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A History of Yorkshire
from Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892)

Part 9


The Anglo- Saxon sovereigns possessed but a limited authority, and in all important affairs affecting the state in general, they could act only with the consent of the witan or council of wise men. This assembly met at one of the royal cities at the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and at any other time or place which the king might appoint. The constitution of the witan has not been definitely ascertained; but it is generally supposed to have consisted of the king, who attended in person, the superior clergy, and the greater thanes; and it may be, as some have thought, that the inferior classes were represented by their deputies. Its powers have thus been summarised :- " First, and in general, they possessed a consultative voice, and right to consider every public act which could be authorised by the king; they deliberated upon the making of new laws which were to be added to the existing folcright, and which were then promulgated by their own and the king's authority; they had the power of making alliances and treaties of peace, and of settling their terms; by them the king was elected, and they could depose him if his government became tyrannical; the king and the witan had power to appoint prelates to vacant sees; they had also a voice in ecclesiastical matters, appointed fasts and festivals, and decided the levy and expenditure of ecclesiastical revenue; the king and the witan had power to levy taxes for the public service, and to raise land and sea forces when occasion demanded; the witan possessed the power of recommending, assenting to, and guaranteeing grants of land, and of permitting the conversion of folc-land into boc-land, and vice versa; they also possessed the power of adjudging the lands of offenders and intestates to be forfeited to the king; and, lastly, the witan acted as a supreme court of justice, both in civil and criminal cases."

The administration of justice among a people but lately emerged from barbarism, was necessarily rude and simple, and often of a summary character. "The proceedings before the Anglo-Saxon tribunals," says Lingard, "would not have suited a more advanced state of civilisation; they were ill calculated to elicit truth, or to produce conviction; and, in many instances which have been recorded by contemporary writers, our more correct or more artificial notions will be shocked at the credulity or the precipitancy of the judges." Rude and simple, however, as they were, we may trace in them the origin of many of our most cherished institutions.

"The lowest species of jurisdiction known among the Anglo-Saxons," says the writer above quoted, "was that of 'Sac and Soc,' words, the derivation of which has puzzled the ingenuity of antiquaries, though the meaning is sufficiently understood. It was the privilege of holding pleas and imposing fines within a certain district, and with a few variations was perpetuated in the manorial courts of the Norman dynasty. It seems to have been claimed and exercised by all the greater and by several of the lesser thanes; but was differently modified by the terms of the original grant, or by immemorial usage. Some took cognisance of all crimes committed within their soke; the jurisdiction of others was confined to offences of a particular description; some might summon every delinquent, whether native or stranger, before their tribunal; while others could inflict punishment on none but their own tenants. From the custom of holding these courts in the hall of the lord, they were usually termed the hall-motes. These courts absorbed much of the business which would otherwise have been carried before the courts of the hundred and county; and from them are derived our present courts baron, with civil, and courts leet with criminal jurisdiction."

"Superior to the hall-mote was the mote of the hundred - a large division of the county. It was assembled every month under the presidency of the ealdorman or chief officer of the hundred, accompanied by the principal clergymen, freeholders, and the reeve and four men as representatives from each township. Once in the year was convened an extraordinary meeting, when every male above the age of twelve was compelled to attend; the state of the guilds and tythings (or associations of ten families) was ascertained; and no man was permitted to remain at large who could not provide a surety for his peaceable demeanour. In these courts offenders were tried, and civil causes decided. But their utility was not confined to their judicial proceedings. In a period when few possessed the humble acquirements of reading and writing, the stability of pecuniary transactions was principally dependent on the honesty and character of the witnesses; and the testimony of the hundred was deemed on that account conclusive in questions of litigated right or disputed obligation. When important payments, contracts, or exchanges were to be made, it was generally done in the presence of the hundred, in order that the whole neighbourhood might bear witness to the fact. Sometimes when interests of greater importance were at stake, or the parties belonged to different districts, the authority of a single hundred was thought insufficient. On such occasions, that the controversy might be brought before a more numerous and less partial tribunal, the ealdorman convoked an assembly of the contiguous hundreds, or of the third part of the county. The former was termed the court of the "Lathe," and the latter of the " Trything." The lathes still exist in some of the southern counties, where the hundreds were small. From the trythings is supposed to be derived the local denomination of riding, the third part of a county, a division still in force in this county.

Of still higher dignity, and more extensive jurisdiction, was the shire-mote or court of the county, which assembled twice in the year - in the beginning of May and October. Every great proprietor was compelled to attend - either in person or by his steward, or to send in his place his chaplain, bailiff, and four principal tenants, The bishop and ealdorman or earl presided with equal authority, and their assessors were the sheriff and the most noble of the thanes. Ecclesiastical matters were first attended to, the rights of the crown were next enforced, the laws and decisions of the witanagemote were announced, and lastly, private grievances were examined and redressed. Kemble relates the following remarkable instance of the simplicity with which even the most important affairs were transacted in these courts. A young man made his appearance before a shire-mote, and claimed some lands which were possessed by his mother. A deputation was at once despatched from the court to receive her answer - her reply was "There sitteth Leoflad, my kinsman, unto whom I grant both my land and my gold, both my gown and my dress, and all that I have after my own day." This act, by which she disinherited her son, was communicated to the court, and judgment was ultimately pronounced in favour of Leoflad, and a record was made to testify the fact. Thus at once was the suit decided, the son disinherited, and the will in favour of Leoflad recognised. From these local courts - the hall-mote, the hundred-mote, and the shire-mote - appeals might be made to the superior authority of the monarch.

MODES OF TRIAL. - In all these courts the judges were the free tenants resident within the jurisdiction of the court, and as a number of people thus sat in judgment, the acquittal or condemnation of an offender was the voice of many, and was, therefore, in all probability free from the taint of favour or vindictiveness, which might have biassed or prejudiced the decision of a single individual. The mode of procedure was as follows: The delinquent was brought before the tribunal, either on the presentment of the chief men of his township or his hundred, in which we may see the germ of our present Grand Jury, or by the appeal of the injured party. If the case was not of a serious nature, or admitted of little doubt, the defendant purged himself, as it was termed, by the oath of himself and of his neighbours who could vouch for his credit, who swore that "they believed his oath to be upright and clean." These were called his compurgators. Their number was, in many cases, fixed by law, in others left to the discretion of the court. Sometimes four or five sufficed; sometimes forty or fifty were required. In Northumbria, custom permitted the defendant to produce forty-eight persons who could swear to his integrity, out of whom twenty-four were appointed by ballot. If these compurgators all agreed in a declaration in favour of the accused, this was held to he a complete acquittal. And here it may be remarked that the value of such oaths was estimated by the opulence and rank of the individual. The oath of a king's thane was equal to the oaths of six ceorls; the oath of an ealdorman to those of six thanes.

Sometimes the accused elected to prove his innocence by ordeal or judgment of God. Of the various forms in which it was used we need here only give a summary:- (1) Ordeal by corsned or consecrated bread, which, it was believed, would choke the person who attempted to swallow it if he were guilty. (2) Ordeal by hot iron. In this case the accused grasped a piece of iron made redhot, and carried it three paces; the hand was then bound up by the priest, and if, on being opened on the third day, the scar had healed, the individual was pronounced innocent. Sometimes the accused was made to walk blindfold and barefooted over nine red-hot ploughshares. (3) Ordeal by hot water, which was done by plunging the hand into a vessel of boiling water, and taking out a stone from the bottom; the hand was bound up and the case decided as in the ordeal by hot iron. (4) Ordeal by cold water, into which the accused, having first been bound, was thrown; if he floated he was accounted guilty, if he sunk, innocent. This ordeal was founded on the idea that water was too pure to receive any guilty thing into its bosom. The wager of battle was not unknown among the Saxons, but it did not come into general use until after the Norman Conquest.

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