As many of our most cherished institutions had their origin in Saxon times, it may be profitable and instructive even in a local work to give a brief survey of the distinguishing features of Anglo-Saxon polity, its laws and lawgivers, the social condition of the people, crimes, and the mode of administering justice. The system of government, both general and municipal, which the Normans found in existence when they conquered the county, was retained, but with such alterations and modifications as they deemed necessary to bring it into harmony with their previous political experience. The Saxons, on the contrary, when they obtained possession of Britain, uprooted every vestige of Roman civilisation and Roman jurisprudence, and built up a new social organisation, similar to that which existed in their wild and sterile home on the shores of the Baltic. There they had been corsairs, but here they seized the rich cultivated lands and orchards, and abandoned their sea-faring life for the more settled one of agriculturists and landsmen. They lost entirely the art of shipbuilding, in which they had formerly excelled, and it is related that, many years afterwards, Bishop Wilfrid had to teach the South Saxons how to catch sea-fish. Nor does it appear they were in possession of any fleet for the protection of the coast, until necessity compelled King Alfred to establish a sea-force to be used against the Danes.
Early English society was founded entirely on that of the family, and all who were bound together by ties of blood formed one little community under the rule of a chief. Each clan occupied its own district, and was held responsible for the misdeeds of any of its members. Should any individual suffer injury or death, the duty of seeking revenge devolved upon his family. One murder provoked another, and hence arose those deadly and hereditary feuds, which were frequently transmitted as sacred legacies through many generations. Of this the reader has already seen a memorable instance in the alternate murders which, for several generations, harassed two of the most powerful families in Northumbria.
The Saxons selected for their settlements the fertile tracts of country, from which they expelled or enslaved the previous Celtic owners. The towns they destroyed, or permitted the scanty native population, whom they reduced to serfdom, to retain under their protection, and these still retain their ancient British or Romano-British names. All the members of a clan were kindred in blood and bore the same name, which was that of the real or supposed ancestor, the patronymic being formed by the addition of the syllable ing. Thus, the descendants of Ælla were called Ællingas, and their ham or cluster of wooden huts was known as Ællingham, or, in modern form, Ellingham. The Uffingas were the descendants of Uffa, and perhaps Ovingham and Ovington may indicate the sites of their settlements. These clan names are still numerous in the country. Thus we find the Bassingas at Basssingbourn, in Cambridgeshire; at Basingfield, in Notts; at Bassingham and Bassingthorpe, in Lincolnshire; and at Bassington, in Northumberland. The Billings have left their stamp at Billing, in Northampton; Billinge and Billington; Billingham, in Durham; Bellingham, and several other places. The Myrgings gave name to Merrington; the Æsingas to Easington; the Wæringas to Warrington. There have been counted in the country 1,400 of these clan names, of which 48 are found in Northumberland, 127 in Yorkshire, 76 in Lincolnshire, 153 in Norfolk and Suffolk, 48 in Essex, 60 in Kent, and 86 in Sussex and Surrey. In Cumberland and Westmoreland, where the Briton for a long time maintained his independence, only eight of these Teutonic clan names are found.
The essential principle of Roman government was municipal; they encouraged the Britons to live in towns rather than dispersed through the country; and even the cultivators of the soil resided in the cities, and went forth to their labour. But with the Saxons, on the contrary, the village community formed the unit of social organisation. There was the homestead of the chief, and the district around was cultivated by the clan with the aid of the enslaved Britons. A mark of forest or fen separated the territory of one clan from that of another, and these districts became the townships of a later date, many of which exist in various parts of the country even to the present time.
In their Slesvig home the English had lived within their little marks as free and independent communities, capable, however, of some cohesion when threatened by a common enemy. Kings they had none; the chiefs cast lots for the commandership, and after the war was over each tribe returned to its independence. In Britain they were aggressors who had come to rob the Celtic owners of their lands; the country could only be won at the point of the sword, and with the sword must the conquest be maintained. This necessitated a closer union for military purposes between the townships of each colony, and hence arose the separate chieftainships or petty kingdoms of early England.
Rude and barbarous as were our Saxon ancestors on their settlement in England, there were among them divisions of rank on which was built the whole social superstructure as it existed at a later period, and, though much modified, may still be detected in our present system. There were three classes, viz., æthelings or chieftains, freolings or freemen, and theows or slaves. Subsequently, when each colony had developed into a petty kingdom, the title of ætheling was confined to those of royal blood.
The first in rank among the ethel, or noble-born, was the cyning, or king, a term by no means synonymous with our modern conception of that word. He was at first merely the chieftain of the several clans or bodies of freemen forming the colony or petty kingdom, claiming their allegiance in time of war, but exercising very limited control over them when the necessity for military combination had disappeared. Even after the consolidation of the kingdoms by Athelstan, the several states retained a considerable amount of independence, and often acted in direct opposition to the royal authority. The whole course of early English history consists of a long and tedious effort at increased national unity, which was never fully realised till the Norman conquerors bound the whole nation together in the firm grasp of William, Henry, and Edward.
Though the royal dignity was confined to one family, it by no means always followed the line of hereditary descent. If the eldest son of the last king was not of full age, or otherwise manifestly incompetent, his claims to the succession were passed over, and an uncle or some other member of the royal stock placed on the throne. The selection rested with the witan, or great council of the state, and the king was said to be elected by the free choice of the people. Before the conversion to Christianity, the royal families all traced their origin to Woden. Thus runs the pedigree of Ida, king of Northumbria :- "Ida was Eopping, Eoppa was Esing, Esa was Inguing, Iugui Angenwiting, Angenwit, Alocing, Aloe Benocing, Benoc Branding, Brand Baldæging, Bældæg Wodening." But when the Saxons had embraced Christianity, the chroniclers felt the necessity of reconciling these heathen genealogies with the scriptural account in Genesis; they, therefore, sought for the ancestor of Woden in Noah's Ark, and extended the genealogy, making the great Saxon god the sixteenth in descent from that patriarch.
The king was the lord of the principal chieftains, and through them, of their respective vassals. Thrice in the year the great tenants of the crown were reminded of their dependence. At the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, they were summoned to pay him their homage. They appeared before him in the guise of dependents, while he was seated on his throne with the crown upon his head, and a sceptre in each hand. He exercised an undisputed authority over the national forces by sea and land. He was the supreme judge, and was accustomed to receive appeals from every part of the judicature. The principal part of the fines levied on offenders was paid into his treasury. He could commute the sentence of death, and was wont to liberate one prisoner in every town which he visited. The man to whom the "king's peace" or protection was granted, was secured from the pursuit of his enemies. At his coronation, and for eight days afterwards, it was extended to the whole kingdom; each year it was equally observed during the octaves of the three great festivals, in which he was accustomed to hold his court, and at all times it was enjoyed by every person within the circuit of four miles of his actual residence, by travellers on the four highways, and by merchants or their servants, as long as they were employed on the navigable rivers. Infractions of this peace subjected the offender to a heavy fine, and if the case was of extreme gravity the life and property of the delinquent were placed at the mercy of the king.*
The consort of the king was at first called queen, and shared in common with her husband the splendour of royalty; but after the crime of Eadburga, the daughter of Offa, who poisoned her husband, Brihtric, king of Wessex, the title, with all the appendages of female royalty, was abolished, and the king's wife was henceforth termed the lady.
The next in rank after royalty were the ealdormen, or, as they were named afterwards, earls, who governed in the king's name districts denominated shires, which were originally of small extent, but gradually enlarged to the extent of our present counties. At a later period, when the kings of Wessex had effected the subjugation of the heptarchy, the jurisdiction of the earls was extended to the whole tract which had been ruled by the petty kings. Thus the earldom of Northumbria extended from the Humber to the Tweed, that of Mercia included a large portion of central England, and Wessex embraced all the counties on the south coast. It was the duty of the ealdorman, as the representative of the monarch, to lead the men of the shire to battle, to preside with the bishop in the courts of the county, and to enforce the execution of justice. He received one-third of the fines and rents paid to the king within his jurisdiction. The office was held originally by gift of the king, and might be forfeited by misconduct, but it was so frequently continued in the same family, that at last instead of being solicited as a favour, it began to be claimed as a right. When Danish ascendancy became an accomplished fact, the title of earl, the equivalent of the Icelandic iarl, a governor of a district, was substituted for that of ealdorman.
Among the freolings, or those who possessed the privileges of freemen in Anglo-Saxon England, were recognised two great classes, the eorls and ceorls, or, as we might say, the gentry or noble-born and the commonalty. The former were usually called thanes, and the necessary qualification for this title was the possession of a certain amount of landed property. There were greater and lesser thanes, or thanes who held their lands directly from the king and owned no other superior, and those who held under some ealdorman or prelate, and owed suit and service to their immediate lord. The ceorls were the cultivators of the soil or workers in some handicraft, and of these there were an upper and a lower class. There were ceorls with land of their own, and others who held land of some superior lord by certain stipulated services, vestiges of which remain in the manorial customs of the present day; and ceorls who were attached to the soil as part and parcel of the manor, and transferable with it from one lord to another, and bound to give their personal labour in return for the land which they cultivated for their own use. He could be punished as a runaway if he quitted the manor on which he was born, without the permission of his lord; but still he was essentially a freeman, as that term was understood by our Saxon forefathers. He had the right to bear arms, he could acquire and hold property in his own right, and, should he become possessed of five hydes of land with a church and mansion of his own, he was elevated to the rank and privileges of a thane. A ceorl also became entitled to the dignity of a thane if he made three voyages to a foreign country with a cargo of his own.
Lowest in the social scale were the theowes, esnes, or thralls, as they were called by the Anglo-Saxons. These were slaves in the full sense of the word, who were condemned to suffer the evils of bondage in its most degrading form. They are supposed to have been the descendants of the conquered Britons, and such Saxons as were captured during their internecine wars, or were degraded on account of their inability to pay the fine for offences committed. Some appear to have sold themselves into this state during times of famine, probably preferring slavery to death by starvation. In the will of a Saxon lady, still extant, she directs the manumission of her slaves of this kind, and describes them emphatically as "the men who bent their heads in evil days for food." The theowes were generally attached to the manor and passed with it, like the land and cattle, to the next proprietor; or they might be transferred from one owner to another by sale or barter. The laws even recognised the right of the father, under the pressure of extreme necessity, to sell his child into slavery, but this could not be done without the child's consent if it had reached the age of seven years. They could not hear arms, nor did they enjoy any of the privileges possessed by the lowest freeman. They might he bound, scourged, or branded at pleasure, and though the law did not permit them to be killed wantonly, a fine of merely nominal value was imposed on their murderers. But this were, or compensation-money, either for death or injury, was not paid to the slave or his family, but to his master. Pitiable indeed, and almost unbearahle, must have been the condition of Saxon serfdom had not the influence of religion tended to mitigate its severities. A slave, however, was not without the hope of recovering his liberty; this pleasing prospect acted as a powerful stimulus on their industry, and some acquired property sufficient to purchase their freedom. We read of some who were redeemed by the humane and benevolent, and of others that were gratuitously liberated by their owners. "This manumission, to he legal," says Lingard, "was to he performed in public, in the market, in the court of the hundred, or in the church, at the foot of the principal altar. The lord, taking the hand of the slave, offered it to the bailiff, sheriff, or clergyman, gave him a sword or lance, and told him that the ways were open, and that he was at liberty to go wheresoever he pleased."
Having spoken of the various grades in the social organisation of our Saxon ancestors, we may now advert to the relationship between lord and vassal. It was a principle of Saxon legislation that every man should have a superior answerable for his conduct; and, consequently, those vassals who were under no obligation to serve any particular lord were bound to put themselves under the protection of some superior lord, to whom they bound themselves by oath to render fealty and service. But the obligations were reciprocal, and the vassal shared in his lord's favours and lived under his protection. The tie which bound vassal to lord was deemed to be of the most sacred character, and any breach in so solemn an engagement was visited with forfeiture and death. But if he fell in battle by the side of his lord, the heriot usually payable on his death was remitted and his heirs shared among them his goods and chattels. Lingard relates the following story illustrative of the devoted attachment of vassal to lord, and which we may be pardoned for reproducing. Sigebyrcht, King of Wessex (the predecessor of Cynewulf), had left a brother named Cyneheard, who, to escape the jealousy of the new king, abandoned his native country, and consoled the hours of exile with the hope of revenge. Thirty-one years had elapsed from the death of Sigebyrcht, when Cyneheard returned with eighty-four adherents and secreted himself in the woods. It chanced one evening that the king left Winchester with a slender retinue to visit a female at Merton, to whom he was warmly attached. Cyneheard stole silently from his retreat, followed with caution the footsteps of the monarch, and, in the dead of the night, surrounded the residence of his mistress. Cynewulf was asleep, his attendants were dispersed in the neighbouring houses. At the first alarm he rose, seized his sword, and descended to the door, where he descried his enemy, and springing forward aimed a desperate blow at the head of Cyneheard. The wound, which was but slight, was quickly revenged by the weapons of the conspirators. Roused by the noise of the combatants and the shrieks of the woman, the king's attendants hastened to his assistance; but they found him breathless and weltering in blood. It was in vain that Cyneheard offered them their lives and possessions. They scorned his proposals; and, after a long conflict, were all slain, with the exception of a Briton, who, in quality of hostage, had been detained in the court of Cynewulf. Even he was severely wounded. Early in the morning the news arrived at Winchester. The ealdorman, Osric, and Wiverth, the thane, immediately mounted their horses and rode to Merton, followed by their retainers. Cyneheard met them at the gate to justify his conduct, and to solicit their friendship. He pleaded the obligation of revenging the wrongs of his family; asserted his claim to the throne; offered them valuable possessions; and bade them recollect that many of his friends were their kinsmen "Our kinsmen," they replied, "are not dearer to us than was our lord. To his murderers we will never submit. If those who are related to us wish to save their lives, they are at liberty to depart." "The same offer," returned the followers of Cyneheard, "was made to the king's attendants. They refused it. We will prove to-day that our generosity is not inferior to theirs." Impatient of delay, Osric forced the barrier; he was opposed with the most desperate intrepidity; and the battle was terminated only by the failure of combatants. Of Cyneheards's eighty-four companions, one alone was saved. He was found among the slain covered with wounds, but still alive; and owed his preservation to this fortunate circumstance - that he was the godson of Osric.
It is impossible now to speak with any certainty of the manner in which the Saxons appropriated among themselves the lands of the conquered Britons. The later feudal theory that the sovereign is the paramount proprietor of all the land was certainly alien to Saxon ideas and institutions. We read in Eddius, Beda, and other writers of that early period, of Boc-lands, Folc-land, and Laen-lands, but the very nature of these tenures has long perplexed the learned. A reasonable supposition, and that which is most commonly received, is that, after the Saxons had effected the conquest of a district, a certain portion of the land, sufficient for the maintenance of his family and dependants, who were also as we have already seen his kindred, was allotted to each victorious warrior as his absolute property. The unappropriated portion was called Folc-land, or land of the folk, and was the property of the collective body. The conveyance of land was, doubtless, among such a barbaric people, a short and simple process; but in later times these grants seem to have been made by boc or writing, and hence lands so conveyed were called Boc-lands. These charters or title-deeds conveying the land were drawn up with a conciseness unknown to modern legal phraseology, as will be seen by the following grant of King Athelstan to the ancient family of Roddam, still extant "I King Athelstane Giffis heir to Paulane Odam and Roddam Als gud and als fair As evir thei myn wars And yare to witness Mala my wiff."
The folc-lands would be the common stock, out of which future grants could be made as a reward for distinguished military services. These grants were sometimes made absolute by boc or charter, and at others only as laen or loans, hence their name Laen-lands. These on the death of the grantee, or at some specified time, reverted to the common stock.
Data transcribed from:
Bulmer's East Riding
Scan, OCR and html software by Colin Hinson.
Checking and correction by Peter Nelson.