Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Early English Society

Steve Muhlberger
 I am once again in the position of talking about a subject about which there is little direct reliable information. The subject this time is English society in the 6th and 7th century, the period when the English were still pagan or only newly converted to Christianity. It is a period when almost all of the English were illiterate; the few who were literate were churchmen, and may not have been typical.

There is some poetry written in Old English that may preserve a non- ecclesiastical viewpoint, and which we can use to reconstruct what early English society was like outside the monasteries.   The longest English poem, and the most interesting, is Beowulf. It is an epic treatment of what is usually called early Germanic society -- the pagan warrior society supposedly common to all of northern Europe. But can we actually take Beowulf as a straight picture of that society?   Its date is uncertain (perhaps as late as the manuscript (around A.D. 1000)?) and it was composed as "historical fiction" about a far-away place -- Denmark.

Nonetheless, we are far better off with Beowulf than we are without it.

Let's start with a basic fact about the 6th and 7th centuries. Early English kings, like Frankish kings and others of the period, were warlords, men whose ability to inspire fear in their enemies was the basis of their claim to rule. They made a second claim as well -- they were men of royal, maybe even divine, descent. The claim of hereditary right had little practical meaning unless the king could maintain himself in a very fluid and competitive political environment.

None of the English kingdoms around 600 were well-established communities. They did not have impregnable natural boundaries. They did not have long histories behind them. Nor did they represent clear-cut ethnic identities, despite their names.

England around 600 was made up of about eleven kingdoms, some of them no bigger than the average county in Southern Ontario. They were areas that some ruler in the past had seized through conquest and passed on to his descendants. At this stage, if the ruling family was displaced or wiped out by another one, the kingdom would simply disappear.

If you were a king in this period, it was necessary to fight to keep your power. The ability to attract and keep a following of warriors was a necessary attribute of power. Kings did this in the simplest of ways. They cultivated a reputation for generosity.

In Beowulf, the poet harps on the importance of gifts of gold. Hrothgar, the Danish king whom Beowulf came to serve, was "the best of earthly kings" because "he was the best of those who bestowed gold." A bad king was one who "[began] to hoard his treasure," who "never [parted] with gold rings." [Campbell, 54] The tie between warlord and retainer was two-way. The warrior followed the king in expectation of victory; and once victory was won, he expected the king to fairly and generously distribute the fruits of victory.

Through generosity the king kept a group of crack warriors about him constantly, men who were professionals in war and correspondingly valuable to their lords. The kings expected much from their closest followers, who in early times were called gesiths and later, thegns. Warriors were to follow their lords to the death, and even beyond death.

To keep such men loyal to him, a king of this period had to possess great wealth. He had to be able to give gifts freely, yet to always have more ready to give. The king had two ways to acquire the necessary treasures: through looting, and through the levying of tribute. Loot was the most important reason for waging war. Wars were not fought for national defense, because there was no nation, nor for any other highly theoretical reasons. War was the premier method of redistributing the wealth. One of the most important forms of loot, by the way, was human beings. Early English kings took slaves, and either used them, gave them to their followers, or sold them overseas.

Tribute is much like loot: you can think of it as looting made routine, wealth extracted by threat of war instead as the result of actual fighting, by extortion rather than by murder and robbery. Early English kings had two sources of tribute. The more powerful ones could extract tribute from other rulers. Second, even underdog kings could take tribute from the people of their own kingdoms.

Tribute from a king's own subjects:   Our information seems to indicate that scattered around these early kingdoms were royal vills, in other words, royal estates, at which people paid tribute or taxes to a royal representative. The districts that supplied tribute were roughly assessed, it seems, by their ability to feed the king and his retinue. There were estates that collected enough in a year to support the king and court for one night, others that collected enough to support him for more, etc.  There was also a unit called a hide. In one sense, a hide was 120 acres; in another, it was an area sufficient to support one family. Mainly, however, a hide was a unit of assessment. The obscure details do not matter. What does matter is that kings were probably more organized than a lack of surviving records would indicate.

Kings also extracted service from their peoples. In theory, the king could demand military service from all free men. Anyone who was not enslaved by another master was a king's man, and liable to be called up to fight in his wars.

 The nobles were brought up as warriors and no doubt were quite willing to fight most of the time. It seems likely that poorer freemen performed only local service, or provided such services as carrying food for the army. In some circumstances, however, the kings were actually able to manage mass mobilizations for military purposes. There are several large earthworks surviving from this period. These frontier fortifications, or "dykes" as the English call them, run for miles, and are evidence for the power of the kings of this time. They could plan major projects and get large numbers of peasants out with their spades to do the work.

Tribute from other kings:  As I mentioned before, kings took tribute from each other. Perhaps conquest and elimination of one's enemies was the ultimate goal of a warrior king. But complete victory was not often possible, so just like nations today, kings competed for lesser advantages -- they sought to get tribute from kings they had defeated or overawed. The earliest English records, Bede and the ASC, talk about a series of overlord-kings who ruled over lesser monarchs. The Chronicle calls these kings Bretwaldas, which probably means "rulers of Britain."

The rewards of Bretwaldaship may have been rich while they lasted (no one could be sure how long that might be). We have a document from after 700 A.D. which looks like the tribute list of a Mercian king at the height of Mercia's power. The document, called the Tribal Hidage, names the districts or tribes within Mercia, and their fiscal obligations reckoned in hides. It likewise assigns obligations to the neighboring kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, and East Anglia.

Archaeology gives us an idea of the wealth of 7th century kings. A royal vill or estate named Yeavering of the kingdom of Bernicia has been recovered since the Second World War. Yeavering was a royal fortress and residence in the time of King Edwin, the first Christian Northumbrian king and a Bretwalda or overlord of Britain. Bishop Paulinus baptized there for 36 days in 627 A.D.

Aerial photography done in 1949 inspired a dig which found the remains of a huge fortified cattle corral and a number of royal halls made of wood. From the post holes, we know that Edwin's wooden hall was 80 feet by 40 feet, made of planks 5 1/2 inches thick. The posts that supported the building were sunk up to eight feet deep, which gives us the idea that it must have been impressively high. Inside the walls were plastered, and maybe painted as well. The size and bulk of this hall matches most Roman buildings, and though the Romans built in longer-lasting stone, Edwin's hall is no less impressive for being made of wood.

Then there is theSutton Hoo treasure, rediscovered just before the Second World War. A ninety-foot-long ship was dragged up to the top of a hundred-foot bluff in Suffolk, a dead king and some of his treasure was placed in it, and the whole thing was buried under a mound. Many of the artifacts had rotted away in whole or part by the 20th century, but enough remains to show fantastic workmanship. We can't be sure whose burial this was, but it probably is that of King Redwald of the East Angles, another Bretwalda.

What we have found impresses us, at the very least, with the ability of the kings to extract surplus wealth from their subjects, and to have that wealth turned into beautiful or impressive objects, whether halls or cloak clasps or helmets.

If the kings were great in riches, they ruled in a way not familiar to us, and over a country much different from either Roman Britain or Later Medieval England. For one thing, they ruled a rural country without a commercial economy.  Many Roman cities and towns continued as settlements, but no longer supported a urban style of life distinct from the life of the country. They were too small in population to do so. Power was centered not in towns, but in the estates of kings and other lords.

If we were transported back to England in this time we would probably think it was the most primitive place imaginable, simply because there were no great centers of population.

Trade was correspondingly less important as a method of exchange. People did exchange goods, there were merchants and marketplaces, and money was known, although it was not omnipresent as it is today. But much of the exchange was similar to the giving of gifts and of tribute that we have examined in connection with the power of kings. Lesser people gave gifts - - or tribute -- to the more powerful, to gain their goodwill or pay off social obligations. Rich people gave gifts to their dependents to demonstrate their power and create the obligations that would bind their followers closer to them.

We see the same kind of exchange every time an election comes around, when governments in power try to consolidate their support by creating funds or programs to benefit some strategic group in society. This kind of exchange was much more obvious in the early medieval world, because most people were not employees in clearly defined jobs with clearly defined salaries; rather, they were dependent on lords, whose favor they sought and whose demands they had to satisfy.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of that society to our eyes is the attitude toward law. Today, at least in theory, all of us are equal before the law, and must all answer to the sovereign state if we break the rules. The rules are written down abstractly formulated, so that they apply in the same way everywhere. They can be changed. The state has a monopoly on enforcement, and paid servants to do the enforcing.

None of those things applied in 7th c. England. Under the influence of the church, written laws under the name of the king were appearing. But law was largely customary and unwritten. What this means is that law was not unchanging, but that the community as a whole was the interpreter of what was right and what was wrong.

The key institution was not abstract rules of law, but a method of resolving disputes between families. That method is usually called the feud. Feud was not necessarily private wars between families, although it could come to that. More generally feud was the theory that if a member of a family was injured in some way by a member of another, the injured family had the right to demand compensation -- or else. The threat of action motivated the other family to bring its errant member into line.

The king's role was very limited. He did not have many of the powers we grant to government today. What was the king's role? Basically, he had the right to protect his interests, which were much more extensive than those of an ordinary individual. Many disturbances of the peace violated the king's rights, and he could step in to a conflict on that basis and judge the rights and wrongs of it. He could also collect fines in such cases. His subjects could also come to him looking for justice if they did not think they could enforce their own rights. Finally, the king could proclaim new laws, or define existing custom more precisely.

The early English kingdoms were small, rural principalities ruled by a warrior kings supported by a warrior aristocracy. Much of the population must have been enslaved, or subject to great men who could protect them in a society where self-help was the main legal rule. It seems like a rough, disorderly society to us. It was also a society that was in the course of the seventh century undergoing an ideological revolution. Christianity was being preached among the English. The new religion was not only changing English ideas of the afterlife, it was having a great effect on how power was weilded, and the purposes that wealth was applied to.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.