Society in King Egbert's Time, Part 1

Society in King Egbert's Time

Part One-
The Writings, The Government, The Royal Household, Personal Allegiance, The Finances

The Writings

The literature is religious; paraphrases of parts of the Bible, pious legends, saint’s lives and spiritual fantasies. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is one exception. There is also “Beowulf,” the only complete survivor of the Germanic epics of the early Middle Ages. It relates many things which would not otherwise be known about the life of kings and of their followers. “Beowulf” portrays a society of heroic barbarians: courage, military prowess, loyalty and generosity are the qualities most powerfully illustrated. Personal loyalty and kinship are the main bonds; loyalty above all. It is an aristocratic society: a society of chiefs and kings, each with his hall, in which a company of followers can gather. “Beowulf” is dated to belong in the early eighth century, which would place just before the time of King Egbert.

The religious writings describe the ordinary people and their lives but it is from an outsider’s point of view. To better understand the common people, the physical remains of their lives have to be studied, and the oral stories and songs composed for the people, for minstrels to recite in the great halls of kings and lords. These stories and songs were passed down from minstrel to minstrel, refined and corrupted in the ways of human memory. Only a small proportion of them were ever committed to parchment, and only a part of those survives. Most people outside the clergy were not interested in book-learning. Kings were usually illiterate, but there were exceptions.

The Government

The king was not free of all restraint. He was expected to consult his counselors. Custom was supported by oaths made by a king at his accession, and sometimes by a solemn charter given by the king in exchange for his subjects’ support and allegiance. In days before standing armies or regular police forces, with no means of communication faster than a galloping horse, when roads were poor and could be impassable, a king had to rely on his people’s support if his government was to be effective.

England was the most governed country in Europe in the central Middle Ages because it had the most highly developed system of local government. In the hundred court and shire court, which were developed by King Egbert, royal officials met the local notables, and they decided the problems of a basic nature. The strength of local government is illustrated by the fact that the boundaries of the English shires were well established by the tenth century. The men whom King Egbert had as consultants were a small proportion of the population. It was only by consulting his witan and shire officials that he could hope to rule as well as to reign; only by visiting different parts of the country that he could hope to gain and hold his subjects’ loyalty.

The witenagemot, or witan, (Old English, “meeting of the wise men”) was a group of counselors who met to advise the king of judicial and administrative matters. Originally a gathering of all the freemen of a tribe, it eventually became an assembly of the ealdormen, or local chieftains, the bishops, other high civil and ecclesiastical officials, and sometimes friends and relatives of the king, but neither an elected nor a representative body. The witan deliberated on all new laws, made treaties, served as a supreme court of justice, authorized the levying of taxation and the granting of land, and raised military forces. Each of the several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had its own witan until the supremacy of King Egbert. Thereafter the witan of Wessex developed into an assembly for the whole country.

During King Egbert’s reign the kingdom of Wessex, and the other kingdoms in his domain, had been subdivided into shires. Meetings of the shire court were held under the leadership of an ealdorman, who held considerable administrative and judicial responsibilities. He led the shire levies in times of war and enjoyed a social status which was essentially equal to a bishop. The sheriff acted as the vital link between the king and the local authorities. He became the king’s chief officer in local affairs and would attend as the king’s agent within the territories, even of the greatest landed estates.

Local affairs came within the jurisdiction of the shire court, and at a lower level still were the monthly meetings of the hundred court. The hundred court was the ordinary local criminal court of the country. Its meetings were held once every four weeks in the open air. It had an immediate impact upon the common people more so than the shire court which met only twice a year. The hundred was mainly concerned with catching thieves and recovery of stolen property, especially cattle. King Egbert’s shire system and the courts, along with the witan, filled the needs of local government so well that these groups were still institutions of government after the Norman Conquest.

Security against attacks of warlike neighbors was a constant concern of King Egbert, and matters of defense and military expeditions would be discussed with his witan. The maintenance of an army, the apportionment of land, the payment of tribute from a defeated enemy, and the payment of tribute to Egbert, were important issues. With the written records came greater formality to a witan, and this happened because of the Church. Although the synod was a church council concerned only with the church’s affairs, their use of written records showed the advantages of writing decisions in a formal document.

Matters affecting the king’s lands and the land’s revenues were of great concern. The charters recording land grants are only part of documents which show the concern of the king’s council. The transfer of land to the Church reduced the royal revenues by exempting such lands for churches and monasteries. The defense of the kingdom might itself have been endangered because of the lack of land to endow the sons of nobility. The many remaining Anglo-Saxon charters deal either with gifts of land or with disputes about its ownership, and it is a certainty that this was one of the major concerns of the witan.

Winchester was the chief city for King Egbert and his dynasty. London had been the chief city of England since the Roman conquest, but neither was the “capital” of England. Government traveled with the king to his many residences, and the witan met where he summoned them. To the ordinary man kingship meant the person of the king, as he met him on his travels, in the hunting field, in solemn pageant and procession. When the ordinary man thought of the government he thought of the royal household where ever it was at the time.

The Royal Household

There is no precise list of those in the royal household in the time of King Egbert. In a later time clerks drew up a catalogue of the officials in the royal household. This document indicates that the number of household officials was carefully watched, and their wages only paid if they were performing their duties. It gives the impression that the king had a tight grip on the cost, and on the functions, of his household. This was a household of at least a hundred, ranging from the head of the departments, to the laundress.

The chancellor was head of the chapel and the writing office. Two stewards, called cupbearers, were in charge of the pantry and the kitchen. The butler supervised the buttery and cellar. The master chamberlain and treasurer between them controlled the royal chamber and the royal treasury, and for the audit department there was the exchequer. The constables looked after the royal army and the king’s horses. The chancellor was usually a leading cleric. The treasurer was sometimes a cleric, sometimes a layman. The other heads of departments were all leading nobles. The butler performed the ceremonial work of his office, but not the menial tasks. Each of these men had a staff that did the real work of their offices. The largest of all the departments was that of the hunting staff: four horn-blowers, twenty sergeants, various keepers of greyhounds and falcons, keepers of the royal pack, knight-huntsmen, ordinary huntsmen, a leader and a feeder of the hounds, huntsmen of the “trained pack,” and keepers of the small hounds, wolf-hunters, and archers. King Egbert’s household staff may have been smaller, but quite similar to what was included in this list.

King Egbert’s court was mobile, so the household included a tent-keeper for the royal pavilion. It was large, but had to be prepared for frequent travel on horse-back, with a train of wagons and packhorses. It was the center of government. It was the magnificent household of a great lord whose splendor must impress his visitors. It was also a domestic organization with chamber, pantry, buttery and kitchen. It was the headquarters of a war-lord, with constables and marshals to organize the troops.

Personal Allegiance

The most powerful bond in this new society was the principle of personal allegiance. It is the most dominant characteristic of early Anglo-Saxon society. Saxon chieftains and their retainers were so closely united in bonds of loyalty that any who sought safety by running from battle after the death of their chieftain would find lifelong reproach and infamy. The oath of allegiance which they had sworn to their lord required them not only to defend and protect him (even after he had fallen), but also to give to him the glory won by their own exploits.

The betrayal of a king by a trusted companion was among the most hated crimes known to Anglo-Saxon society. Scarcely less important was the tie of kinship which gave security to the individual. The bond between lord and man generally proved stronger than the ties of kinship when the two came into conflict. This was partly under the influence of the Church which tried to stop the acts of vengeance by the family of a slain man.

The security of a kingdom depended on the ability of its king to win his battles and dominate his neighbors, and provided for his followers and subjects. The security of the individual rested on a person’s position within a family on which he could rely in time of need. Ties of kinship were very strong. In a time without a police force, fear of provoking the family into action could be an effective deterrent to crime. It was the duty of the family to seek redress for any of its members who had received insult or injury, and in the case of death to exact vengeance or compensation. This was a binding convention which was recognized by Anglo-Saxons.

There could be no compensation for murder within a family. There could be no compensation for a convicted criminal who had died. The family could not do anything until the accused man had been proved guilty. It was also forbidden to seek a blood feud against anyone who had killed while fighting in defense of his lord, his man or his own kin, or against any who had made an unlawful attack, and there were other limitations. How close the kinship had to be is uncertain, though it is known that in King Egbert’s time this included the family of both the father and the mother. All members of the family were to contribute towards the payment and also to share in the receipt of the “wergild,” or compensation.

The amount of an individual’s wergild varied according to his rank in society, but it was a fixed sum established in law, not just the largest sum that could be gotten. There were many offences that required payment of the wergild. West Saxon law provided that a thief caught in the act might escape from execution by the payment of his wergild and that those who harbored fugitives must pay the wergild suitable to their rank if they could not clear themselves of the accusation. The liability of the criminal for payment made the crime the concern of the kindred and not merely of the individual himself. A man who was unable to look to his family for support might find himself in a sorry state. A free man would clear himself of a charge by appearing in a court and taking an oath. He would need to be supported by an appropriate number of companions who would take a similar oath in his defense. The number of “oath-helpers” needed to refute a particular accusation varied with the seriousness of the offense. It was first to his family that a man in such trouble would turn for help.

The Finances

King Egbert was also concerned with the long-term problems of the defense of his realm, to improving the towns, establishing the shires system, improving roadways, and to the economy and trade. He understood that a king needed men who prayed and men who worked as well as soldiers. He cared much for the Church, had religious men as counselors, and founded monasteries. He paid attention to his estates and his subjects. He issued a substantial collection of charters, though few remain today. The royal revenue was put on a new footing, and coins with his name and bust were used.

There is little known about the workings of King Egbert’s royal treasury. Jewels, precious metals and coins would have made up his treasury. No written accounts were kept, but the Saxon treasury would have been highly organized. King Egbert knew what his treasury was worth. The king and his officers supervised the minting of coins, and had a variety of sources of revenue which included some forms of taxation. The treasure was normally too bulky for most of it to be carried around, and Egbert apparently had permanent treasure houses in more than one place, with the main one in Winchester. In the royal chamber, in whatever place the king was staying on his travels, a chest was kept which contained jewels and money for immediate use. The royal secretaries always traveled with the king, but there were few scribes, since government was still mainly illiterate.

The Anglo-Saxon accepted gold as the symbol of wealth and pomp. A king had to be able to display it in his hall, on his armor, on his wife. He had to be able to lavish gifts of gold on his followers, and still be wealthier than they. This meant a constant need to provide themselves with adequate supplies by loot, by levying tribute, by them receiving gifts, and even by trade.

Land was the most stable form of wealth. As the supplies of gold declined land became the regular means of rewarding a faithful follower. In the English kingdoms the king was the greatest landowner. He fed his court either by wandering from estate to estate eating its produce, or by arranging for produce to be brought to his halls. In the late seventh century the laws in Wessex had the following list: “As a food-rent from 10 hides, 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ‘ambers’ of Welsh ale, 30 of clear ale, 2 full-grown cows, or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, an ‘amber’ full of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.” This was an indication of the complexity of household management before there was a stable currency, or a proper system of markets, or tolerable conditions of transport. However, currency and markets improved and, even though transportation was poor, it was very organized, and the “farm of one night,” as the basic unit of royal food-rent was called, could be translated into silver pennies. When a stable currency was introduced in the eighth century, it was of silver. The silver penny was the only effective currency the country had between its start, in Kent around 775, and the fourteenth century.

The first commonly used Anglo-Saxon coin was of thick silver, called sceattas, that were circulating in considerable numbers by the end of the seventh century. The sceattas were not yet thought of as the king’s, but merely as a means of helping the growth of trade. Near the end of the eighth century, the sceattas were replaced by silver pennies that were imprinted with the name both of the king and of the moneyer who struck them. About 785 Offa took the Canterbury mint under his own control and had his name placed on the obverse of coins struck by moneyers. The new silver penny continued to be used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, with obverse of the coin bearing each king’s name, and usually the king’s bust, and the reverse was the moneyer’s name. Coins of King Egbert are rare today, though some exist. The appearance of royal coinage marked a new determination by kings to harness their subjects’ wealth, and this was because their subjects were getting wealthier.

The Begining of Beowulf
© The British Library Board  
The beginning of the Anglo-Saxon poem about Beowulf in
the sole surviving manuscript, made ca. 1000 and written
 in Anglo-Saxon. 
for larger image

A place you can go to read a translation of "Beowulf"
 The Adventures of Beowulf

Petitioners speaks to the king and witan
image from Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards

A meeting of the hundred court

© The British Library Board

 The "Codex Wintoniensis," 
probably compiled under the bishop of Winchester
in the 12th century
, is a collection of the Old Minster's
Anglo-Saxon charters dating from 688 to 1046. This is
 a charter of King Edgar (959-975) granting lands
 to Winchester.

for larger image

textbook depiction of Anglo-Saxon court

© The British Library Board  
Hunting with a Falcon

Anglo-Saxon calendar, calendar page for October.
 Nobleman with falcon, another man on horseback,
ducks in stream and an ostrich-crane.
Made in
England, possibly Winchester in
second quarter of the 11th century, written in Latin.

For larger image

© The British Library Board  
Battle of Sodom and Gomorrah
Illustrates Anglo-Saxon fighting,
 from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, by Aelfric.
 For larger image

coin of King Egbert

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Silver Coin Hoard.
The hoard, found at Appledore,contains coins
from thirty-four different mints all over England.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Aethelwulf's finger ring (828-858)on left,
and Aethelwith's ring on right.The two rings have
similar inscriptions which identify them with the
royal house of Wessex. As a result, they are often
considered as a pair. However, they in fact come
from different places, are of different date and are
likely to have been made by different goldsmiths.
for larger image

© The Trustees of the British Museum

gold buckles, perhaps used to secure leg garters
Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD From King's Field,
Faversham, Kent, England
for larger image

Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References