Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

These days are to be given to all free men, but not to slaves and unfree labourers: twelve days at Christmas; and the day on which Christ overcame the devil (15 February); and the anniversary of St Gregory (12 March); and the seven days before Easter and the seven after; and one day at the feast of St Peter and St Paul (29 June); and in harvest-time the whole week before the feast of St Mary (15 August); and one day at the feast of All Saints (1 November). And the four Wednesdays in the four Ember weeks are to be given to all slaves, to sell to whomsoever they please anything of what anyone has given them in God’s name, or of what they can earn in any of their spare time.
excerpt of Ælfred’s Laws from Alfred the Great, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge

This excerpt from the Laws of King Ælfred of Wessex (ruled 871-899) spells out required holidays granted along the most basic of divisions: free men, and slaves.  As in all of Northern Europe, slavery had a long history amongst the continental Angles and Saxons, which continued in their new island home.  Those captured in battle or in raids commonly became slaves (excepting persons of wealth, generally held hostage for a handsome redemption).

In early Anglo-Saxon times, slaves were often descendants of the conquered British population: the Anglo-Saxon word for “Briton” is used interchangeably for “slave”.  The commonest sort of slave in later Anglo-Saxon times was by far the penal slave, a person enslaved as criminal penalty from crimes committed.  In hard times, the poorer agricultural class found their only hope of sustenance in voluntarily submitting to slavery, and sold themselves and their families to survive.

Slaves had limited legal rights under Anglo-Saxon law, and in his Laws King Ælfred shows an interest in encouraging them to better their stations by allowing days on which slaves are free to work as independent contractors.  The phrase allowing slaves to “sell to whomsoever they please anything of what anyone has given them in God’s name” is an interesting one, for since a slave by definition cannot own any thing (but only be owned) this merciful dispensation implies that slaves were not infrequently recipients of gifts.

Slaves had no wergild, or man-gold (worth).  But as “property”, slaves had value.  If a slave was killed, the slave’s valuation (generally a pound, the price of eight oxen), was to be paid to the aggrieved owner.  If the owner himself killed his slave, he incurred ecclesiastical penalties, but rarely legal ones.  Ælfred’s law code underscores the notion of property rights:

If anyone rapes the slave of a commoner, he shall pay five shillings to the commoner, and a fine of sixty shillings. The slave is not recompensed, only the owner.

Rape amongst slaves was met with the severest penalties:

If a slave rapes a slave, castration shall be required as compensation

Although the rights of slaves were few, slave-owning was fraught with liability, since owners were legally responsible for the actions of their slaves. Thus slave-owning was not to be entered into lightly.

Around the typical timber hall, slaves might be almost indistinguishable from other, free, labourers, performing the heavy hand work necessary to sustain its operation: the hauling of wood and water, tending to penned animals, scraping and cleaning of floors, dishes, and pots.  (Keep in mind, though, that by later medieval standards, all Anglo-Saxons of every rank worked comparatively hard.  No man was a chieftain, lord or king without being a battle-hardened veteran and participating fully in physically protecting or expanding his riches.  King’s wives spun, wove, and sewed their own, their husbands, and their children’s clothes, and personally oversaw and administered much of the royal household activities.  An “idle” aristocratic class was hundreds of years away.)

Slaves were sometimes granted their freedom at special occasions, or by condition of the deceased owner’s will. One Anglo-Saxon lady gave freedom to “Ecceard the smith and Alfstan and his wife and all their children born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter and all those people who had bowed their heads to her in return for food when times were bad.”

These last, who had “bowed their heads to her”, had sold themselves into slavery during famine. These were perhaps failed farmers, but at least one of her slaves, Ecceard the smith, was a skilled labourer.

Compassionate churchmen were known to purchase slaves when possible, and these freed slaves sometimes attached themselves to monasteries and convents.

The manumission (freeing) of slaves was solemnized by ceremony, the presence of witnesses, and legal documentation:

Here it is made known in this gospel that Godwig the Buck has bought Leofgifu the dairymaid at North Stoke and her offspring from Abbot Ælfsige for half a pound, to eternal freedom, in the witness of all the community at Bath. Christ blind him who ever perverts this. Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society

Note that in this document, the woman and her child is being purchased from an abbot, and the buyer/freer Godwig ends his statement with a common Anglo-Saxon curse.  It is interesting to speculate what the relationship might have been between Godwig and Leofgifu (and her offspring).

The freeing ceremony could be performed in church, or at a cross-roads – symbolic that the freed now chooses his or her own path.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bent September 13, 2016 at 8:41 am

We should keep in mind the fact that slavery in those times was quite different from the plantation slavery of another race in North America. There was no cash economy for one class and slavery for another. Everyone survived by hard work. Selling oneself into slavery was like a social safety net; no doubt a shameful fate like winding up on the dole. Slaves captured in war was an inevitable result of surrender but was probably tolerable. I recall as a very small boy my father doing some construction on an English farm and being helped by two German prisoners awaiting repatriation. They accepted their fate cheerfully and were highly regarded in the small community, as they may well have been a thousand years ago.


Octavia Octavia September 13, 2016 at 10:30 am

Very well expressed, John, and I thank you!


A friendly reader who is uncomfortable putting their name on anything online April 12, 2016 at 8:50 am

I stumbled upon this article while looking for information on Anglo-Saxon society for reasons of my own, and I have a question on this topic that I think you’ll be able to help with. I read a few years ago in what I think, but can’t remember specifically, was Horrible Histories, that free men sometimes sold themselves into slavery to survive. Additionally, in your response to Lily Minas’ comment you mentioned in passing that slaves may voluntarily become so to save themselves from starvation. I’m curious as to how frequently this happened, and if it was more common in some places and times than others.
If you mention this at all in your books I apologize for asking something that you have already answered, as I have only just stumbled upon this site and I’m unfortunately too broke and too unemployed to purchase any books at the moment (although I do assure you I have bookmarked your page for when I reach the legal minimum work age where I live).


Octavia Octavia April 16, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Friendly, a very good question. Unfortunately due to the scarcity of surviving Anglo-Saxon documents we cannot say with any degree of accuracy how frequently the poor became so destitute as to need to beg their Lord or Lady (or local convent or monastery) to accept them as a slave. Again, slave-holding was an onerous legal responsibility, and no one in Anglo-Saxon society would be likely to take on a person of poor character or repute. In the situation I cite above where an Anglo-Saxon woman freed a number of slaves who had “bowed their heads to her” in times of near-starvation, such freeing is not particularly remarked upon as being unusual; it is merely a legal document recording the freeing, and so we might suppose that such things happened with some regularity when times were tough and a kind Lord or Lady could be prevailed upon to take on the responsibility. We know religious foundations, and nuns and priests and monks bought or redeemed slaves as an act of Christian mercy. So I think we can say such things were not wildly unusual, but given the few documents we have, it is not possible to guess just how many folk were forced to resort to this extreme measure.


Lily Minas March 2, 2016 at 12:08 am

I read an article the other day that mentioned the different classes of free men and slaves and how it was possible to move up or down in class. I did not know that Alfred encouraged slaves to do better. Thanks.


Octavia Octavia March 2, 2016 at 9:27 am

Hello Lily. Yes, Ælfred was very concerned abut slaves being able to redeem themselves, both for religious and economic reasons. Again, slave-owning was a big financial and legal responsibility, and many slaves voluntarily became so to save themselves from starvation. Others were made slaves as punishment for crimes. In either case slaves did have designated times when they could create things they could sell and help redeem themselves. Wealthy people often freed slaves as part of their wills, or to celebrate religious holidays, especially Easter. Freeing a slave meant you had to set them up to be financially independent on at least a basic level, so it was costly. In my novels, The Circle of Ceridwen Saga, there are several instances of people freeing slaves; sometimes the freed slave remained right where they were, doing more or less the same work, so that their future was secure. Other times the freed slave did something entirely different – like joined a convent, as Sparrow does in The Hall of Tyr. Please continue enjoying the site!


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