This slide set on Anglo-Saxon Laws and Punishments is part of a series examining Crime and Punishment in the UK through the ages. It provides details on law enforcement, trial by ordeal and punishment.
Anglo-Saxon kings issued codes of law. With each new code, new laws could be implemented and existing laws altered, while laws people ignored could be strengthened.
Anglo-Saxons viewed crime through their ideas of justice and social arrangement:
The role of the local community policing the behaviour of others was important
God was the final judge of innocence or guilt
Different groups status and position should be clear in law
Anglo-Saxons believed the victim of a crime was responsible to seeking justice, but the whole community played a role in delivering justice. Being loyal to your local community was seen as a duty.
By the 10th century, English shires were divided into smaller areas known as hundreds. Each hundred was divided into 10 tithings. Men over the age of 12 in a tithing were responsible for the behaviour of everyone else. One man from each hundred and one from each tithing had to meet with the king's shire reeve (locally appointed man to bring criminals to justice, later known as a 'sheriff') on a regular basis.
Their role was to prevent crime, especially cattle theft in the community. The community became increasingly important in the Anglo-Saxon era for law enforcement. The community were to track down suspects of crimes and anyone witnessing a crime could raise a 'hue and cry' (shout for help).
Anglo-Saxon justice was heavily influenced by religion, especially when determining whether someone was innocent or guilty.
Oaths played an important role in proving a person's innocence. Public hearings occurred and those accused could swear innocence under an oath. Further, they could call upon other members of the community to support their claims - 'oath helpers'.
In majority of cases, the accused walked free. In such a small, cohesive community it would be extremely difficult for someone to get away with a repeat offence.
Oath: formal declaration of facts, calling upon God as your witness to testify that your words are the truth: "I swear before God..."
Caption: : Trial by boiling water, from a medieval manuscript
Trial by Ordeal
If there was not enough evidence to prove that a person was guilty, the Church performed a central role. The accused would go through a 'trial by ordeal' through the Church authorities. This would determine whether someone was innocent or guilty in the eyes of God. The effect of the ordeal was viewed as God's judgment of either innocence or guilt on the accused.
There were three trials:
Trial by hot water or hot iron: heat was used to burn the accused's hands and then bandaged; a person was deemed innocent by God if the burn healed well
Trial by cold water: the accused was thrown into water with their arms tied together; a person was innocent if they sank and guilty if they floated. An innocent person who sank was 'accepted' as the water was pure because a priest blessed it.
Christian thinking influenced the types of punishments criminals received too. For crimes, such as petty theft (stealing small, low-value items) the Church recommended maiming (causing physical harm e.g. having a hand or ear cut off). This allowed the criminal time to seek forgiveness from God.
Murder was sometimes punished through fines being paid to the victim's family. A type of compensation for the life of a person. This fine was called the wergild ('man price'). This system was in place to deter blood feuds (members of the victim's family killed the murderer, then the murderer's family retaliate, and so on).
A wergild was paid directly to the victim's family; fines were determined by social status. A person paid much more for taking the life of a prince than the life of a serf. Your class determined how much your life was worth.
Capital and Corporal Punishment:
Some crimes received capital and corporal punishment, they were a from of retribution but also acted as a deterrent. Treason and arson usually resulted in execution of the criminal (hanging). Mutilation was used as a corporal punishment for lesser crimes. Corporal punishment was meant to deter people from committing similar crimes. Criminals who survived harsh punishments of (eye-gouging, foot or hand removal) demonstrated to society the consequence that came with committing crimes.
Capital Punishment: the death penalty
Corporal Punishment: various punishments utilised to cause pain or harm to the body (beaten or having body parts removed)
Retribution: severe punishment to match the severity of the crime
Deterrent: a punishment that is scary and painful; acts as an example to warn other people about committing the same crime
Rehabilitation: attempting to turn a criminal into a law-abiding citizen through rehabilitating them
Restitution: whoever was affected by the crime would get paid back from the damaged caused by the criminal
Stocks and Pillory:
Using stocks or pillory for public punishment was painful and humiliating. The pillory secured the arms and the neck, while the stocks secured the ankles. Usually they were found at the centre of the town where everyone could see. People could be left here for several days and were subject to public verbal abuse and items being tossed at them.