Local Government and the Legal System in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon England was a very well-run kingdom. The king had ultimate authority but throughout the 9th and 10th centuries a complex system of local government was developed to collect taxes and maintain law and order. This included grisly methods of deciding guilt or innocence such as trials by fire and water, but also the development of fairer trials by jury.

How was law and order maintained in Anglo-Saxon England?

At the heart of the 10th century state was the oath taken by all freemen from the age of 12 to avoid involvement in any major crime and to report those that did. This common oath made ordinary people responsible for their own community’s safety.

If you broke the oath:

  • you would be regarded as disloyal and dishonorable
  • your family would be held responsible and could be punished
  • you and your family could be forced into exile
  • relatives of the victim could claim compensation for injury or death (this was called the 'wergild')

If a dispute was not settled families would seek revenge. These blood feuds could last for many generations.

The role of government in maintaining law and order

In the Anglo-Saxon state there was a hierarchy of courts in each shire and borough. Local courts were known as 'hundred' courts.

The king appointed the officials in charge of these courts. Local cases would be heard in the hundred courts and it was the obligation of the hundred to organise the pursuit of escaping criminals.

Hierarchy of the courts

Image demonstrating how many families in a Tithing, Hundred and County or Shire

Tithings:

  • Group of ten families
  • Responsible for maintaining order
  • Enforced two laws: murder and theft

Hundreds:

  • Group of ten Tithings
  • Elected a constable

Shires or counties:

  • Made up of a collection of Hundreds
  • The head of the shire was the shire-reeve (sheriff)

Each shire had its own court and was under the control of an earl. The earl had authority over the shire courts but had to pay the king one third of any money collected in fines or taxes.