Wergeld: Price of Life

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 26 December 2016

Wergeld: Price of Life

Although the wergeld initially served as a buffer in a violence prone Anglo-Saxon culture, it eventually was used to determine social standing and establish the power of the king. Anglo-Saxon England began as a heroic society that valued honor and kin above all. This society maintained a high potential towards internal strife that threatened to destabilize it. The wergeld developed in this hostile culture as a social convention that offered an alternative to the violence. Once written into Royal Law, the power of the wergeld to stabilize the society solidified. It also developed an alternate purpose: supporting and expanding the power of the king.

In Anglo-Saxon England widely accepted social systems and traditional concepts could function in place of official authority to determine matters that would later require legal intervention :. rights of inheritance, marriage, land ownership, and settlement of disputes. Quarrels could arise for any number of reasons including but not limited to, manslaughter, property disagreements, and insults to honor. When these conflicts of interest occurred, instead of seeking outside authorities, it was expected that family would intercede and seek retribution or restitution on their kindreds behalf. Richard Fletcher reports that feuding was “governed by accepted social convention.” and “recognized by outsiders as a regular form of relationship.”1 This kind of intercession could easily provoke already delicate situations into violence.

While the feuding may have been accepted, and even encouraged in certain situations, the Anglo-Saxons knew their society would not be able to function if every conflict came to a violent end. The wergeld established an alternative to claiming blood vengeance. The guilty individual or his family could make restitution in the form of monetary compensation. The historian Wallace-Hadrill points out “. . . the reality of the bloodier alternative was the sanction that made composition possible at any stage.”2 In other words the threat of socially acceptable, and expected violence gave the offending party reason to pay the wergeld and spare their family’s bloodshed. The amount of the wergeld varied between the classes and nations, but the principle remained the same.

It would be inaccurate to claim there were only one Anglo-Saxon wergeld system because Northumbria, Wessex, Kent, and Mercia each had their own . However, there are certain similar elements that appear when they are all compared . The first codified wergeld appeared in Kent and was put into law by one Aethelbert who ruled fro around 560 to 616AD.3 H.R. Loyn writes that in Kent the free peasant or Ceorl was worth one hundred gold, or four hundred shillings, noblemen were worth twelve hundred shilling and the king was worth twelve times that of any other nobleman.4 This represents the basic structure of most wergeld systems in England at the time. Where Kent’s laws differ from others is in the price of the freeman. The Kentish Ceorl was worth twice as much as the peasants of any other kingdom, presumably because they had a higher status in society. More commonly the free peasants, were given the price of two-hundred shillings as wergeld and came to be known as the two-hundred men. Ine, King of Wessex’s laws written cir. 694AD is different in it’s consideration of the welsh.

5 The Welshman’s value in society was less than that of the Ceorl, and depended on how much land was owned.6 They did however warrant their own wergeld, which offered them some level of protection and inclusion in legal matters of the state. Northumbria’s wergeld describes a society somewhat different from it’s counterparts in that it has several classes of nobleman with separate wergeld values for each, usually relating to their office.7 This indicates a ranking system based on service to the king. Once written into law the wergeld became much more important than a social alternative to violence. Because of the way it effect each class differently, t he wergeld became a social division, separating the classes more distinctly than tradition was able. Conversely the wergeld also had an internal unifying effect on the separate nations. In his study on the government of Anglo-Saxon England H.R. Loyn tells us that initially “turbulence among the settled groups and rivalries between them were much more characteristic of early centuries rather than awareness of common purpose.”

8 By the times the Anglo-Saxon nations were established many different groups had been conquered and forced together increasing the potential for internal strife. Loyn also pointed out that what would be considered acts of government were carried out locally according to principles of, what he refers to as, “free kindred responsibility.”9 This decentralized form of government in nations comprised of clans and groups of varying origins did not lend itself to a unified society. With these ideas in mind it is easy to see the danger posed by blood-feuds, and the necessity of the wergeld both traditionally and as law. The Ceorl, or two-hundred men, are considered the basis of Anglo-Saxon society. They were the small farm owners, and thus the economic unit of their world. Frank Stenton describes the two-hundred man as an “independent master of a household” with no lords separating him from the king.10 In other words the Ceorl had no governing noble responsible for him as the peasants in the Norman feudal system did. He was also an important part of the fyrd or army, and had duties at court.

This basic unit of society then had to be protected and unified for society to flourish. That is exactly what the codification of the wergeld did by providing the Ceorl with a new preferred option when dealing with disputes. Situations that had once been governed by tradition and kinsmen not only could, but should be brought to the king for legal settlement. This increased the protection afforded by the wergeld by putting royal power behind it. A king strong enough to force the payment of the wergeld would have substantially more peace and control within the kingdom. The second tier of society as defined by most wergeld systems were the twelve-hundred men, the nobles.

The Anglo-Saxon nobleman were usually born to the position and had specific duties to the king and nation. H.R. Loyn reports that the neglect of these duties could have them stripped of their nobility and fined severely.11 In return for their services he writes that they received “Higher payment for infringements of their house place, of their personal surety, of the lives and property of their dependents and above all for their own persons.”12 This duty and reward system bound the nobleman’s life closely with the state and the king’s court. In the case of the twelve-hundred men the codification of the wergeld cemented that bond and tied them securely to the king’s power.

While it afforded them the same opportunities and protection in their class as the Ceorl had, the wergeld system had additional consequences for the noble man. With such a high wergeld, and the threat of the king enforcing it, rarely would a freeborn peasant even consider carrying out any action against a nobleman. A lord however could easily violate the home or person of a Ceorl and just absorb the cost, if he were even made to pay it. In fact, even under the wergeld law the nobleman was expected to use his own judgment and deal with disturbances within his own home and involving his own servants. H.R. Loyn states “. . a nobleman had a prime duty to keep order in his own household.”13 While it may not have immediately changed the class interactions, the potential for nobleman’s exploitation of the Ceorl was much higher with the wergeld system.

It both profited and hindered Nobles to be twelve-hundred men under the legal wergeld. Codified, the wergeld took away their power and gave it to the king. In the same way that the king could mediate disputes for the Ceorl, the king had the legal authority to intercede in quarrels among the twelve-hundred men. Prior to then the Nobles were expected to handle feuds among themselves and their kin. Indeed, most of the feuds history reports on are between families of nobles. Under the law of the wergeld, the King could force restitution and resolution without losing any nobles to vengeance killings. This brought stability to government in a high honor culture that considered violence an acceptable part of society.

In all aspects the one who benefited most from the codification of the wergeld was the king. It centralized the government, with the king as the central power. The kings court became a justice system with the king serving as judge and jury over all his subjects. Historian H.R. Loyn writes “The king was at the summit of lordship in his kingdom and in all manner of ways the law strengthened his position.” 14 Transforming the right of wergeld from a traditional system to a legal system transferred the power from the kin to the king in every way.

The codification of the wergeld established the power of the king in other ways as well. The wergeld of the king was twelve times that of any other nobleman. Socially this placed the king outside of the ranks of other men. He was not a leader among equals, but instead a man set apart, better and more suited to rule than others. More practically such a high wergeld, if enforced, would be expensive for any one to pay. The real power behind the high price was that half of the king’s wergeld was to be paid to the kingdom if he were killed. This would ensure that if any other than the king’s assassin came to power the wergeld would be enforced. In other cases Monarchs could and did enforce these high wergeld for each other. H.R. Loyn provides an example of this in his book on the history of Anglo-Saxon england. Loyn details how King Ine enforced a wergeld of seven thousand and five hundred shillings for the murder of Mul the West Saxon prince, the price equal to six times that of a nobleman.16

The kings rights in relation to the wergeld was substantial. The laws themselves often acted as guidelines instead of hard set rules and the king could set the price either higher or lower depending on the circumstance. The king could demand a higher wergeld for any of his servants, offering them protection and thereby increasing their loyalty.17 In addition to these the king had the power to raise or revoke a man’s wergeld based on their service or disservice to the crown. Ceorls could be given titles or nobles could be stripped of them all by the king’s pronouncement.

The Anglo-Saxon society was highly divided and inclined to be hostile. Under these conditions blood-feuds could develop and easily threaten the security of the state. The wergeld became an alternative to the traditional blood-feud and allowed for resolution without further violence. The codification of the wergeld made it a more effective solution for feuds because it was backed by the power of the king. The wergeld also increased the power of the central monarchy by giving kings the right of mediation in what was previously personal matters of the people or nobleman. Thus the wergeld was necessary to maintain the status-quo in Anglo-Saxon society and it greatly contributed to the success of the monarchy.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 26 December 2016

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