Posts Tagged ‘anglo-saxon law’

“The good and bad aspects of the warrior’s character represented
by the poet of Beowulf are strongly analogous with the warrior characterisations represented in Irish and Welsh mythology. It is true that
characters such as Efnisien and Finn were, to some extent, more anti-authoritarian and, perhaps, malevolent than Beowulf. Yet, if we were
to amalgamate the characters of Beowulf and Grendel then we would
probably see a more realistic portrayal of the Anglo-Saxon warrior
initiate. The poet of Beowulf deliberately portrayed the Anglo-Saxon
hero as the ultimate ideal of a warrior. Indeed, this need to emphasise a noble role for the warrior in Christian society strongly suggests
that unstable warrior fraternities were prevalent within eighth-century
English society. The Anglo-Saxon law codes certainly suggest that this
was the case. For example, the late seventh-century Law of Ine (king of
Wessex 688–725) differentiated between the sizes of brigand warrior
bands in the following way:

We use the term thieves if the number of men does not exceed seven,
band of marauders for a number between seven and thirty five. Anything
beyond this is a war band.

According to Ine’s law codes any man belonging to a raiding party
was required to clear himself by an oath equal to his wergeld (honour
price). This suggests that warriors involved in large scale raiding
activities would have remained the responsibility of their kindred.
Paradoxically, a member of a marauding band appears to have been
outside the system of wergeld payments although he was required to
pay a fine for joining such a disruptive group. Furthermore, Ine’s
legislator clearly felt that thieves should be completely outside of the sphere of kinship responsibility. Yet, in spite of the social exclusion
of the brigand-warrior an attempt does appear to have been made
by the ninth-century compiler of the Laws of Alfred (871–899) to draw
such marauding bands away from the margins of society. For example,
Alfred 26 states:

If one of a band of marauders slays an unoffending man whose wergeld
is 200 shillings, he who acknowledges the blow shall pay the wergeld and
the fine; and everyone engaged in the affair shall pay 30 shillings compensation for belonging to such a band.

Alfred was clearly attempting to curb the insular lawlessness that had
been facilitated by the political and social instability of the early years
of his reign. Nevertheless, such fines must have been particularly difficult to impose without the aid of a substantial military force. Indeed,
this is made clear by a dictum from the tenth-century Law of Æthelstan
(924–939) which note that the officials of each hundred were obliged
to pledge that if any band

…whether nobles or commoners within or beyond the borders of our
district—become so strong and powerful as to prevent us from exercis-
ing our legal rights, and stand up in defence of a thief, we shall ride out
against them in full force…

As we have seen from the Welsh, Scottish and Irish evidence, such war
bands were notoriously difficult to control. Despite their marginal status
some war bands undoubtedly received a degree of support from their
local communities. It must have often been impossible to differentiate between the actions of brigands and murderers and those of the war
bands of powerful individuals. This was made clear by the reforming
archbishop, Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) who complained about the
violence that was plaguing English society at the beginning of the
eleventh century. In his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (The Sermon of Wolf to
the English) the prelate bemoaned the fact that

Here (i.e. within English society) are slayers of men and slayers of kins-
men and killers of priests and enemies of the monasteries; and here are
perjurers and murderers…and those who kill children…and here are
plunderers and robbers and those who despoil…

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle reveals that when powerful men were exiled
or outlawed they invariably conducted activities of violent rapine from
marginal wilderness locations. For example, the chronicler notes that
following his exile in 1044 the Danish born nobleman Osgod Clapa
returned to ravage the coastline of Essex in 1049.204 In the following
year Swein Godwineson, who appears to have been exiled for his abduction of the Abbess of Leominster in 1046, returned to the south coast
of England with a fleet of eight ships and abducted and murdered his
cousin Earl Beorn. When Swein’s brother, Harold Godwineson, was
exiled several years later he ravaged the coastal districts of the Severn
estuary with his war band. Furthermore, Earl Ælfgar of Mercia was
outlawed in 1055 and following this he allied his forces with a Welsh war band and plundered the town of Hereford. Similarly, in 1067
an individual named Eadric the Wild attacked the Norman garrison
at Hereford with the aid of a Welsh force and inflicted heavy losses. Eadric was the nephew of Eadric Streona, who had been the powerful ealdorman of Mercia during King Æthelred’s reign. He appears
to have held substantial lands in Herefordshire and the Welsh marches
prior to the Conquest.  Eadric refused to surrender to Norman rule
following the English defeat at Hastings. As a consequence, Norman
troops under the command Richard fitz Scrob ravaged his lands from
their garrison in Hereford. Eadric fought back and inflicted great losses
upon the Normans. The twelfth-century commentator Orderic Vitalis
noted that Eadric attacked the Norman garrison at Shrewsbury along
with the men of Chester and “other untameable Englishmen” ( ferocibus
).  Interestingly, Orderic identified Eadric to be a member of
the fierce silvatici. These were bands of Englishmen who put up stiff
resistance against the new Norman regime following the Conquest.
They conducted themselves with the traditional ferocity of the Anglo-Saxon warrior and operated from wilderness bases, refusing to live
within houses lest they became soft. In many ways then, the silvatici
would appear to have resembled Irish fían groups or the warbands of
youthful ynfydion that were operating from wilderness locations in Wales.
The Abingdon Chronicle reported that following the Conquest Englishmen
from all ranks of society were lurking in the woods and on islands and
plundering those who came their way.

These groups have been viewed
as part of a wide network of political resistance towards Norman rule but this was not simply a political movement. There was little other
recourse for individuals who had lost their status other than to take
to a transitional life of plunder in the wilderness. Eadric’s nickname,
se wilda, ‘the wild’, appears strongly analogous to the names attributed
to fictional individuals who existed within the warrior fraternities of
the Irish tales, the Mabinogion or Beowulf. That Eadric came to be associated closely with the survival of Anglo-Saxon cultural and ethnic
identity should be no surprise. In many warrior societies identity was
established and perpetuated through acts of violence. Indeed, Eadric
and the other silvatici were opposed to the drastic cultural changes
brought about by the Conquest and they expressed their opposition in
a traditional manner.

Hereward the Wake, a contemporary of Eadric the Wild, also
appears to have been regarded as a guardian of Anglo-Saxon cultural
identity in the immediate post-Conquest period. Like Eadric, Hereward and his war band practised guerrilla style warfare against the
Normans from the marshy regions of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ambiguously portrays Hereward as both a violent
plunderer of monasteries and as a courageous and defiant leader. This portrayal aptly reflects both the benevolent and malevolent sides
of the warrior’s character. A detailed account of Hereward’s life exists
in the Gesta Herewardi Saxonis, which was composed during the first half
of the twelfth century. Many of the events within the Gesta appear to
have been fabricated; however, it does provide us with some illuminating details about early twelfth-century perceptions regarding the likely
fate of such a warrior. The author relates that as a youth Hereward was a quarrelsome
individual who was

… tough in work and rough in play, readily provoking fights among those
of his own age and often stirring up strife among his elders in town and

The author of the Gesta felt that Hereward had

…spared nobody whom he thought to be in any way a rival in courage
or in fighting. In consequence he often caused strife among the populace
and commotion among the common people.

Hereward’s behaviour, therefore, exemplified the kind of riotous behaviour that we have come to expect from a warrior initiate. The author
notes that shortly after Hereward had turned seventeen he was expelled
from his family home and went into exile on the continent. He did
not return until after the Norman Conquest when he found that his
lands had been confiscated and that he had lost his status. He subsequently formed an egalitarian war band and pursued a violent vendetta
against those Normans who had usurped his patrimony and killed his
brother Hereward’s war band are portrayed living a life of plunder
and conducting a long standing insurgency against the Norman forces.
Indeed, the author of the Gesta deliberately depicted Hereward’s band
as members of a fraternity who were striving to retain their cultural
identity through violent war-like behaviour. Moreover, Thomas argues
persuasively that this post-Conquest author was writing with a specific
purpose; he was attempting to reassert the fighting prowess (and therefore the warrior manhood) of the Anglo-Saxon people.

It appears likely that conservative Old English warrior fraternities
continued to create problems for their new French speaking overlords
for decades after the Norman Conquest. The Welsh chronicle the Brut y
Tywysogyon noted that in 1109 a band of ‘Saxon’ warriors were ravaging
the Marcher territories of South Wales in a similar manner to Eadric
the Wild. Interestingly, these warriors appear to have formed an
accord with a like-minded Welsh war band in an inter-ethnic alliance
closely analogous to the one that had been struck between the exiled
Earl Ælfgar of Mercia and a band of Welsh warriors in 1055 or, indeed, between the warrior bands of the British leader Ingcél Cáech and the
Irish fían in Irish tale Togail Bruidne Da Derga discussed earlier.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 102-110.

Photograph is “Hengist Wittes Sohn,” Federfrei. “Picture by Daniel Wolfen. Saxon warriors around 800 AD, franko-saxon war, in winter dress. Material is woll, leather and linnen. All clothing is self- and handmade.”

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