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Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Of the Manners, Customs, and Laws of the Saxons.
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Illustrations drawn from ancient calendars are among the best documents one can consult for obtaining a knowledge of former manners and customs. The twelve designs which follow, and which may conveniently serve as an introduction to an account of Saxon customs, are taken from an Anglo-Saxon calendar composed some time before the Norman Conquest, and preserved in the Cottonian Library, Some explanatory notes are added.

The foregoing designs afford, probably, as good an. idea as can now be obtained of the occupations and amusements of our Saxon forefathers, and of their daily life in time of peace.

With respect to the Anglo-Saxon form of government in its detail and working, the knowledge which has come down to us is very limited; and it is reasonable to suppose that the government of different states varied considerably, and was changed from time to time during the six centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule.

It appears, however, that at all times, and in all the kingdoms, there was a national council, called a Wittenagemot, or assembly of the wise men, whose consent was requisite for enacting laws and for ratifying the chief acts of public administration. The preambles to all the laws of Ethelbert, Ina, Alfred, Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Ethelred, and Edward the Confessor, even those to the laws of Canute, though a conqueror, put this matter beyond controversy, and carry proofs everywhere of a limited and legal government. But who were the constituent members of this Wittenagemot has not been determined with certainty by antiquaries. It is agreed that the bishops, abbots, and sometimes abbesses, -were admitted - at least, it is supposed so. It is well known that the latter frequently signed the royal charters. The former dignitaries, it is certain, formed a portion of the assembly. It also appears that the aldermen, or governors of counties, who were afterwards styled earls by the Danes, had seats in it. As much dispute has arisen respecting the importance of the office of alderman, it may be as well to examine the authorities upon the subject.

It appears from the ancient translations of the Saxon annals and laws, and from King Alfred's translation of Bede, as well as from all the ancient historians, that comes in Latin, alderman in Saxon, and earl in Dano-Saxon, were quite synonymous. There is only a clause in a law of King Athelstan which has induced some antiquaries to suppose that an earl was superior to an alderman. The weregild, or the price of an earl's blood, is there fixed at 15,000 thrismas, equal to that of an archbishop; whereas, that of a bishop and alderman is only 8,000 thrismas. To solve this difficulty, we must have recourse to Selden's conjecture, that the term "earl" was, in the age of Athelstan, just beginning to be in use in England, and stood at that time for the atheling, or prince of the blood, heir to the crown. This he confirms by quoting a law of Canute, where an atheling and an archbishop are put upon the same footing. In another law of the same Athelstan, the weregild of the prince, or atheling, is said to be 15,000 thrismas. He is therefore the same who is called "earl" in the former law.

Men of superior rank, but still not powerful enough to ensure their individual safety from the oppression and injustice of the nobles, entered into confederacies with each other for mutual support and protection.

By the laws of one of these societies, established in Cambridgeshire, the members mutually bound themselves to be faithful to each other; to bury any associate when he died; to give information to the sheriff if any one of them should be exposed to danger from a lawless attack; and if that officer neglected his duty, to levy a fine of a pound upon him.

When any one of them should be murdered, eight pounds was to be exacted from the assassin, who, if he refused to pay it, was to be prosecuted at the joint expense of the society.

If any of the members, who was a poor man, killed another, the society were to contribute, in a certain proportion, to pay his fine: a mark a-piece if the fine be 700 shillings; less if the person killed be a clown or ceorle; and the half of that sum again if he be a Welshman. But where any of the associates kills a man wilfully and without provocation, he must himself pay the fine. If any of the associates kill any of his fellows in a like criminal manner, besides paying the usual fine to the relations of the deceased, he must pay eight pounds to the society, or renounce the benefit of it: in which case they bind themselves, under the penalty of one pound, never to eat or drink with him, except in the presence of the king, bishop, or alderman. There were other regulations to protect themselves and their servants from all injuries, to revenge such as were committed, and to prevent their giving abusive language to each other; the fine which they engaged to pay for this last offence was a measure of honey.

The Saxons, like the rest of the German nations, were divided into three classes - the noble, the free, and the slave; a distinction they maintained after they had settled in Britain.

The nobles were called thanes, and were of two kinds - ihe king's thanes, and lesser thanes. The latter seem to have been dependent on the former, and to have received lands, for which they paid rent, services, or attendance in peace or war. We know of no title which raised any one to the rank of thane, except noble birth and the possession of land. The former was always much regarded by all the German nations.

There are two statutes, however, to be found amongst the Saxon laws which seem to confound these ranks. Athelstan decreed that the merchant who had made three long sea voyages on his own account should be entitled to the quality of thane, and that a husbandman who had bought five hides of land, and had a chapel, a kitchen, a hf 11, and a bell, should enjoy the same rank

The cities, according to the Doomsday-book, appear to have been little better than villages: York, the second in the kingdom, contained but 1,418 families; Norwich had only 738 houses; Exeter, 315; Ipswich, 538; Northampton, 60; Hertford, 146; Canterbury, 262; Bath, 64; Southampton, 94; and Warwick, 225.

These appear to have been the most considerable; the account of them is extracted from the Doomsday-book.

William of Malmesbury tells us that the great distinction between the Anglo-Saxon nobility and the French or Normans was, that the latter built magnificent and stately castles; whereas the former consumed their immense fortunes in riotous hospitality, and in mean houses. We may thence infer that the arts in general were much less advanced in England than in France.

The lower ranks of freemen were the ceorles or husbandmen, employed in cultivating the farms of the nobles or thanes; for which they paid rent, chiefly in kind, and seem to have been removable at pleasure.

But by far the most numerous rank appears to have been the slaves, or villains, who were the absolute property of their lords, and incapable of possessing any kind of property. Of this latter class there were two kinds amongst the Saxons - household slaves, and prsedial, or labouring-ones.

The power of the master over his slave, however, was not unlimited, for if he beat his eyes or his teeth out, the latter might claim his liberty; and if he killed him, he paid a fine to the king, provided the slave died within a day after receiving his wound.

The great nobles and prelates held criminal jurisdiction upon their possessions - a circumstance which too frequently served as a protection to evil-doers and robbers, rather than acted as a check upon them.

The punishments amongst the Anglo-Saxons appear to have been exceedingly mild for some offences, since even murder might be atoned for by the payment of a fine.

The laws of Alfred enjoin, that if any one know that his enemy or aggressor, after doing him an injury, resolves to keep within his own house and his own lands, he shall not fight him till he require compensation for the injury. If he be strong enough to besiege him in his house, he may do it for seven days without attacking him; and if the aggressor be willing, during that time, to surrender himself and his arms, his adversary may detain him thirty days; but is afterwards obliged to restore him safe to his kindred, and be content with the compensation. If the criminal fly to the church, that sanctuary must not be violated. Where the assailant has not force sufficient to besiege the criminal in his house, he must apply to the alderman for assistance; and if the alderman refuse aid, the assailant must have recourse to the king; and he is not allowed to assault the house till after this supreme magistrate has refused assistance. If any one meet with his enemy, and be ignorant that he was resolved to keep within his own lands, he must, before he attack him, require him to surrender himself prisoner, and deliver up his arms, in which case he may detain him thirty days; but if he refuse to deliver up his arms, it is then lawful to fight him. A slave may fight in his master's quarrel, and a father in his son's, with any one except his master.

Ina enacted that no man should take revenge till he had first demanded compensation, and it had been refused him.

King Edmund decreed that if a man committed a murder, he may, within a year, pay the fine, with the assistance of his relatives and friends; but if they refuse to aid him, he shall alone sustain the feud with the kindred of the murdered person.

There is, indeed, a law of Alfred, which makes wilful murder capital; but this seems only to have been an attempt of that great legislator towards establishing a better police in the kingdom, and probably it was not often carried into execution. By the laws of the same prince, a conspiracy against the life of the king might be redeemed by a fine.

The price of the king's head, or his weregild - a word signifying the legal value of any one - was by law 30,000 thrismas, nearly 1,300 pounds of present money. The price of the prince's head was 15,000 thrismas; that of a bishop's, or alderman's, 8,000; a sheriff's, 4,000; a thane's, or clergyman's, 2,000; a ceorle's, 266. These prices wore fixed by the laws of the Angles. By the Mercian law, the price of a ceorle's head was 200 shillings; that of a thane's, six times as much; that of a king's, six times more. By the laws of Kent, the price of the archbishop's head was higher than that of the king. Such respect was then paid to the ecclesiastics! It must be understood that where a person was unable or unwilling to pay the fine, he was put out of the protection of the law, and the kindred of the deceased had liberty to punish him as they thought proper.

The price of all kinds of wounds was likewise fixed by the Saxon law: a wound of an inch long under the hair, was paid with one shilling; one of a like size in the face, two shillings; thirty shillings for the loss of an ear; and so forth. There seems not to have been any difference made according to the dignity of the person. By the laws of Ethelbert, any one who committed adultery with his neighbour's wife was obliged to pay him a fine, and buy him another wife.

In exceedingly difficult or doubtful cases, the judges had recourse to the trial by ordeal. One method, the decision by the cross, was practised in the following manner: -

When any one was accused of any crime, before he was allowed what was emphatically called the appeal to the judgment of God, he was compelled first to make oath of his innocence before the magistrates, and was attended by eleven friends, who, in some respects, were answerable for him; they were called compurgators.

He next took two pieces of wood, one of which was marked with the sign of the cross, and wrapping both up in wool, he placed them on the altar, or on some celebrated relic. After solemn prayers for the success of the experiment, a priest - or, in his stead, some inexperienced youth - took up one of the pieces of wood, and if he fixed upon that which was marked with the figure of a cross, the person was pronounced innocent; if otherwise, guilty. This practice, as it rose from superstition, was abolished by it in France. The Emperor Louis the Debonnaire prohibited that method of trial, not because it was uncertain, but lest that sacred figure, says he, of the cross should be prostituted in common disputes and controversies.

The ordeal was another established method of trial among the Anglo-Saxons. It was practised either by boiling water or red-hot iron. The former was appropriated to the common people, the latter to the nobility. The water, or iron, was consecrated by many prayers, masses, fastings, and exorcisms; after which the person accused either took up a stone sunk in the water to a certain depth, or carried the iron to a certain distance; and his hand being wrapped up, and the covering sealed for three days, if there appeared, on examining it, no marks of burning, he was pronounced innocent; if otherwise, guilty. The trial by cold water was different. The person was thrown into consecrated water; if he swam, he was guilty; if he sank, innocent. It is difficult for us to conceive how any innocent person could ever escape by the one trial, or any criminal be convicted by the other. But there was another usage admirably calculated for allowing every criminal to escape who had confidence enough to try it. A consecrated cake, called a corsned, was produced; which, if the person could swallow and digest, he was pronounced innocent.

From the general ignorance of the age, deeds and writings were exceedingly rare; and in order to obviate this inconvenience, the court of the hundred was the place where most civil transactions took place, in order to preserve the memory of them by having as many witnesses as possible. In the same courts slaves were manumitted, sales concluded, and sometimes, for greater security, a record of such transactions was inserted on the blank leaves of the Bible.

The Saxons appear to have been exceedingly fond of dress. Ladies of rank wore necklaces, bracelets, and rings, set with precious stones. Mantles, kirtles, and gowns were also in general use; and rouge was not unknown to them.

In the men this taste for finery degenerated into effeminacy. They wore golden collars, and not unfrequently precious stones round the neck; and the wealthy wore costly bracelets and rings. They had silk, linen, and woollen garments. Silk, from its costliness, was only used by the wealthy. The fashion of their garments of course varied. They had large mantles, which were ornamented with gold and gems; close coats or tunics, girded with a belt, which Strutt represents > as having been put on over the head like a shirt. Many Englishmen are not aware that the smockfrock of the husbandmen of our own day is a pure piece of Saxon costume; and if it were well made, tightened with a broad belt, and worn by a man of good carriage, it would form a much handsomer dress than the unmeaning stiff-cut coats of our time. Socks and stockings, and other covering for the legs, are mentioned by Saxon writers.

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Pictures for Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

January in Saxons Calendar
January in Saxons Calendar >>>>
February in Saxons Calendar
February in Saxons Calendar >>>>
March in Saxons Calendar
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April in Saxons Calendar
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May in Saxons Calendar
May in Saxons Calendar >>>>
June in Saxons Calendar
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July in Saxons Calendar
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August in Saxons Calendar
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September in Saxons Calendar
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October in Saxons Calendar
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November in Saxons Calendar
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December in Saxons Calendar
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A Saxon Blacksmith
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Saxon Bell
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The Execution of a Criminal
The Execution of a Criminal >>>>
A Saxon Calendar
A Saxon Calendar >>>>
Saxon Game at Bowls
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Anglo-Saxon Vessel
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