As in most traditional western societies, at the pinnacle of the Anglo-saxon social ladder was the king. The king was lord over his kingdom, providing protection through war or diplomacy for his people. He did this through military campaigns, marriage alliances, tributes, the giving of hostages etc. It was through war more than any other activity (such as trade), that the Anglo-saxons accrued their wealth and a victorious king was expected to be generous with his spoils. Gifts of land and other forms of material wealth like silver, weapons and jewellery had to be shared amongst his supporters and followers, otherwise a miserly king would find himself alone on the battlefield and his friends pledging themselves to his enemy.
Most kings came from a ‘royal family’, however it was not until the time of King Alfred of Wessex’s descendents that kingship became completely hereditary. Before then any man who could take a kingdom from another and hold it could become a king. The right to rule could of course be handed down from father to son but there were many instances where brothers, uncles and cousins, even distant cousins, could lay claim to the throne. To complicate things even more a new king had to be approved by the witan, a council of community leaders who acted as advisors to the king. If they approved then he would be coronated, however if the candidate did not meet with their approval they could choose a more worthy man from the royal family. They also had the power to force their king to abdicate in favour of another however this happened rarely.
Once a king was chosen by the witan, he would then work with these leaders and others to create laws and make sure they were enforced. There were no capital cities as such where the king ruled from, so the king and his court spent much of his time travelling throughout his kingdom staying at the various royal vills or estates which he either owned outright or which were owned by his family or loyal supporters. At these centres he would hear out trials and pass judgement, listening to the requests and troubles of his subjects and hopefully helping with solutions.
Beneath the king were the aeldormen, roughly equivalent to the earls and dukes of later periods. Obviously the king could not be at all places at once controlling and protecting his people, which is where the aeldormen come in. More often than not an aeldorman was a member of the kings household who was depended upon to control a shire or district for him. Sometimes these men were the king’s male relatives or trusted friends but the title was not hereditary and could be removed and given to another at the king’s pleasure. This may come about if the aeldorman became too wealthy and influential. An aeldorman after all was in a basic sense a small scale king with his own kingdom or shire of loyal workers and fighters. If he was a good and just lord who was often victorious in battle and shared his war winnings with his people, he could become richer and more influential than the king.
The aeldorman’s job was to help the king in implementing his wishes, organising and leading the fighting men in the fyrds (local militia or army), enforcing the laws of the king and the witan, overseeing local disputes and keeping the peace in general. For their service they were given gifts of land and wealth and a particularly victorious or loyal aeldorman could in time accrue vast estates of land which could often rival or surpass his king.
Similar to an aeldorman yet without as much power or prestige were the reeves or shire-reeves (where the word sheriff comes from). These men helped the aeldormen in collecting taxes and keeping order, often acting in the capacity of modern policemen.
Below the Aeldormen were the thanes, roughly equivalent to the later medieval knight. The word thane literally means ‘one who serves another’, and in the earliest of Anglo-saxon history they started off as the king’s body guard and in some instances were even the predecessors of the aeldormen. These men would stick by their lord’s side, eating and sleeping in the halls with the lord and his family. It was a position of great pride and priveledge with many poems and stories from the era celebrating the great bond between a lord and his fighting men. Often times this ideal of serving ones lord was so great that to not seek vengeance on your lord’s killer was a disgrace, as was the very act of surviving him in battle.
To be a thane one must be a free-man and own at least 5 hides of land (the minimum amount to support a family). Within the rank of thane there were many variations again, the richest and most influential were those directly employed by the king, the lesser could be the thanes of thanes and could sometimes be as poor or poorer than many peasants. Again, if a thane proved himself and had a wealthy lord he would be endowed with many gifts for his good service and could hope to one day rise to the post of Aeldorman.
When it came to battle, the aeldorman was responsible for calling out the fyrd which were led by the thanes. The thanes had the task of not just protecting their lord in battle but in organising the rest of the fyrd, the ordinary freemen who came out to give their service. If the king was the commander in chief and the aeldormen the generals, then the thanes were roughly the same as the majors or captains.
An interesting note to add here in regards to the Christian church, bishops and archbishops also held the position of aeldormen (in respect of where they sat on the social ladder and how much they were worth in the wergild), and their subordinates in the clergy such as the priests and monks, held the title of thanes.
It was not until the time of Alfred the Great in the later 9th century that service in the fyrds and the role of the Thane took on a more regimented organisation. Thanks to the Viking invasions, King Alfred saw the need for a more permanent fighting force to call on and so the fyrd was organised around a roster, half serving with the king whilst the other half recouperated and saw to the everyday running of the villages. Also as a result, there was a need for more thanes who were professionally trained. The everyday farmer and carpenter were just no match against the viking’s. Thanes now had to serve one month out of every three either fighting or manning and maintaining the forts which were being built against their enemies.
Thanes also had their place in the government of the day. There are hundreds of instances where they are seen as witnesses on charters or laws, attesting to their presence with the aeldormen on the witan. The thanes helped the king and the aeldormen to keep informed with what was going on within shires and estates all over the kingdom and were often employed to make errands and pass on important messages and decrees.
If you were not part of the aristocratic set, and let’s face it many of us will come under this next group, then you were a peasant worker known as a ceorl (churl). These were freemen who worked the land or else provided a service or trade such as metal working, carpentry, weaving etc. All ceorls had the right to be part of the fyrd and be part of the folkmoots (similar to a local shire meeting or court), where they could bring up their grievances with rents, boundary and property disputes, thievery etc.
To begin with the ceorl owned his land outright, working co-operatively with his neighbours to share the workload as well as expensive tools (such as the ox and horses which were the John Deere tractors of the day). With the constant warfare as well as the horror of famine and other natural disasters destroying crops and livestock farming became consolidated under a lord who could provide a certain amount of protection, physically and economically. The ceorls could still own their land or rent from the lord but in exchange for his protection they gave a portion of their produce or laboured for him. the wealthier of these lords could provide water mills and many oxen for the ceorls to use without having to pay for it themselves or travel miles to the nearest facility. It was a reciprocal relationship that made life easier for both groups.
The ceorl could be subdivided into three sub-groups. These groups were based largely on how much land and wealth one owned (and hence how much rent a lord could get out of them), with the wealthier ceorls receiving the better jobs than the poorer.
The geneatas were the peasant aristocracy. Materially they owned the same amount of land or wealth as the thanes (often more as we have seen), and were free from working on their lord’s lands. However, they still had to provide a rent or payment for the lord’s continued protection. This often came in the form of either material goods and produce (especially helpful for when the king came to visit on his progresses), or else through certain services. According to Sir Frank Stenton, a geneat was expected to ‘ escourt strangers visiting his lord, to ride, carry goods and ‘lead loads’, to reap and mow on the demesne (lord’s land) at harvest and hay time, to keep guard near his lord’s person or in the stables, to go on errands far or near, to join with others to maintain the hedge around his lord’s house, and in cutting and erecting fences that were necessary when the lord hunted.’ As you can see some of his tasks were shared with that of the thanes, though as a rule the geneate was more of a landed peasant and though he could and often was expected to join the fyrd, he was not a professional soldier like the thanes.
The kotsetlas are regarded as the modern day labourers and farmers, just below the geneatas. They were also free men who owned and farmed at least 5 acres, however their rent was paid through service on the lord’s land. A kotsetla was expected to render at least one day a week on his lords land, which could be as much as 3-4 days during the busier harvest months. This included reaping an acre of oats and half an acre of other corn. Once this was done he would be paid by the lord’s reeve or other servant with a sheaf wheat or corn as a bonus. Other duties may include coastguard duty and services incidental to the lord’s hunting activities.
The last of the freemen were the geburas. These men each held less land than their superiors (often a yardland or a quarter hide) which made it exceedingly difficult for them to independently feed their family. In order to survive a gebura had to turn to his lord (which could be a thane or aeldorman) and in return for land and protection they were expected to work for him for at least 2 days a week, which again increased during harvest and martinmass (November, the bloodmonath). The geburas were the ones who did a lot of the grunt work, the ploughing and sewing of crops. They were basically slaves who had freedom in name and an opportunity to now rise through the ranks, (which was often so difficult it could take a generation or more). In fact many of the geburas were emancipated slaves themselves.
And of course on the lowest rung of the social ladder were the slaves, also called theows. These were people who had no freedoms, owned no land, could not fight in the fyrd, and served every whim of their masters (whether they were ceorls, thanes, aeldormen or the king and his family). Slavery was one of the staple imports and exports of the dark ages, well before the Vikings, and every kingdom in England was involved in it.
There were a number of ways in which one became a slave, the most obvious of which was through the misfortune of birth. In such a society dominated by raiding and warfare, the losers were often enslaved by the victors as well. freemen were caught or else forcibly given over as part of the war-gifts given by a king or other lord for good service. The word welsh is supposed to be synonymous with slavery, a reflection on the uneasy history between these people and other Celtic Britons and their Anglo-saxon neighbours. But slavery could also be a choice, albeit one made as a last resort. In times of famine or other strife families sold their children and sometimes even wives and mothers in order to gain money to pay a fine or feed the remaining members.
It sounds harsh and no doubt it was, but it was often preferable than to have the whole family die of starvation. As a slave the child would now expect to be feed and clothed by his master, something that before his family struggled to provide. It was not the most ideal situation but it meant survival.
And of course there were always routes out of slavery as well. If the family saved enough or came across good times again they had the chance to ransom back their family members. If the debt was their own then they could also be freed once the amount of the debt had been rendered through his service as a slave. Freedom could also be given to a loyal slave if it had been bequeathed to him in the will of his master. There were many ways through which a slave could earn his freedom, thereby becoming a gebur and continuing his way back through the system.
Slavery was a natural part of life in medieval England until the Westminster Council of 1102 AD abolished the activity once and for all. A progressive step forward so early in history, how tragic that it continued to happen for the next 900 or so years.
- The Social World of the Anglo-Saxons: The Aethelings and the Eoldermen (petercwhitaker.wordpress.com)
- The Social World of the Anglo-Saxons: The Theigns (petercwhitaker.wordpress.com)
- The Social World of the Anglo-Saxons: The Peasents (petercwhitaker.wordpress.com)
- Anglo-Saxon Social Organisation (Regia.org)
- Class System (darkagessociety.co.uk) (this site also has Viking class system as well)