Medieval Musings

All things pertaining to history.
HomeHome  SearchSearch  RegisterRegister  Log inLog in  


 Anglo-Saxon Law

Go down 

Posts : 210
Join date : 2008-10-26
Location : Australia

Anglo-Saxon Law Empty
PostSubject: Anglo-Saxon Law   Anglo-Saxon Law EmptySun Nov 02, 2008 7:55 am

Anglo-Saxon Law

Anglo-Saxon women had very similar rights and protections as their Irish counterparts. In addition, prior to the marriage, the prospective groom was required to promise to maintain his wife and outline what inheritance she could expect in the event of his death.

Even though married, the woman still had the right to protection from her family, especially in legal cases.

"Handfasting" was the marriage custom prevalent in Germanic societies, including Scandinavia, Northern France, and England.

Basically, the “reward of virginity”, the “morning gift” or a “marriage settlement” given to the bride by her husband following consummation of the marriage. This was very prevalent in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman society. It was an agreement usually drawn up by the family of the bride and her prospective husband. The settlement was also to take into account a woman’s status within society.

Example: one 11th century groom “promised his future wife a pound's weight in gold, an estate, 150 acres at Burmarsh, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 10 horses, and 10 slaves “. (Fell)

The morgengifu was the woman’s to use or dispose of as she wished - she could sell it, give it away, or bequeath it.

The morgengifu was still prevalent in later Anglo-Norman society (including Southern Italy in the 11th Century). It was also called “morgengab” in Lombard Law, and was the equivalent of one quarter of the fortune of the husband, payable to the wife (on the following day) upon the “successful” and “satisfactory” consummation of the nuptials.

Again, like those women protected under Brehon Law, there were a number of instances in which a woman could divorce her husband, and settlement of property affected equally.

However, a man was entitled to divorce his wife if she came into the marriage through “guile”:
If a man buy a maiden with cattle, let the bargain stand, if it be without guile; but if there be guile, let him bring her home again, and let his property be restored to him. (Doom 77 - The Laws of Æthelberht, King of Kent, 560-616 A.D.)

In this instance, where the woman enters into a marriage, whilst pregnant by another man, the “morgengifu” would be forfeited, and the woman would return to her family.


Anglo-Saxon Laws (Aethelbert and Aetheldred) gave basic protection to widows. A widow who was abducted could demand compensation. In England, a woman who remained a widow for a period of more than one year could marry wherever she chose, and not be forced to marry a man she disliked.

Under Canute, however, any widow who remarried after less than a year’s widowhood forfieted any inheritance from her husband, although she was still entitled to retain her own property. Also under Canute, widows were not forced to take “vows” and enter monastic orders.

Fornification and Adultery:

The Laws of Æthelberht, King of Kent, 560-616 A.D
10. If a man lie with the king's maiden, let him pay a bot of fifty shillings.
11. If she be a grinding slave, let him pay a bot of twenty-five shillings. The third (class) twelve shillings.
14. If a man lie with an eorl's birele, let him make bot with twelve shillings.
16. If a man lie with a ceorl's birele, let him make bot with six shillings; with a slave of the second (class), fifty scaetts; with one of the third, thirty scaetts.
31. If a freeman lie with a freeman's wife, let him pay for it with his wergeld, and provide another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other.
77. If a man buy a maiden with cattle, let the bargain stand, if it be without guile; but if there be guile, let him bring her home again, and let his property be restored to him.
78. If she bear a live child, let her have half the property; if the husband die first.
79. If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.
80. If the husband wish to have them, (let her portion be) as one child.
81. If she bear no child, let her paternal kindred have the fioh and the morgengyftt.
82. If a man carry off a maiden by force, let him pay fifty shillings to the owner, and afterwards buy (the object of) his will of the owner.
83. If she be betrothed to another in money, let him make bot with twenty shillings.
84. If she become gaengang, thirty-five shillings; and fifteen shillings to the king.
85. If a man lie with an esne's wife, her husband still living, let him make two-fold bot.

Of Fornication With A Nun:
8. If any one carry off a nun from a minster, without the king's or the bishop's leave, let him pay a hundred and twenty shillings, half to the king, half to the bishop and to the church-hlaford who owns the nun. If she live longer than he who carried her off, let her not have aught of his property. If she bear a child, let not that have of the property more than the mother. If any one slay her child, let him pay to the king the maternal kindred's share; to the paternal kindred let their share be given. . . . (The Laws of King Alfred the Great 981 - 901AD).

4. He who commits fornication with a nun, let him not be worthy of a consecrated burial place (unless he make bot), any more than a manslayer. We have ordained the same respecting adultery.
(The Laws of King Edmund I 939-946AD).

Glossary of Terms:
Bot = remedy, compensation
Eorl = earl, nobleman
Ceorl = churl, peasant
Scaetts = money, payment
Fioh = fee, money
Morgengyftt = morning gift, gift from husband to wife on the morning after marriage
Esne = serf, labourer, working class
Gaengang = pregnant (return)
Birele = cupbearer, steward
Minster = monastery

  • “Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200” by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Longman, 1995)
  • “A Guide to early Irish Law” by Fergus Kelly (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988)
  • “Irish Land Law” by Professor J.C.W. Wylie (Butterworths)
  • "Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland" by Patrick C.Power (Mercer, 1976)
  • “Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066” by Christine Fell (Indiana University Press, 1984).

"For my part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity: The throne is a glorious sepulchre."
Back to top Go down
Anglo-Saxon Law
Back to top 
Page 1 of 1

Permissions in this forum:You cannot reply to topics in this forum
Medieval Musings :: Articles :: Laws - Edicts - Legislation-
Jump to: