Part 1 out of 7
OUR LEGAL HERITAGE
The first thousand years: 600 - 1600
King AEthelbert - Queen Elizabeth
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 in silver 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: 1558-1604
14. Epilogue: from 1604
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
ditches and banks behind which they could gather with their
herds for protection. At the entrances were several openings
only one of which really allowed entry. The others went between
banks into dead ends and served as traps in which to kill the
enemy from above. Concentric circles of ditches around these
fortified camps could reach to 14 acres. The people lived in
circular huts with wood posts in a circle supporting a roof. The
walls were made of saplings, and a mixture of 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, a drink with
fermented honey and herbs, 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 spun 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. They cut
things with flint dug up from pits. On the coast, they made bone
harpoons for deep sea fish.
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. Humans
were sometimes eaten.
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. The hoe, spade, and grinding
stone were used. Cloth was woven for clothes. Pottery was made
from clay 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. The
people also made boats.
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. Certain
changes of the year were celebrated, such as Easter; the twelve
days of Yuletide when candles were lit and houses decorated with
evergreen; Plough Monday for resumption of work after Yuletide;
May Day when greenery was gathered from the woods and people
danced around a May pole; Whitsun when Morris dancers leapt
through their villages with bells, hobby-horses, and waving
scarves; Lammas when the first bread was celebrated; and Harvest
Home when the effigy of a goddess was carried with reapers
singing and piping behind.
There were settlements on high ground and near rivers. Each
settlement had a meadow, for the mowing of hay, and a mill, with
wooden huts, covered with branches or thatch, 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. Wheat and rye were sown in the fall, and
oats and barley in the spring. They were all harvested in the
summer. These fields 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 for the heavy and fertile land.
Each field was 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. With iron axes, 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
Flint workers mined with deer antler picks and ox shoulder blade
shovels for flint to grind into axes, spearheads, and
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 formed from moulds and/or forged by
bronze smiths and blacksmiths. Weapons included bows and arrows,
flint and copper daggers, stone 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. Wrought iroin bars were used as currency.
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. Possessions were buried with them.
With the ability to grow food and the acquisition of land by
conquest, for instance by invading Angles and Saxons, 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 landholders, which
were made of logs and consisted on one large room or hall. An
open hearth was in the middle of the earthen floor, which was
strewn with rushes. There was a hole in the roof to let out the
smoke. Here the landholder and his men would eat meat, bread,
salt, hot spiced ale, and mead while listening to minstrels sing
about the heroic deeds of their ancestors. Physical strength and
endurance in adversity were admired traits. Slaves often were
used as grain-grinders, ploughmen, sowers, haywards, woodwards,
shepherds, 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. 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. There was a fine of 120s. for
disregarding a command of the King. 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 wergeld [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 to ransom it.
"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
mund-byrd [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 20 shillings.
13. If a man slay another in an eorl's tun [premises], let [him]
make bot with 12 shillings.
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
mund-byrd [protection], 6 shillings.
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 shilling.
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
menial 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
52. If the speech be injured, 12 shillings. If the collar-bone be
broken, let 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
corresponding finger be paid.
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 rightful protection.]
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
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]. "
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 extended families, to
settle wide-spread disputes.
The Times: 600-900
A community was usually an extended family. It's members 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
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. Freemen paid "scot and lot" according to
Everyone in the village went to church on Sunday and brought
gifts such as grain to the priest. Later, contributions in the
form of money became customary, and then expected. They were
called "tithes" and were spent for church repair, the clergy,
and poor and needy laborers. The parish of the priest was
coextensive with the holding of one landlord and was his
chaplain. 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 first priest. The priest
conducted Christianized Easter ceremonies in the spring and
Christmas (Christ's mass) ceremonies in winter in place of the
pagan Yuletide festivities. Incense took the place of pagan
burnt offerings, holy water of haunted wells and streams, and
Christian incantations of sorcerer's spells.
The church baptized babies and officiated at marriage ceremonies.
It also said prayers for the dying, gave them funerals, and
buried them. There were burial service fees, candle dues, and
plough alms. 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. Well-to-do women 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 were imported.
Fishing from the sea developed in the 1000s A.D., and yielded
herrings, sturgeon, porpoise, oysters, crabs, and other fish.
Whale skins were used to make ropes.
It was usual to wash one's feet in a hot tub 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 600s, 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. There was a bishop for each of
the kingdoms. The bishops came to have the same wergeld as an
eorldorman: 1200 s., which was the price of about 500 oxen. A
priest had the wergeld as a landholding farmer [thegn], or 300s.
The bishops spoke Latin, but 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 discouraged 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.
There were several kingdoms. Kings were selected from the royal
family by their worthiness. A King had not only a wergeld to be
paid to his family if he were killed, but a "cynebot" that would
be paid to his kingdom. A King's household would have a
chamberlain, marshall to oversee the horses and military
equipment, a steward, and a cupbearer. A queen could possess,
manage, and dispose of lands in her name. Great men wore
gold-embroidered clothes, gilt buckles and brooches, and drank
from drinking horns mounted in silver-gilt or in gold. Their
wives had beads, pins, needles, tweezers of bronze, and
work-boxes of bronze, some highly ornamented.
Danish Vikings made several invasions in the 800s 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 inhabited by
Anglo-Saxons and was called "Angle-land", which later became
Alfred gathered together fighting men who were at his disposal,
which included eorldormen's hearthband (men each of whom had
chosen to swear to fight to the death for their eorldorman, and
some of whom were of high rank), shire thegns (local landholding
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). Some great lords organized men under them, whom they
provisioned. These vassals took a personal oath to their lord
"on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and
fulfill all that was agreed on when I became his man, and chose
his will as mine." 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. Many free coerls of the older days
became bonded. 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 wergeld of every free
farmer, whether English or Viking, 200s. Men of higher rank were
given a wergeld of 4 1/2 marks of pure gold. A mark was probably
a Viking denomination and a mark of gold was equal to nine marks
of silver in later times and probably in this time.
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
this lifetime lease: "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 poetry, theological books, and textbooks on grammar,
rhetoric [public speaking and debating], arithmetic, and
astronomy. He began the practice of dating years from the birth
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. When the King traveled, he and
his retinue would be fed by the local people at their expense.
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 rise to become a thegn and
to be given land by the King. 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. A thegn was
later identified as 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. Some thegns reached nobility status
with a wergeld of 1200 s. when a freeman's wergeld was 200s. They
also were given a higher legal status in the scale of
punishment, giving credible evidence, and participation in legal
proceedings. The sokemen were freemen who had inherited their
own land, chose their own lord, and attended their lord's court.
That is, their lord has soc jurisdiction over them. 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 time.
It was possible for a thegn to acquire enough land to qualify him
for the witan [King's council of wise men, which included
archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, chief landholders, and
officers of the King's household; and also chose the King's
successor on his death]. 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.
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 their bondage.
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 eorldormen, he shall
forfeit his shire, unless the King is willing to be merciful to
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 confiscated.
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 landholders such as the King, earls [Danish
word for Saxon word "eorldormen"], and bishops. Earls were
noblemen by birth, and often relatives of the King. They were
his army commanders and the highest civil officials, each
responsible for a shire. A breach of the peace of an eorldorman
would occasion a fine. Lower in social status were freemen, then
sokemen, and then, in decreasing order, villani, bordarii,
cottarii, and servi (slaves).
There was a great expansion of arable land. Some land was common
land, held by communities. If a family came to pay the dues and
fines on it, it became personal to that family and was known as
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 this 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. A
heriot was originally the armor of a man killed, which went to
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. Often knights stayed with their lords at
their large houses, but later were given land with men on it.
The 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 courts.
A free holder's house was wood, perhaps with a stone foundation,
and roofed with thatch or tiles. There was a main room or hall,
with bed chambers around it. Beyond was the kitchen, perhaps
outside under a lean-to. These buildings were surrounded by a
bank or stiff hedge.
Simple people lived in huts made from wood and mud, with one door
and no windows. They slept around a fire in the middle of the
earthen floor. They wore shapeless clothes of goat-hair and
unprocessed wool. They ate rough brown bread, vegetable broth,
small-ale from barley, bacon, beans, milk, cabbage, onion, and
honey for sweetening or mead. In the summer, they ate boiled or
raw veal and wild fowl and game snared in the forest. In the
fall, they slaughtered and salted their cattle for food during
the winter because there was no more pasture for them. However,
some cows and breed animals were kept through the winter.
Folk land was that land that was left over after allotments had
been made to the freemen and which was not common land. Book
land was called such because this holding was written down in
books. This land was usually land that had been given to the
church or monasteries because the church had personnel who could
write. So many thegns gave land to the church, usually a hide,
that the church had 1/3 of 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
The lands of the large landholding lords were administered by
freemen. They had wheat, barley, oats, and rye fields, orchards,
vineyards, and bee-keeping areas for honey. Hand mills and/or
water mills were used for grinding grain. 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, bronze smiths, blacksmiths, water
mill wrights, wheelwrights, waggon wrights, iron nail makers,
potters, soap-makers, tailors, shoemakers, salters (made salt at
the "wyches"), bakers, cooks, and gardeners. Most men did
carpentry work. Master carpenters worked with ax, hammer, and
saw to make houses, doors, bridges, milk- buckets, wash-tubs, and
trunks. Blacksmiths made gates, huge door hinges, locks,
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 by
The land of some lords included fishing villages along the
coasts. Other lords had land with iron-mining industries.
Some smiths traveled for their work, for instance, stone-wrights
building arches and windows in churches, and lead-workers
putting lead roofs on churches.
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,
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
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.
Peddlers carried salt to sell from village to village.
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.
Wheat, meal, skins, hides, wool, beer, lead, cheese, salt, and
honey were exported. Wine (mostly for the church), fish, timber,
pitch, pepper, spices, copper, gems, gold, silk, dyes, oil,
brass, sulphur, glass, and elephant and walrus ivory were
imported. There was a royal levy on exports by foreigners
merchants. The other side of the river was called Southwark. It
contained sleazy docks, prisons, gaming houses, brothels, and
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
wardmoots. Every week in London there was a folkmoot. Majority
decision was a tradition. 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 landholders.
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 bonded agricultural workers, poor people, and
traders without land migrated to towns to live, but were not
Towns were largely self-sufficient, but salt and iron came from a
distance. It was the kings' policy to establish in every shire
at least one town with a market place where purchases would be
witnessed and a mint where reliable money was coined. Almost
every village had a watermill.
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 landholders, 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 1000s A.D., 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 at Hereford."
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. Their life was ordered by
the ringing of the bell to start certain activities, such as
prayer; meals; meetings; work in the fields, gardens, or
workshops; copying and illuminating books; taught justice,
piety, chastity, peace, and charity; and cared for the sick.
Caring for the sick entailed mostly praying to God as it was
thought that only God could cure. The large monasteries had
libraries, dormitories, guest-houses, kitchens, butteries to
store wine, bakehouses, breweries, dairies, granaries, barns,
fish-ponds, orchards, vineyards, gardens, workshops, laundries,
lavatories with long stone or marble washing-troughs, and
towels. 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 followed.
The Archbishop of Canterbury began anointing 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
Every free man who did not hold 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 of his household.
Every free man who held land had to be in a local tithing,
usually about ten men, in which they served as personal sureties
for each other's peaceful behavior [frankpledge]. 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. Usually, 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 [without a will], 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
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
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.
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 leet court
[precursor to police court].
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. In the hundred
court, representatives of the villages settled their disputes
and answered for breaches of the peace.
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. The sheriff was responsible for the royal
administration in the shire. He was responsible for the royal
accounts and performed functions like tracking cattle thieves.
The shire court was primarily concerned with issues of the
larger landholders. Here the freemen interpreted the customary
law of the locality. The earl usually took a third of the
profits such as fines and forfeits, 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
a shire- meeting: "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 book."
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. They gave him
homage by placing their hands within his and saying "I become
your man for the tenement I hold of you, and I will bear you
faith in life and member [limb] and earthly honor against all
men". 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
William was a stern and fierce man and ruled as an autocrat by
terror. Whenever the people revolted or resisted his mandates,
he seized their lands or destroyed the crops and laid waste the
countryside and so that they starved to death. He had a strict
system of policing the nation. Instead of the Anglo-Saxon self-
government throughout the districts and hundreds of resident
authorities in local courts, he aimed at substituting for it the
absolute rule of the barons under military rule so favorable to
the centralizing power of the Crown. He used secret police and
spies and the terrorism this system involved. This especially
curbed the minor barons and preserved the public peace.
The English people were disarmed. Curfew bells were rung at 7:00
PM when everyone had to remain in their own dwellings on pain of
death and all fires and candles were to be put out, This
prevented any nightly gatherings, assassinations, or seditions.
Order was brought to the kingdom so that no man dare kill
another, no matter how great the injury he had received. William
extended the King's peace on high roads to include the whole
nation. Any individual of any rank could travel from end to end
of the land unharmed. Before, prudent travelers would travel
only in groups of twenty.
The barons subjugated the English who were on their newly
acquired land. There began 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