Anglo-Saxon Law (to 1066) - Sarah Woodbury

Anglo-Saxon Law (to 1066)

Anglo-Saxon law didn’t come to an end with the coming of William of Normandy in 1066, but it was definitely changed.

Norman law was based in feudalism and heavily influenced by the Church.  Anglo-Saxon law had been developed over a long period of time and while influenced by Christianity in later centuries, was more egalitarian.  It was based on a system of courts, the main one being the ‘hundred court’.  “The hundred court met every four weeks, in the open if possible and usually at a prominent local landmark that gave its name to the hundred. The king’s reeve usually presided over the court. It had many functions, and was a mixture of parish council business meeting, planning enquiry, and magistrates’ court.  . .

Edward the Elder decreed that the hundred courts were to judge the worthiness of every law-suit and to appoint a day for it to be heard and settled. They did not have to hear the case there and then. Above the hundred court was the shire court which met twice a year, usually about Easter and Michaelmas (29th September), and was presided over by the ealdorman, the bishop and the king’s senior reeve in the area, the shire-reeve (or sheriff), with all the major landowners in the shire, or their reeves, present. Law-suits made up only a small part of the shire court’s time, which was filled up with all the other business essential to the smooth running of the shire. Law-suits could be passed up to the shire court from the hundred court, though we are not sure why this would be necessary. Presumably, it would occur in cases where the hundred court was unable to reach a judgement, or where disputes crossed the boundary between two hundreds.”

As to the specifics of the laws, compared to the laws in Wales, this following pages have extensive lists of what they actually entailed:

In general, like in Wales, crimes were punishable by fines, more than death or dismemberment (hallmarks of Norman law).  Similarly to Wales, women in Anglo-Saxon England had rights:  “The Law of Cnut stated: “neither a widow nor a maiden is to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own free will.”  Cnut’s law also specified that if a woman’s husband died before they had any children, she was entitled to one-third of his land (called “dower,” under common English law,) plus her morgegifu (gifts at the time of marriage).  Despite religious expectations, divorce laws were considered lax: Anglo-Saxon King Ecelbert passed specific laws that gave women the right to abandon a marriage if she found it “displeasing.””

From my reading, I am unsure as to the actual status of illegitimate children and their inheritance (unlike in Wales, where illegitimate children inherited equally with legitimate ones).  William of Normandy himself was a bastard, but yet inherited in Normandy (and then conquered England), so laws on the subject are not always set in stone.

“The Anglo-Saxon legal system rested on the fundamental opposition between folkright and privilege. Folkright is the aggregate of rules, whether formulated or not, that can be appealed to as an expression of the juridical consciousness of the people at large or of the communities of which it is composed. It is tribal in origin and is differentiated on highly localized bases. Thus, there was a folkright of East and West Saxons, Mercians, Northumbrians, Danes, and Welshmen, and these main folkright divisions persisted even after the tribal kingdoms disappeared in the 8th and 9th centuries. The responsibility for the formulation and application of the folkright rested, in the 10th and 11th centuries, with the local shire moots (assemblies); the national council of the realm, or witan, only occasionally used folkright ideas. . . .

Before the 10th century an individual’s actions were considered not as exertions of his own will but as acts of his kinship group. Personal protection and revenge, oaths, marriage, wardship, and succession were all regulated by the law of kinship. What began as a natural alliance later became a means of enforcing responsibility and keeping lawless individuals in order. As the associations proved insufficient, other collective bodies, such as guilds and townships, assumed these functions. In the period before the Norman Conquest, much regulation was formalized by the king’s legislation in order to protect the individual. In the area of property, for example, witnesses were required at cattle sales, not to validate the sale but as protection against later claims on the cattle. Some ordinances required the presence of witnesses for all sales outside the town gate, and others simply prohibited sales except in town, again for the buyer’s protection.”

(updating and posting again 9/11/11)

5 Replies to “Anglo-Saxon Law (to 1066)”

  1. Also Anglo-Saxon law was heavily based in precedent and tradition – King Alfred’s laws were customary laws he had written down, rather than laws he made. In his preface he specifically said that he did not write down his own laws, but left them for future generations to judge. Even later the Norman kings paid lip-service to precedent, because it was so important to Anglo-Saxon thinking ….

    1. Yes, absolutely. The same is true of Hywel Dda’s laws–he didn’t make them (necesssarily), but just wrote them down.

  2. It’s especially interesting to read about how “liberal” the laws were regarding women and illegitimate children, isn’t it? I tend to think that we’ve progressed in these areas over time, when really the concepts have gone through different phases, perhaps bouncing back and forth.

    Also, I love knowing where words come from: “shire-reeve”=sheriff. Thanks.

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