Part 1 out of 7
OUR LEGAL HERITAGE
The first thousand years: 600 - 1600
King AEthelbert - Queen Elizabeth
by S. A. Reilly, Attorney
175 E. Delaware Place
Chicago, Illinois 60611-1724
This was written to see what laws have been in existence for a
long time and therefore have proven their success in maintaining
a stable society. It's purpose is also to see the historical
context in which our legal doctrines were derived. It looks at
the inception of the common law system, the origin of the jury
system, the meaning in context of the Magna Carta provisions, the
emergence of attorneys, and the formation of probate law from
This book is a primer. One may read it without prior knowledge in
history or law, although it will be more meaningful to lawyers
than to non-lawyers. Since it defines terms unique to English
legal history, it may serve as a good introduction on which to
base further reading in English legal history. The meaning of
some terms in King Aethelbert's code in Chapter 1 are unknown or
The chapters are sequential. The title of each chapter in the
Table of Contents includes the time period covered. The title of
each chapter denotes an important legal development of that time
Each chapter is divided into three sections: The Times, The Law,
and Judicial Procedure. The law section is the central section.
It describes the law governing the behavior and conduct of the
populace. It includes law of that time by which people lived
which is the same, similar, or a building block to the law of
today. In earlier times this is both statutory law and the common
law of the court. The Magna Carta, which is quoted in Chapter 7,
is the first statute of the Statutes at Large. The law sections
of Chapter 7 - 13 mainly quote or paraphrase most of these
statutes or the Statutes of the Realm. Excluded are statutes
which do not help us understand the development of our law, such
as statutes governing Wales after its conquest and statutes on
succession rights to the throne.
The first section of each chapter: The Times, sets a background
and context in which to better understand the laws. The usual
subject matter of history such as battles, famines, periods of
corruption, and international relations are omitted as not
helping to understand the process of civilization and development
of the law in the nation of England.
The last section of each chapter: Judicial Procedure, describes
the process of applying the law and trying cases for the relevant
time period. It also contains some examples of cases.
For clarity and easy comparison, amounts of money expressed in
pounds or marks have been converted to the smaller denominations
of shillings and pence. There are twenty shillings in a pound. A
mark is two thirds of a pound.
The sources and reference books from which information was
obtained are listed in the bibliography instead of being
contained in tedious footnotes.
A Vassar College faculty member once dedicated her book to her
students, but for whom it would have been written much earlier.
This book "Our Legal Heritage" is dedicated to the faculty of
Vassar College, without whom it would never have been written.
Table of Contents
1. Tort law as the first written law: to 600
2. Oaths and perjury: 600-900
3. Marriage law: 900-1066
4. Martial "law": 1066-1100
5. Criminal law and prosecution: 1100-1154
6. Common Law for all freemen: 1154-1215
7. Magna Carta: the first statute: 1215-1272
8. Land law: 1272-1348
9. Legislating the economy: 1348-1399
10. Equity from Chancery Court: 1400-1485
11. Use-trust of land: 1485-1509
12. Wills and testaments of lands and goods: 1509-1558.
13. Consideration and contract Law: 1558-1600
14. Epilogue: from 1600
Appendix: Sovereigns of England
- The Times: before 600 -
Clans, headed by Kings, lived in huts on top of hills or other
high places and fortified by circular or rectangular earth banks
behind which they could gather with their herds for protection.
They lived in circular huts with wood posts in a circle
supporting a roof. The walls were of wood and/or mud and straw.
Sometimes there were stalls for cattle. Cooking was in a clay
oven inside or over an open fire on the outside. Forests abounded
with wolves, bears, wild boars, and wild cattle.
People wore animal skins over their bodies for warmth and around
their feet for protection when walking. They carried small items
by hooking them onto their belts.
Pathways extended through this camp of huts and for many miles
beyond. They were used for trade and transport with pack-horses.
Men bought or captured women for wives and carried them over the
thresholds of their huts. The first month of marriage was called
the honeymoon because the couple was given mead, an alcoholic
drink made from honey, for the first month of their marriage. A
wife wore a gold wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand
to show that she was married. Women wore other jewelry too, which
indicated their social rank.
Women usually stayed at home caring for children, preparing
meals, and making baskets. They also made wool felt and wove wool
into cloth. Flax was grown and woven into linen cloth. The
weaving was done on an upright or warp-weighted loom. People
draped the cloth around their bodies and fastened it with a metal
brooch inlayed with gold, gems, glass, and shell, which were
glued on with glue that was obtained from melting animal hooves.
They also had amber beads and pendants. They could tie things
with rawhide strips or rope braids they made.
The King, who was tall and strong, led his men in hunting groups
to kill deer and other wild animals in the forests and to fish in
the streams. Some men brought their hunting dogs on leashes to
follow scent trails to the animal. The men attacked the animals
with spears and threw stones. They used shields to protect their
bodies. They watched the phases of the moon and learned to
predict when it would be full and give the most light for night
hunting. This began the concept of a month.
If hunting groups from two clans tried to follow the same deer,
there might be a fight between the clans or a blood feud. After
the battle, the clan would bring back its dead and wounded. A
priest officiated over a funeral for a dead man. His wife would
often also go on the funeral pyre with him. Memorial burial
mounds would be erected over the corpses or cremated ashes of
their great men. Later, these ashes were first placed in urns
before burial in a mound of earth or the corpses were buried with
a few personal items.
The priest also officiated over sacrifices of humans, who were
usually offenders found guilty of transgressions. Sacrifices were
usually made in time of war or pestilence, and usually before the
winter made food scarce, at Halloween time.
The clan ate deer that had been cooked on a spit over a fire, and
fruits and vegetables which had been gathered by the women. They
drank water from springs. In the spring, food was plentiful.
There were eggs of different colors in nests and many rabbits to
eat. The goddess Easter was celebrated at this time.
After this hunting and gathering era, there was farming and
domestication of animals such as horses, pigs, sheep, goats,
chicken, and cattle. Of these, the pig was the most important
meat supply, being killed and salted for winter use. Next in
importance were the cattle. Sheep were kept primarily for their
wool. Flocks and herds were taken to pastures. The male cattle,
with wood yokes, pulled ploughs in the fields of barley and
wheat. The female goat and cow provided milk, butter, and cheese.
The chickens provided eggs. Pottery was made and used for food
preparation and consumption. During the period of "lent" [from
the word "lencten", which means spring], it was forbidden to eat
any meat or fish. This was the season in which many animals were
born and grew a lot.
Circles of big stones like Stonehenge were built so that the
sun's position with respect to the stones would indicate the day
of longest sunlight and the day of shortest sunlight. Between
these days there was an optimum time to harvest the crops before
fall, when plants dried up and leaves fell from the trees. The
winter solstice, when the days began to get longer was cause for
celebration. In the next season, there was an optimum time to
plant seeds so they could spring up from the ground as new
growth. So farming gave rise to the concept of a year.
There were settlements near rivers. Each settlement had a meadow,
for the mowing of hay, and a mill, with wooden huts of families
clustered nearby. Grain was stored in pits in the earth. Each hut
had a garden for fruit and vegetables. A goat or cow might be
tied out of reach of the garden. There was a fence or hedge
surrounding and protecting the garden area and dwelling. Outside
the fence were an acre or two of fields of wheat and barley, and
sometimes oats and rye. These were usually enclosed with a hedge
to keep animals from eating the crop. Flax was grown and made
into linen cloth. Beyond the fields were pastures for cattle and
sheep grazing. There was often an area for beehives.
Crops were produced with the open field system. In this system,
there were three large fields each divided into long and narrow
strips. Each strip represented a day's work with the plough. One
field had wheat, or perhaps rye, another had barley, oats, beans,
or peas, and the third was fallow. These were rotated yearly.
Each free man was allotted certain strips in each field to bear
crops. His strips were far from each other, which insured some
very fertile and some only fair soil, and some land near his
village dwelling and some far away. These strips he cultivated,
sowed with seed, and harvested for himself and his family. After
the year, they reverted to common ownership for grazing.
The plough used was heavy and made first of wood and later of
iron. It had a mould-board which caught the soil stirred by the
plough blade and threw it into a ridge. Other farm implements
were: coulters, which gave free passage to the plough by cutting
weeds and turf, picks, spades and shovels, reaping hooks and
scythes, and sledge-hammers and anvils. Forests were cleared to
provide more arable land.
The use of this open field system instead of compact enclosures
worked by individuals was necessary in primitive communities
which were farming only for their own subsistence. Each ox was
owned by a different man as was the plough. Strips of land for
agriculture were added from waste land as the community grew.
There were villages which had one or two market days in each
week. Cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, calves, and rabbits were sold
Flint was mined for arrowheads. People used bone and stone tools,
such as stone hammers, and then bronze and iron tools, weapons,
breast plates, and horse bits, which were forged by blacksmiths.
Weapons included bows and arrows, daggers, axes, and shields of
wood with bronze mountings. The warriors fought with chariots
drawn by two horses. The horse harnesses had bronze fittings. The
chariots had wood wheels, later with iron rims. When bronze came
into use, there was a demand for its constituent parts: copper
and tin, which were traded by rafts on waterways and the sea.
Lead was mined.
Corpses were buried far away from any village in wood coffins,
except for Kings, who were placed in stone coffins after being
wrapped in linen.
With the ability to grow food and the acquisition of land by
conquest, the population grew. There were different classes of
men such as eorls, ceorls [free farmers], and slaves. They
dressed differently. Freemen had long hair and beards. Slaves'
hair was shorn from their heads so that they were bald. Slaves
were chained and often traded. Prisoners taken in battle, e.g.
Britons, became slaves. Criminals became slaves of the person
wronged or of the King. Sometimes a father pressed by need sold
his children or his wife into bondage. Debtors, who increased in
number during famine, which occurred regularly, became slaves by
giving up the freeman's sword and spear, picking up a slave's
mattock [pick ax for the soils], and placing their head within a
master's hands. Children with a slave parent were slaves. The
slaves lived in huts around the homes of big landowners. Slaves
often were used as ploughmen, sowers, haywards, woodwards,
sheperds, goatherds, swineherds, oxherds, cowherds, dairymaids,
and barnmen. A lord could kill his slave at will.
The people were worshipping pagan gods when St. Augustine came to
England in 596 A.D. to Christianize them. King AEthelbert of Kent
and his wife, who had been raised Christian on the continent, met
him when he arrived. The King gave him land where there were
ruins of an old city. Augustine used stones from the ruins to
build a church which was later called Canterbury. He also built
the first St. Paul's church in what was later called London. He
conducted Easter ceremonies in the spring and Christmas
ceremonies in winter. The word "Christmas" is short for "Christ's
mass". Aethelbert and his men who fought with him and ate in his
household [gesiths] became Christian.
Augustine knew how to write, but King AEthelbert did not. The
King announced his laws at meetings of his people and his eorls
would decide the punishments. He and Augustine decided to write
down some of these laws, which now included the King's new law
concerning the church.
These laws concern personal injury, murder, theft, burglary,
marriage, adultery, and inheritance. The blood feud's private
revenge for killing had been replaced by payment of compensation
to the dead man's kindred. One paid a man's "wergeld" [worth] to
his kindred for causing his wrongful death. The wer of an
aetheling was 1500s., of an eorl, 300s., of a ceorl, 100s., of a
laet [agricultural serf in Kent], 40-80s., and of a slave
nothing. At this time a shilling could buy a cow in Kent or a
sheep elsewhere. If a ceorl killed an eorl, he paid three times
as much as an eorl would have paid as murderer. The penalty for
slander was tearing out of the tongue. If an aetheling were
guilty of this offense, his tongue was worth five times that of a
coerl, so he had to pay proportionately more too ransom it.
- The Law -
"THESE ARE THE DOOMS [DECREES] WHICH KING AETHELBERHT ESTABLISHED
IN THE DAYS OF AUGUSTINE
1. [Theft of] the property of God and of the church [shall be
compensated], twelve-fold; a bishop's property, eleven-fold; a
priest's property, nine-fold; a deacon's property, six-fold; a
cleric's property, three-fold; church-frith [breach of the peace
of the church; right of sanctuary and protection given to those
within its precincts], two-fold [that of ordinary breach of the
peace]; m....frith [breach of the peace of a meeting place],
2. If the King calls his leod to him, and any one there do them
evil, [let him compensate with] a two-fold bot [damages for the
injury], and 50 shillings to the King.
3. If the King drink at any one's home, and any one there do any
lyswe [evil deed], let him make two-fold bot.
4. If a freeman steal from the King, let him repay nine-fold.
5. If a man slay another in the King's tun [enclosed premises],
let him make bot with 50 shillings.
6. If any one slay a freeman, 50 shillings to the King, as
7. If the King's ambiht-smith [smith or carpenter] or laad-rine
[man who walks before the King or guide or escort], slay a man,
let him pay a half leod-geld.
8. [Offenses against anyone or anyplace under] the King's
[protection], 50 shillings.
9. If a freeman steal from a freeman, let him make threefold bot;
and let the King have the wite [fine] and all the chattels
[necessary to pay the fine].
10. If a man lie with the King's maiden [female servant], let him
pay a bot of 50 shillings.
11. If she be a grinding slave, let him pay a bot of 25
shillings. The third
[class of servant] 12 shillings.
12. Let the King's fed-esl [woman who serves him food or nurse]
be paid for with
13. If a man slay another in an eorl's tun [premises], let [him]
make bot with
14. If a man lie with an eorl's birele [female cup-bearer], let
him make bot
with 12 shillings.
15. [Offenses against a person or place under] a ceorl's
16. If a man lie with a ceorl's birele [female cup-bearer], let
him make bot with 6 shillings; with a slave of the second
[class], 50 scaetts [a denomination less than a shilling]; with
one of the third, 30 scaetts.
17. If any one be the first to invade a man's tun [premises], let
him make bot with 6 shillings; let him who follows, with 3
shillings; after, each, a
18. If a man furnish weapons to another where there is a quarrel,
though no injury results, let him make bot with 6 shillings.
19. If a weg-reaf [highway robbery] be done [with weapons
furnished by another], let him [the man who provided the weapons]
make bot with 6 shillings.
20. If the man be slain, let him [the man who provided the
weapons] make bot with 20 shillings.
21. If a [free] man slay another, let him make bot with a half
leod-geld of 100 shillings.
22. If a man slay another, at the open grave let him pay 20
shillings, and pay the whole leod within 40 days.
23. If the slayer departs from the land, let his kindred pay a
24. If any one bind a freeman, let him make bot with 20
25. If any one slay a ceorl's hlaf-aeta [bread-eater; domestic or
servant], let him make bot with 6 shillings.
26. If [anyone] slay a laet of the highest class, let him pay 80
shillings; of the second class, let him pay 60 shillings; of the
third class, let him pay 40 shillings.
27. If a freeman commit edor-breach [breaking through the fenced
enclosure and forcibly entering a ceorl's dwelling], let him make
bot with 6 shillings.
28. If any one take property from a dwelling, let him pay a
29. If a freeman goes with hostile intent through an edor [the
fence enclosing a
dwelling], let him make bot with 4 shillings.
30. If [in so doing] a man slay another, let him pay with his own
money, and with any sound property whatever.
31. If a freeman lie with a freeman's wife, let him pay for it
with his wer-geld, and obtain another wife with his own money,
and bring her to the other [man's dwelling].
32. If any one thrusts through the riht [true] ham-scyld, let him
33. If there be feax-fang [taking hold of someone by the hair],
let there be 50
sceatts for bot.
34. If there be an exposure of the bone, let bot be made with 3
35. If there be an injury to the bone, let bot be made with 4
36. If the outer hion [outer membrane covering the brain] be
broken, let bot be made with 10 shillings.
37. If it be both [outer and inner membranes covering the brain],
let bot be made with 20 shillings.
38. If a shoulder be lamed, let bot be made with 30 shillings.
39. If an ear be struck off, let bot be made with 12 shillings.
40. If the other ear hear not, let bot be made with 25 shillings.
41. If an ear be pierced, let bot be made with 3 shillings.
42. If an ear be mutilated, let bot be made with 6 shillings.
43. If an eye be [struck] out, let bot be made with 50 shillings.
44. If the mouth or an eye be injured, let bot be made with 12
45. If the nose be pierced, let bot be made with 9 shillings.
46. If it be one ala, let bot be made with 3 shillings.
47. If both be pierced, let bot be made with 6 shillings.
48. If the nose be otherwise mutilated, for each [cut, let] bot
be made with 6 shillings.
49. If it be pierced, let bot be made with 6 shillings.
50. Let him who breaks the jaw-bone pay for it with 20 shillings.
51. For each of the four front teeth, 6 shillings; for the tooth
which stands next to them 4 shillings; for that which stands next
to that, 3 shillings; and then afterwards, for each a shilling.
52. If the speech be injured, 12 shillings. If the collar-bone be
bot be made with 6 shillings.
53. Let him who stabs [another] through an arm, make bot with 6
shillings. If an arm be broken, let him make bot with 6
54. If a thumb be struck off, 20 shillings. If a thumb nail be
off, let bot be made with 3 shillings. If the shooting [fore]
finger be struck off, let bot be made with 8 shillings. If the
middle finger be struck off, let bot be made with 4 shillings. If
the gold [ring]finger be struck off, let bot be made with 6
shillings. If the little finger be struck off, let bot be made
with 11 shillings.
55. For every nail, a shilling.
56. For the smallest disfigurement of the face, 3 shillings; and
for the greater, 6 shillings.
57. If any one strike another with his fist on the nose, 3
58. If there be a bruise [on the nose], a shilling; if he receive
a right hand bruise [from protecting his face with his arm], let
him [the striker] pay a shilling.
59. If the bruise [on the arm] be black in a part not covered by
the clothes, let bot be made with 30 scaetts.
60. If it be covered by the clothes, let bot for each be made
with 20 scaetts.
61. If the belly be wounded, let bot be made with 12 shillings;
if it be pierced through, let bot be made with 20 shillings.
62. If any one be gegemed, let bot be made with 30 shillings.
63. If any one be cear-wund, let bot be made with 3 shillings.
64. If any one destroy [another's] organ of generation [penis],
let him pay him with 3 leud-gelds: if he pierce it through, let
him make bot with 6 shillings; if it be pierced within, let him
make bot with 6 shillings.
65. If a thigh be broken, let bot be made with 12 shillings; if
the man become halt [lame], then friends must arbitrate.
66. If a rib be broken, let bot be made with 3 shillings.
67. If [the skin of] a thigh be pierced through, for each stab 6
shillings; if [the wound be] above an inch [deep], a shilling;
for two inches, 2; above three, 3 shillings.
68. If a sinew be wounded. let bot be made with 3 shillings.
69. If a foot be cut off, let 50 shillings be paid.
70. If a great toe be cut off, let 10 shillings be paid.
71. For each of the other toes, let one half that for the
72. If the nail of a great toe be cut off, 30 scaetts for bot;
for each of the others, make bot with 10 scaetts.
73. If a freewoman loc-bore [with long hair] commit any leswe
[evil deed], let her make a bot of 30 shillings.
74. Let maiden-bot [compensation for injury to an unmarried
woman] be as that of a freeman.
75. For [breach of] the mund [protection] of a widow of the best
class, of an eorl's degree, let the bot be 50 shillings; of the
second, 20 shillings; of the third, 12 shillings; of the fourth,
6 shillings. [Mund was a sum paid to the family of the bride for
transferring the rightful protection they possessed over her to
the family of the husband. If the husband died and his kindred
did not accept the terms sanctioned by law, her kindred could
repurchase the tutelage.]
76. If a man carry off a widow not under his own protection by
right, let the mund be twofold.
77. If a man buy a maiden with cattle, let the bargain stand, if
it be without fraud; but if there be fraud, let him bring her
home again, and let his property be restored to him.
78. If she bear a live child, she shall have half the property,
if the husband die first.
79. If she wish to go away with her children, she shall have half
80. If the husband wish to keep them [the children], [she shall
have the same portion] as one child.
81. If she bear no child, her paternal kindred shall have the
fioh [her goods]and the morgen-gyfe [morning gift; a gift make to
the bride by her husband on the morning following the
consummation of the marriage].
82. If a man carry off a maiden by force, let him pay 50
shillings to the owner, and afterwards buy [the object of] his
will from the owner.
83. If she be betrothed to another man in money [at a bride
price], let him [who carried her off] make bot with 20 shillings.
84. If she become gaengang, 35 shillings; and 15 shillings to the
85. If a man lie with an esne's wife, her husband still living,
let him make twofold bot.
86. If one esne slay another unoffending, let him pay for him at
his full worth.
87. If an esne's eye and foot be struck out or off, let him be
paid for at his full worth.
88. If any one bind another man's esne, let him make bot with 6
89. Let [compensation for] weg-reaf [highway robbery] of a theow
[slave] be 3 shillings.
90. If a theow [a type of slave] steal, let him make twofold bot
[twice the value of the stolen goods]. "
- Judicial Procedure -
If a man did something wrong, his case would be heard by the King
and his freemen. His punishment would be given to him by the
There were occasional meetings of "hundreds", which were probably
a hundred hides of land or a hundred families, to settle
- The Times: 600-900 -
People lived in villages in which a stone church was the most
prominent building. They lived in one-room huts with walls and
roofs made of wood, mud, and straw. Hangings covered the cracks
in the walls to keep the wind out. Smoke from a fire in the
middle of the room filtered out of cracks in the roof. Grain was
ground at home by rotating by hand one stone disk on another
stone disk. Some villages had a mill powered by the flow of water
or by horses.
Farmland surrounded the villages and was farmed by the community
as a whole under the direction of a lord. There was silver,
copper, iron, tin, gold, and various types of stones from remote
lead mines and quarries in the nation. Silver pennies replaced
the smaller scaetts.
Everyone in the village went to church on Sunday and brought
gifts such as grain to the priest. The parish of the priest was
coextensive with the holding of one landowner. The priest and
other men who helped him, lived in the church building. Some
churches had lead roofs and iron hinges, latches, and locks on
their doors. The land underneath had been given to the church by
former Kings and persons who wanted the church to say prayers to
help their souls go from purgatory to heaven and who also
selected the priest.
The church baptized babies and officiated at marriage ceremonies.
It also said prayers for the dying, gave them funerals, and
buried them. A piece of stone with the dead person's name marked
his grave. It was thought that putting the name on the grave
would assist identification of that person for being taken to
heaven. The church heard the last wish or will of the person
dying concerning who he wanted to have his property.
Every man carried a horn slung on his shoulder as he went about
his work so that he could at once send out a warning to his
fellow villagers or call them in chasing a thief or other
offender. The forests were full of outlaws, so strangers who did
not blow a horn to announce themselves were presumed to be
fugitive offenders who could be shot on sight. An eorl could call
upon the ceorl farmers for about forty days to fight off an
The houses of the wealthy had ornamented silk hangings on the
walls. Brightly colored drapery, often purple, and fly-nets
surrounded their beds, which were covered with the fur of
animals. They slept in bed-clothes on pillows stuffed with straw.
Tables plated with silver and gems held silver candlesticks, gold
and silver goblets and cups, and lamps of gold, silver, or glass.
They used silver mirrors and silver writing pens. There were
covered seats, benches, and footstools with the head and feet of
animals at their extremities. They ate from a table covered with
a cloth. Servants brought in food on spits, from which they ate.
Food was boiled, broiled, or baked. The wealthy ate wheat bread
and others ate barley bread. Ale made from barley was passed
around in a cup. Mead made from honey was also drunk.
Men wore long-sleeved wool and linen garments reaching almost to
the knee, around which they wore a belt tied in a knot. Men often
wore a gold ring on the fourth finger of the right hand. Leather
shoes were fastened with leather thongs around the ankle. Their
hair was parted in the middle and combed down each side in waving
ringlets. The beard was parted in the middle of the chin, so that
it ended in two points. The clergy did not wear beards. Ladies
wore brightly colored robes with waist bands, headbands,
necklaces, gem bracelets, and rings. Their long hair was in
ringlets and they put rouge on their cheeks. They were often
doing needlework. Silk was affordable only by the wealthy.
Most families kept a pig and pork was the primary meat. There
were also sheep, goats, cows, deer, rabbits, and fowl. Fowl was
obtained by fowlers who trapped them. The inland waters yielded
eels, salmon, and trout. In the fall, meat was salted to preserve
it for winter meals. There were orchards growing figs, nuts,
grapes, almonds, pears, and apples. Also produced were beans,
lentils, onions, eggs, cheese, and butter. Pepper and cinnamon
Fishing from the sea developed in the 8th century, and yielded
herrings, sturgeon, porpoise, oysters, crabs, and other fish.
Whale skins were used to make ropes.
Hot baths were in common use. It was usual to wash one's feet
after traveling and drying them with a rough wool cloth.
Traveling a far distance was unsafe as there were robbers on the
roads. Traveling strangers were distrusted. There were
superstitions about the content of dreams, the events of the
moon, and the flights and voices of birds were often seen as
signs or omens of future events. Herbal mixtures were drunk for
sickness and maladies.
In the peaceful latter part of the seventh century, Theodore, who
had been a monk in Rome, was appointed Archbishop and visited all
the island speaking about the right rule of life and ordaining
bishops to oversee the priests. However, this was difficult
because the bishops spoke Latin and the priests of the local
parishes spoke English. Theodore was the first archbishop whom
all the English church obeyed. He taught sacred and secular
literature, the books of holy writ, ecclesiastical poetry,
astronomy, arithmetic, and sacred music. The learned
ecclesiastical life flourished in monasteries. Theodore
discourage slavery by denying Christian
burial to the kidnapper and forbidding the sale of children over
the age of seven. Hilda, a noble's daughter, became the first nun
in Northumbria and abbess of one of its monasteries. There she
taught justice, piety, chastity, peace, and charity. Several
monks taught there later became bishops. Kings and princes often
asked her advice.
Kings were selected from the royal family by their worthiness.
Vikings made several invasions in the ninth century for which a
danegeld tax on land was assessed on everyone every ten to twenty
years. It was stored in a strong box under the King's bed. King
Alfred the Great unified the country to defeat them. He
established fortifications called "burhs", usually on hill tops
or other strategic locations on the borders to control the main
road and river routes into Wessex. The burhs were the first
towns. They were typically walled enclosures with towers and
several wooden thatched huts and a couple of churches inside.
Earthen oil lamps were in use. The land area protected by each
burh became known as a "shire". The country was called
"Angle-land", which later became "England".
Alfred gathered together fighting men who were at his disposal,
which included ealdormen's hearthband (men each of whom had
chosen to swear to fight to the death for their earldorman, and
some of whom were of high rank), shire thegns (local landowning
farmers, who were required to bring fighting equipment such as
swords, helmets, chainmail, and horses), and ordinary freemen,
i.e. ceorls (who carried food, dug fortifications, and sometimes
fought). Alfred had a small navy of longships with 60 oars to
fight the Viking longships.
Alfred divided his army into two parts so that one-half of the
men were fighting while the other half was at home sowing and
harvesting for those fighting. Thus, any small-scale independent
farming was supplanted by the open-field system, cultivation of
common land, and a more manor-oriented and stratified society
with the King and important families more powerful and the
peasants more curtailed. The free coerl of the older days became
the bonded villein. The village community became a manor. But the
lord does not have the power to encroach upon the rights of
common that exist within the community.
In 886, a treaty between Alfred and the Vikings divided the
country along the war front and made the wer of every free
farmer, whether English or Viking, 200s. Men of higher rank were
given a wer of 8 1/2 marks of pure gold.
King Alfred gave land with jurisdictional powers within its
boundaries such as the following:
"This is the bequest which King Alfred make unequivocally to
Shaftesbury, to the praise of God and St. Mary and all the saints
of God, for the benefit of my soul, namely a hundred hides [a
hide was probably the amount of land which could support a family
for a year or as much land as could be tilled annually by a
single plow] as they stand with their produce and their men, and
my daughter AEthelgifu to the convent along with the inheritance,
since she took the veil on account of bad health; and the
jurisdiction to the convent, which I myself possessed, namely
obstruction and attacks on a man's house and breach of
protection. And the estates which I have granted to the
foundation are 40 hides at Donhead and Compton, 20 hides at
Handley and Gussage 10 hides at Tarrant, 15 hides at Iwerve and
15 hides at Fontmell.
The witnesses of this are Edward my son and Archbishop AEthelred
and Bishop Ealhferth and Bishop AEthelhead and Earl Wulfhere and
Earl Eadwulf and Earl Cuthred and Abbot Tunberht and Milred my
thegn and AEthelwulf and Osric and Brihtulf and Cyma. If anyone
alters this, he shall have the curse of God and St. Mary and all
the saints of God forever to all eternity. Amen."
Sons usually succeeded their fathers on the same land as shown by
"Bishop Denewulf and the community at Winchester lease to Alfred
for his lifetime 40 hides of land at Alresford, in accordance
with the lease which Bishop Tunbriht had granted to his parents
and which had run out, on condition that he renders every year at
the autumnal equinox three pounds as rent, and church dues, and
the work connected with church dues; and when the need arises,
his men shall be ready both for harvesting and hunting; and after
his death the property shall pass undisputed to St. Peter's.
These are the signatures of the councilors and of the members of
the community who gave their consent, namely ..."
Alfred wrote poems on the worthiness of wisdom and knowledge in
preference to material pleasures, pride, and fame, in dealing
with life's sorrow and strife. His observations on human nature
and his proverbs include:
1. As one sows, so will he mow.
2. Every man's doom [judgment] returns to his door.
3. He who will not learn while young, will repent of it when
4. Weal [prosperity] without wisdom is worthless.
5. Though a man had 70 acres sown with red gold, and the gold
grew like grass, yet he is not a whit the worthier unless he
gain friends for himself.
6. Gold is but a stone unless a wise man has it.
7. It's hard to row against the sea-flood; so it is against
8. He who toils in his youth to win wealth, so that he may enjoy
ease in his old age, has well bestowed his toil.
9. Many a man loses his soul through silver.
10. Wealth may pass away, but wisdom will remain, and no man may
perish who has it for his comrade.
11. Don't choose a wife for her beauty nor for wealth, but study
12. Many an apple is bright without and bitter within.
13. Don't believe the man of many words.
14. With a few words a wise man can compass much.
15. Make friends at market, and at church, with poor and with
16. Though one man wielded all the world, and all the joy that
dwells therein, he could not therewith keep his life.
17. Don't chide with a fool.
18. A fool's bolt is soon shot.
19. If you have a child, teach it men's manners while it is
little. If you let him have his own will, he will cause you much
sorrow when he comes of age.
20. He who spares the rod and lets a young child rule, shall rue
it when the child grows old.
21. Either drinking or not drinking is, with wisdom, good.
22. Be not so mad as to tell your friend all your thoughts.
23. Relatives often quarrel together.
24. The barkless dog bites ill.
25. Be wise of word and wary of speech, then all shall love you.
26. We may outride, but not outwit, the old man.
27. If you and your friend fall out, then your enemy will know
what your friend knew before.
28. Don't choose a deceitful man as a friend, for he will do you
29. The false one will betray you when you least expect it.
30. Don't choose a scornful false friend, for he will steal your
goods and deny the theft.
31. Take to yourself a steadfast man who is wise in word and
deed; he will prove a true friend in need.
To restore education and religion, Alfred disseminated the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical
History of the English Nation, the Providence of Boethius on the
goodness of God, and Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, which he had
translated into English and was the fundamental book on the duty
of a bishop, and included his duty to teach laymen. Alfred's
advice to pastors was to live as they had been taught from books
and to teach this manner of life to others. To be avoided was
pride, the mind's deception of seeking glory in the name of doing
good works, and the corruption of high office. Bede was England's
first scholar, first theologian, and first historian. He wrote
theological books and textbooks on grammar, rhetoric [public
speaking and debating], arithmetic, and astronomy.
A famous poem, the oral legend of Beowulf, a hero who led his men
into adventures and performed great feats and fought monsters and
dragons, was put into writing with a Christian theme. In it,
loyalty to one's lord is a paramount virtue. Also available in
writing was the story of King Arthur's twelve victorious battles
against the pagan Saxons, authored by Nennius.
There were professional story-tellers attached to great men.
Others wandered from court to court, receiving gifts for their
story-telling. Men usually told oral legends of their own feats
and those of their ancestors after supper.
Alfred had monasteries rebuilt with learned and moral men heading
them. He built a strong wall with four gates around London, which
he had conquered. He appointed one of his eorldormen to be
alderman [older man] to govern London and to be the shire's earl.
A later King built a palace in London, although Winchester was
still the royal capital town.
Under the royalty were the nobles. An earl headed each shire. He
led the array of his shire to do battle if the shire was
attacked. He and the local bishop presided over shire meetings
and meetings of the people. Reeves were appointed by the King as
his representatives in the shires. The reeve took security from
every person for the maintenance of the public peace. He also
brought suspects to court, gave judgments according to the
doom-books, delivered offenders to punishment. By service to the
King, it was possible for a coerl to be given land by the King
and thus rise to become a thegn. A thegn was a person with five
hides of land, a church, a bell-house, a judicial at the
burgh-gate, and an office or station in the King's hall. The
King's thegns who got their position by fighting for the King
came to be known as knights. Other thegns performed functions of
magistrates. The thegns became a nobility which replaced the
eorls. The wergeld of a thegn was six times that of a coerl. The
sokemen were freemen who had their own land, chose their own
lord, and attended their lord's court. A smallholder rented land
of about 30 acres from a landlord, which he paid by doing work on
the lord's demesne [household] land, paying money rent, or paying
a food rent such as in eggs or chickens. Smallholders made up
about two-fifths of the population. A cottager had one to five
acres of land and depended on others for his living. Among these
were shepherds, ploughmen, swineherds, and blacksmiths. They also
participated in the agricultural work, especially at harvest
It was possible for a thane to acquire enough land to qualify him
for the witan [King's council of wise men, which included
archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, chief landowners, and
officers of the King's household]. Women could be present at the
witenagemot [meeting of the witan, which met three times
annually] and shire-gemot [meeting of the shire]. They could sue
and be sued in the courts. They could independently inherit,
possess, and dispose of property. A wife's inheritance was her
own and under no control of her husband.
Marriage required the consent of the lady and her friends. The
man also had to arrange for the foster-lean, that is, money for
the support of expected children. He also declared the amount of
money or land he would give the lady for her consent, that is,
the morgengift, and what he would bequeath her in case of his
death. If she remarried within a year of his death, she had to
forfeit the morgengift.
Great men and monasteries had millers, smiths, carpenters,
architects, agriculturalists, fishermen, weavers, embroiderers,
dyers, and illuminators.
For entertainment, minstrels sang ballads about heroes or Bible
stories, harpers played, jesters joked, and tumblers threw and
caught balls and knives. There was gambling, dice games, and
chasing deer with hounds.
Fraternal guilds were established for mutual advantage and
protection. A guild imposed fines for any injury of one member by
another member. It assisted in paying any murder fine imposed on
a member. It avenged the murder of a member and abided by the
consequences. It buried its members and purchased masses for his
Merchantile guilds in sea-ports carried out commercial
speculations not possible by the capital of only one person.
There were some ale-houses.
- The Law -
Alfred issued a set of laws to cover the whole country.
The importance of telling the truth and keeping one's word are
expressed by this law:
"1. At the first we teach that it is most needful that every man
warily keep his oath and his wed. If any one be constrained to
either of these wrongfully, either to treason against his lord,
or to any unlawful aid; then it is juster to belie than to
fulfil. But if he pledge himself to that which is lawful to
fulfil, and in that belie himself, let him submissively deliver
up his weapon and his goods to the keeping of his friends, and be
in prison forty days in a King's tun: let him there suffer
whatever the bishop may prescribe to him: ...".
The Ten Commandments were written down as this law:
"The Lord spake these words to Moses, and thus said: I am the
Lord thy God. I led thee out of the land of the Egyptians, and of
1. Love thou not other strange gods above me.
2. Utter thou not my name idly, for thou shalt not be guiltless
towards me if thou utter my name idly.
3. Remember that thou hallow the rest-day. Work for yourselves
six days, and on the seventh rest. For in six days, Christ
wrought the heavens and the earth, the seas, and all creatures
that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: and therefore
the Lord hallowed it.
4. Honour thy father and thy mother whom the Lord hath given
thee, that thou mayst be the longer living on earth.
5. Slay thou not.
6. Commit thou not adultery.
7. Steal thou not.
8. Say thou not false witness.
9. Covet thou not thy neighbour's goods unjustly.
10. Make thou not to thyself golden or silver gods."
If one deceives an unbetrothed woman and sleep with her, he must
pay for her and have her afterwards to wife. But if her father
not approve, he should pay money according to her dowry.
"If a man seize hold of the breast of a ceorlish woman, let him
make bot to her with 5 shillings. If he throw her down and do not
lie with her, let him make bot with 10 shillings. If he lie with
her, let him make bot with 60 shillings. If another man had
before lain with her, then let the bot be half that. ... If this
befall a woman more nobly born, let the bot increase according to
"If any one, with libidinous intent, seize a nun either by her
raiment or by her breast without her leave, let the bot be
twofold, as we have before ordained concerning a laywoman."
"If a man commit a rape upon a ceorl's female slave, he must pay
bot to the ceorl of 5 shillings and a wite [fine to the King] of
60 shillings. If a male theow rape a female theow, let him make
bot with his testicles."
For the first dog bite, the owner pays 6 shillings, for the
second, 12 shillings, for the third, 30 shillings.
An ox which gores someone to death shall be stoned.
If one steals or slays another's ox, he must give two oxen for
"If any one steals so that his wife and children don't know it,
he shall pay 60 shillings as wite. But if he steals with the
knowledge of all his household, they shall all go into slavery. A
boy of ten years may be privy to a theft."
"If one who takes a thief, or holds him for the person who took
him, lets the thief go, or conceals the theft, he shall pay for
the thief according to his wer. If he is an ealdorman, he shall
forfeit his shire, unless the King is willing to be merciful to
- Judicial Procedure -
Cases were held at monthly meetings of the community [folk-moot].
The King or his representative in the community, called the
"reeve", conducted the trial by compurgation.
The one complaining, called the "plaintiff", and the one
defending, called the "defendant", each told their story and put
his hand on the Bible and swore "By God this oath is clean and
true". A slip or a stammer would mean he lost the case.
Otherwise, community members would stand up to swear on behalf of
the plaintiff or the defendant as to their reputation for
veracity. If these "compurgators" were too few, usually twelve in
number, or recited poorly, their party lost.
If this process was inconclusive, the defendant was told to go to
church and to take the sacrament only if he were innocent. If he
took the sacrament, he was tried by the process of "ordeal". In
the ordeal by cold water, he was bound hand and foot and then
thrown into water. If he floated, he was guilty. If he sank, he
was innocent. It was not necessary to drown to be deemed
innocent. In the ordeal by hot water, he had to pick up a stone
from inside a boiling cauldron. If his hand was healing in three
days, he was innocent. If it was festering, he was guilty. A
similar ordeal was that of hot iron, in which one had to carry in
his hands a hot iron for a certain distance. Although the results
of the ordeal were taken to indicate the will of God, the
official conducting the ordeal could adjust its parameters so
that a person with a guilty demeanor would be found guilty and a
person with an innocent demeanor found innocent. The ordeal seems
to favor the physically fit, because a person who was not fat
would tend to sink and a person who was in good health would have
prompt healing of burns. Presumably a person convicted of murder,
i.e. killing by stealth, or robbery [taking from a person's robe,
that is, his person or breaking into his home to steal] would be
hung and his possessions conviscated.
The issue of rights to herd pigs to feed in certain woodland was
heard in this lawsuit:
"In the year 825 which had passed since the birth of Christ, and
in the course of the second Indiction, and during the reign of
Beornwulf, King of Mercia, a council meeting was held in the
famous place called Clofesho, and there the said King Beornwulf
and his bishops and his earls and all the councilors of this
nation were assembled. Then there was a very noteworthy suit
about wood-pasture at Sinton, towards the west in Scirhylte. The
reeves in charge of the pigherds wished to extend the pasture
farther, and take in more of the wood than the ancient rights
permitted. Then the bishop and the advisors of the community said
that they would not admit liability for more than had been
appointed in AEthelbald's day, namely mast for 300 swine, and
that the bishop and the community should have two-thirds of the
wood and of the mast. They Archbishop Wulfred and all the
councilors determined that the bishop and the community might
declare on oath that it was so appointed in AEthelbald's time and
that they were not trying to obtain more, and the bishop
immediately gave security to Earl Eadwulf to furnish the oath
before all the councilors, and it was produced in 30 days at the
bishop's see at Worcester. At that time Hama was the reeve in
charge of the pigherds at Sinton, and he rode until he reached
Worcester, and watched and observed the oath, as Earl Eadwulf
bade him, but did not challenge it.
Here are the names and designations of those who were assembled
at the council meeting ..."
- The Times: 900-1066 -
There were many large land-owners such as the King, earls and
bishops. Earls were noblemen by birth. A bishop was a church
official who had oversight responsibility for all churches within
his geographical area. The "bot" paid for injuring a bishop was
the same as that for an earl. This indicates that their social
rank was the same.
The lands of these lords were administered by freemen. They had
wheat, barley, and rye fields, orchards, vineyards, and
bee-keeping areas for honey. On this land lived not only farm
laborers, cattle herders, shepherds, goatherds, and pigherds, but
craftsmen such as goldsmiths, hawk-keepers, dog-keepers,
horse-keepers, huntsmen, foresters, builders, weaponsmiths,
embroiderers, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, salters, bakers,
cooks, and gardeners. Blacksmiths made gates, hugh door
hinges,lock, latches, bolts, and horseshoes. The lord loaned
these people land on which to live for their life, called a "life
estate", in return for their services. The loan could continue to
their children who took up the craft. Mills were usually powered
Clothing for men and women was made from wool, silk, and linen
and was usually brown in color. Men also wore leather clothing,
such as neckpieces, breeches, ankle leathers, shoes, and boots;
and metal belts under which they carried knives or axes. They
could wear leather pouches for carrying items.
Water could be carried in leather bags. Leather working
preservative techniques improved so that tanning prevented
stretching or decaying.
For their meals, people had drinking cups and bottles made of
leather, and bowls, pans, and pitchers made by the potter's
wheel. Water could be boiled in pots made of iron, brass, lead,
There was a great expansion of arable land. Kings typically
granted land in exchange for services of military duties,
repairing of fortresses, and work on bridges. Less common
services required by landlords include equipping a guard ship and
guarding the coast, guarding the lord, military watch,
maintaining the deer fence at the King's residence, alms giving,
and church dues. Since land was granted in return for service,
there were limitations on its heritability and often an heir had
to pay a heriot to the landlord to obtain the land.
An example of a grant of hides of land is:
"[God has endowed King Edred with England], wherefore he enriches
and honors men, both ecclesiastic and lay, who can justly deserve
it. The truth of this can be acknowledged by the thegn AElfsige
Hunlafing through his acquisition of the estate of 5 hides at
Alwalton for himself and his heirs, free from every burden except
the repair of fortifications, the building of bridges and
military service; a prudent landowner church dues, burial fees
and tithes. [This land] is to be held for all time and granted
along with the things both great and small belonging to it."
A Bishop gave land to a faithful attendant for his life and two
other lives as follows:
"In 904 A.D., I, Bishop Werfrith, with the permission and leave
of my honorable community in Worcester, grant to Wulfsige, my
reeve, for his loyal efficiency and humble obedience, one hide of
land at Aston as Herred held it, that is, surrounded by a dyke,
for three lives and then after three lives the estate shall be
given back without any controversy to Worcester."
There were several thousand thegns, rich and poor, who held land
directly of the King. Free farmers who had sought protection from
thegns in time of war now took them as their lords. A free man
could chose his lord, following him in war and working his land
in peace. In return, the lord would protect him against
encroaching neighbors, back him in the courts of law, and feed
him in times of famine. These lords were the ruling class and the
greatest of them sat in the King's council along with bishops,
abbots, and officers of the King's household. The lesser lords
were local magnates, who officiated at the shire and hundred
The land of some lords included fishing villages along the
coasts. Other lords owned land with iron-mining industries.
Some lords had markets on their land, for which they charged a
toll [like a sales tax] for participation. There were about fifty
markets in the nation. Cattle and slaves were the usual medium of
exchange. Shaking hands was symbolic of an agreement for a sale,
which was carried out in front of witnesses at the market. People
traveled to markets on roads and bridges kept in repair by
certain men who did this work as their service to the King.
Salt was used throughout the nation to preserve meat over the
winter. Inland saltworks had an elaborate and specialized
organization. They formed little manufacturing enclaves in the
midst of agricultural land, and they were considered to be
neither manor nor appurtenant to manors. They belonged jointly to
the King and the local earl, who shared, at a proportion of two
to one, the proceeds of the tolls upon the sale of salt and
methods of carriage on the ancient salt ways according to
cartload, horse load, or man load. Horses now had horseshoes. The
sales of salt were mostly retail, but some bought to resell.
At seaports on the coast, goods were loaded onto vessels owned by
English merchants to be transported to other English seaports.
London was a market town on the north side of the Thames River
and the primary port and trading center for foreign merchants.
The other side of the river was called Southwark. It contained
sleazy docks, prisons, gaming houses, brothels, and inns.
Guilds in London were first associations of neighbors for the
purposes of mutual assistance. They were fraternities of persons
by voluntary compact to assist each other in poverty, including
their widows or orphans and the portioning of poor maids, and to
protect each other from injury. Their essential features are and
continue to be in the future: 1) oath of initiation, 2) entrance
fee in money or in kind and a common fund, 3) annual feast and
mass, 4) meetings at least three times yearly for guild business,
5), obligation to attend all funerals of members, to bear the
body if need be from a distance, and to provide masses for the
dead, 6) the duty of friendly help in cases of sickness,
imprisonment, house-burning, shipwreck, or robbery, 7) rules for
decent behavior at meetings, and 8) provisions for settling
disputes without recourse to the law. Both the masses and the
feast were attended by the women. Frequently the guilds also had
a religious ceremonial to affirm their bonds of fidelity. They
readily became connected with the exercise of trades and with the
training of apprentices. They promoted and took on public
purposes such as the repairing of roads and bridges, the relief
of pilgrims, the maintenance of schools and almshouses, and the
periodic performance of pageants and miracle-plays.
Many of these London guilds were known by the name of their
founding member. There were also Frith Guilds and a Knights'
Guild. The Frith Guild's main object was to put down theft.
Members contributed to a common fund, which paid a compensation
for items stolen. Members with horses were to track the thief.
Members without horses worked in the place of the absent
horseowners until their return. The Knights' Guild was composed
of thirteen military persons to whom King Edgar granted certain
waste land in the east of London, toward Aldgate, for prescribed
services performed. This concession was confirmed by Edward the
Confessor in a charter at the suit of certain burgesses of
London, the successors of these knights. But there was no trading
privilege, and the Prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, became the
sovereign of the Guild and the Aldermen ex officio of Portsoken
Ward. He rendered an account to the Crown of the shares of
tallage paid by the men of the Ward and presided over the
Wardmotes. Every London merchant who had made three long voyages
on his own behalf ranked as a thegn.
Later in the towns, there were merchant guilds, which were
composed of prosperous traders, who later became landowners.
Merchant guilds grew out of charity associations whose members
were bound by oath to each other and got together for a
guild-feast every month. Many market places were dominated by a
merchant guild, which had a monopoly of the local trade. There
were also some craft guilds composed of handicraftsmen or
artisans. Escaped villeins, poor people, and traders without land
migrated to towns to live, but were not citizens.
Edward the Confessor, named such for his piety, was a King of 24
years who was widely respected for his intelligence,
resourcefulness, good judgment, and wisdom. His educated Queen
Edith, whom he relied on for advice and cheerful courage, was a
stabilizing influence on him. They were served by a number of
thegns, who had duties in the household, which was composed of
the hall, the courtyard, and the bedchamber. They were important
men, thegns by rank. They were landowners, often in several
areas, and held leading positions in the shires, although they
were not sheriffs. They were also priests and clerics, who
maintained the religious services and performed tasks for which
literacy was necessary.
The court was host to many of the greatest magnates and prelates
of the land at the time of great ecclesiastical festivals, when
the King held more solemn courts and feasted his vassals. These
included all the great earls, the majority of bishops, some
abbots, and a number of thegns and clerics. Edward had a witan of
wise men to advise him, but sometimes the King would speak in the
hall after dinner and listen to what comments were made from the
mead-benches. As the court moved about the country, many men came
to pay their respects and attend to local business.
The main governmental activities were: war, collection of
revenue, religious education, and administration of justice. For
war, the shires had to provide a certain number of men and the
ports quotas of ships with crews. The King was the patron of the
English church. He gave the church peace and protection. He
presided over church councils and appointed bishops. As for the
administration of justice, the public courts were almost all
under members of Edward's court, bishops, earls, and reeves.
Edward's mind was often troubled and disturbed by the threat that
law and justice would be overthrown, by the pervasiveness of
disputes and discord, by the raging of wicked presumption, by
money interfering with right and justice, and by avarice kindling
all of these. He saw it as his duty to courageously oppose the
wicked by taking good men as models, by enriching the churches of
God, by relieving those oppressed by wicked judges, and by
judging equitably between the powerful and the humble.
A King's grant of land entailed two documents: a charter giving
boundaries and conditions and a writ, usually addressed to the
shire court, listing the judicial and financial privileges
conveyed with the land. These were usually sac and soke [petty
jurisdiction over inhabitants of the estate], toll and team [a
share in the profits from trade conducted within the estate], and
infangenetheof [the authority to hang and take the chattels of a
thief caught on the property]. The writ was created by the
Chancery, which had been established by the King to draft
documents and keep records. The writ was a small piece of
parchment addressed to a royal official or dependent commanding
him to perform some task for the King. By the eleventh century,
the writ contained a seal: a lump of wax with the impress of the
Great Seal of England.
The town of Coventry consisted of a monastery manor and a private
manor. The monastery was granted by Edward the Confessor full
freedom and these jurisdictions: sac and soke, toll and team,
hamsocne [the authority to fine a person for breaking into and
making entry by force into the dwelling of another], forestall
[the authority to fine a person for robbing others on the road],
blodwite [the authority to impose a forfeiture for assault
involving bloodshed], fihtwite [the authority to fine for
fighting], weordwite [the authority to fine for manslaughter, but
not for willful murder], and mundbryce [the authority to fine for
any breach of the peace, such as trespass on lands].
Marriages were determined by men asking women to marry them. If a
woman said yes, he paid a sum to her kin for her "mund"
[jurisdiction or protection over her] and gave his oath to them
to maintain and support the woman and any children born. As
security for this oath, he gave a valuable object or "wed". The
couple were then betrothed. Marriage ceremonies were performed by
priests in churches. The marriage was written into church
records. Friends witnessed the wedding and afterwards ate the
great loaf, or first bread made by the bride. This was the
forerunner of the wedding cake. They drank special ale, the
"bride ale" (from hence the work "bridal"), to the health of the
This marriage agreement with an Archbishop's sister provides her
with land, money, and horsemen:
"Here in this document is stated the agreement which Wulfric and
the archbishop made when he obtained the archbishop's sister as
his wife, namely he promised her the estates at Orleton and
Ribbesford for her lifetime, and promised her that he would
obtain the estate at Knightwick for her for three lives from the
community at Winchcombe, and gave her the estate at Alton to
grant and bestow upon whomsoever she pleased during her lifetime
or at her death, as she preferred, and promised her 50 mancuses
of gold and 30 men and 30 horses.
The witnesses that this agreement was made as stated were
Archbishop Wulfstan and Earl Leofwine and Bishop AEthelstan and
Abbot AElfweard and the monk Brihtheah and many good men in
addition to them, both ecclesiastics and laymen. There are two
copies of this agreement, one in the possession of the archbishop
at Worcester and the other in the possession of Bishop AEthelstan
This marriage agreement provided the wife with money, land, farm
animals and farm laborers; it also names sureties, the survivor
of whom would receive all this property:
"Here is declared in this document the agreement which Godwine
made with Brihtric when he wooed his daughter. In the first place
he gave her a pound's weight of gold, to induce her to accept his
suit, and he granted her the estate at Street with all that
belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen
and 20 cows and 10 horses and 10 slaves.
This agreement was made at Kingston before King Cnut, with the
cognizance of Archbishop Lyfing and the community at
Christchurch, and Abbot AElfmaer and the community at St.
Augustine's, and the sheriff AEthelwine and Sired the old and
Godwine, Wulfheah's son, and AElfsige cild and Eadmaer of Burham
and Godwine, Wulfstan's son, and Carl, the king's cniht. And when
the maiden was brought from Brightling AElfgar, Sired's son, and
Frerth, the priest of Forlstone, and the priests Leofwine and
Wulfsige from Dover, and Edred, Eadhelm's son, and Leofwine,
Waerhelm's son, and Cenwold rust and Leofwine, son of Godwine of
Horton, and Leofwine the Red and Godwine, Eadgifu's son, and
Leofsunu his brother acted as security for all this. And
whichever of them lives the longer shall succeed to all the
property both in land and everything else which I have given
them. Every trustworthy man in Kent and Sussex, whether thegn or
commoner, is cognizant of these terms.
There are three of these documents; one is at Christchurch,
another at St. Augustine's, and Brihtric himself has the third."
Nuns and monks lived in nunneries and monasteries on church land
and grew their own food. The local bishop usually was also an
abbot of a monastery. The priests and nuns wore long robes with
loose belts and did not carry weapons. They cared for the sick
and taught justice, piety, chastity, peace, and charity. Caring
for the sick entailed mostly praying to God as it was thought
that only God could cure. Slavery was diminished by the church by
excommunication for the sale of a child over seven. The clergy
taught that manumission of slaves was good for the soul of the
dead, so it became frequent in wills. The clergy were to be
celibate and not marry, but in lax times this rule was not
The Archbishop of Canterbury began annointing new Kings at the
time of coronation to emphasize that the King was ruler by the
grace of God.
Illness was thought to be caused by demons. People hung charms
around their neck for cure and treatments of magic and herbs were
given. For instance, the remedy for "mental vacancy and folly"
was a drink of "fennel, agrimony, cockle, and marche". Leeches
were used for healing wounds, such as those from snake bites.
- The Law -
Every free man who did not own land had to find a lord to answer
for him. The act of homage was symbolized by placing his hands
within those of his lord.
Every lord shall be personally responsible as surety for the men
Every free man who owned land had to be in a local peace-pledge
society, usually about ten men, [frankpledge], in which they
served as personal sureties for each other's peaceful behavior.
If one of them were accused of an offense, the others had to
produce him in court or pay for the offense, unless they could
prove that they had no complicity in it.
"And every man shall see that he has a surety, and this surety
shall bring and keep him to [the performance of] every lawful
1. And if anyone does wrong and escapes, his surety shall
incur what the other should have incurred.
2. If the case be that of a thief and his surety can lay
hold of him within 12 months, he shall deliver him up to justice,
and what he has paid shall be returned to him."
Only a priest could declare a marriage. The groom had to bring
friends to his wedding as sureties to guarantee his oath to
maintain and support his wife and children. Those who swore to
take care of the children were called their "godfathers".
"No woman or maiden shall be forced to marry a man she dislikes
or given for money."
"Violence to a widow or maiden is punishable by payment of one's
No man shall have more wives than one.
No man may marry among his own kin within six degrees of
relationship or with the widow of a man as nearly related to him
as that, or with a near relative of his first wife's, or his
god-mother, or a divorced woman. Incest is punishable by payment
of one's wergeld or a fine or forfeiture of all his possessions.
Grounds for divorce were mutual consent or adultery or desertion.
Adultery was prohibited for men as well as for women.
Prostitutes shall be driven out of the land or destroyed in the
land, unless they cease from their wickedness and make amends to
the utmost of their ability.
Neither husband nor wife could sell family property without the
consent of the other.
If there was a marriage agreement, it determined the wife's
"dower", which would be hers upon his death. Otherwise, if a man
who held his land in socage [owned it freely and not subject to a
larger landholder] died before his wife, she got half this
property. If there were minor children, she got all this
Inheritance of land to adult children was by the custom of the
land held. In some places, the custom was for the oldest son to
take it and in other places, the custom was for the youngest son
to take it. Often, the sons each took an equal portion by
partition, but the eldest son had the right to buy out the others
as to the chief messuage [dwelling and supporting land and
buildings] as long as he compensated them with property of equal
value. If there were no legitimate sons, then each daughter took
an equal share when she married.
In London, one-third of the personal property of a decedent went
to his wife, one-third went to his children in equal shares, and
one-third he could bequeath as he wished.
"If a man dies intestate, his lord shall have heriot [horses,
weapons, shields, and helmets] of his property according to the
deceased's rank and [the rest of] the property shall be divided
among his wife, children, and near kinsmen."
A man could justifiably kill an adulterer in the act with the
man's wife, daughter, sister, or mother. In Kent, a lord could
fine any bondswoman of his who had become pregnant without his
A man could kill in defense of his own life, the life of his
kinsmen, his lord, or a man whose lord he was. The offender was
"caught red-handed" if the blood of his victim was still on him.
He could also kill a thief in the act of carrying off his
property, e.g. the thief hand-habbende [a thief found with the
stolen goods in his hand] or the thief back-berend [a thief found
carrying stolen goods on his back]. Self-help was available for
hamsocne [breaking into a man's house to assault him].
Cattle theft could be dealt with only by speedy pursuit. The law
required that a person who had involuntarily lost possession of
cattle should at once raise the hue and cry. All his neighbors
were then under a legal duty to follow the trail of the cow to
Murder is punished by death as follows:
"If any man break the King's peace given by hand or seal, so that
he slay the man to whom the peace was given, both his life and
lands shall be in the King's power if he be taken, and if he
cannot be taken he shall be held an outlaw by all, and if anyone
shall be able to slay him he shall have his spoils by law."
"If anyone by force break or enter any man's court or house to
slay or wound or assault a man, he shall pay 100 shillings to the
King as fine."
"If anyone slay a man within his court or his house, himself and
all his substance are at the King's will, save the dower of his
wife if he have endowed her."
No clergy may gamble or participate in games of chance.
Measures and weights of goods for sale shall be correct.
Every man shall have a warrantor to his market transactions and
no one shall buy and sell except in a market town; but he shall
have the witness of the portreeve or of other men of credit, who
can be trusted.
No marketing, business, or hunting may be done on Sundays.
No one may bind a free man, shave his head in derision, or shave
off his beard. Shaving was a sign of enslavement, which could be
incurred by not paying one's fines for offenses committed.
"And if anyone is so rich or belongs to so powerful a kindred,
that he cannot be restrained from crime or from protecting and
harboring criminals, he shall be led out of his native district
with his wife and children, and all his goods, to any part of the
kingdom which the King chooses, be he noble or commoner, whoever
he may be - with the provision that he shall never return to his
native district. And henceforth, let him never be encountered by
anyone in that district; otherwise he shall be treated as a thief
caught in the act."
The Laws for London were:
"1. The gates called Aldersgate and Cripplegate were in charge of
2. If a small ship came to Billingsgate, one half-penny was paid
as toll; if a larger ship with sails, one penny was paid.
1) If a hulk or merchantman arrives and lies there, four
pence is paid as toll.
2) From a ship with a cargo of planks, one plank is given as
3) On three days of the week toll for cloth [is paid] on
Sunday and Tuesday and Thursday.
4) A merchant who came to the bridge with a boat containing fish
paid one half-penny as toll, and for a larger ship one penny."
5 - 8) Foreigners with wine or blubber fish or other goods and
Foreigners were allowed to buy wool, melted fat [tallow], and
three live pigs for their ships.
"3. If the town-reeve or the village reeve or any other official
accuses anyone of having withheld toll, and the man replies that
he has kept back no toll which it was his legal duty to pay, he
shall swear to this with six others and shall be quit of the
1) If he declares that he has paid toll, he shall produce
the man to whom he paid it, and shall be quit of the charge.
2) If, however, he cannot produce the man to whom he paid
it, he shall pay the actual toll and as much again and five
pounds to the King.
3) If he vouches the tax-gatherer to warranty [asserting]
that he paid toll to him, and the latter denies it, he shall
clear himself by the ordeal and by no other means of proof.
4. And we [the King and his counselors] have decreed that a man
who, within the town, makes forcible entry into another man's
house without permission and commits a breach of the peace of the
worst kind ... and he who assaults an innocent person on the
King's highway, if he is slain, shall lie in an unhonored grave.
1) If, before demanding justice, he has recourse to
violence, but does not lose his life thereby, he shall pay five
pounds for breach of the King's peace.
2) If he values the good-will of the town itself, he shall
pay us thirty shillings as compensation, if the King will grant
us this concession."
5. No base coin or coin defective in quality or weight, foreign
or English, may be used by a foreigner or an Englishman.
Swearing a false oath or perjury is punishable by loss of one's
hand or half one's wergeld.
- Judicial Procedure -
There were courts for different geographical communities.
In London, the Hustings Court met weekly and the folkmoot of all
citizens met three times a year. Each ward had a criminal [leet]
The vill [similar to village] was the smallest community for
judicial purposes. There were several vills in a hundred.
A King's reeve presided over local criminal and peace and order
issues [leet jurisdiction] at monthly meetings of the hundred
court. However, summary procedure was followed when a criminal
was caught in the act or seized after a hue and cry. Every free
man over age 12 had to be in a hundred. The hundred was a
division of the shire [county]. Usually, the shire reeve, or
"sheriff", held each hundred court in turn.
A shire [county] was a larger area of land, headed by an earl.
All persons residing in the shire met twice a year. They were
summoned together by the sheriff, who was appointed by the earl
and the King. This court was primarily concerned with issues of
the larger landowners. The earl usually took a third of the
profits of the shire court.
A bishop sat on both the shire and the hundred court.
"No one shall make distraint of property until he has appealed
for justice in the hundred court and shire court".
This lawsuit between a son and his mother over land was heard at
"Here it is declared in this document that a shire-meeting sat at
Aylton in King Cnut's time. There were present Bishop AEthelstan
and Earl Ranig and Edwin, the Earl's son, and Leofwine,
Wulfsige's son, and Thurkil the White; and Tofi the Proud came
there on the King's business, and Bryning the sheriff was
present, and AEthelweard of Frome and Leofwine of Frome and
Godric of Stoke and all the thegns of Herefordshire. Then Edwin,
Enneawnes son, came traveling to the meeting and sued his own
mother for a certain piece of land, namely Wellington and
Cradley. Then the bishop asked whose business it was to answer
for his mother, and Thurkil the White replied that it was his
business to do so, if he knew the claim. As he did not know the
claim, three thegns were chosen from the meeting [to ride] to the
place where she was, namely at Fawley, and these were Leofwine of
Frome and AEthelsige the Red and Winsige the seaman, and when
they came to her they asked her what claim she had to the lands
for which her son was suing her. Then she said that she had no
land that in any way belonged to him, and was strongly incensed
against her son, and summoned to her kinswoman, Leofflaed,
Thurkil's wife, and in front of them said to her as follows:
'Here sits Leofflaed, my kinswoman, to whom, after my death, I
grant my land and my gold, my clothing and my raiment and all
that I possess.' And then she said to the thegns: 'Act like
thegns, and duly announce my message to the meeting before all
the worthy men, and tell them to whom I have granted my land and
all my property, and not a thing to my own son, and ask them to
be witnesses of this.' And they did so; they rode to the meeting
and informed all the worthy men of the charge that she had laid
upon them. Then Thurkil the White stood up in the meeting and
asked all the thegns to give his wife the lands unreservedly
which her kinswoman had granted her, and they did so. Then
Thurkil rode to St. AEthelbert's minister, with the consent and
cognizance of the whole assembly, and had it recorded in a gospel
Courts controlled by lords had various kinds of jurisdiction
recognized by the King. "Sac and soc" included the right to deal
with land disputes. "Toll and team" included the right to levy
tolls on cattle sales and to hold a hearing for men accused of
stealing cattle. "Infangenetheof" gave power to do justice to a
thief caught red-handed. Sometimes this jurisdiction overlapped
that of the hundred court.
The King decided the complaints and issues of the nobility.
- The Times: 1066-1100 -
William came from Normandy to conquer the nation. He claimed that
the former King, Edward, the Confessor, had promised the throne
to him when they were growing up together in Normandy if Edward
became King of England and had no children. William's men and
horses came in boats powered by oars and sails. The conquest did
not take long because of the superiority of his military
expertise to that of the English. He organized his army into
three groups: archers with bows and arrows, horsemen with swords
and stirrups, and footmen with hand weapons. Each group played a
specific role in a strategy planned in advance. The English army
was only composed of footmen with hand weapons and shields and
Declaring the English who fought against him to be traitors,
William declared their land confiscated. As William conquered
this land, he parceled it out among the barons who fought with
him. They again made oaths of personal loyalty to him [fealty].
They agreed to hold the land as his vassals with future military
services to him and receipt of his protection [homage]. They held
their land "of their lord", the King, by knight's service. The
King had "enfeoffed" them [given them a fief: a source of income]
with land. The theory that by right all land was the King's and
that land was held by others only at his gift and in return for
specified service was new to English thought.
The Saxon governing class was destroyed. The independent power of
earls, who had been drawn from three great family houses, was
curtailed. Most died or fled the country. The people were
deprived of their most popular leaders, who were excluded from
all positions of trust and profit, especially the clergy of all
The barons subjugated the English who were on their newly
acquired land. There came to be a hierarchy of seisin [rightful
occupation] of land so that there could be no land without its
lord. Also, every lord had a superior lord with the King as the
overlord or supreme landlord. One piece of land may be held by
several tenures. For instance, A, holding by barons's service of
the King, may enfeoff B, a church, to hold of him on the terms of
praying for the souls of his ancestors [frank-almoin], and B may
enfeoff a freeman C to hold of the church by giving it a certain
percentage of his crops every year. There were about 200 barons
who held land directly of the King. Other fighting men were the
knights, who were tenants or subtenants of a baron. Knighthood
began as a reward for valor on the field of battle by the King or
a noble. Altogether there were about 5000 fighting men holding
The essence of Norman feudalism was that the land remained under
the lord, whatever the vassal might do. The lord had the duty to
defend the vassals on his land. The vassal owed military service
to the lord and also the service of attending the courts of the
hundred and the shire, which were courts of the King,
administering old customary law. They were the King's courts on
the principle that a crime anywhere was a breach of the King's
This feudal bond based on occupancy of land rather than on
personal ties was uniform throughout the realm. No longer could a
man choose his lord and transfer his land with him to a new lord.
This uniformity of land organization plus the new requirement of
every freeman to take an oath of loyalty directly to the King
that would supersede any oath to any other man gave the nation a
Each tenant, whether baron or subtenant, had to pay an "aid" in
money for ransom if his lord was captured in war, for the
knighthood of his lord's eldest son, and for the marriage of his
lord's eldest daughter. An heir of a tenant had to pay a heavy
"relief" on succession to his estate. If an heir was still a
minor or female, he or she passed into his lord's wardship, in
which the lord had guardianship of the heir and possession of the
estate, with all its profits. The estate of an heiress and her
land was generally sold to the highest bidder.
English villeins on the land of the barons were subjugated into a
condition of servitude and became "tied to the land" so that they
could not leave the land without their lord's permission. They
held their land of their lord, the baron. To guard against
uprisings of the conquered people, the barons used villein labor
to build about a hundred great stone castles, with moats and
walls with towers around them, at easily defensible positions
such as hilltops all over the nation.
The hall was the main building of the castle. The hall was used
for meals and meetings at which the lord received homages,
recovered fees, and held the view of frankpledge. There were
trestle tables which could be folded up, e.g. at night. At the
main table, the lord and his lady sat on chairs. Everyone else
sat on benches. Lighting was by oil lamps or candles on stands or
on wall fixtures. There was an open hearth in the middle of the
room, around which the floor was strewn with straw, on which
common folk could sleep at night. The residence of the lord's
family and guests was at a screened off area at the extreme end
of the hall or on a second floor reachable by an outside
stairway. Chests stored garments and jewels. Iron keys and locks
were used for chests and doors. The great bed had a wooden frame
and springs made of interlaced rope or strips of leather. It was
covered with a feather mattress, sheets, quilts, fur covers, and
pillows. Drapery around the bed kept out cold drafts and provided
privacy. The lord's personal servants slept nearby on benches or
trundle beds. There was a water bowl for washing in the morning.
A chamber pot was kept under the bed for nighttime use. Hay was
used as toilet paper. Sometimes there was a reservoir of water on
an upper level with pipes carrying the water below. There were
stools on which to sit. Chests and cupboards stored spices and
plate. One-piece iron shears were available to cut cloth. Hand
held spindles were used for weaving. Knights performing castle
guard duty slept at their posts in the walls. There were toilets
in the walls with a pit or shaft down the exterior wall. There
was also a well, a chapel area, a cellar for provisions, and
dungeons for prisoners. Stables and offices were sometimes built
around the courtyard of the hall. Bathing was done in a wooden
tub located in the garden in the summer and indoors near the fire
in winter. The great bed and bath tub were taken on trips with
Markets grew up outside castle walls. Any trade on a lord's land
was subject to "passage", a payment on goods passing through,
"stallage", a payment for setting up a stall or booth in a
market, and "pontage", a payment for taking goods across a
Norman customs were adopted by the nation. Everyone had a
permanent surname indicating parentage, place of birth, or
residence and this name was passed on to one's son. There were
two meals a day: dinner and supper. The Normans washed their
hands before and after meals and ate with their fingers. Feasts
were stately occasions with costly tables and splendid dress. The
Norman wore a cap or bonnet on his head, a shirt, a doublet over
his shirt, a cloak with wide sleeves, hose and shoes. There were
many colors worn, especially the doublet, which was made exactly
to fit. Surcoats of royalty almost swept the feet while those of
others reached scarcely half the way, so as not to impede them in
their work. The robe or mantle of the King was embroidered with
gold and lined with furs and swept the ground. There were
practical jokes, innocent frolics, and witty verbal debating with
repartee. A true and gentle knight showed devotion towards the
ladies. The Norman gentleman wore his sword and his retainers
carried spear and shield. They were clean-shaven. Anglo-Saxon men
were compelled to shave their beards and whiskers from their
faces, but they kept their custom of long hair flowing from their
Those few coerls whose land was not taken by a baron remained
free and held their land "in socage" and became known as sokemen.
Great stone cathedrals were built in fortified towns for
William's Norman bishops, who replaced the English bishops. Most
of the existing and new monasteries functioned as training
grounds for scholars, bishops, and statesmen rather than as
retreats from the world's problems to the security of religious
observance. The number of monks grew as the best minds were
recruited into the monasteries.
William made the church subordinate to him. Bishops were elected
only subject to the King's consent. Homage was exacted from them.
William imposed knight's service on bishoprics, abbeys, and
monasteries, which was commuted to a monetary amount. Bishops had
to attend the King's court. Bishops could not leave the realm
without the King's consent. No royal tenant or royal servant
could be excommunicated, nor his lands be placed under interdict,
without the King's consent. Interdict could demand, for instance,
that the church be closed and the dead buried in unconsecrated
ground. No church rules could be made without his agreement to
their terms. No letters from the Pope could be received without
the King's permission.
Men continued to give land to the church for their souls, such as
this grant which started the town of Sandwich:
"William, King of the English, to Lanfranc the Archbishop and
Hugoni de Montfort and Richard son of Earl Gilbert and Haimo the
sheriff and all the thegns of Kent, French and English, greeting.
Know ye that the Bishop of Bayeux my brother for the love of God
and for the salvation of my soul and his own, has given to St.
Trinity all houses with their appurtances which he has at
Sandwich and that he has given what he has given by my license."
When the land was all divided out, the barons had about 3/7 of it
and the church 2/7. The King retained 2/7 for himself and his
household, on which he built many royal castles and hundreds of
manor houses throughout the nation. He built the White Tower in
London. He and his household slept on the upper floors and there
was a chapel on the second floor and a dungeon below the first
floor for prisoners. The other castles were often built at the
old fortification burhs of Alfred. Barons and earls had
castle-guard duty in them. William was constantly moving about
the land from castle to castle, where he entertained his magnates
and conducted public business, such as deciding disputes about
ownership of land. Near these castles and other of his property,
he designated many areas as royal hunting forests. Anyone who
killed a deer in these forests was mutilated, for instance by
blinding. People living within the boundaries of the designated
forestland could no longer go into nearby woods to get meat or
honey, dead wood for firing, or live wood for building.
Swineherds could no longer drive pigs into the these woods to eat
acorns they beat down from oak trees. Making clearings and
grazing livestock in the designated forestland were prohibited.