2.6 Life in the Warland


Warland was held by all free Anglo Saxon families, and so called because the resources of the land were to be used for the waru, defence of the land. That might mean military defence – but it was a much more general concept that tha – it was to be used in defence of the health and well being of the community. The responsibilities of the holder of warland were extensive, public, participatory and based on the cconcept of custom and reciprocity.


We spoke last time about how life began to change for some of the English peasantry with the arrival of residential estates from the 8th century, mainly in the form of monasteries and minsters. The need to support a resident, lordly household, led to the intensification of both lordship, and agricultural production close to the estate centres, working land held directly of the lords. This became known as inland. Nosey landlords who knew what was going on, because they didn’t just up sticks and move to the next tribute centre. Who were able to take advantage of circumstances and their rights to lay heavier impositions on the backs of their tenants. This lead to the emergence of new social ranks; the bordars, the gebors, peasants who gave up some of the freedoms ceorls were used to, in the search for employment and security. Peasants whose guiding customs are rooted not in the free peasant warrior – but in private landownership.

This time we are going to talk about the inhabitants of the rest of the country, who lived not on these newfangled Inland estates, but on traditional farms, within the large multiple estates and scirs mainly owned by itinerant kings or lords. Or indeed those who did hold land on estates owned by resident religious institutions, but were far enough away from the centre to retain their rights, or on marginal land, not conducive to agricultural intensification.

We are going to talk about two broad subjects. Firstly, something about the structure of early farming communities, the nature of landholding and land rights, a smidge about some of the impacts on Landscape, and the impacts of the heavy plough. Then we are going to turn to the nature of the inhabitants relationship with society, and the wider Anglo Saxon state. We’ll talk then about the term warland, land held by free Ceorlish families, which brought with it responsibilities to defend and maintain that wider community.

Let’s start then with the structure of the first Anglo Saxon settlements. These would often have conformed to the standard model of a northern European settlement, a kin-based group living in a small settlement surrounded by its own land. Most of the settlements might have had something like 4 or so families; the largest yet excavated in Essex, has about 12 families. Again, holding hands carefully with the responsible and extensive use of qualifiers and weasels, such as possibly, maybe perhaps and often, two types of early building seem to be standard, all built in timber. A large hall type building, and dugout, sunken buildings. Within these settlements you have to guess that small clusters might be not just neighbours, but relatives, mixing and growing with other further off clusters, as women married into new groups and left, or arrived in the settlement with their new family. However far down the line you move from the old genocide model, to the new ‘who knows if there were more than a handful of invaders at all’ approach, it is in this process that Germanic and Briton became one and became English.

Evidence survived until quite late, of old ‘hide farms’ – farms of one hide in size, that is to say, shadowy survivals of that original tradition. One at a place called Yatton in Somerset for example survived until the 18th century, but over time settlements would have become broken up. At the centre of the home was the word heorth, the hearth. Chimneys were a thing of the future, and so people would have sat, ate, drank and  probably slept around the hearth, set in the centre of the hall. It was banked up at night and kept alight and uncovered in the morning.

There remains the shadow also in those old family settlements in the idea of folcland. Folcland is a form of landholding, which gradually becomes partially replaced by land given by written charter, or bookland. It’s a shadowy concept and open to all sorts of wrangling by historians, but it seems to be the oldest form of legal landholding, within which four generations of a family shared rights to a piece of land; rights were restricted to Great Grandfather, grandfather, father and son, rather than a wider model of cousins. Over time though, the model that asserts itself is of land being passed down only to sons, or to daughters if there were no sons; outside of Inland, the right to inherit and pass on your land was a key part of the Thegn and Ceorl’s rights.

Partibility of land in inheritance survives much longer among the Peasantry than it did amongst the nobility, with far fewer pressures to conform to a strict model of primogeniture. It’s easy to think of primogeniture as the obvious and inevitable model, but of course it was not. In itself primogeniture took time to be adopted fully until well after the Normans arrived even in the higher reaches of society in England. And so farm holdings tended to get smaller as they were split up between children.

Taken together, inheritance, culture and the pressures and demands of lordship all tended towards smaller groups exercising rights over land, and exercising those rights over smaller areas of land, but the idea of group rights and group responsibility does not disappear. Nonetheless the landscape I want you to imagine sometime around 800 or afterwards, across the large scirs and multiple estates, outside the developing inland areas, is of a patchwork of fairly small landowners, where the ownership of every bit land is well known.

Rights over land and its assets, whether family or shared was meat and drink, life and limb to people, all these types of asset essentially, were jealously guarded, and they are often very old – prehistoric in some places like highland and moorland. The nature of land rights was very varied, not simply ownership; there were rights of access, rights to take wood or glean after harvests, to graze livestock, rights associated with particular times of year. The brutally binary nature of our modern view of private property is really relatively recent.

Landscape often moulded the structure of landholding. For example I always assumed that the reason that boundaries often ended at streams was because they are instantly recognisable, and so make a clear edge to a territory; and maybe because they are defensible. And those factors probably do play their part. But access to water was also critical for all within a community, not just for people but critically for livestock. So, by creating borders at streams, access to water is of course doubled.

Then again, we mentioned that the arrival of the mouldboard plough had some consequences; it opened up new areas of land to arable farming. But it also reduced the amount of pasture available to lowland farms, because that pasture became arable. Until in some places it could be that farms below our Chiltern scarp, for example, had little land set aside, and the only grazing might have been the stubble, or land in rotation. And added to that problem is that you now have many more Oxen to feed, because you’ve got these whopping great teams of eight to look after to pull these whopping great ploughs. So you have a whopping great problem.

Without wanting to sound as though I am digressing, one of the glories, then, of the English countryside is the network of pathways, the vast majority of them beautifully marked and mapped on easily accessible ordnance survey maps if you happen to be a walker. England may not have the wilderness other countries have but let me tell you that does not mean it is anything other than a glorious destination for walkers – there are few better ways of seeing its history than just walking it, urban or rural of something in between. I am wiping my eyes with a hankie as we speak.

The reason for warbling about pathways is because of course they exist because they were needed for practical purposes. The pathways effectively then are on land owned by someone, but with shared rights of access. These days, the land might be owned by a farmer, but the first two spits in depth are owned by the community in a strip about 6 foot wide. Their origin is in giving communities the access they needed to environmental resources for the community to thrive.

In our South Oxfordshire vale landscape then, there is a very clear group of pathways that lead, straight as an arrow, up the Chiltern scarp, with a minimum of meandering. They exist for peasants to move their livestock between lowland and upland; and to access woodland resources.  They are often referred to as fielden weg, paths leading to wide open spaces, and often connected to wudu, woods. Their name suggests wide, grass covered ways, and they are often old, prehistoric; we know that, because they frequently appear as basic and instantly recognizable landmarks as the basis of boundaries for old charters. Often their name survives as the drive, or the drift is quite common too.

So, now you can see again the value of what looks at first glance like nothing more than poorer quality land in the hills; without that land the effectiveness and productivity of the arable of the vale is greatly reduced, because you’d have to use more of it for livestock or woods.

I mentioned wood pasture also which is a term I am literally panting to explain – you might well know all of this yourself, but of the many revelations for me of folks like Rackham and Richard Muir is the way that woodland was used in the past, very differently to how it is used now and how I imagined.

I don’t know about you but I had this innate belief that woodland is about tall trees, big things which when they are big enough you chop down, cut into planks and then replant. I learn from Rackham that while this is indeed a thing, it is an approach that should not be mentioned without hawking violently, making the sign of the evil eye and falling to your knees in a fit of tears while howling the words ‘modern forestry’, which are incidentally, to be used as though being tortured to utter them. Imagine Smeagol, and the screams of Baggins! Shire! Issuing from the dungeons of Barad Dur, and you’ll just about have the mood. Because in days medieval, big trees used for building would have been just one use for trees, and a less common and day to day occurrence than other uses. Often these big trees were restricted to hedgerow trees, or left to the older more ancient and impenetrable woods like those on the wealds of Sussex.

For the most part, medieval woodsmen used the great qualities of the trees that pre-dominated in England, largely deciduous trees – which us their ability to regenerate. Chop down a tree from near the base, and it will regenerate from the stem or from suckers to create poles, which you could leave for a number of years, depending on what kind of usage you were looking for and the size of pole you needed. You might need thin, and whippy poles for baskets or hurdles. Or you might need something a bit more chunky for the vertical posts of hurdles or fences, or you might be looking for wood for charcoal. Or for whatever, the point being that the use of wood was far more diverse and central to medieval life than today, with the astounding proliferation of materials available to the modern world. All hail be given above all, to the metallurgist. Always trust a metallurgist. But back in Anglo Saxon days, you harvest poles when required at the appropriate time. And then they’d regenerate again and so on.  Cutting near the base is called coppicing as you probably know, and as you walk around the Chiltern hills in particular you will see much evidence of old coppiced trees, and hedgerows, with wide stools now heavily overgrown because that’s not the way we manage woodland any more.

You might also see gnarled, ancient old trees with an unfeasibly thick stem and relatively little top growth. Some such trees are split and hollow with age, but none the less still growing. What you might be looking at is a survival of a pollarded tree. A pollard as I am sure you know is a tree cut say 2 metres above base, and allowed to regrow above the cut, out of reach of grazing animals. They were an elegant solution which balanced the need for pasture and for wood; the new growth produces wood in the form of spars for hurdles and charcoal, but are high enough to allow grass to grow, and animals to graze. It’s a thing of beauty. This is called wood pasture.

Pollarding and coppicing, incidentally, tend to prolong the age of trees, as far as 450 to 500 years old for Oaks, and Rackham claims that England is unique in its survival of these ancient oaks. I don’t know if that’s true or not, you’ll have to take that up with Oliver though he’s been dead a few years so that’ll be tricky, but anyway I am open to comment.

As it happens, although pollarding was carried out in the Chilterns, the southern Oxfordshire Chilterns favoured the coppicing approach, enclosing the coppice for 7 years until the shoots were well established and then allowing grazing. The world’s your lobster essentially, and the importance again of local tradition and custom is clear.

I might at this point mention, very briefly mention, the ancient and very beautiful art of hedge laying – the creating of a neat and impenetrable living fence by cutting back and training an overgrown hedge. There are multiple styles around the country, and they reflect both local tradition and the kind of agriculture carried out. The Midland Bullock for example, is a style designed to resist heavy animals pushing against them. The south of England tends to create a double layer. I really have gone off on one now, you didn’t come to the History of Anglo Saxon England to hear about hedge laying for crying out loud but look there is a Hedge Laying society if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, so hie thee to the intertubes, hedgelaying.org.uk. The thing is, here is another way in which history, culture and landscape all coexist.

Enough of this maudlin nonsense. Ok, so where were we? I was describing a landscape where land, outside inland areas, is held within the large multiple estates, by a patchwork of individual farms of varying size, but generally reducing in size over time, held by individuals with some family rights over parts of the farm. Of smallish settlements of farm buildings, dispersed over a wide area, in groups which you might describe as polyfocal. Actually this is quite important; we tend to think of English villages as having a focus, a centre, often near the church. That comes later, for particular reasons. Hold on to that thought, we’ll get to it, but for the moment these are just cluster of dwellings, which no particular centre or focus.

Right, let us move on then to the nature of the relationship between the Anglo Saxons and their community and state, across normally held land – warland, as it was called. The essential argument here is that holding land and being a member of the wider community brought with it public responsibilities. The Anglo Saxon view of society world was one of reciprocal responsibilities – an action like lordship called for a specific response, such as hospitality. And it was participatory – being part of the community meant you had to take part in maintaining its health.

These public obligations were held together by one unifying and binding concept, embedded in the Old English word, waru. Waru means defence. The rights and obligations existed to defend the land; defend the land in the broadest sense, to keep it strong and hale, as well as free from its enemies. This is a thoroughly powerful concept and I feel my patriotic breast swelling as I speak. Warland is a good word is it not, a very evocative word that smells of earth and leafmould.  Free inhabitants were required to use the wealth of their land to defend the wider state and community of which they were part.

The political nature of the Anglo Saxon state in which they lived was unusually centralised for Western Europe. Some major landowners were awarded administrative and judicial powers, which were official and public positions. So they could be revoked by the king at any time and given to someone else. This is absolutely unlike the hereditary offices of the Norman and medieval age like Earl, or indeed for a while, sheriff. England had developed very differently to France, where after the dissolution of the 8th and 9th century Carolingian empire, central power was weak. And so local magnates were able to establish autonomous power bases many of which became almost independent from the central monarchy of France – Gascony, Toulouse, Poitou and so on. This did not happen in England.

This centralised power, and centralised law had defended and preserved the right of the free peasantry from the local lords, rights which in feudal systems had become reduced or obliterated. In Warland, peasants and smaller landholders retained a direct relationship with the king, whatever relationships they had with their immediate lord. The Anglo Saxon have therefore been described as

Small statesmen…small freemen charged with public duties

Rights and public duties became associated with land, because the wealth of the land was to be used to protect the health of the state. It does not matter about the social status of the landowner – king or thegn or ceorl, the land carries public service.

It may sound as though this is the same as feudalism, where the king gives packet of land called a  knight’s fee in return for military service, but look I am here to tell you it is different. Firstly, in the English version of feudalism the land is still all owned by the king, and recipient of the packet of land, the fee, is merely a landholder, not a landowner. For many Ceorls, their land in inalienable – the king cannot take it away legally. Secondly, the AS public service  is broader than just providing military service. They are responsible for maintaining bridge and fortifications works too, and that infrastructure is public, not held by the landowner. In Anglo Saxon England the king is in a sense like any other citizen – he holds land and a lot it, and many peasants do hold land from the king as tenants; but the king owes public service for that land. But equally, there are many ceorls and thegns who hold land as of their own right, folcland, not from the king at all. This the principle of society is in land help for public good, rather than privately owned land, rented out to peasants by private contracts.

However large your holding, free men owed the same type of public rights and obligations. Obviously the more wealthy and the larger landowner had heavier obligations, and also acquired a higher rank. But the obligations they hold is of the same nature. This is articulated later in a super famous tract called Geþyncðo. [Ye – ThuNK- thoo] It goes like this, and is referred to as the Promotion law

And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king’s hall, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy.

I have no doubt we will come back to this. For now take these things; there is rank, and that is associated with land. The outward display of rank is important – to be a lord, a Thegn, you needed to have the  trappings of one. To be a thegn carried rights – which meant they also carried public responsibility. And anyone could be a thegn, could become eorlisc, nothing to do with blood; there is a healthy degree of social mobility – nobility is not just a factor of the family you are born into.

Here then is the critical difference with Inland tenants. Those unfree Inland tenants acquired no public obligations. The land they held was their lords, and was held on a carefully defined set of terms, written down, and almost a contract. One sign of this was that Inland for example, did not carry the public obligation to pay geld to the king which I believe we made a meal of last time.

What were these public obligations then? They are of a different character to the feorum owed to the king, that we discussed in the episode about life on the Scir. The render of the feorum derived from the personal custom of hospitality, and were personal. In addition to and separate to these were the three common public services which all free men owed to the community, which runs through laws and charters, and these are

  • Military service
  • Bridge repair, and
  • fortification repair.

All freemen owed these services. Nonetheless there were ranks within them and they fall into 3 groups –Thegns, Geneats and Ceorls.

The Thegn is probably the figure you know most about and have heard of before. He is a landowner, and from the later 9th century, land given by written charter, or bookland, becomes a clearly articulated and desirable thing. Why you might ask? Well, it’s a lot easier to defend your right if it is clearly defined, rather than relying on a lot of different memories, which can be challenged or falsified.  So, thegns increasingly expect to hold that land by charter. The Thegn acquired their name and status originally from the service they performed for the king – land was then given to them by as reward their service. Law codes from Kent as early as the late 7th century tell us that Thegns were given a value or Wergild that set them apart from peasants, or Ceorls. They were eorlisc, noble, a class that was worthy to be made into an earldorman, an Earldorman being a state regional official, almost like the governor of a shire. Just to repeat myself, It was not a closed class and you could become a Thegn by looking like one.  Let me requote the Promotion Law within Geþyncðo. [Ye – ThuNK- thoo] because you know it’s important and repetition is the spear of gumbleeding history

And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king’s hall, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy.

However, that did not mean all ceorls  with such qualifications became Thegns and claimed the rights. Unless you wanted some political advantage with king or local administration, why bother? In one study in Devon, the larger farms of some ordinary ceorls were indistinguishable from the Thegns.

The extent of public obligations due from a Thegn became increasingly defined, and heavier than those laid on a ceorl – hence the disincentive to earn yourself the official recognition. They were based on that 5 hide unit. 11th century Law codes such as those of Aethelred are reasonably clear that a Thegn with 5 hides need to provide himself to fight when called out for defence of the public good, with all the armour and weapons he needed.

Particular estates might also attract different kinds of military service or repair work. Here is that all- important 11th century Anglo Saxon document we have used before, the Rectitudines singularum personarum, an estate management document prepared probably at Bath abbey in the early 11th century.

The law of the thegn is that he should be worthy of his book-rights, and that from his land he [must] do three things: levy a company, and be liable for the building and repair of town walls, and build bridges. Also, on many estates more land-right is originated at the king’s command such as, [to maintain] the animal-hedge for the king’s estate, and [to supply] equipment for a defence ship, and to guard the coast, and [to be a] head-guard and [to perform] military watch, [to give] alms money and church tribute and many other diverse things.

The gobbet makes it clear that the Thegn expected to have land granted by charter, Bookland. This might not be all the land they held – they might also hold land of their own by ancient tradition and family right, as mentioned before – folcland, not given him by the king but his from time imemmoral.

In Rectitudines you can see those three public obligations can’t you right there in front of you for all to see? Levy a company of fighting men for military service, repair town walls – fortifications – and build bridges. But then there’s other stuff peculiar to this estate. Here on this estate the thegn is required to pay ship money, which is money to maintain a public navy to defend the shores of the county – plot spoiler this  which will cause something of a storm for Charles I in 1638 when he tries to revive it. Then there are obligations to give alms, just like the gebur, but unlike the gebur the Thegn has to pay the Church scot. Because he is free.

The rectitudines also mentions another couple of categories of warland inhabitant. Before going on to geneat and Kostetlan, I should say that different statuses are not always so nicely and legally defined, the Rectitudines is very nice because of the structure and definition it gives, but it is just one estate. It is referencing specifically local custom. And there were many sources of status. Just a couple of examples of this.

One is that the lord and lady were entitled to take three servants with their household, crucial to their status; their steward; their children’s nurse; and a blacksmith. There was something special about being a smith – their role gave hem social status.

Another source of status was operating a plough; a distinction was often made between ‘those who work’ and ‘those who plough’. Though on inland that distinction doesn’t really work, because the Inland ploughman was usually a slave. But outside those private manors, the ploughman with a heavy modern plough and a team of eight was a man of considerable status; he needed to be well off to afford such a thing, and it was hard, skilled work. And as Abbot Aelfric wrote, ‘The Ploughman feeds us all’.

Anyway, back to the Bath Abbey estate and Thegns. The category below Thegn was the Geneat, a term which does not seem to be widely used, but is a kind of lesser Thegn. They pay public tax, geld, they are free; their services are at times agricultural and therefore confer less status than personal service. For example as quoted in the Rectitudines

provide food for the lord, reap and mow, cut the animal-hedge, and maintain snares

sometimes they are more general or military

build and fence the dwellings within an enclosure, and lead newcomers to the enclosure…hold head-guard (duties) and guard horses, go on errands, either further or nearer or to wherever he is sent.

In terms of status, however, you will notice the complete absence of any mention of nightsoil. As far as the Geneat is concerned, nightsoil is a dirty word, they are not at home to Mr or indeed Mrs Nightsoil. Or anything to dirty the hands. All the service they owe falls into the honourable category. Leading newcomers to the enclosure is very much the work of a trusted companion, who can be relied on not to pick their nose at an inappropriate moment, to say the right thing at the right time, and look the part. Again, honourable service.

The Rectitudines also mentions a character somewhere in between the Geneat and the peasant, called the Kostetlan, the Cottager. Now we are beginning to look more like a peasant, since they owe 1 day’s week-work and additional work at harvest time; but they may perform thegn’s service on the thegn’s behalf and they pay church-scot so probably still a free man. The rectitudines doesn’t mention a ceorl since by the time the Rectitudines was written, Ceorl had become a very general term, which might cover a very broad range of status. But the Kostetlan at Bath was probably the equivalent of a ceorl – not eorlisc, not Thegn Right Worthy, but nonetheless free, and subject to public obligations.

So these are the people of the warland then, Thegn, Geaneat, Kotsetlan or coerl. You might think the dues they owe look pretty heavy, and there’s agricultural and week work in there for the Kotsetlan, and they owe of course, their regular tribute, feorum, to the king. So on the face of it you might conclude that it’s all nit picking, hair splitting stuff, that the difference between the workers of the Inland and the obligations of Warland is a bit irrelevant. But in fact the difference is fundamental; the rights imposed between inland and Warland make a clear faultline in AS society.

The first difference is the type of work required to their lord on Inland and Warland. Let’s take that agricultural commitment of the Geneat and Kotsetlan. Before I do, let me remind you of some of the dues of the Gebur we heard of last week so that we can compare and contrast. Here’s the gebur

‘He must work [for] two days in each week, [doing] such work as he is directed to, throughout the year, and to work [for] three days each week during the harvest, and for three [days each week] from Candlemas to Easter.

That by the way was just the start, but I didn’t want to go overboard. Meanwhile, the Kotsetlan or The Cottager of the warland on the Bath estate was required to

labour for his lord each Monday throughout the year, or for three days each week throughout the harvest.

It’s interesting that the day of work is specified – the gebur just had to do what he was told when he was told, on Tuesdays the Cottager can tell his lord to go jump in a lake. But the 3 days each week throughout the harvest is the most interesting. In this obligation you can trace the communal life of the ancient scir, working together at the heavy times of year to get the hard work done on the time, the collaboration the community needed to survive and thrive – the ploughing, bringing in the harvest. This kind of obligation was often called boon work.

The word boon has an Old English root, which is ben, or prayer – something prayed for, requested, needed. The sense is of the family that owns the land going round to their neighbours and asking them to come together to help bring their harvest in; in return for which he will feed them and provide them with ale while they do it. There is a sense of equality, of reciprocity. Now, in later centuries the more powerful lords and landowners put pressure on their peasantry and these dues begin to look more compulsory, and indeed in practice given inequalities in power the peasant doesn’t feel able to refuse– but there is still a quid pro quo, a favour done in return for something. There is still a sense of neighbourliness, the community together, of custom. Boon work is part of the reciprocal nature of Anglo Saxon custom – an action – the asking for help at a key time of year – has an appropriate response – boon work. As part of the deal, the family asking would provide food and drink on the days worked. One more thing; a critical difference between boon work and the sort of work the gebur did on the Inland estate is that the Ceorl knew exactly when it would be delivered and to what extent. The gebur on the other hand did not; the demands on them had aspects of the same status as Bracton would give a Unfree serf, or Villein, in the 13th century, that is someone

Who doesn’t know in the evening what work he will have to do in the morning


Is bound to do whatever he is bid

Some geneats did horse work, in the sense of droving or carting; here was work to support the economic health of the estate, taking salt, lead, cattle, hides, wool to market on its behalf. Again, all of this is honourable type work, and it’s very related to the origin of all these dues – to the feorum owed to the king, a tribute based on the idea of hospitality and neighbourliness and the needs of th wider community – everyone needed salt.

So when the king came to visit the scir and stay on the estate, the warland inhabitants would be the ones required to turn out to help the hunt, or carry out riding and messenger duties. And indeed they would do that willingly, because to be seen at the side of their lord added to their reputation, rank and status. And in return for their service, they got to stand by their lord, to and the chance to raise issues of their and local concern with the great lord or lady.

The other key difference between the duties of gebur of the Inland and geneat of warland is the idea of public service. The Inland gebur owed work in return for livelihood to the lord, their status did not require or allow them to carry out any public service for the state at all. All the service they owed was part of a contract with their lord.

The proud warlander – geneat, Thegn, Kotsetlan – all owed public service, Military, bridge and fortification work as we said. The requirement for military service would of course include the requirement to bear arms. That is of course, an utterly daft statement, I mean Duh, no really? But I make this super obvious statement because the relationship between personal freedom and arms-bearing is absolutely fundamental. So if we see a man with a spear we are looking at a freeman, and if we see a man being berated for carrying a spear, we are probably looking at a serf.

Which brings us to the all famous Fyrd. Although there is much debate about the nature of the fyrd, it was essentially the militia of the Anglo Saxon community, called out by the Earldorman of the shire when danger threatened. A section in Domesday explains that

When the king goes against his enemy

Each man was summoned and must serve who was

So free that he has his sake and soke and can go with his land wherever he wishes

Sake and Soke are another pair of words for a freeman’s right. The Fyrd, then, is associated with freedom, with freemen and women, and with warland. People called out for waru, defence.



So the three kinds of public service for free families, military, fortifications and bridge repair. I’ve also mentioned that the Inhabitants of warland were required to pay tax to the king, or geld as it was called, and that this suggested they were free. The association between king’s taxation and freedom went way back, and would last a long time. In twelfth century Glastonbury for example a proud peasant defended his freedoms by saying

In the old days his father held this geldable yardland freely by the king’s taxation

His freedom was all bound up with the facts that his land was geldable and therefore warland, and the taxation meant he was free, he had a direct relationship with the king.

Anglo Saxon society required much more public participation than the three public services. There was another major one we should turn to now – the responsibility of every citizen to maintain public order.

Much justice under feudal jurisdictions on the continent were delivered through manorial courts, where the lord of the manor administered justice to his tenants and serfs. The people to whom he would administer said justice, much of which might impinge on his own rights, were both free and unfree. Only the free had they had access to royal justice.

Anglo Saxon England was very different. The courts were public courts, not private like manorial courts. They were administered on behalf of the king, presided over by the Ealdorman or their officials, through the scir, and then later through administrative areas like hundreds and counties. The justice delivered was available to all; even the ceorl had a wergild, they were law worthy. They could appeal to the law’s protection and judgement; but they also had a responsibility to maintain and sustain the law and its delivery.

The law worthy ceorl was required to travel to the public courts – in our area of the Benson scir, that meant all turning up at Ceolwulf’s Tree when required, which was also where the local moot and assembly would meet. This was a duty and a right of all freemen, and laws specifically stated they were required of

Every person who wishes to be held worthy of his wergild.

They would go as part of their tithing. Now, the custom of the tithing is a delightful way to understand the public nature of the Anglo Saxon polity. All free males over 12 were to be in a tithing of 10 people, presided over by one of their own, as the tithingman. Their obligations ignored secular or religious boundaries; they must present crimes for the court to consider, answer queries from the state, make arrangements for the collection of alms and observance of fasts. Joining the tithing was an important rite of passage into adult society. The tithingman was responsible for making sure everyone in his tithing fulfilled their responsibilities – and as you can imagine, that brought status too. As well as possibly being something of a pain in the bum.

They took part in the deliberations of assemblies, the folk moot, in which custom and collective memory were important, They were not exactly judges, but there is a casual assumption that knowledge of the law is everyone’s responsibility, and indeed possible for everyone. The idea of the law as the preserve of the legal expert is way, way in the future.

Participation was integral to Anglo Saxon justice, since of course there was no police force. Every dispute or settlement was essentially confirmed by oath, by the witnesses and oath helpers who swore as to the credit and trustworthiness of the parties involved, or to stand as surety for the accused or convicted.

While we are on it, this emphasises that a good standing and reputation was a very important part of being a good and effective member of society. So much was informal and based on a personal understanding, there are no or few written contracts to refer to.  Your reputation depended on many things – the status of your lord, your wealth, the way you carried yourself, your delivery of public obligations; all of this came together in your reputation, your weord, worth, which was formed by the people who knew you personally. There’s no online influencing here, or credit rating agencies blah and blah. The people who know you form your public reputation.

If your reputation was strong, many activities and roles central to society, were easier for you – in making major purchases at the cattle market, gaining credit; your word as a witness was better valued, your influence with the lord higher. A witness in Anglo Saxon justice, by the way, had a much wider role than the current meaning as an observer; back then, a witness was someone who had knowledge of the situation or event, someone who would help form the solution. With such a central role, personal reputation was a big thing =- as you whether or not your information was trusted or discounted.

Anglo Saxon England has its structure of king and ealdormen and Thegns, its hierarchy and elites. But it is deeply participatory all the way down the social ladder. It based on a reciprocal principle – your status brought you the responsibility to deliver public obligations, those obligations in turn brought status.

There we go then; we have an early and mid Anglo Saxon world where land had a big impact on your status; if you continued to hold your land as warland, you participated in a state to which you owed public obligations. The warland Ceorls were part of a class which contained both relatively large  landowners and small scale subsistence farmers.  The warland peasant owned their land as of their own right, they paid their geld and attended public courts, served in the fyrd or helped pay for a soldier to go from their area, contributed to bridge and fortification work. They were obliged to turn up at the estate centre to do occasional harvesting and ploughing work, but they did that from an enduring sense of being good neighbours – boon work as good members of the community, at a defined time of year, not simply at the whim of the Thegn.

In the later Anglo Saxon state, though, the pressures that had led to the growth of unfree Inland workers were growing stronger and broadening. The changes would have a fundamental impact not just on society and individual lives, but on the very fabric and landscape of England, in a way that you can still see every time you step out of the door; they will lead to the creation of smaller estates, and secular resident lords. It will lead to a re-organisation of a large part of the English lowland landscape was organised. And from it will come one of the glories of the English countryside, the English village.

We’ll talk about the start of that process next time and hear about the rise of the Thegn.





2 thoughts on “2.6 Life in the Warland

  1. Oh, please don’t stop saying “time immemorial”. It’s such a lovely phrase and it doesn’t get used nearly enough these days, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

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