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
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
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.
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 - CelticInfo.com