Saturday, July 16, 2016

Duties and Obligations in Tenth-Century England

By Annie Whitehead

Placing oneself under the protection of a lord was a solemn and ceremonious affair. In England it took the form of a hold-oath, or fealty oath. The physical act of bowing was accompanied by the oath:

“By the lord before whom this relic is holy, I will be to N [name of lord] faithful and true, and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to God’s law, and according to secular custom; and never, willingly or intentionally, by word or by work, do aught of what is loathful to him, on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfil that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” [1]

Essentially this is a negative commitment, a promise not to act against the lord’s interests. Nevertheless, a personal bond of this nature carried with it certain positive obligations.

For the king’s thegn, lord and king were the same person. A thegn whose lord was not the king still had a duty to the monarch. (It should be remembered that the king’s title was “Cynehlaford” or lord-king.) Thegns in turn would have men who called them lord. The role of lordship entailed a dual responsibility, that of serving one’s lord, and that of protecting one’s men.

The king with his witan
The king was ever mindful of the need to control his ealdormen. Their attendance at the royal council was one way of ensuring their co-operation, and failure to attend a summons to the witan was punished severely. The witan had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king, and at times it acted on its own; following the death of a king the election process for his successor was carried through in the witan. It was in the royal council that the laws were promulgated. Its members met indoors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how, in 978, “the leading councillors of England fell down from an upper storey at Calne, all except the holy Archbishop Dunstan, who alone remained standing on a beam.” [2] Business transacted in the witan included general, financial and judicial matters. Essentially though, its function was of a deliberative and consultative nature.

Saint Dunstan

The test of royal authority is how effectively it is felt in the localities. The law codes abound with directions to individual ealdormen to ensure that laws are enforced. King Edgar commands that:

“Earl Oslac and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Aelfhere and ealdorman Aethelwine, and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [3]

King Edgar

There is some evidence to suggest that the ealdormen disliked the king’s reeves (administrative officials.) A breach of the law by a reeve could only be dealt with by the king [4] and when Aethelred II adopted the policy of appointing reeves instead of ealdormen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1002 Ealdorman Leofsige slew Aelfric, the king’s high-reeve. The grant of Aethelred’s explains why these men were disliked. The reeve broke the law by giving Christian burial to those who had forfeited the right. Instead of punishing him, Aethelred granted the reeve their land. To the ealdormen it must have seemed that the reeves were above the law.

Naturally the king’s officials were instrumental in the enforcement of law and order, and their duties included presiding over the shire and hundred courts. The hundred ordinance [5] directs that the hundred court is to meet every four weeks. II&III Edgar acknowledges this and states that the borough court is to be held three times a year and the shire court twice a year. It also succinctly sets out the duty of those presiding over the courts:

“And the bishop of the diocese and the ealdormen are to be present, and there to expound both the ecclesiastical and the secular law.” [6]

The shire court was unspecialised in the tenth-century, and did not develop into a full royal court until after the Norman conquest. It had a variety of functions, including procedures in outlawry. [7] It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, and the shire-reeve gradually became recognised at the chief executive royal officer.

The hundred court met on an appointed day, and anyone who failed to appear had to pay thirty shillings compensation. Each man was to do justice to another. Great concern was shown over theft. Compensation had to be paid to the victim; half of the offender’s remaining property went to the hundred, and half to the lord. Aethelred II’s reign saw an emphasis placed on the importance of oath-taking, and the origins of the jury of presentment.

“The twelve leading thegns are to come forward and swear on the relics … that they will accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one.” He who pronounced a wrong judgement could forfeit his thegnly status, and “A sentence where the thegns are unanimous is to be valid.”

The importance of all courts was to provide a place where good witness could be obtained. King Edgar ordered thirty-six witnesses in each borough, and twelve in each hundred. [9]

Aethelred II

By the middle of the tenth-century it was becoming customary for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Many hundreds fell into private hands; a lord often had considerable rights here and in his own lands. The grants were usually laid down in the charters as rights of “sake and soke”, these being rights of jurisdiction and to the profits of justice.

A charter of Aethelred II
This usually meant the control of a court. These rights were not granted lightly, and were really intended to emphasise royal authority rather than to weaken it. Grants of rights over a hundred court involved financial advantages, and the right to appoint hundredmen. HR Loyn suggests that the sheriffs (shire-reeves) played an important part in preventing the disintegration of royal power as private jurisdiction grew. [10] Landowners exercised other specific rights on their estates. They had a right to impose a toll on goods sold within the estate, the right (known as Team) to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale belonged to the vendor, and the right (infangenetheof) to hang a thief caught on the estate.

The nobility served the king, and were granted lands and privileges as a reward for that service. As lords they could expect service from their own men, and in turn they had a duty to protect those who called them ‘lord’.

(Next week - the obligations of military service)

[1] Origins of English Feudalism 59 p145 - Of Oaths (c.1920)
[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 978
[3] IV Edgar 15. & 15.1
[4] EHD (English historical Documents) 117 p525
[5] This document is often called I Edgar, but was possibly written before Edgar’s reign. It was definitely in existence during Edgar’s reign.
[6] II&III Edgar 5.2
[7] HR Loyn - The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p138
[8] III Aethelred 3.1 & 13.2
[9] IV Edgar 4. & 5.
[10] HR Loyn Op Cit p163. By 1086 approx. 130 hundreds were in private hands.

All images used above are copyright free in the Public Domain


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. It has recently also been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, and his battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young. It features the swearing of the hold oath and the collapse of the witan building at Calne.

Find her on her author page Here
Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen
Annie's Website
Annie has also been involved in a collaborative e-book project re-imagining the events of 1066

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Annie. The more I read about the Anglo Saxons, the more I admire them.

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    1. Thanks Cryssa - as you might have guessed, I'm a bit passionate about them myself :)

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  2. I'm starting to feel sorry that I've spent so much of my time on the Plantagenants; the few books I have on pre Norman England have been read rarely. As an Englishman NOT A BRIT, I'm ashamed, and now at the age of 82 I shall have to get stuck into my books before it's too late.
    Strange as a lad I always answered Æthelbert when asked what the E. in my name stood for and my brothers E. stood for Æthelred the Unready

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    1. There's a wealth of English history pre-1066. Once I discovered it I found I rather preferred it to later medieval stuff. I also always found myself drawn to German rather than French or Spanish whenever I had to choose a language to study at school - and I still prefer to listen to the Teutonic and Scandinavian languages to those of the Romance family:)

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