Your Legal Rights Under Ælfred,
King of Wessex

Funny Alphabets:
Ælfred versus Alfred

You may have seen this strange squished-together “ae” before, on the spine of a dusty old Encyclopædia on grandfather’s book shelf. This ligature is the Anglo-Saxon letter ash, and though it is rarely used these days, I find it quite beautiful. Ash is the fourth letter of the elder futhark, and the twenty-sixth letter of the Anglo-Saxon futhark, or runic alphabet, and is drawn like the modern capital letter F with the two arms angled downwards.

Ash Rune

The world tree, Yggdrasil, is an ash, the great tree from which Woden (Odin) hung for nine days and received the gift of writing.
I wish to reclaim this beautiful letter, and so use it for both Ælfwyn and Ælfred. I hope your eye soon becomes accustomed to it, and learns to welcome it as much as I do.There are two other letters that you will find in Old English and Old Norse (and modern Icelandic, still so similar to Old Norse): The letter Thorn: Þ (uppercase) and þ (lowercase); and Eth: Ð (uppercase) and ð (lowercase). Þ is sounded like “th” in the, and Eth as “th” in thing.

Thorn and Eth

First we enjoin, what is most necessary, that each man keep carefully his oath and his pledge.

If anyone plots against the king’s life, by himself or by means of the harbouring of fugitives or his men, he is to be liable for his life and all that he possesses.

If anyone fights or draws his weapon in the king’s hall, and he is captured, it is to be at the king’s judgement – either death or life, as he wishes to grant him.

If he disturbs a public meeting by drawing a weapon, he is to pay 120 shillings to the ealdorman as a fine.
Moreover we declare that a man may fight on behalf of his lord, if anyone is fighting against the lord, without incurring a feud; similarly, the lord may fight on behalf of his man.

And a man may fight without incurring a feud if he finds another man with his lawful wife, behind closed doors or under the same blanket; or if he finds another man with his legitimate daughter, or with his legitimate sister, or with his mother who was given as lawful wife to his father.

THE ABOVE are all direct extracts from the laws of King Ælfred, who ruled Wessex from 871 (the year in which The Circle of Ceridwen is set) to his death in 899. The only English monarch to bear the honorific “the Great”, Ælfred was not only a tactical genius who repelled the rapaciously-advancing Danes, but also a man deeply concerned with human and divine justice. His law code was drawn up in the late 880’s or early 890’s. In his preface, Ælfred explains that he examined many existing law codes from the Old Testament to those of previous Anglo-Saxon kings in neighbouring kingdoms:

Then I, King Ælfred, gathered them together and ordered to be written many of the ones that our forefathers observed – those that pleased me; and many of the ones that did not please me I rejected with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be observed in a different way. For I dared not presume to set down in writing at all many of my own, since it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us. But those which I found either in the days of Ine, my kinsman, or of Offa, king of the Mercians, or of Ælthelberht (who first among the English people received baptism), and which seemed to me most just, I collected herein, and omitted the others.

The Laws outline a wide variety of crimes and appropriate punishments, from cattle-rustling to the rape of a slave girl to cutting a man’s long hair off without his consent (short hair was often the sign of a slave, thus to be forcibly shorn would be an insult to one’s class). Some punishments are excruciatingly apt: coiners are to have their hand nailed to their front door for daring to debase the realm’s currency.


Crimes are categorised along class lines:

If anyone lies with the wife of a twelve-hundred man, he is to pay 120 shillings compensation to the husband; to a six-hundred man, he is to pay 100 shillings compensation; to a ceorl, he is to pay forty shillings compensation.

A “twelve-hundred man” refers to the individual’s wergild (man-gold), or valuation. Twelve hundred shillings would signify a nobleman, or at least a thegn (the forerunner of the later knight). The ceorl (“churl”) was a common free man, usually an agricultural worker, but possibly a skilled craftsman as well. The ceorl’s wergild was set at 200 shillings. These class distinctions were flexible: a ceorl who accumulated five hides of land (a hide being the amount needed to sustain one family) became entitled to the rights of a thegn, and this rank became hereditary after three generations.

Wergild was an important concept, for without it all feuds were settled “eye for an eye”: If you killed my kinsman, I killed your kinsman. If you raped my daughter, I raped yours. Wergild, the notion of a cash valuation for each person’s life, allowed the ruling noble to command that grievances be redressed not by violence but by silver or gold payments, thus limiting the escalation of vendetta.

All persons (save slaves) had a wergild, and Ælfred’s laws spell out reparations for the loss of bodily parts as well, even unto the loss of the little fingernail (one shilling fine). It is not known what Ælfred’s own wergild would have been set at, but is thought to have been at least 6,000 shillings.

Women enjoyed legal rights under Anglo-Saxon law that they were to lose after the Battle of Hastings (1066) and for many hundreds of years afterwards. Among them were the right to own land in her own name, and to sell such land or give it away without her father’s or husband’s consent; the right to defend herself in court; the right to act as compurgator in law suits; that is, to testify to another’s truthfulness. She could freely manumit her slaves. She could not be forced into an unwanted union:

No woman or maiden shall ever be forced to marry one whom she dislikes, nor be sold for money.

Early divorce laws granted the wife half the household goods, but as the Church tightened its grip towards the end of the period, divorce became rarer and marriage itself more regulated. No Church blessing was required to legalize the marriage union, though the Church encouraged it.

For more about Anglo-Saxon law and society, I highly recommend The Beginnings of English Society by Dorothy Whitelock, Penguin Books 1974; and Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Penguin Books 1983, from which I excerpted portions of Ælfred’s law code.

Guest authors – would you like to submit an essay on any aspect of Anglo-Saxon or Viking life?

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