Anglo-Saxon Law and Order: Was it Really Brutal and Chaotic?

This post has been written with the help of Georgina Romero, who is studying for her history GCSE. She's particularly interested in the history of Crime and Punishment and has some interesting views on the Saxon era... I'm sure you'll all wish her the best in her exams next summer!

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

When we think of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to crime and punishment, we tend to imagine chaotic town centres full of personal vendettas and justice being carried out via axes and swords. But were Saxon punishments really that brutal? And how organised and just was their legal system? 

We look at the facts. 

Anglo-Saxon society definitely had its fair share of violent legal methods. Of these, mutilation and execution are probably the most vicious. Execution often took the form of hanging and could be used in serious crimes such as murder or treason against the king. Mutilation was used in lesser crimes, such as stealing. For example, an ear may be sliced off or a hand. While these are definitely bloodthirsty, execution was rarely used, usually only to show the criminal's mistake in public to set an example. Mutilation was carried out when an initial warning wasn't adhered to and the person reoffended. 

Before any execution or a mutilation could take place however, there was a trial by jury, much in the same way it exists today. Judgements were made by a group of community members, and they would decide whether you were guilty or innocent based on your personal circumstances and previous conduct in society. 

If the jury couldn't decide if a person was innocent or guilty a trial by ordeal may be ordered. 

There were three main trials you could expect if you had been accused of a crime, and most of them were usually conducted at the local church, in the hope that God would help make the decision for or against you. The first was trial by hot iron. This involved burning a hot iron onto your skin and watching closely over the next few days to see how it healed. If the wound healed cleanly and quickly without infection, you were considered innocent, as God had helped you heal. If the burn took a long time to heal or became infected, you would be declared guilty. This obviously posed problems, one being that wounds constantly in use because of physical labour or with a risk of infection from soil or unhygienic conditions probably wouldn't heal as quickly as expected. People were therefore routinely condemned for reasons that had nothing to do with evidence of their alleged crime but as a result of superstition and lack of knowledge about physical health and the human body.  

The second trial was trial by hot water, where a body part - often the hand - would be plunged into boiling water. Hopefully, the burn would heal - otherwise it would be a sign that God had stepped in and declared you, through the cells in your body, guilty. 

Probably the most unusual trial to solve a verdict was by Blessed Bread. You would be given a piece of holy bread to swallow. Sounds simple enough - but if you happened to choke on a crumb of the dry bread as you swallowed, it would be your downfall. The jurors would consider the blessed bread had been rejected by your corrupt soul. 

Outside of the church, and probably at the local river or lake, people were also subjected to trial by cold water, similar to the ducking stools of the later witchcraft crazes of the seventeenth century. As you were dunked into the water, you prayed that you sunk. If you sunk and half-drowned, you were declared innocent - but if you floated to the surface, gasping for breath, you were guilty. 

The trials by ordeal were definitely steeped in suspicion and religion, and wouldn't be taken seriously as an effective way of sentencing today. It actually relied a lot more on chance, and did nothing to prove anyone had committed a crime or was innocent. 

There were other ways though in which the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the legal issues of their day in a more measured, effective approach. 

Tithings were small groups or ten men, all over the age of twelve. They would all be responsible for one another's conduct. If one man broke the law, all the other men would need to deliver him to court or all pay a fine. There was also the system of Hue and Cry. If a victim had been wronged, they would raise the alarm. Then, the whole village or town was expected to down tools and chase the perpetrator and bring him to justice. If a person didn't join in the hue and cry the whole village had to pay a fine. These measures aimed to put the responsibility of the law on the people and probably went some way in helping to form community ties. It may even have resulted in fewer crimes being committed, because it was in the peoples' interest to settle small disputes between them before they escalated into physical violence or stealth. The introduction of the Wergild - a system where if someone was wronged, for example physically attacked, the community would pay the victim a fine, as compensation - worked in a similar way. It made violence less likely as it discouraged the need for revenge, putting an end to the dispute. William the Conqueror changed this when he came to power, by taking the Wergild into the revenues of the crown and out of the hands of the victim. 

So was the Saxon legal system brutal and harsh? And how far was it unorganised and ineffective? 

Certainly the trials by ordeal were never based on real, evidence-based legal judgements. And having your ears or hands chopped off - or being hung - were violent and brutal deaths in response to a crime. These severe deterrents have been shown to be an unreliable form of legal control. But these punishments were handed down for nearly a thousand years after William I invaded. The Medieval and Tudor eras are well known for their bloody executions of alleged traitors and heretics, and the last execution to take place in England was as recently as 1964. To the Saxons, they were carrying out the law and in their eyes they clearly considered the punishment right for the crime (allegedly) committed. 

However, they also implemented some systems that could have been effective. Community-based policing, while not completely reliable, did try to place responsibility for good order onto the towns and villages themselves and must have fostered some sense of community spirit. It's likely that some crimes never reached fruition as the community looked out for each other. On the other hand, there was definitely motivation to have some crimes hushed up by the community to avoid all of them being punished as the law stated.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below...

Thank you to Georgina Romero who collaborated on this post. 

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