Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lordship in the Tenth-century – What was its Political and Social Function?

by Annie Whitehead

“No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to select as king whom they please, but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people and they cannot shake his yoke from their neck.”

So said Aelfric of Eynsham, (c955-c1010), and he tells us here of the absolute nature of kingship. The king is the lord of all the English, so if we are to discover the function of lordship, we should begin by examining the role of the king.

King Edgar

By the tenth-century ideas  about the spiritual role of kingship had developed along Carolingian lines. A well-documented example of this is Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973. One school of thought is that Edgar delayed his coronation until he had reached the canonical age of thirty, but it is unlikely that he could have reigned successfully for so long (he succeeded his brother Eadwig in 959) without having been consecrated earlier in his reign, particularly in view of what Aelfric has to say about consecration. [1]

It is more probable that this coronation was based on the Frankish notion of ‘imperium’, stressing the king’s duty before God. Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, expanded this idea in his Institutes of Polity. His view was that a Christian king should be a just shepherd to his Christian flock, he was to help the righteous and to afflict the evil-doers, especially thieves and robbers. His true function was to purify his people before God and the world. [2]

The mutual obligation between the king and his subjects is illustrated by an incident in Aethelred the Unready’s reign. With the death of Swein Forkbeard, Aethelred was asked to return from exile in Normandy by the Witan (council), who declared that “no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past."[3] The king was king, but his subjects would not allow him to neglect his duty to them.

Yet neither would they neglect to exalt a praise-worthy monarch. Florence of Worcester* summed up the virtues of King Edgar thus:-
“In the winter and spring, he used to make progress through all the provinces of England and enquire diligently whether the laws of the land and his own ordinances were obeyed, so that the poor might not suffer wrong and be oppressed by the powerful…Thus his enemies on every side were filled with awe, and the love of those who owed him allegiance was secured.”
There were, of course, more personal relationships, not only between the king and his subjects, but between the lord and his man. The argument continues among historians as to whether pre-conquest England was feudal; suffice to say that there was an English equivalent to the Frankish oath of vassalage, this being the Hold-Oath. The oath was essentially negative, a promise to do nothing to harm the lord. It included a gesture of bowing to the lord. The lord in his turn had certain obligations to his man.
“By the Lord, before whom this hallowed thing is holy, I will be steadfast and true to X, to love all he loves and shun all that he shuns, and never, by will or by thought or by deed do aught of what is loathsome to him, as long as he upholds me as I am willing to earn and fulfil all that our understanding was, when I bowed to him and took his will.” 
Naturally, the king could not rule without counsel. The witenagemot, or witan, was the royal council, and had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king. The king’s thegns owed their status and position to the king and were rewarded for their service (the word thegn originally meant servant.) It was usually the king’s thegns who were appointed as reeves, responsible for administration in the localities as a check on the powerful ealdormen.

The king with his witan

The most usual form of reward was that of a land grant. Many charters confirming these land grants still exist, such as King Edgar’s grant of land at Kineton to his thegn Aelfwold in 969. These grants, known as bookland, were not the same as the fief of feudal Frankia. They were granted by the king in the form of a book (charter) for services rendered. Aelfwold was granted the land at Kineton for all his life and could leave it to whomever he chose. The estate was free from all service except “fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses.”

Many grants were made to the Church, who in turn leased out land in return for service. A good example of this comes from Oswald of Worcester, who lists the service required of the beneficiaries of the land. They should fulfil the law of riding as riding men should, they should pay dues to the Church, swear to be humbly subject to the bishop and lend horses, build bridges, and send hunting spears.

Initially these endowments were made to the Church from the king, and only he could turn folkland into bookland. It soon became, however, the most common way for a lord to reward his man.

A grant by Aethelred the Unready shows how far he was prepared to support his men. His thegn, Aethelwig, gave Christian burial to men killed fighting in defence of a thief. Rather than censure Aethelwig, as Ealdorman Leofsige advised, Aethelred granted his thegn the forfeited land of the brothers who had been killed. [3]

Not all thegns were king’s thegns; many of them had another lord to whom they owed their allegiance. When these thegns died, the heriot (war gear) was surrendered to their lord and not to the king.

Aethelred the Unready

There was another aspect to lordship, an extension of the personal bond into the field of law. In the reign of Edward the Elder (899-924) a letter was written to the king explaining the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. [4] This illustrates how a lord was bound to protect his man, whether innocent or guilty. Though the law codes might have forbidden the lord from doing this, often it was more beneficial for a man to appeal to his lord in this way than to appeal in the hundred courts.

By the middle of the tenth-century it was becoming customary for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Usually these grants were laid down in the charters as ‘sake and soke’. The term implied jurisdiction and control of a court. It was not granted lightly, and these delegated rights were intended to emphasise rather than undermine royal authority. While the landowner enjoyed immunity from public courts, the court over which he presided was not held for his men, but was attended by men drawn from the neighbourhood.

There was also a much more specific form of private jurisdiction. All lords, be they bishops, earls, thegns or abbots, were held responsible for the behaviour of their men. “Such a responsibility involved an exercise in judgement, which would easily be formalised into the giving of judgement.” (HR Loyn) Fortunately, the monarchy was strong enough to ensure that the worst abuses were avoided.

Along with sake and soke, other judicial rights were specified. ‘Toll’ gave the lord the right to take toll on goods sold within the estate, and ‘team’ gave the right to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale actually belonged to the person selling them. ‘Infangenetheof’ gave the lord the right to hang a thief if he had been caught on the estate with the stolen goods still in his possession. By the end of the period, large numbers of hundred courts were in private hands.

A charter of King Aethelred's to his 'faithful man' 

Lords, of course, had always been involved with the public courts. Earls and bishops presided over the shire courts. It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, as the king always was by his servant the shire-reeve. It was also important for lords to establish a presence at the hundred court, where much money could be lost and won. They were also commanded to give full support to the hundredsmen, whose job it was to supervise legal trading and to discourage cattle theft. King Edgar specifically ordered ealdormen Oslac, Aelfhere, and Aethelwine to give such support. “And they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [5]

Military duties were linked with the social function of lordship. From the time of King Ine (688-725) forfeiture of land and a heavy fine of 120 schillings was the penalty for a lord neglecting military service. After 899, as well as national obligations to fyrd service, and building bridges and fortifications, men were now to group themselves into tithings and hundreds to protect themselves. Ealdormen and thegns not only formed the select body of the king’s household retainers, but were, as landlords, responsible for the organisation, the summons and the assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the financial and personal organisation which was essential to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estate. Lords, then, led their men and were responsible for them in times of peace and war and were at both times high up on the social scale, just beneath the king.

Although it was not necessarily a feudal society, a constant theme runs throughout tenth-century English society, that of mutual obligation. At the highest level, the king could demand loyalty and service from his subjects, but in return must rule them justly and protect them. The thegns, earls, and other landowners owed service to the king in judicial, military and personal capacities, for which they were rewarded. They in turn could expect loyalty and service from their men, but they were responsible for them and must protect them. Running though society in this way, the organised system which developed from the simple notion of personal loyalty was an integral part of all areas of central and local administration.


[1] DJV Fisher – The Anglo-Saxon Age Ch 12
[2] HR Loyn – The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England Ch4
[3] EHD – i 117
[4] EHD- i 102
[5] IV Edgar ‘Wihtbordesstan’ Code EHD i 41

* The authorship of the work of Florence is considered to owe more to a fellow monk, John of Worcester

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Annie Whitehead is an historian and novelist who writes about the Anglo-Saxon era. The author of two award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, she was also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the EHFA blog. Currently she is working on a contribution to a non-fiction book to be published by Pen & Sword Books in the summer of 2017. Her novel Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the tenth-century during the reigns of Eadwig, Edgar and Aethelred the Unready and contains many scenes where the above-mentioned laws and charters were put into effect.

2 comments:

  1. that was a very interesting post that I read you are a very good writer

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    1. Thank you Erica, I'm really glad you enjoyed it :-)

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