Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Social Organisation in the Seventh Century

by Annie Whitehead

The seventh century is a long way away, and elusive in terms of surviving written records. Bede is our major source for historical events, but he tells us little about everyday lives. Most of the information on this subject is found in the law codes of the rulers of Kent – these being Æthelberht, Hlothherre and Eadric, and Wihtred – and the laws of Ine, king of Wessex. These law codes give a relatively comprehensive view of the status and importance of the varying social classes.

Before taking a close look at these, however, a basic introduction to the social system is probably useful, in order to understand the references and terminology used in the law codes.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Abingdon Manuscript) showing Æthelberht's name

In the eyes of the law, the chief mark which distinguished one class of society from another was the price that had to be paid in compensation for the slaying of one of its members, and this was called the wergeld (or wergild) - literally a man price.

Life in a nobleman’s hall was very like that at court, but on a smaller scale. Like the king, lay and ecclesiastical lords had their officials. All great households included one of more domestic chaplain, whose functions were secretarial as well as religious. Stag-hunting, fox-hunting and hawking were favourite pastimes for kings and nobles.

There is little information about the activities of the women of the class, but we may assume that the mistress of the house supervised the running of it, which would entail baking, brewing, spinning and weaving. An Anglo-Saxon lady could hold land in her own right, and defend her right in the courts.

The ordinary freeman is most commonly called a ceorl. Though he apparently lived at a lower economic level than his Kentish counterpart, the ceorl in the other kingdoms of the heptarchy * was nevertheless a man with the full rights of a freeman, and often held land that he had inherited from his ancestors and would leave to his children, and he paid a freeman’s duties to the church.

The slave had no wergeld. He was a chattel, and if anyone killed him, he had merely to pay his value to the owner. Slaves were sometimes included in inventories of stock. As he had no property, the slave could not be punished by fines when convicted of crime, and was therefore liable to flogging for minor offences, or to mutilation and death for serious offences. If his owner ill-treated him, he incurred ecclesiastical penalties, but it was not the concern of the law.

As mentioned already, most of the law codes pertinent here emanate from Kent, and I'll look first at that of Æthelberht, which can be dated from between the adoption of Christianity in 597 and the king’s death in 616.

Law code of  Æthelberht - 12th Century manuscript

It is clear that the lowest rank was filled by slaves. Some of the female slaves were employed as domestic servants, and penalties for raping them were in proportion not to their feelings but to their master’s rank. Higher values were set on the honour of other slave-women, presumably employed not in the household but on the farm. To distinguish slaves from freeborn women, their hair was cropped. If the male slave stole, he was supposed to have means to pay twice the value of the stolen goods as compensation.

More is said about the esne - a strange word. In other texts the word is used to translate the Latin ‘servus’, and no doubt a taint of servility clung to the esne – at best he was only half-free. He may have had a household of his own, rather than a mere lodging in the outbuilding of his master’s farm.

Another oddity is the læt, who is mentioned only in Æthelberht’s laws. It seems natural to connect him with the laetus of the Roman Empire, where he was a member of a subject people settled on the land in a position intermediate between freemen and slaves.

Next in the social scale is the ceorl, or husbandman. The word tells nothing of the ceorl’s racial origin, nor does it carry any connotation of freedom. He was certainly a commoner, and the clearest indication of his social status is his mundbyrd, the fine payable for an offence against one of his dependents: six schillings, as against twelve schillings for a nobleman, or fifty schillings for the king.

Four classes of widow are distinguished by their mundbyrd, and the grades are presumably determined by the standing of their late husbands (or their brothers). The lowest, six schillings, is identical to the mundbyrd of the ceorl, the highest, fifty schillings, with that of the king. The first class widow would be nobly born, perhaps of the royal house, the twenty schilling widow a non-royal noblewoman, and the twelve schilling one the widow either of a lesser gentleman or a freeman.

Æthelberht says very little about the eorl (nobleman). Twelve schillings is the penalty for slaying a man on the premises of a nobleman and for seducing his domestic slave-woman. This is enough to show that the eorl stands twice as high in social estimation at the ceorl.

Dated between 673 and 685, the laws of Hlothherre and Eadric only supplemented those already in force. Nowhere is it stated that these two ruled jointly, although this was not uncommon.

The code adds little information on the social structure. It speaks of the esne and his owner, who must surrender the esne if he kills a man, and the owner must pay compensation proportionate to the rank of the victim.

Graves of Hlothherre (2nd left) & Wihtred (3rd left) - attribution

The freeman’s home is in a village, or tun. If accused of stealing, he must bring at least one witness from his own village. This probably means that some villages were populated by freemen who acknowledged no superior other than the king, especially when remembering Æthelberht’s laws implying a close relationship between king and freeman.

An important provision relating to the slave or to the servile esne, is that the Church protects him by decreeing that his master may not lawfully deprive him of his money or livestock which he has earned by his own toil.

By the time of Wihtred’s reign, manumission was by now treated as a religious act which could take place at the altar. The code issued by Wihtred in 695, provides that although a man freed at the altar shall be ‘folk-free’ that is, free as against all men except his lord, the lord shall be the guardian of his household even if he is settled elsewhere than on the lord’s estate, and when he dies, his property and wergeld will belong to the lord.

In Wihtred’s laws, the nobleman is styled gesithcundman. He owes his standing partly to his birth, but now the emphasis is on his position as a gesith, or companion to the king. Between him and the slave stands the ceorliscman, or commoner. This term includes freemen, husbandmen, læts, and perhaps the folk-free esne.

The laws of Ine of Wessex were issued at some time between 688 and 694. We owe their survival to their being added as a supplement to the laws of Alfred, who expressly mentions his use of them. It is not safe to assume that they are complete, since presumably Alfred would only have preserved those clauses which were relevant to his own laws, but they are of particular interest, since they are the earliest we possess.

If the slave of Ine’s Wessex has a master who makes him work on Sunday, he is to be set free, but if he works of his own accord, he must be whipped or pay a fine. The freeman who works on a Sunday, however, may be reduced to slavery unless he can pay a heavy fine, or plead to his lord’s command. So it would seem that a Wessex freeman may have a lord set over him.

Peterborough Chronicle, contains the oldest surviving copy of Ine's laws

The esne appears only once in Ine’s codes, where penalties are appointed for anyone who actively helps him to abscond.

Ine’s laws provide a definite place for Britons in the social scheme. The wergeld payable for taking a Welshman’s life is arranged in seven grades: -
Welsh Slave 50 Schillings
Landless Welshman 60
Landless Welshmen with ½ a hide 80
Son of a Welsh rent payer 100
Welsh rent payer or landed Welshman with 1 hide 120
Welsh horseman in the king’s service 200
Landed Welshman with five hides 600
The hide is a unit of assessment for calculating the payments in money or kind due to the king or other landlord. Ine’s laws throw no light on the method by which the assessment was imposed, or the extent of land which lies behind it.

The Welshman with five hides is clearly a man of substance, but other men, probably English, held as much as ten or twenty hides. The wergeld of a five-hide Welshman is 600 schillings, but we are not told whether the same or a higher compensation is exacted for the murder of a five-hide Saxon.

Here again, the nobleman is styled gesithcundman, and is contrasted with the ceorliscman or commoner. Normally, he is a landholder. He forfeits his land by neglecting military service and has to pay a fine of 120 schillings, twice as much as that paid by a landless man of his own class, four times that paid by a commoner.

Little is known of the other kingdoms. The Northumbrian nobleman was also known as a gesith, a companion of the king, as he was in Mercia. In East Anglia and Essex, there is no reason to suppose that the social systems differed greatly. The collection of tribes known as the Middle Angles may have been governed by ealdormen, as there is no record of a traditional of a royal house. (King Penda of Mercia's son became king of the Middle Angles around the year 653, but this was an appointment, not an inheritance)

In general, what we learn from these law codes it that there seems to be a highly class-conscious society. Around the king stand the nobles, who will be rewarded for service with grants of land. They form a territorial aristocracy supported by rents of the tillers of the soil, whom they are bound to protect and keep in order.

At the other end of the scale are the slaves. Some are Britons serving new masters, and the class is recruited from prisoners of war, convicts and hungry freemen who sell themselves for food.
Of the intermediate class, there is the husbandman, free by birth, accustomed to speaking his mind on public affairs in popular assemblies, and acknowledging no superior but the king.

We hear of the Kentish freeman living in a village, and of the West Saxon ceorl who shares arable and meadow with his neighbours. The husbandman who must hire a yoke of oxen before he can plough is obviously a man of slender resources. There was no such thing as economic independence of these men and, against a lord who could fetch them back and fine them heavily is they absconded, their legal freedom was worth very little.

*heptarchy - the seven kingdoms:  East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
Amazon Page


  1. Interesting how they quantified the value of a person. It shows, to me, a highly organized culture.

    1. Yes, indeed. With slight regional variations, it is still clear that it was a very stratified society, where every man and woman seems to have had their place, and been expected to keep to it. And yet the idea of service and protection goes downwards as well as upwards (which I'll explore in the second instalment)

  2. There must have been much security in knowing your exact place in society. No one could have had an identity crisis.

    1. It certainly appears to have been very structured, doesn't it?

  3. I was interested in the detailed provision for Welsh. It looks as if they were a significant population in Ine's Wessex. How far west did Wessex extend then, do you know? Also, taking your point, it looks as if these provisions were still relevant in Alfred's day - though I suppose his boundary would have been a lot further west than Ine's.

    1. It's very difficult to piece together the borders of the kingdoms at that time - for one, they were very fluid, and there's also little documentary evidence. Wessex was not the great power that, as you rightly say, it came to be by Alfred's time. It seems Ine fought Ceolred of Mercia in a battle at Wodnesbeorg above the Vale of Pewsey but we don't know who won. We know that Ine built Taunton, because the chronicle remarks upon it's being destroyed. At his time, Mercia was in the ascendancy, and my research has kept me on their side of any borders up until now. Ine founded the see of Sherborne, and it seems that the first West Saxon synods took place in his reign. Ine appears to have held some authority over Kent and Surrey, Bede says that he kept Sussex under subjugation, and according to Stenton it was probably in his time that the West Saxons conquered Devon. So it looks like his reach extended pretty much across the south coast, as far east as Kent and, to the west, Dorset, Somerset and Devon.

    2. Trevor,
      You might also be interested in this: After a meeting at Hereford in which King Athelstan brought most of the Welsh princes together and secured a promise of yearly tribute, he then set out directly afterwards on an expedition against the Britons of Cornwall. It seems that they were in revolts, and that men of their race in other parts of the south-west were supporting them. ..in particular, that they had many supporters among the Britons who at that date formed and important part of the population of Exeter. The city was refortified by Athelstan and the British inhabitants expelled..in the end the Britons of Cornwall were compelled to accept the river Tamar as their boundary.(Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England)