Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Aristocracy in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries

by Annie Whitehead

Last time I looked at the social organisation of the seventh century. Now, I'll be examining in more detail the role of the Aristocracy. At this time, a freeman’s value was expressed in terms of wergeld (literally ‘man-money’), the sum with which a feud could be averted. It was more than a man’s price; it determined the scale of compensation due to him for injury, or for the breach of his peace, or injury to his servant’s. It also defined a man’s status in society.

Characteristic terms used of the nobility in 600-735 were eorl and gesith, the former being found in Kentish documents. As well as the gesiths, there were the thegns - servants of the king not yet rewarded with land, or old enough to have received an inheritance. Possession of land often involved service and it is likely that, in the late seventh- century, connection by blood with a kind, service to a king, and particularly service at a royal court were important factors in determining noble status.

Of the principes and comites (gesiths) mentioned by Bede, many were of the royal kin, and most had some service to perform at the royal court. But they were not only courtiers in the literal sense. The famous story of Imma gives real insight into the nature of the nobility of the age.

Bede depicted in the Nurumberg Chronicle

A young man named Imma is struck down in battle, and sets out to find his friends to take care of him. Instead he is found and captured by men of the enemy army and taken to their lord, who is a gesith of the king. Imma is afraid to say that he is a thegn, so he tells his captor that he is a peasant who came to the battlefield only to bring food to the soldiers.

The gesith has his wounds attended to and as Imma begins to recover, the gesith orders him bound at night. After he has been a prisoner for some time, the gesith begins to notice that by Imma’s “appearance, his bearing and his speech that he was not of common stock as he had said, but of noble family.” The gesith calls Imma to one side and asks him to declare his origins, promising that no harm will come to him as long as he is honest. Imma confesses that he is a thegn, and the gesith says, “I realised by every one of your answers that were not a peasant, and now you ought to die because all my brothers and kinsmen were killed in the battle, but I will not kill you for I do not intend to break my promise.”

The first implication of this story is that a social gulf already separated the skilled fighting man from the peasant; manner of speech and knowledge of courteous ways betrayed the man of superior social status. The gesith himself was a significant figure; he was settled on an estate, in command of a powerful section of the royal army, and a victor in battle. He possessed a strong kindred of fighting men, and held the power of life or death over his captives. He was loyal to his oath, even though loyalty meant failure to take the correct vengeance for his kinsmen.

Other references in Bede’s Hist. Eccl. build up a similar picture of the typical powerful noble as a holder of land. When King Sigebert of Essex was assassinated, Bede considered it as just retribution for his failure to correct moral abuses on the part of his two comites (gesiths) who were his kinsmen. He was slain on the ham, that is to say the substantial estate, of one of his comites. In Northumbria two comites are said to have founded churches on their estates. So a picture emerges from the narrative sources of a great nobleman as a powerful military leader, possible of royal kin, settled on an estate, possessing a hall, and surrounded by retainers.

With the conversion to Christianity, the bond between noble and king, originally so much that between household retainer and lord, was knit more strictly by Christian oaths. Kingship developed too, with the king no longer being regarded merely as in the folk, but over the folk. Royal blood and an honourable genealogy were essential for a successful king. Christianity emphasised the value of the blood royal, and established legitimate kingship was accompanied by an established legitimate nobility, and the ability to exercise lordship over freemen developed into the most obvious mark of nobility.

king, saint, and gospel

The law codes surviving from this period give an insight into the position of the nobility in society, and its relationship with the classes beneath it on the social scale. These codes have enough in common to give a picture of aristocratic society in what HR Loyn called an heroic age. Special privileges granted to the nobles included higher payment for infringement of their house peace, of their own personal surety, of the lives and property of their dependants and above all for their own persons.

Clause 50 of Ine of Wessex’s code (688-94) reads:
“If a gesithborn man intercedes with the king or the king’s ealdorman or with the lord for members of his household, slaves or freemen, he the gesith, has no right to any fines, because he would not previously at home restrain them from ill-doing.” 
One thing that may be noted from this is the implication that one gesith may be under another’s lordship. More importantly, it is clear that the state imposed on every lord some responsibility for his men’s behaviour. We are not told how the West Saxon lord exercised his coercive power, but the lord’s right of jurisdiction, with the right in normal circumstances to take a portion of the misdoer’s fine, is clearly visible.

Other illustrations of the lord’s position exist: in seventh-century Kent a noble could clear himself of an accusation by his unsupported oath, while a ceorl would only do so with three of his own class (Whitred19;20). A lord could expect to have the faithful service of his men, and when they died, they were expected to render one final gift: their heriot, (literally ‘army gear’) varied with the status, not of the lord, but of the man.

The duties expected of the nobility extended further than that of keeping their own freemen and dependants under control. The nobility featured strongly in what could loosely be termed as local government, particularly administration and judicial proceedings. The clause in Ine’s code already referred to, has a further implication, which is that the nobleman had the duty of interceding for members of his household in the pubic courts. Knowledge of such public courts is vague. Presumably they owed much of their authority to the dignitary who presided over them – king, ealdorman or great lord. There were matters that demanded interpretation by wise men, by elders of the moots. At the highest level of the kingdom such men were drawn together in an assembly to give special sanction to the promulgations of dooms (judgements, pronouncements.)

the king with his council

The king legislated with the advice of his council, in fact some enactments seem to have gone out in the name of the latter alone. Copies were sent to the ealdormen in charge of the various provinces. These ealdormen were royal officials appointed by the king. Sometimes they were related to the royal house, quite often they belonged to the family that had ruled the province before its absorption into a larger kingdom. According to Dorothy Whitelock, they were most often drawn from the king’s thegns. Within his own area of operations, the ealdorman was the king’s representative. He led the forces of this district in war, and presided at its judicial assembly (as we have already seen). Like the king, he had official estates, and rights of claiming hospitality for his officials and messengers. It has been suggested that the ealdorman had two wergelds: one as his right as a member of society and one for his position as a royal official.

We have seen that the nobility were the top rank in a carefully structured hierarchical society, closely connected to the king by blood, or service. To sum up their functions in society and government, here’s a quote from Whitelock’s The Beginnings of English Society: “From early times kings were in the habit of granting to private landowners, the profits of jurisdiction over their own lands or over their own men, and sometimes over wider areas. This is so already at the date of Ine’s laws.”

The nobleman was a respected member of society, owing service to the king in military, judicial, and administrative capacities. In reward for these services he was given grants of land. His duties involved the lower end of the social scale in that he had an obligation to protect the people under him. The nobleman was a central figure in the social organisation and government of Anglo-Saxon England.


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. Her history of Mercia will be released by Amberley Publishing in Sep 2018.
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