Sunday, December 15, 2019

Law and Order in Medieval England

One aspect of general Anglo-Saxon law was granting the lords and ealdormen – the nobles – a privilege to execute summary justice (capital punishment), within the borders of their own lands, i.e. their fiefs. These privileges were known as infangene-þēof (Infangthief) and ūtfangene-þēof (Outfangthief) – or “a thief seized within” and “a thief seized without”. 
The first dealt with thieves caught “red handed” and in possession of stolen goods – on the lord’s land. For the poor – this almost always meant a quick execution. But for thieves of rank, the captor was given an option of ransoming the thief. The outfangthief meant that even if a thief came from outside the boundaries of a lord’s fief, the said lord still had the full rights to execute justice of his own accord.
For the lords, these privileges were a great benefit. Summarily dealing with thievery not only helped them to keep law and order on their own land, but also helped them cement their authority. Show too much kindness, people won’t fear you. If they don’t fear you, they don’t obey you. 
Up until the arrival of the Normans, several unique criminal cases were documented in Anglo-Saxon England. For any such cases that were “out of the norm”, the king himself had to summon a witan – a council of wise men – in order to successfully solve the crime. Plenty of cases were documented, all showcasing that honor and justice were held in the highest regard in the society. 
In the early 1000’s there was a documented trial against a free man, named Thorkel, and his wife. They had murdered their son. In the mid-11 th century, a cleric was branded and three men executed, because they robbed the Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross. But perhaps the most notable series of crimes, trials, and exiles is connected with the infamous Earl Sweyn Godwinson. This was the eldest son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the brother of Harald Godwinson , who would fall in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Earl Sweyn was a particularly restless man, and a string of his crimes and “misdemeanors” survived in writing. 
At first he quarreled with his own mother, seemingly over the true identity of his father. It seems he had some doubts and claimed that his true father was Cnut the Great . This grew into a feud and his mother insisted that his claim was false, presenting several well respected witnesses to vouch for her. 
His next escapade was an abduction. The earl abducted an abbess of Leominster Abbey, named Eadgyfu, hoping to marry her and thus claim the rich estates of the abbey. The king himself intervened and naughty Earl Sweyn earned himself an exile to Flanders.
From there he traveled to Denmark, from which he was also exiled for an offence. He returned to England and begged for forgiveness, seemingly receiving it. 
Back in England, Earl Sweyn messed up once again. While under a flag of truce, he murdered his own cousin, Earl Beorn. This was the last straw and a great outrage – the king and his council formally declared Sweyn as a niðing – a man without honor. This declaration made him an outcast in the entire realm and northern world, and he was forced into permanent exile. His story again shows us that a man’s honor was the very fabric that held the Anglo-Saxon society together. (Read more.)

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