With children heading back to school in September, it won't be long before we're called on to help out with homework or are bombarded with questions we're not quite sure we know the answers too...! From learning about the Iron Age to Victorian transport facts, if your children are in KS2, Kidadl are here to help.
And if your children are about to dive into the grisly world of Anglo-Saxon law and order, then this bite-size history lesson is for you.
Anglo-Saxon society was based around closely connected farming communities, so by far, the most common crimes were against property, mostly petty theft. The Anglo-Saxons were also extremely religious so actions that didn’t actually harm anyone or their property but didn’t align with society’s views on decent behaviour were also crimes, like adultery, being drunk and disorderly or not obeying the rules and customs of the Church.
The Anglo-Saxons did have laws, but as you might imagine they were rather different from the laws we have today. For crimes against people, the Saxons operated a system called 'weregild', which meant that if a person injured another, they had to pay for the damage. And if a person killed someone, they paid money to the dead person's relatives. This compensation was designed to bring an end to 'blood feuds,' long-standing feuds between families. For example, the weregild payable for the murder of an Anglo-Saxon thane (head man of a community) was 6,000 pennies; the weregild for a king was 90,000.
If a person was found guilty but absconded, they became an outlaw (living outside the law, just like Robin Hood). This meant that anyone could become a bounty hunter and hunt them down for a reward - unless they found safety by hiding in a church.
An over-arching Government didn't exist in Saxon times. Later on in Saxon times, the king began to have more influence, but if you committed a crime it would most likely be dealt with within your community by your fellow villagers. They operated a jury system, with a judge and witnesses, in a local court, called a 'moot' which was overseen by the thane of the village.
Anyone found guilty of a crime was either fined, mutilated/tortured or executed, depending on the severity of the crime they committed - there were no prisons as we know them in this time period. The fine for breaking into someone's home was five shillings, which was paid directly to the home-owner, not the Government as it would be today. If you injured a person, fines could range from 200 to 1200 shillings. For crimes that were considered minor, like stealing, or if you couldn't afford a fine, a nose, finger, big toe, foot or hand might be chopped off. And for more severe crimes, like murder or being a traitor, the punishment was death.
Although punishments were harsh and are obviously now considered extremely cruel, the Anglo-Saxons believed that their form of law and justice sought to resolve conflict, keep the peace and enforce Christian morals.
Trial By Ordeal
As well as moots, there was also the option of 'trial by ordeal'. Walking at least nine feet on hot coals, putting your hand into boiling water to retrieve a stone, picking up a red hot iron or being tied up and thrown into a river were all examples of ordeals people could face depending on their crime. The idea was that if you survived the ordeal, then you were innocent in the eyes of God.
Methods for execution ranged from hanging and beheading to stoning, drowning, burning and even being boiled alive, depending on the criminal and the crime they were found guilty of. Hanging was mostly used as a deterrent, to display someone and make an example of them. Drowning was used for women suspected of being witches and stoning was used for crowd participation - bystanders would pick up rocks and stones and join in with the execution.
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