, it was necessary for the King and his Council to provide settlement. The free peasant was thus responsible to no authority below the king for his breaches of local custom.
By the year 878 there was every possibility that before the end of the year Wessex would have been divided out among the Danish invaders. That this turn of events did not come to pass was due to the efforts of King Alfred. For the time being, however, leaving aside the political events of the period, we can praise his laws as the first selective code of Anglo-Saxon England--though the fundamentals remained unchanged, he amended or discarded those that didn't please him.


In 896, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication that the lands that had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. It made him the obvious leader of all those who, in any part of the country, wished for a reversal of the disasters, and it was immediately followed by a general recognition of his lordship. In the words of the Chronicle, "... all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the power of the Danes."


The occasion marked the achievement of a new stage in the advance of the English peoples towards political unity. The acceptance of Alfred's overlordship expressed a feeling that he stood for interests common to the whole English race. Earlier rulers had to rely on the armed forces at their disposal for any such claims.


The Code of Alfred has a significance in English history which is entirely independent of its subject matter, for he gives himself the title of King of the West Saxons, naming previous kings such as Ine, Offa, and Aethelbert whose work had influenced his own. The implication is that his code was intended to cover not only the kingdom of Wessex, but also Kent and Mercia. It thus becomes important evidence of the new political unity forced upon the English peoples by the struggle against the Danes. In addition, it appeared at the end of a century during which no English king had issued any laws.


Following Alfred's example, unlike their counterparts on the Continent, English kings retained their right to exercise legislative powers. Showing the nature of one who had once depended upon the loyalty of his men for survival, they include provisions protecting the weaker members of society against oppression, limiting the ancient custom of the blood-feud and emphasizing the duty of a man to his lord. As a footnote, Alfred insisted that to clear himself, a man of lower rank that a kings' thegn must produce the oaths of eleven men of his own class and one of the Kings' thegns.


It is now time to turn back to the Danish (Viking or Norsemen) invasion of England, and the part King Alfred of Wessex was to play in his country's defense and eventual survival.


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This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D. Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has a website which is well worth a visit -

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