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.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Billy Boy January 13, 2022, 7:03 am

    Is it known if this was like chattel slavery in the U.S., with chains, shackles, whipping, branding, taking of children etc.?

    • Octavia Randolph January 13, 2022, 11:37 am

      Firstly let’s remember that nearly all slavery was penal slavery – that is, one was enslaved because of a committed crime. There was no way criminals could sit in jail; all had to work, just as all people had to work. Slaves could also be prisoners of war; but in Anglo-Saxon England the rule was more or less to ransom them back.

      Because slaves had value under Anglo-Saxon law, their treatment was probably generally better than the worst it could be. Slaves did have legal rights under the law, such as days off, and the right to create and sell items, as noted in my essay. Slaveholders had very specific duties and responsibilities – they were legally responsible for the actions of those enslaved, and responsible too for eventually equipping them to live a free life – though there was no great pressure to free them, other than the escape of these responsibilities and the pressures of the Church to do so.

      The treatment of slaves must have varied widely, but as all were engaged in physical work either within the hall, caring for animals, or in the fields in agricultural work, chains and shackles would have been highly impractical. Certainly physical punishment in the 9th century could be by modern standards cruel and harsh – King Ælfred’s laws call for counter fitters to have their hands hailed to a door – but again, when slavery was the punishment for a crime, one would not expect additional cruelty – the criminal was already serving their sentence.

      As I note in the essay we know some destitute folks even went to their lords and ladies and requested slavery, to save them from starvation. So it was a much more nuanced condition than we might expect.

      I hope this is helpful!

  • David Howells September 12, 2021, 8:46 pm

    Slavery was clearly widespread throughout the Roman period and then until the period following the Norman Conquest. In other words for roughly one thousand years. But no-one ever mentions this in the widespread modern discussions of black slavery. In practice a very high proportion of the population, especially those whose ancestors have lived here for generations, must be descended partly from slaves.

  • Val Johnston January 28, 2021, 3:56 pm

    Thankyou, very informative.
    From reading sources, charters etc, I have the impression that A-Saxon society was not entirely comfortable with slavery, eg. the obligation of care to be shown by owners and the legal opportunities taken to free a slave.
    I should appreciate your thoughts on my suggestion.

  • Lossow November 20, 2019, 12:03 am

    Interesting article, but it leads me to wonder about two things in particular and I wondered if you had any thoughts or information on those points.
    1) Do we have any idea what percentage of the population the slaves made up in Anglo-Saxon England. i.e. was slavery common and widespread or did slaves only make up a small percentage of the population?
    And 2) Was manumission a distinctly Christian tradition or would slaves in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England have had similar opportunities to gain their freedom? And following on from this, if they could gain their freedom I wonder if they would have become part of the communities they were freed in. If this was the case I wonder how many early ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were in fact freed Britons who had been ‘absorbed’ into the settlements of their English overlords?

    • Octavia Randolph November 20, 2019, 1:26 am

      Thank you for your questions about the “Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England” piece. They are good ones! I don’t know what percentage of the population was enslaved, and of course during the entire A-S period that number would certainly have fluctuated, as people became enslaved for so many reasons – owning to war, famine etc – and were manumitted for just as many. So the number must have been quite fluid. Because slave-keeping was a fairly serious legal responsibility in most English kingdoms, with distinct requirements for freeing (the former owner must be certain the enslaved can now support himself) this suggests that slavery was less widespread than in the Nordic nations where no such obligations were placed on the owner.

      Manumission must have certainly been practiced by pre-Christian slave holders, but the Church made a point of it – and of course they made records of it, so we tend to know much more about anything performed under a Christian aegis. And yes, in the first waves of Roman and then Saxon incursion into the British isles, many Britons were enslaved. As it may have been hard for any of the enslaved – regardless of their cultural background – to move around much and resettle in another community, I should think it likely that following manumission most of them would remain where they were and just shift upward in the social scale a notch. Exceptions could be for those who were physically kidnapped, rounded up from another shire or kingdom, who would want to attempt a return “home” is they still had people there.

      There’s so much we don’t know, and so many records have been lost. but we continually learn more from reexamination of remains, and new discoveries.

  • Kevin Dooley November 28, 2018, 12:30 pm

    I stumbled across your article on Anglo Saxon slavery and was fascinated by it. I’ve always followed Roman history but maybe I need to diversify.

  • Dwight Patten November 7, 2017, 4:57 pm

    Dear Octavia,
    I’ve found all of this discourse rewarding and intriguing. I have a philosophical interest in the process by which we can be trafficked, enslaved or put into servitude. I will have a read of you novels for further inspiration. Thanks,

    Dwight Patten
    Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK

  • Arline Chase July 13, 2017, 5:46 pm

    I am truly enjoying my time on this site (though not quite as much as your books), and especially the article on slavery, as I once wrote a book on Harriet Ross Tubman, GO DOWN MOSES, and was reminded by the following quote, “granted their freedom at special occasions, or by condition of the deceased owner’s will,” that Harriet’s mother and “all her (17) children” were to be freed when their master died, but had to leave “in a timely manner” (30 days at that time). No one told them, though, and Harriet “worked her own time” paying her master $1 a day and saving anything she could make above that, to buy her own freedom, because her pastor told her that running away was “Stealing.” When her husband, Joe Tubman, stole her “freedom money” from her, and lost it gambling at cards, he called her a “fool” saying, “You was free in the old man’s will, but your Mama didn’t have sense enough to leave.” Harriet paid the $5 she had earned that day to have the will read to her. She left that night and made her way to Philadelphia. Later, she led more than 300 other people to freedom. The Church of England named her a saint.

  • KEITH WHEELER April 8, 2017, 5:34 am

    Thus far concerning Anglo Saxon life. I have seen no mention of the use of slaves as soldiers in times of war. It may at first sound a ridiculous notion but a bond of security and familiarity with life style and family is not an easy tie to break. The threat of losing his family is as strong to a slave as to his master.

    • Octavia Randolph April 8, 2017, 10:33 am

      You bring up a good point. I too have never seen any attestation of slaves serving as fighters, yet slaves are mentioned frequently enough in OE records that if they had been present somewhere on the field of battle I think their presence must have been noted.

      There are two important points to bear in mind: Slaves were forbidden to bear arms; and much slavery was penal slavery. An important qualification for the manumission of a slave under Ælfred’s laws was the presenting of a seax to that slave – a sign that he once again proved trust-worthy of bearing a weapon. If any given slave was a penal slave, handing him a weapon is a fraught act, indeed. And there is the simple question of training. An untrained warrior is worse than useless at or around the shield wall. Nobles of the highest estate would have taken a serving man with them to the field, but this was to guard his horses well behind the action (as high nobles invariably had more than one with them), cook their food, and so on – all acts demanding of high trust.

      I am not saying their were not the occasional deep bonds of loyalty between unfree and free, but that the barriers for one unfree to actually participate in war were formidable.

      Thank you for your comment, and I hope you continue to enjoy the site.

  • John Bent September 13, 2016, 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 September 13, 2016, 10:30 am

      Very well expressed, John, and I thank you!

    • coa November 5, 2016, 9:05 pm

      Not all slaves in the Americas in the early modern period were field workers. Many also were crafsmen, blacksmiths, labourers, porters, etc. Whilst Anglo-Saxon slavery was a form of legal punishment and/or proto-welfare state, as slaves possessed few defined rights it may not have been very hospitable. It seems also that slavery was hereditary, and early European instances of slavery were a template for later trans-Atlantic slavery.

      • Octavia November 6, 2016, 5:32 am

        Indeed, you are quite right; in the New England colonies (and then states of the nascent US), there were no large plantations, and far fewer agricultural slaves. Indentured servitude there were mostly white people; outright slavery, African descent. These served in a broad range of urban and rural crafts and trades, even as teachers of white children in some instances. Many Americans are not aware that slavery was not confined to the American South; bastions of abolitionist sentiment such as New York and Boston had slave owners as well. But the North, with a broad range of manufacturing and trading, did not depend as much on its economy as the almost-entirely agricultural South did on the cotton trade, making it economically easier for influential men and women to follow their consciences, and join the fight against slavery.

        Glad you are enjoying the site! As there are slaves as characters in my Circle of Ceridwen Saga, my readers turn to these essays for more information and deeper understanding of the themes of my novels.

  • A friendly reader who is uncomfortable putting their name on anything online April 12, 2016, 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 April 16, 2016, 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.

      • Vivian l. cheek November 25, 2016, 2:35 am

        Interesting history whom were the slave tribes land shiped from. Im FEMALE AFICAN American with my last NAME being CHEEK i came across by chance seeking last names began reading another article of the last name cheek. so the purchaser of slave being brought last name cheek or the king or lady named the owner slaves owner ship.

        • Octavia November 25, 2016, 6:53 am

          Thank you Vivian. As we have noted elsewhere in these pages, human trafficking has a long and global history (and still continues, alas, in certain parts of the world). Modern Westerners oftentimes don’t understand how widespread slavery was, and that it occurred in nearly every culture, often times as part of the penal system, sometimes as a form of debt-repayment, other times the fate of prisoners of war. Some people reading my Saga novels are surprised to find out there were laws in 9th century England regulating the treatment and rights of slaves – because they did not understand their were slaves then, and in those kingdoms. Deeper understanding and investigation helps us all.

  • Lily Minas March 2, 2016, 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 March 2, 2016, 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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