Caterham & District

Anglo Saxon Crime and Punishment

Anglo-Saxon Crime and Punishment

The Anglo-Saxons spread across England as the Roman Empire declined from about 410 AD.

The Anglo-Saxons were a mixture of Germanic tribes subdivided into kin groups or clans with a strong warlike leader. Members of a clan were duty-bound to protect the welfare of their kinfolk.

Should anyone be killed or injured, all close relatives declared a blood feud against the wrongdoer’s kin.
To keep the tribes being ripped apart by feuds, they developed the legal concept of WERGELDS (literally “man-money”) – sums of money that killers must pay to their victims’ kin groups to appease their vengeance and avoid the feud.

Wergelds varied in size depending on the victim’s sex, age and social status – they tended to be highest for aristocratic male adults and women of child-bearing age. The wergeld for a free, non-noble man was 200 shillings, while that for a noble was 1,200 shillings. There were smaller payments (known as BOTS) for various non-fatal injuries. One shilling was the value of a cow in Kent or a sheep elsewhere.

Trial by Ordeal
Wergelds or bots mitigated the blood feud but by no means eliminated it, for there was no assurance that the alleged murderer or thief would pay the required sum or even admit to the deed. So it was up to the accused to prove his innocence by submitting to an “ordeal” which was regarded as an appeal to divine judgment. The accused might have to grasp a red-hot iron and carry it a prescribed distance or lift a stone from the bottom of a boiling cauldron. The wounds were dressed and kept covered for a week. If, when the bandages were unbound, the wounds were healing, he would be judged not guilty. But if the wounds had gone septic he would be judged guilty. The suspect could also be lowered into a pond to sink or float. Sinking was a proof of innocence.

Alfred the Great
Eventually there were seven kingdoms ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings. Wessex became the most powerful kingdom and had a set of written laws in about 700. After the chaos caused by the Danish invasions, Alfred (871-899) had to restore order in a kingdom where murder and robbery were everyday happenings. He therefore decided to rewrite the laws blending Christian teaching with old Germanic customs. Alfred the Great set out a complete scale of compensation to be paid for various offences – starting with the loss of a tooth and going up to the murder of an Archbishop (15,000 shillings) or for a King (30,000 shillings).

The law codes were also concerned about protecting women as the frailer sex.

Some other examples of laws:

A woman could walk out of her marriage on her own initiative and if she took the children and cared for them she was entitled to half the property.

A man who fondled the breast of a freewoman, uninvited, incurred a fine of five shillings, while throwing her down cost ten shillings. Rape cost 60 shillings which like the other fines was payable to the woman.

Alfred’s laws took into account crimes of passion: a man who found another man with his wife within closed doors or under the same blanket or with his daughter or sister or mother can fight the intruder with impunity. If he kills the man, the man’s kin will not be allowed to avenge him.

If anyone shall steal in such a way that his wife and children know nothing of it he shall pay 60 shillings as a fine. But if he steals with the knowledge of his household, they are all to go into slavery.
Slavery was used as a punishment for certain types of theft and also incest.

Shire and Hundreds
These laws were heard and interpreted in the Shire (County) Courts and Hundred (District) Courts.
To each shire a shire-reeve or sheriff was appointed. The representative of a hundred was a hundredman. The hundreds were subdivided into tithings with a tithingman as its representative.
A hundred was enough land to support 100 households or 100 “hides”.
A tithing was a tenth of a hundred and eventually equated to a manor or parish.
The main function of this arrangement seems to have been administrative: the king spoke to the shire-reeve, the shire-reeve spoke to the hundredmen, and the hundredmen spoke to the tithingmen.
The hundred court met every 4 weeks but the shire court only met twice a year. The Tandridge
hundred court met at the top of the A25 between Godstone and Oxted. Memorial stone there.
Lawsuits could be passed to the shire court if the hundred court was not able to make a judgement.


After “trial by ordeal”, if the suspect was found to be guilty he could be hanged. Hanging in England dates from the Anglo-Saxon period. The Romans beheaded people with a sword. The first recorded instances of hanging as a judicial punishment in this country are to be found in the Anglo-Saxon period. Generally though in this period executions were rare as the system of using financial compensation was the norm. Hanging was much more common under the Normans.

The advantage of hanging was that it didn’t require any special equipment – could be just a convenient tree and hang a rope over a suitable branch. Eventually gallows were invented which stood outside every town and at rural crossroads. The victim would be left to rot on the gallows and this would be a deterrent to others.

Jury system

Ethelred the Unready (978-1016) issued a legal code which states that the twelve leading thegns (minor nobles) of each hundred were required to swear that they would investigate crimes without bias. Instead of getting information through a trial, the jurors were required to investigate the case themselves. The Anglo-Saxons probably got the idea from the Vikings who had something similar which was practised in the area controlled by them.

The Anglo-Saxon legacy to us
The Anglo-Saxons set up a very good administrative system that can still be seen in the boundaries of our counties and parishes. Hence when the Normans conquered us they kept the same overall administrative structure as is apparent from the Domesday Book.

Added to by his successors Alfred’s laws became the Laws of St Edward the Confessor which the Normans respected, and the foundation of Common Law in Britain and America.