The First Anglo Saxon Laws

First Anglo Saxon Laws: The most ancient of assemblies, the House of Commons, represents assemblies far older, back to the courts of Anglo Saxon England.

England, as we know it today, a land made up of units of land called shires, where fair laws allow for the administration of a democratic government and a judicial system in which your peers decide your fate, has it’s roots in the Anglo Saxon. The first Anglo Saxon laws would give England the roots of the law of the land as we know it today.

Anglo Saxon Laws
House of Commons Meeting 1834

The kingdom of Wessex

This Anglo Saxon territory was land held by the Gewisse people, that is land around the Upper Thames area, joining up with the Southern coast lands won and held by the lord Cerdic.  This was an immensely important step in securing core lands for the Anglo Saxons. King Ine who ruled in Wessex from 688 – 726. He was unable to hold together much of the territory previously gained for the West Saxons, that is the lands of Sussex, Kent and Wessex but he held Hampshire and it is in Hampshire that King Ine draws up his law code, in which he references the first of the ‘shire courts’ presided over by a ‘shireman’.

Anglo Saxon Laws
Anglo Saxon Witenagemot. The meeting of wise men.

So what prompted King Ine to write the law code?

The reign of King Ine was a pivotal moment in the history of England. It was a time when trade with the rest of Europe was re-established. The settlement of Hamwic, now Southampton Hampshire UK, had developed as a major trading centre. Movements of goods and people between between continental Europe and England expanded and the southern ports were well positioned to take advantage of this. Christianity was introduced and this would have a profound effect on King Ine. Having established his kingdom, he had borders, within these borders he needed to control his people. The law code left no uncertainty about how people would be expected to act and the consequences if they did not. It follows that once the laws were set in place then courts were needed to determine the outcome for those suspected of breaking these laws. It is primarily to do with compensation, if this happens to you, you can expect compensation.

‘The landed property of a ceorl shall be fenced both winter and summer. If it is not, and if his neighbour’s cattle come through an opening that he has left, he shall have no claim to such cattle, he must drive them out and suffer the damage’

King Ine and the merchants

It seems entirely logical that King Ine used the law code to make it possible for merchants to trade within a controlled environment. The Anglo Saxon laws would have created a structure in which commercial trade could thrive. Evidence that ‘Hamwic’ was developed in this period can be found in the building of a substantial port here at the place of the royal vil of Hampton. The laws must have given the merchants a sense of stability in the economy, which, coupled with minting the first West Saxon coins, shows a serious intent to trade.

Anglo Saxon Law
Anglo Saxon Claw Beaker from the Continent

King Ine and Boniface

Just up the road from Hamwic, in Nursling monastery, a monk called Boniface was establishing himself as an important leader in the newly emerged Christian church. King Ine had noticed Boniface and chose him to lead a deputation to Canterbury. King Ine was advised by churchmen when he drew up the law code and it contains rules about how the church in his kingdom should be governed, including the rule that all infants be baptised and that levies should be paid to the church. If the king were guided and advised by Boniface then he certainly had an excellent advisor. Wessex was moving ahead on all fronts.

Anglo Saxon Law
Church at Nursling possibly close to Boniface’s monastery

So much more than a warlord

For the forty years of his reign, King Ine had moved from governance by war and confrontation to a series of laws by which the ordinary man and woman could have more certainty in their lives. The kingdom of Wessex became more prosperous and the Chistian church became an established part of the kingdom.

When you read this from the law code;

‘have taken counsel concerning the welfare of our souls and the state of our realm, in order that just laws and just royal laws should be established and assured to all our people, and so that no alderman or subject of ours should henceforth pervert these our dooms.’

It seems that an incredible step had taken place and that out of a turbulent and warring society, left to it’s own devices after the Romans left Britain, was emerging the need and desire to be guided and ruled. King Ines Anglo Saxon law codes and Christianity came together at this time to provide just that.

 

 King Alfred used King Ine’s law code to come up with his own set of laws

King Alfred used the law code of King Ine, to write his own laws and they were preserved by Alfred as an appendix to his code. No doubt they were more extensive than the attachment suggests. King Alfred is known to have discarded certain of the laws he did not like.

Anglo Saxon Law
King Alfred