Caught Red-Handed! Law and Order in Medieval England
In medieval societies , it was always quite important to preserve law and order, and to rightfully dispense justice. A just ruler secured himself an obedient populace, and often enough, justice was rough, tough, and brutal.
With the gradual shift from classical antiquity and the beginnings of the Middle Ages , plenty of things were changing in the social order and the law. People had to adapt their conduct or suffer the consequences. And when they failed to comply, they would do anything not to get caught, for punishments were merciless.
Today take a look into the intriguing world of early law and order in medieval English society, and the way crime was dealt with. How to preserve a monarch’s credibility? How to lower crime levels and maintain social castes? Crime and punishment awaits us – this time, in medieval England!
The Earliest Forms of Law and Order in Medieval England
The earliest attested law code in the history of England dates to quite early in the Anglo-Saxon period. It was a law code drawn up by King Æthelberht of Kent, the first English ruler to convert to Christianity and, by all accounts, the third Anglo-Saxon king. His conversion occurred in 597 AD, and the law code was issued shortly before it.
Most scholars today agree that this code was simply the first appearance of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon laws assembled in written form . The first parts of it dealt with church affairs, but the rest is a pretty clear insight into the legal matters of Anglo-Saxon society.
The law code is also the first one ever written in a Germanic language and is a fantastic source of Old English. Considering its age and how early it was written, this law is remarkably detailed and well developed. Æthelberht’s code begins with a few laws related to the church, then goes through society from the king himself, to the nobles, the freemen, and ends with laws in regard to slaves.
King dictating the law. (British Library / Public Domain )
This early English law code stands out with its peculiar clauses and exact compensations attributed to each offence. It also posed a good insight into the type of crimes that were considered in the period.
For example, in laws regarding stealing from free men, it is stated that the thief needed to repay three times the value of the stolen goods. Or, if one free man breaks the rib of another – he was required to pay 3 shillings. Interestingly, if an offender broke a free man’s front teeth, he would have to pay more than if breaking his molars.
Plenty of laws also deal with offending a citizen or smearing his honor. This included assaulting him, taking his woman, or sleeping with his female slaves. In such cases, offenders were punished financially – nobles had to pay 12 shillings, while free man only half of that sum – 6 shillings.
In total, the offences that smeared a free man’s honor, regardless of physical injury or not, were considerably greater than the punishments for murder. That’s just how much a man’s honor was highly regarded in Anglo-Saxon society.
Roughly a century later, another law code was issued. Known as the Law of Hloþhere and Eadric, it is another important Kentish legal code, significantly refined and focusing on the legal procedures, omitting the church affairs. It is the work of, as the name suggests, two Kentish kings – Hloþhere (died 685) and Eadric (died 686).
It consisted of a set of judgments, depending on the crime and the social caste, and among others included such offences as: compensation for the killing of a noble by a servant, fines for insults and disturbing the peace, how to deal with stolen property and those possessing it, acquisition of property in Lundenwic (London), hospitality and responsibility for the behavior of foreign guests, and others .
Medieval torture was used when someone broke the law. (Årvasbåo / Public Domain )
Again, there is a clear emphasis on honor in this code as well. Plenty of sentencing and trials relied on a system of oath taking – where the word of a free man was held in high regard. If failing to respect a given oath, a man would be fined significantly.
Immediately following the Law of Hloþhere and Eadric, and issued by their successor, was the Law of Wihtred. This Kentish king ruled from around 690 to 725, and in the early parts of his reign issued his legal code, with a focus on offences against the church, and dealing with thievery.
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The first page of the 12 th century manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis, which contains the oldest surviving copy of Wihtred's law code. (Deacon of Pndapetzim / Public Domain )
Church related affairs had a great part in this code, with one of the first parts stating that the church was thereby exempt from paying any taxes to the king. Other laws seemingly placed a greater emphasis on Christian religious practices, stating that offerings to pagan gods would be punished, as well as meat consumption during a Christian fast.
Even slaves had religious rights, with nobles having to be punished if they forced their slaves to work on the Sabbath. Thieves that were caught in the act could be freely killed, without any repercussions.
Pass the Sentence – Crime in the Middle Ages
One aspect of general Anglo-Saxon law was granting the lords and ealdormen – the nobles – a privilege to execute summary justice (capital punishment), within the borders of their own lands, i.e. their fiefs. These privileges were known as infangene-þēof (Infangthief) and ūtfangene-þēof (Outfangthief) – or “a thief seized within” and “a thief seized without”.
The first dealt with thieves caught “red handed” and in possession of stolen goods – on the lord’s land. For the poor – this almost always meant a quick execution. But for thieves of rank, the captor was given an option of ransoming the thief. The outfangthief meant that even if a thief came from outside the boundaries of a lord’s fief, the said lord still had the full rights to execute justice of his own accord.
The breaking wheel was used during the Middle Ages as a form as execution. (Evrik / Public Domain )
For the lords, these privileges were a great benefit. Summarily dealing with thievery not only helped them to keep law and order on their own land, but also helped them cement their authority. Show too much kindness, people won’t fear you. If they don’t fear you, they don’t obey you.
Up until the arrival of the Normans, several unique criminal cases were documented in Anglo-Saxon England. For any such cases that were “out of the norm”, the king himself had to summon a witan – a council of wise men – in order to successfully solve the crime. Plenty of cases were documented, all showcasing that honor and justice were held in the highest regard in the society.
In the early 1000’s there was a documented trial against a free man, named Thorkel, and his wife. They had murdered their son. In the mid-11 th century, a cleric was branded and three men executed, because they robbed the Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross.
But perhaps the most notable series of crimes, trials, and exiles is connected with the infamous Earl Sweyn Godwinson. This was the eldest son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the brother of Harald Godwinson , who would fall in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Earl Sweyn was a particularly restless man, and a string of his crimes and “misdemeanors” survived in writing.
At first he quarreled with his own mother, seemingly over the true identity of his father. It seems he had some doubts and claimed that his true father was Cnut the Great . This grew into a feud and his mother insisted that his claim was false, presenting several well respected witnesses to vouch for her.
His next escapade was an abduction. The earl abducted an abbess of Leominster Abbey, named Eadgyfu, hoping to marry her and thus claim the rich estates of the abbey. The king himself intervened and naughty Earl Sweyn earned himself an exile to Flanders.
From there he traveled to Denmark, from which he was also exiled for an offence. He returned to England and begged for forgiveness, seemingly receiving it.
Back in England, Earl Sweyn messed up once again. While under a flag of truce, he murdered his own cousin, Earl Beorn. This was the last straw and a great outrage – the king and his council formally declared Sweyn as a niðing – a man without honor.
This declaration made him an outcast in the entire realm and northern world, and he was forced into permanent exile. His story again shows us that a man’s honor was the very fabric that held the Anglo-Saxon society together.
The Anglo-Saxon law received its strongest foundations during the rule of the famous Alfred the Great . He established the system of ealdormen and reeves. An ealdorman was the chief ruler and official of a shire.
A shire’s modern equivalent is a county. In essence a lord, an ealdorman’s role was to preside over the shire’s court, recruit its soldiers, take a third of the profits, and generally rule the region.
Below him and in his service, was a reeve. A reeve was a senior official and an overseer of a particular estate. In the manorial system, a reeve was an overseer of the peasants and the workers and reported to the steward and the earl. But they all, in the end, had to report to the king himself.
The Lord’s Law – the Norman Feudal System
The face of Anglo-Saxon law disintegrated with the arrival of William and the Normans. Everything changed in the decades following the defeat at the Battle of Hastings, and the Normans gradually established a continental European law system – bringing a strong, centralized government and the iconic Norman Feudalism.
With Anglo-Saxon earls subdued, their lands were taken. William quickly gave lands to his trusted followers – some 180 of them. This brought on the rule of the Norman aristocracy and a feudal system. This meant that powerful feudal lords held tenements directly from the crown.
William’s Norman system was both good and bad, depending on who’s examining it. But in essence, the feudal system and the rule of powerful lords meant stricter and harsher laws, and thus more peace and obedience. On the other hand, the feudal system greatly oppressed the poor, almost entirely erasing the previous Anglo-Saxon aspect of free men.
But William also focused on further developing the justice system in his new kingdom. An interesting addition was that of the jury. To confirm the accused person of guilt, a sort of a “primitive” jury was assembled. It was made up from local middle class men and consisted of four Normans and four Anglo-Saxons.
Trial by jury was implemented in the middle ages. (Merchbow~commonswiki / Public Domain )
In most other aspects, the Normans simply retained the previous, Anglo-Saxon law, only expanding it where necessary. Additions related to poaching and the forbidding of hunting in the king’s forests. Also to trial by combat, and sworn testimonies.
The core of medieval English law occurred during the rule of Henry II. He established the so-called common law , which greatly differed from the feudal justice system. It was common for all men in any part of the country.
The jury system was refined and became the standard, a centralized royal court was established, and professional judges presided over cases. This common law reached its height with the famous “ Magna Carta ” – the Great Charter of English liberty, which was implemented in 1215 by King John Lackland .
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A romanticized 19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta. (Jappalang / Public Domain )
His predecessor, Henry II , laid out the foundations of common law, forming a centralized monarchy that made it possible for the legal system to be redefined. He integrated all the minor local courts into a single judicial structure that presided over the entire country. He also created a centralized royal court which, among other things, presided over civil cases and disputes.
Court officials were sent on official visits all over the country, where they observed the law and presided on cases. And last but not least, the courts were required to keep written records of their work. By establishing all these and other rules, Henry II laid out a clear path for the formation of a strong common law for medieval England.
Traveling law and order, trial before the city court. (Lewenstein / Public Domain )
The Final Sentence
Law and the concept of justice had a long road of development. From the classical Roman law, to the strongly honorable warrior based traditions of Anglo-Saxons, down to the Christian church’s goofy trials by ordeal , and all the way to the Norman feudal system, and the refined English common law – the path of law was refined by generations of rulers.
But one thing remained. Thieves and murderers, criminals and rivals, all were judged strictly and without much mercy. A head could be lost for the simplest of trespasses, and the executioner’s sword was the swiftest bringer of justice.
Top image: England’s Medieval law and order in the. Source: Anneke / Adobe Stock.
Hunt, J. 2004. Medieval Justice: Cases and Laws in France, England and Germany, 500-1500 . McFarland Publishing.
Lambert, T. 2017. Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England . Oxford University Press.
Neal, J. 2019. Law & Order in Medieval England . Harvard Law Today. [Online] Available at: https://today.law.harvard.edu/law-order-in-medieval-england/