20 Anglo Saxon England in the 11th Century

Anglo Saxon England has been seen by some commentators as a bit of a basket case by 1066 – out of date and ready to be conquered. But actually England had its great strengths that would have been the envy of continental monarch, if they’d spent any time thinking about that small, damp island somewhere off the continental coast.  The History of England takes a brief look at the English state in the 11th century

20 Anglo Saxon England in the 11th C


Law, Government, Agriculture – and Feudalism?

Anglo Saxon England was not so very different from continental Europe, in reality. But there were some differences. Mainly these were around a more communal approach to Government. For example, the position of Earl was a non hereditary job title in England; he was a government official. In Normandy, Earl is a hereditary title. The Army is similar too – the Anglo Saxon Army is still recruited as a public army, rather than raised by the Kings’ nobles based on their landholding.

But things had changed since 7th Century. England was moving towards Feudalism; most Thegns held land of their own right, but more held them from a lord in return for military service. And more Coerls had lost their independent land holding than used to be the case, and were therefore less free. A manorial approach to agriculture was much more common – i.e. organised around a village with communal fields, rather than individual farms.

The King’s though had mainly retained his rights – although there was a little devolving of his rights of justice to his nobility. And his power had grown – because now he has the added power of the Church and God’s approval to add to his mystique. English administration was also relatively advanced, so he could be effective – unless he was himself incompetent of course.

Searching for place names

The English Place Name Society is the official expert I guess; now at Nottingham University. There is this delightful site you can use to search for the place name of your choice – the Key to English Place Names. Give it a go!



This we’re going to have a general run at the development of the AS state, and where it had got to with stuff like government, law, agriculture, trade all that sort of stuff.

But before I start into all that fun stuff, there’s one other thing to do. You may remember that I had a really great idea a few weeks ago where I suggested that people might like to email in their questions. Well, that generated the same level of enthusiasm as the idea about people contributing their own podcasts to this series. Still, I did get one question a while ago from Ben, who asked for a summary of why we’ve ended up being called the English – and not the wessexonians, for example, though clearly that’s mainly because Wessexonians is a rubbish name.

Where we end up with by 1066 is a king who is styled Rex Anglorum. The first use of this title actually comes way back; so actually there’s a king of Northumbria called Aldfrith in the 7th century, who according to chroniclers styled himself Rex Anglorum. But in this context, it was because he was calling himself King to the Angles. I guess you’ll remember that there were 3 tribes of invaders originally – Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria was settled by the Angles.

Then Offa, King of Mercia called himself Rex Anglorum, in the late 8th century. Offa certainly considered himself overlord of all the English kingdoms, but it’s not impossible that he again was referring to himself as king of the Angles, rather than king of all the English, though I suspect Offa would have been delighted to claim kingship over all the English.

Egbert of Wessex was the man who overthrew Mercia’s dominance, and is often traditionally thought of as the first King of the English. Which is odd. Why not Offa? Plus, Egbert at most called himself ‘King of the West Saxons and also of Kent’ – a man who like accuracy in his titles.

The real start of the King of the English comes with Alfred, in the sense that Alfred had the vision. I doubt he was the first – but his predecessors would have thought in terms of demonstrating their dominance. For Alfred, it was about uniting in the face of Viking aggression. So he looked for a phrase that stressed the brotherhood of the English kingdoms. So he called himself king of the Anglo Saxons, to paint a bigger vision than that of Wessex.

So art some point we move from king of the AS to King of the English. What happens is that after Aethelstan conquers Northumbria he needs a phrase that stands for all of the kingdoms of the English. He could have gone for king of the Anglo Saxons. But since he is himself a Saxon, he decided it would be more politic to just use the Angles as a synonm for the English
In summary, we became English as a result of a search for a word that would bind the English nations together, after 4 centuries of divison.





So now to the main point of this week’s podcast. It’s been a while since we’ve looked at the AS state so I think it’s high time we had a look at how society had changed through the reigns of Aethelred, Cnut and Edward; in fact I think the last time was in the 7th century – 3 hundred years ago. So what had changed?

One of the things that has developed is the position of the king, through the process of the unification of the AS kingdoms into one kingdom. Your English king was the envy of your average European king in the extent of his powers, since he’d managed to hold on to many powers that had been taken over by the European nobility elsewhere.

There are a few examples of this, and one is justice. Rights of justice are an important measure of royal power, because they defined where and how a king could intervene in the lives of their subjects. In many European Kingdoms, the King’s authority did not run within their nobles’ lands – each noble had become effectively a delegate with full powers, having taken the king’s powers to themselves.

It would be easy to exaggerate the differences. Because it is true to say that there have been some movements in this direction in ASE, and some Thegns and religious institutions have been granted rights of Justice by the King. Nobles like this, because Justice is a great way to make money – its profitable collecting fines and so on. So kings do begin to make grants of the right to administer justice – or ‘sake and soke’ as it was known. This happened in the same way as they gave the rights to land – because it financially rewarded their followers.

But its much more limited than in Normandy for example. Not just in the number of Thegns who held these rights, but also because AS Kings guarded some specific rights jealously, and did not delegate them. These were the big ones – So sake and Soke did not include crimes like assault, a breach of the king’s protection, military service or outlawry. Together, these things will eventually become known as the King’s peace.

Incidentally, a major difference 7th century AS law had come about though the adoption of Christianity and the growth in power of the church. The Kings Peace had begun to be seen as the crimes against the community, and breaches of a moral code, rather than simply folk law, i.e. a set of rules to make sure people got on OK. Though folk law was by no means dead in ASE. For many centuries, Kings had pushed the idea of wergild, to persuade families to call off blood feuds and agree damages instead. But there are many examples of blood feuds – you might remember the story of Uthred of Bamburgh and Thurbrand the Hold for example. In Edward’s day, there’s an example of Bishop Wulfstan having to work a miracle before a family would call off their blood feud.

I am digressing form the royal authority theme I realise, but while I’m on the subject of law I should note that late AS kings were avid lawmakers – Edgar, Aethelred and Cnut all issue lawcodes. None of them are particularly innovative. But there is an argument that there are the very first indications of the jury system that would become such a cornerstone of the English legal system. There’s little doubt that the Jury becomes a core part of justice only with the Normans. But it’s also true that the principle of the judgement of 12 men was also a recognised part of life in Anglo Saxon England, probably derived from Scandinavian practice ion the Danelaw. So Aethelred’s code issued at Wantage, specifically issued for the Danelaw, contains the line: ‘in each wapentak a court is to be held, and the 12 chief thegns together with the reeve are to come forward and sear on the relics.’ This is not a sworn jury on in later sense, since it is not this group who made the judgement of guilt or innocence.

Anyway, I shall stop digressing. The main point I’m basically making is that the King had retained his key powers of judicial rights, unlike many on the continent.

The AS Kings authority had also evolved from his 7th Century equivalent. Once the king has essentially been the strongest, best man for the job. Primes inter pares they called it, first amongst equals. But now he had acquired a mystic and source of authority independent of his capability – why else would anyone put up with Aethelred, for example. So the kings was a descendant of Cerdic, Woden and Adam. He was anointed with holy oil. Succession was limited to the royal family – though not necessarily to the son or eldest son.

There remained an element of the elective principle. It would be impossible, and probably thought improper, for the King to rule without the help and advice of the Witan. But the King took that counsel where and when he chose – he was not constrained by any constitutional theory or procedure. We have not yet begun to see the process whereby the powers of the king become limited by law.

Royal authority also benefited from the growth of central administration. There are problems in really understanding the extent of government administration , since so much information was destroyed by the Normans, getting rid of those old tatty illegible papers in Old English that were lying around in the office. But some things are evident, and point to administrative organisation that were well advanced for the time.

First off, somewhere around the time of Cnut and Aethelred a new royal official appears, the Shire Reeve – from where of course comes the word Sheriff. The Sheriff was the Kings executive agent in the Shires, taking on more and more of the old Earldorman’s functions, collecting royal revenues and the profits of Justice. He was part of the local gentry, and Thegn, so he understood local politics and context, in a way that the earls, managing larger and larger territories, began to find difficult.

As a direct representative of the King, able to intervene directly in any lord’s land in following up affairs of the king he maintained royal power. He also became a counter weight to the potentially oppressive power of the large Magnates – something which became ever more important after the Conquest, and the arrival of the powerful, feudal lords. One thing’s for sure – William the Conq. Knew exactly how useful they were, and made damn sure he kept them on.

The period had also seen the arrival of the royal Writ. This started as an official announcement to the Earl and Sheriff that a particular land grant had been made. For the first time, there was an official seal, which made forgeries much more difficult – something which would have annoyed the Church, who were past masters at forging Charters and stealing a few acres here and there. For it’s time, it was a quick and efficient method of communication. Again, the Normans keep the innovation going.

The issuing of writs required the development of a chancery, and a Chancellor – i.e. a government department devoted to the creation and storage of official documents. We are pretty certain that Edward the Confessor would have had access to very detailed information about the royal estates and manors and their value. The creation of the 1086 Domesday book pretty much depended on them. And the creation of Domesday was itself made possible by the AS administrative system. Though it’s worth balancing this image of administrative efficiency by mentioning some other less impressive practices such as the fact that the treasury, for example, was essentially kept in a big box under the Kings bed.

Why was ASE more efficient than many of it’s contemporaries? It may simply be that your average AS is more of a control freak than your average. But more likely it’s because of the need to collect Danegeld, for which an efficient and well informed system was needed. And even after Edward ostentatiously dropped the Danegeld, he continued to collect a land tax.

One of the perennial, and surprisingly passionate historical debates has been about the introduction of feudalism into England. The Victorians, who did love the AS’s, saw the Normans as imposing on the free, Germanic, folk oriented AS society a continental, feudal oppression; which took away the right of the ordinary man. Nobody thinks that any more. But the summary is that although late AS society had many of the elements of continental feudalism, the Norman conquest still brought a significant change. Part of the reason for that would be the nature of the conquest, which allowed William to start from a blank piece of paper, and impose a sort of ‘ideal feudalism’ on England that actually went beyond what was the practice even on the continent.

It’s all a rather technical argument I’ve always thought, which I have always found a bit difficult to follow, because some of the distinctions seem so very small. But the essence of it is that feudalism brings together two things; the first is a personal bond between two free men – a lord and inferior, the latter called a vassal. The second is the vassal holding land granted him by the lord, which can be taken away by the lord, and for which the vassal has to give specific services.

This is not the structure of society in early AS England; where essentially you have a load of thegns and Ceorls who hold greater or smaller amounts of land themselves, by their own right. Their rights to the land doesn’t come from their lord. So yes, there is the act of homage, the personal bond between lord and inferior. But in AS times, however solemn the ceremony of fealty, a Thegn was essentially free on the words of the Domesday book, ‘to go with his land to whatever lord he would’.

By Edward’s time that was changing – but still had someway to go. There were many landowners who held land on loan, and owed service for it. There were many who were given land in return for specific services. So we can see most of the key elements of feudalism in English society – such as a relationship between land and military service; the giving of fealty or homage to lords by inferiors in exchange for land or service; the rights to deliver justice held by lords; the development of a hierarchical society were a man owed his loyalty to a lord rather than directly to the King.

Just to prove the point, let’s go through these couple of examples. In 964, Bishop Oswald of Worcester granted land which lists the services he required of his tenants ‘according to the agreement made with them and in accordance with their pledge’. So that suggests that by the 10th century we have a practice of services given to a lord in return for the grant of land that he makes.

Then there’s a will from a Thegn called Ketel in 1052 that demonstrates that his primary loyalty is to his lord, Harold Goodwinson in this case, rather than the King. And from the middle of the 10th century there are explicit documents granting the right of holding a court to people other than the king.

But in the end the summary is that difference was still significant. Late AS society was still essentially built on a system of land held freehold by individuals. Practices much more like Norman feudalism were growing, but had some way to go yet to be the norm.

Another key difference that continues to survive into late AS England is that it is a basically communal culture as opposed to the personal one of the French. A particular example of this is in the role of the Earl and Earldorman. In ASE, this is an official position, a job given out by the King, not a hereditary position. Obviously this had been eroded a bit by the time of the Godwins and Leofric’s, but the principal still holds true. In France under Charlemagne there had been an equivalent position, that of the Vicomte. But by the 11th Century, all these rights had become owned by the great lords. The major landowners now held earldoms and the rights they brought by their own right, and could pas them on to their children, whatever the King might think. The office of Reeve is an important example. In England, the King’s Reeve remained a King’s official who administered public justice and other duties. In Normandy, the equivalent position, i.e. the vicomte, no longer existed, because the local lord would do those jobs.

One of our problems about understanding the structure of late AS society is the lack of evidence before the arrival of Domesday. There is the odd exception, and one of these is a book on estate management, which shows a quite complex society around a Thegn and his household.

11th century AS society was essentially an aristocratic one, with an agricultural population organised to support the monarchy and nobility. The nobility was both lay and ecclesiastical.

The Thegns had originally been servants to great lords – so like Cerdic and the men who invaded southern England in the 6th century. The English words thegn and cniht essentially mean servant.

By 11th century, these servants had themselves become lords, with hereditary rank. There was a very specific definition of what you needed to become a Thegn, and it is explicit that a Ceorl could rise to the status of a Thegn if he could achieve these things. A Thegn was clearly still a warrior; to inherit his land, a law of Cnut specifies that he would need to give the King horses, helmets, a mail coat, shields and swords. But the key expectation was to have 5 hides of his own land; and he would be expects to have a hall and church.

In one sense the divisions in late AS society are simple – King, Thegn and Ecclesiastical lords, Ceorls and Slaves. But it’s clear that there were many sub divisions. A surviving estate book gives a glimpse of these – from the relatively well off geneat who provided services such as escorting strangers to see the lord, to the gebur who owed heavy service and held little land. The number of Slaves is difficult to calculate, but there were probably something around 25,000 slaves in England’s population of around 1.5m – so less than 2%. But estimates reach as high as 10%.

The structure of landholding was also slowly changing, towards the manorial organisation that would typify the middle ages.

Essential, the manorial system was a result of landholding becoming more concentrated into the hands of few Thegns; and a larger proportion of Ceorls who didn’t hold their own land, but were given land by a lord in return for service, and were therefore less free. So again, although the process accelerated after the Normans arrived, the process had already started in late ASE.

So the kind of standard model that had evolved by the 11th century was typified by Mercia and central Wessex. Here agriculture would be organised around the village, rather than an individual farm. The land surrounding the village would be open, with few permanent hedges. It would be organised into 2 big fields, to allow for land rotation, and organised into dispersed strips. The typical farmer would own a ‘yardland’ of 30 acres, though that would vary wildly. It’s likely that there would have been a lot of common usages of land and resources – such as co-operative ploughing, and shared use of woodland.

The growth of a manorial structure was most effective in this kind of area. The manor essentially used the same organisation. But the land would be divided into the lord’s own land, or demesne, and the land he granted out to the Ceorls or peasants. His demesne would be worked by his peasants according to the service they owed him.

But the thing to stress was how complex society was. Because landholding very much related to the culture of the different kingdoms and settlements. So the Danelaw had a different structure. Here, lordship was much more about rights than landholding. The Thegn was more like a Celtic chieftan, owed tribute from his people, but not owning or handing out land. In Kent, landholding was around the hamlet, not a large village. So the old Jutish territories where structured round a series of smaller individual fields, each farmed by a family or group of kinsmen – rather than big, community oriented open land.

There was little specialisation in the cultivation of crops, because of course transporting produce was difficult and slow, and the level of internal trade relatively low. So most manors, farms and villages would take an integrated approach to what they grew. So corn had to be grown everywhere, even in parts of the country where the land itself was mostly suitable for pasture. Woodland played a crucial part of reach community, not just as a source of wood, but also for pigs who would be kept there. Woodland would often not be the high woodland we are used to; trees would usually be coppiced or pollarded, which allowed multiple uses of the same land. i.e. with pollarded tress, you can also use the land around the tree for pasture.

Warfare had also made an impact on AS society, just as it had on the continent. The continental response that been the feudal society, with land granted by the king in return for military service; a society that focussed resources into the equipping of an elite of warriors.

This was because war had become much more expensive. Warriors now needed mail, helmet, horse and sword, where once the Sword had been the preserve of only a very few.

Although this is the traditional image of the Norman knight, the English faced the same pressure. The Huscarle was every bit as much the professional warrior as the Norman Knight. It’s just that the AS’s found a slightly different solution. So a community had to provide one man for the fryd from every 5 hides of land. The fyrd was still a communal army not a feudal one – but it also recognised the need for a professional warrior class.

But apart from this things hadn’t changed a lot in ASE; it’s probably best to talk about the differences in warfare between ASE and Normandy when we look at 1066, but the main point is what had not happened in England. So that is two things really; there was not tradition of an integrated army of archers, infantry and cavalry. And the horse was still used as a mode of transport rather than for use in battle.

The mid ninth to mid 11th Century was a period of rapid growth of both population and economy. With all those Vikings wandering about this seems extraordinary but it is apparently so. The large population and trade also meant a growth in towns. By the 11th century, it was not just London that could claim to be a proper town rather than a defensive burgh. A basic model had been established which many centres shared; the typical county town of Edward’s time has a market place and a mint; it was enclosed with walls for a ramparts; it was divided into fenced tenements, and it had open fields and meadows shared out amongst its inhabitants. But let’s be clear about the size of these towns – we are not talking about teaming metropolises. It’s likely that there were about 20 towns with populations over 1,000. We don’t know the population of the largest, i.e. London but it is estimated to be around 10-12,000. Other large towns would have been York at 9,000, Norwich at 6-7,000. So, sizes that would today be seen as pretty small places.

I think that’s probably enough on the Anglo Saxon state for one episode. There’s one more thing though I thought I should mention, which is the place names thing, which has been a constant companion throughout the last 20 episodes during which we’ve gone through AS history. If you live in England in particular there is always a bit of local colour added by understanding what the place names tell you about the history of a place. In our history, the main thing has been as an aid to understanding the settlement patterns of the early Saxons invaders, and then the Vikings – so from what language does the place name derive. But it can also tell you something about the original settlement. So I have some brief and very common examples, and then places to go if you are interested in knowing more. The three most famous Saxons examples are the ending ‘-ingas’, which means ‘the people of’. You see this all over – so Reading means, Raeda’s people, Hastings means Hasta’s people. The ‘ham’ or ‘tun’ stands for town. The Scandinavian equivalents are an easy guide to the areas of Viking settlement, since the word endings ‘-by’ or ‘thorpe’.

There are loads of these, and it’s a lot of fun to know more and recognise things s you go about. My personal favourite is place not a million smiles away from where I was brought up called Breedon on the Hill. When you realise that ‘Bre’ is Celtic for hill and Dun is AS for Hill, you quickly appreciate that the Hill is the main thing about this place, which translates of course as ‘Hill Hill on the Hill’. I’ve put two website links on the blog at www.historyofengland.typepad.com. The first is a general introduction someone has done to give you a start; the second is the official website of the English Place name Society at Nottingham University, where you can search for full or parts of place names.

Just a couple more general observations before we finish on this. Firstly, it’s good to have some sort of perspective about the life of normal people. Basically, all the big political stuff would have been pretty much irrelevant to almost everyone. The likelihood of being in the way of an army or the king would be infinitesimally small. Secondly, there has been a variety of debate throughout history about the general state of ASE just before its demise, including a view that it was decadent and on its last legs anyway. The truth is that ASE was not so very far from the mainstream of European states. It had it’s idiosyncracies and weaknesses. So for example the strength of a few large noble families was politically dangerous, it’s military was behind the times, and it’s church disorganised and not inline with the continental reforms. Conversely, the King’s power was more substantial, it’s unity and administrative capability greater than any in Europe. In the end, the issue was really that so much still depended on the character of the King.

8 thoughts on “20 Anglo Saxon England in the 11th Century

  1. Listening to the podcast, I had this question: what language(s) were prevalent? Old English, I assume, but there must be bits of French, maybe still Latin, some Scandinavian languages here and there.

  2. Listening to the podcast, I had this question: what language(s) were prevalent? Old English, I assume, but there must be bits of French, maybe still Latin, some Scandinavian languages here and there.

    1. Sorry Steve – now fixed. They moved I think!! The key seems to have been updated now though – looks prettier. Have fun

  3. Where did you get your 2% number for population enslaved? In my research I haven’t seen anyone with numbers below 10%, and some as high as 38% at the time of the conquest. I am not doing (or seeing) actual calculations of course, so I’d love to know how you came up with yours.

    1. Hi Drew – sorry to take a while to respond. One of the problems is that it is literally years – 5 I think, since I wrote that episode. So I can’t remember where I got this from. I went back to my notes; I see that I say 25,000 slave, so 2 % but could have been as high as 10%.I went back briefly to the most obvious places I used; one of those (Stenton) didn’t talk numbers; the other (Bartlett) went with the 10% figure most people quote from Domesday, noting also that the number was probably declining, and therefore earlier was probably higher. Sorry, I think my source is probably undiscoverable. I also think that I have to declare that I would now go with 10% rather than the 2%; I maybe even out to edit the file.

  4. That’s no problem! I know I am coming in a little late 🙂 I am loving the podcast btw– it’s great to get a good overview/framework and I appreciate the breaks (like this one) from the political narrative every once in a while.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed the Anglo-Saxon podcast and these last few episodes on the History of England. Thank you.

    It’s amazing how little is known about this period. Fascinating.

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