Anglo Saxon Law and Order with Ealdfaeder

by Honest Oswine the Slave Trader of Gippeswic (as told to his descendant Pete Jennings)

“We brought our own laws from our Germanic homelands when we came here to settle in the land of the South Folk. Good laws, handed down through the generations, not like those cursed Romans and Welsh Britons. You talk about compensation culture? We invented it! A wergild cost for each person’s life, depending on his status, and corresponding damages for an injured eye, leg or hand. No use trying to curry favour with me as the Elder of the village – the King sends his Reeve once a month with a couple of tough housecarls. They come to our Hundred Moot meeting of the village and the folk who live hereabouts in the surrounding hundred hides of land. He tells us the latest news and proclamations of King Raedwald the Wuffing. Then he has a strict table of fines he applies if someone is found guilty.

I wasn’t too happy with him this last time: I raised my dispute with Aldred over the river pasture. His father had swapped it with me for the Hill Field I used to own, but since he died, his son has been letting his cattle in to graze on my land. The Reeve wouldn’t do anything about it. Said it was ‘book land’ (written down about) and I would have to wait until the Shire Court to get it sorted out. They only meet twice a year, Hreðmonað & Haligmonað (March & September) and there is bound to be a whole queue of people wanting to be heard, including the murders and arsons too big to deal with at all the Moots of the South Folk. The King, Ealdorman, Reeve and Bishop preside over that. I don’t hold with the Christ-Man being involved – too much influence from the Roman law I reckon, and we are still Heathens here. They are trying to bring in trial by ordeal instead of execution, in case the murderer says he is sorry afterwards. At the moment we still hang a man for arson, murder and treachery to one’s lord – no compensation or fine can answer for those crimes, although all the executed man’s property then goes to King Raedwald. A thegn got exiled abroad there last time just for disagreeing with the king – he has even sent his own son the atheling Sigeberht away to live with the Franks.

The Church is trying to get themselves the same level of wergild as the King for theft of church property or attacks on its priests. What a cheek! Apparently King Æthelbald of Kent has already had a new law code written down, in Englisc, (rather than the Christmen Latin) with that sort of stuff in it. Of course, about the only ones that can write in Kent are the Christmen, and so they soon made sure the first six sections in it were to protect them! It then goes on to say you can get fined 12 shillings for cutting off a man’s ear, and 50 shillings for putting out his eye.[1]

Despite their influence I cannot see that their foreign cult will catch on though – they only have one god and want to ban slavery. There are rumours saying that they drink blood and eat someone’s flesh at their rituals!

Mind you, we did have a laugh at the case which was heard here at Sutton Hoo: the slave Kenwulf (who belongs to my foster brother Edwin the leather worker) was accused by my brother Æthelgar of going in to his home and stealing a loaf of bread. Kenwulf has run away, and everyone around here knows that Edwin doesn’t feed him much and beats him whenever he gets drunk, which is most days.

The wife Aelgifu saw the slave run off with her own eyes, and her husband Æthelgar was easily able to produce three compurgators (oath helpers) to swear that he is an honest man, unlikely to lie about such a thing. With Kenwulf gone, his master Edwin was liable for him. Of course, nobody stood up for him – everybody knows him in a small place like this and nobody trusts him.

There was quite a bit of heckling and laughter from the crowd, and the housecarls had to bang their spear butts down hard to regain some semblance of order. I was duty bound to swear for my brother Æthelgar, but I disowned Edwin long ago anyway. We and the visitors to our village knew he was guilty. The Reeve is sensitive to local opinion and fined him five times the value of the loaf, (which goes to the king) but old Edwin moaned and complained so much that he was offered trial by ordeal instead. He also had to pay Æthelgar for the loaf.

Well, as he isn’t a Christian, he doesn’t trust their god to make his hand get better if he carries a red hot iron bar 9 paces, so he paid the fine with very bad grace. It was that or face mutilation or even a period of slavery, and there was no way he was going to submit to that. He reckoned he was going to hunt for Kenwulf the slave, but there is no regular force to do that – you have to rely upon your friends, and he obviously hasn’t got too many of them!

Never mind, I’ll give it a week or two and see if I can’t sell him another slave. I am getting around half a pound of silver for each one I trade at present, so I might see a profit from this court yet!”

[1] 50 shillings is the equivalent of about £5000 today.