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Land is Free

SA25. Anglo-Saxon Land Tenure by Raymond Makewell

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The Anglo-Saxons, whose invasion of Britain began in AD 449, 1 regarded everything they seized by conquest as their common property, to be distributed as each new district was secured. ‘Property’ included the former inhabitants (the weala), 2 all their moveable possessions, their livestock, and their agricultural land.

The invaders shunned the towns and cities, settling in small villages usually composed of less than twenty households (hiwiscs). The village community granted each household an entirely private area around their house (a haga), usually bounded by a hedge, to be used as a kitchen garden, to rear chickens, to store crops and to keep tools and equipment. The head of each household was absolute master of this land, with rights at law ranging from the capture and execution of trespassers to the discipline of the household, including slaves. 3

By common agreement the village also allocated to each household a number of strips in its main field to be cultivated for a given period of time, after which they might be re-llocated, turned over to pasture or lie fallow.4 The harvest from these stripsbelonged entirely to that household. In addition each household had access rights to the meadow to graze their sheep and cattle, as well as to the surrounding ‘forests’ 5 to glean wild foods, cut timber for building and fire-wood, keep pigs and hunt.

The sharing of fields and allocation of strips clearly required communal management and cooperation and general agreement was needed to alter the use of a field from cultivation to grazing, for the maintenance of fences, and other common responsibilities. Within this structure, however, each family was free to decide the crops to be cultivated and the type and number of animals reared. 6 The Anglo-Saxons were fiercely independent and self-reliant.

The land required to support a household, the haga, the strips, the meadow and the forest, was referred to as a hide. 7

Holding land, or more particularly holding the rights to use land, was a privilege with corresponding duties. These included duties of mutual support in a small community ———————————-

1.Arrivals continued for at least 150 years after this, and territorial expansion for more than 250 years  is something 

2.The Anglo-Saxon term weala means equally ‘foreigner’ and ‘slave’. It is the origin of the modern English word Welsh.

3. The Anglo-Saxon concept of slavery was unique. Slaves worked with their masters,on their masters’ land; they had their own land to support themselves; they were able to earn money, and to purchase their freedom.

4. The strip system provided a fair distribution of land that varied in quality. The arrangement into strips was designed to be convenient for ploughing.

5. The term ‘forests’ indicated areas of wilderness, but was not limited to tree-covered

6. The Domesday Book implies that it was common for a household to own a pair of oxen. Eight oxen were required for a plough which was probably owned communally.

7.The Anglo-Saxon term is related to hiwisc above.


so obvious to the Anglo-Saxons that they were rarely articulated 8– and duties to thenation as a whole. National duties took two forms, service and food rent. Each landholder was expected, when called upon, to participate in the national militia, the fyrd ; to assist with building or repairing fortifications and with building or repairing bridges.

Each village was required to support the king’s court by the provision of an annual food rent (or feormi). The origin of the food rent was the support a village was obliged to provide to the king and his entourage 9when they ‘progressed’ through that district. Relatively early it was commuted to a feormi, a specific combination of foodstuffs and other supplies to be delivered to the king’s agent in a central village of the district, known as a ‘royal village’. How each village determined what was to be contributed by each household was entirely a local matter. One example of a food rent has survived. Those, presumably sixty, families living on the sixty hides of land at Westerbury on Trym 10 were required to supply the king each year with: two tuns full of clear ale, one cumb full of mild ale, one cumb 11 of full British ale, seven oxen, six wethers ,12 forty cheeses, thirty ‘ambers’ of rye corn, and four ‘ambers’ of meal. It is important to note that a fixed amount was due each year, not a proportion of the crops.

The Anglo-Saxon family was self-sufficient, apart from the work of the smith. (The smith was so important in Norse and Germanic society that mythological origins were attributed to him.) The Anglo-Saxon farmer owned his own house, his household utensils, tools, grain, slaves, livestock and weapons. More than all this: he was a free man.

In good times the farmer would most likely be better off in his new environment than before he had migrated. But warfare continued for a very long time after arrival in 13The Anglo-Saxons fought the original occupants of Britain, their leaders fought against each other, and subsequently against new invaders. These wars did not merely take householders away from their farms but when lost, brought ruin. Adescription of one such event occurs in the biography of St Guthlac: ‘…he collected a great troop and host of his companions and equals, and himself took weapons. Then wreaked he his grudges on his enemies, and burned their city, and ravaged their towns, and widely through the land he made much slaughter and slew and took from men their goods.’14

8. Chasing and capturing felons is one of the few mentioned.

9. The entourage probably consisted of the royal family, members of the witan of the rank of oerl, a number of priests, and the king’s bodyguard, having the rank of thegn. The hereditary basis for these positions was largely lost during the migration, and reestablished as favour or reward for service.

10. Near Bristol.

11. A tun is a large beer or wine cask, now 252 gallons. A cumb is probably the same as an amber, i.e., four bushels, or 32 gallons.

12. A castrated ram.

13. Historians, such as Stenton, argue that very little of the actual warfare was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

14. Goodwyn, page 15. Around AD 500 the population of the British Isles was approximately 500,000, by far the majority of whom were the free Anglo-Saxon farmers of England.

15 They all paid rent and contributed to the nation and community through civil and military service.

By the end of the millennium this situation had changed substantially.

A Clash of Civilisations

Anglo-Saxons, religion, like their Norse neighbours practised their religion withouttangible symbols. Tacitus said: ‘…the woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.’.16 Priests were few; their role was to represent to the divine world the needs of the people, and to win help for the people from the divine world. But many of these traditions had weakened during the migration to England. When in AD 597 Augustine and his party of monks arrived in Kent at the behest of Pope Gregory to preach to the English nation, they were received by King Ethelbert of Kent with tolerance and hospitality. Augustine taught that every person, king, peasant or slave, man or woman, had a soul, and that soul needed to be cared for and prepared for its eternal journey. Such care and preparation would bring relief from the trials and tribulations of this troubled temporal life. According to the church, kings were chosen by God to lead the nation, and were vested with absolute power. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition the king was chosen by the witan as first amongst equals, and acted only with the consent of the witan. To the church, authority for what was right or wrong, lawful or unlawful was laid down in writing, in, for example, the Bible, the Roman Law and the Rule of St Benedict. To the illiterate Anglo-Saxons, authority arose from custom and, in case of doubt, from consensus at a moot,17 or an agreement of the witan. The church held that the land was God’s, the king His agent. In exchange for the right to use land the king exacted tribute. To the Anglo-Saxons no one owned land, but occupancy was associated with duties. Finally, the Roman Catholic church needed both land and income to sustain an extensive body of clergy. 18 Out of this clash of ideas were born the earliest documents in English legal history, referred to as ‘charters’ or ‘books’. Augustine drafted, in Latin, for the illiterate and newly-Christian King Ethelbert, a statement in which the King declares that for the benefit of his soul.

15 Fontana Economic History of Europe, The Middle Ages. cites the population of the British Isles as 500,000 in the year 500. By far the majority would have been in the fertile areas which were in England.

16 Tacitus, Germanicus 9.

17 A moot is simply a meeting of the people. These were known to be held for different reasons at the village, shire and national level.

18 he church held that a balance was required between the ‘bellatores’- who fought, the ‘laborates’ – who worked, and the ‘oratores’ – who prayed.

he surrenders to Augustine and subsequent holders of the charter any sovereignty he or his successors have over an area of land in Canterbury. Seen in the light of Anglo-Saxon tradition, this statement was a complete fiction. The king had no power to grant land, and the authority over his successors was a threat of divine retribution reliant on them having a Christian ‘fear of God’. More importantly, the king could not and did not interfere with the traditional rights and duties of the existing inhabitants. To add credibility to the document a long list of witnesses was appended20, who, together with the king, drew the sign of the cross beside their names. To solemnize the event ceremonies such as sprinkling soil from the land concerned over the Bible were also conducted.

In fact, the land could not be owned and the king merely surrendered the food rent  from that land to the holder of the charter. Unlike the land it described, the charter could be owned and passed from one person to another.

This precedent was subsequently used each time the church wished to expand an existing monastery or establish a new one, when groups of newly-converted Christians wished to enjoy a new religious way of life together, and when families or individuals sought to build monasteries for their own ends.21

Vast areas of England were now held by religious establishments. These were exempt both from providing feormi to the king or men for the fyrd.

It was not long before members of the company close to the king began to persuade him to grant charters for their personal benefit, often claiming recognition of previous service. The scene was now set for the accumulation of land in both private and ecclesiastical hands. This new class of landholding became known as bokland, as opposed to traditional landholdings or  folcland. For the first time land, bokland, could be passed on by inheritance, sold and leased.

The Rise of Feudalism

The church, as it became more established, was able to exact its own taxes from all free men. These taxes were sanctioned by the kings who gave them the force of civil law and provided the means of enforcement. Taxes, including the tithe, the church scot and plough alms,22were to be paid on nominated dates. Failure to pay promptly met with penalties many times the amount of the original tax. Taxes and penalties were in addition to food rents. During periods of warfare or natural disaster – for instance, drought, cattle murrain or famine – individual farmers who were unable to

19 Either just from the act, or from the prayers said daily in the monasteries for the king’s well-being.

20 None of whom would have either spoken Latin, or been able to read.

21 These may have been religious, but there were temporal advantages in being declared a monastery. In addition to being exempted from food rent, monks were not required to participate in military service.

22 The tithe being a tenth of total income collected by All Saints Day. Church scot was originally collected by local priests and is mentioned in the Domesday Book as ‘one load of best corn from each hide of land’ collected by St Martin’s day.

Plough alms , collected 15 days before Easter (amount unknown).

meet their fiscal obligations were forced to surrender house, household utensils, tools, grain, livestock, weapons and slaves and to seek an alternative livelihood.23

The same, on occasion, could happen to whole villages. The alternatives were few. There were, for instance, no towns where employment could be sought. Only the holders of bokland, in other words the recipients of food rents or church taxes, had greater reserves. What resulted was the appearance of new classes: ‘free’ Englishmen obliged to labour for a private or an ecclesiastical landlord on a number of days each week in return for shelter and the means of subsistence.

A 10th century document describes these new social classes and what was due to and from them.24

The first class was something akin to an estate manager (a geneat), second only to the lord on the estate; next in rank, a ‘cottager’ (a kotsetla) was allocated five acres of arable land in return for working on the lord’s lands on Mondays, and three days a week during the harvest season; below them in rank was the gebura who held more land than the kotsetla but worked for the lord two days a week and three days a week at harvest time. In addition the gebura was expected to plough an acre each week during the ploughing season, an additional two acres a year for his pasture rights, and a further three acres a year as rent for the land he held; he must fetch seed for sowing from the lord’s barn, provide food for one hunting dog, and give six loaves of bread to the estate swineherd. In return the lord provided two oxen, one cow, six sheep, and seven acres sown on the kotsetla’s land, as well as tools, house and contents. These were technically free men, but if a man were to leave his lord’s estate the ‘… lord should take charge of whatever he leaves’.25

In short, if any man left he took nothing. On these estates were found the earliest signs of specialisation. Beekeepers, swineherds, sowers, ox-herds, cowherds, shepherds, goatherds, cheese-makers, barley-keepers, woodwards and haywards26 are described. None of them were employees of the lord; they shared the produce of their work according to agreement or custom. One such arrangement, for instance, provided that a cowherd: ‘… should have the milk of a mature cow for seven nights after she has newly calved … and his own cow for food should go with the lord’s cow’.

27 But these men were not free. As serfs they were bound to the lord.

28 The price of slaves was greatly diminished in this system where so much labour could be obtained from those living on the estate, irrespective of whether the labourers were free or in some way bound. In other words, serfs and freemen working on the estate

23 The Viking wars would have had the same effect for many.

24 The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum, translated by Lemanski.

25 Ibid

26 Wardens of the woods and of the hay respectively.

27 Ibid.

28 Serfs were those men, or their descendants, who had agreed to surrender their freedom and to be bound to a lord in return for the lord’s protection. They differed from slaves in that they could not be bought or sold. Unlike slaves they could not buy their freedom. However by the 11th century it had become customary to regard both as belonging to the estate. They are described as property men in the Rectitudines.


received little more than slaves.29

Slaves and serfs belonged to the estate and became subject to a new lord if the estate changed hands. The estates of the larger landholders included buildings to store grain and keep animals, house soldiers, and for administrative purposes, as well as a kitchen and a church. Many of the lord’s dwellings were fortified using palisades and earthen ramparts. (Shortly before Duke William invaded there were already Normans in the country and castles had started to appear near the Welsh borders). Many thegns were obliged to provide military service for their landlord as part of their rent.

But the traditional village structure survived. Even though they had largely been organized into estates with manor houses for administrative and other purposes, many villages still paid food rents to the king. On some estates of private and ecclesiastical magnates free villages also survived. Such an estate might include the estate holder’s private demesne around the manor house, an area for his own cultivation, the cultivated areas of his labourers, the estate holder’s grazing lands, the land available to free villagers including their common land, but now bounded by the estate holder, and the forest areas.30

The Viking invasions of the 9th century destroyed most of the monastic life in England, and the lack of monks was a serious risk to the continuance of Christianity, especially in the north of England. Many of the estates from which the church derived its revenues passed into private hands during this period, some were leased to other landholders, usually in return for money. But for the most part the land remained in the hands of the church, exempt from rents payable to the nation, and a source of revenue to ecclesiastical authorities.

The End of the Anglo:Saxon Period

The concentration of landholding by the noble and ecclesiastical magnates continued over the two hundred years following the Viking invasions. By the reign of Edward the Confessor (died 1066) many ecclesiastical estates were as large as, and similar in structure to, any private or royal manor. For example, the Bishop of Winchester’s manor at Farnham, and the Bishop of Salisbury’s manor of Sonning were as large as any of the king’s estates. Four columns of the Domesday Book for Hampshire are devoted to lands appropriated for the victus31 for the monks of Winchester cathedral.

Similarly, the Bishop of Dorchester in 1066 held 12 manors, and Bishop Theodred of

29 The Rectitudines describe the provisions for a slave as: 12 pounds of good grain, 2 sheep carcasses, 1 good cow for food and an arrangement for wood -gathering; and the provisions for bound women as: 8 pounds of grain as food, 1 sheep or 3 pennies as food-allotment for the winter, 1 sester – an unknown measurement – of legumes as food-allotment for the spring, whey in summer or one penny. To all property men are due a Christmas meal and an Easter meal, a strip of land for ploughing, and a harvest handful, as well as their right to necessities.

30 In many cases the holder of the estate held the right to hear legal cases regarding the people living on the estate and the free villages with the structure of the estate. This right was highly profitable.

31 Provisions. London (died c 952) mentions in his will 31 estates, 20 spread across Suffolk and 11 in other counties.

32 These ecclesiastical landlords leased many of their estates, in some cases to the  landholding nobility, and in other cases to landless thegns as their sole source of revenue. Leases were normally for a term of three generations on condition that the lessor supplied food or its monetary equivalent, and some form of service.

33 At the turn of the millennium there were forty active monasteries and nunneries

34 but on the eve of the Norman Conquest only six of these had more than forty monks.

35 The Domesday Book, however, shows one sixth of the land south of the Humber with an income of 11,000 pounds a year, being in the hands of monastic orders.

36 One abbey at Ely is shown in the Domesday Book to have an income of 760 pounds a year from estates in six counties, and control over more than one hundred villages. Private landholding by the nobility was equally concentrated. Both private and ecclesiastical landholders went to great lengths to extract from their holdings as much profit as possible. At the end of the 10th century Archbishop Wulfstan described the oppression of free men by their lords and of slaves by their masters as so serious that the conventions governing relationships between the classes were breaking down.

The agricultural surplus from these estates must have been substantial. It seems unlikely that the population of the towns would have been sufficient to absorb it, which suggests a substantial export trade.

Towards the end of the 10th century the Danes reappeared. In AD 991 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: ‘…in this same year it was resolved that tribute should be given, for the first time, to the Danes for the great terror they occasioned by the sea coast. That was first 10,000 pounds. …’. This was the first payment of Danegeld,37 but the written peace agreement negotiated between England and Denmark at the time was primarily concerned with trade.

32 Pestell, p 81.

33 A letter from Bishop Oswald to King Edgar states that his tenant, a thegn, should ‘… fulfill the laws of riding as riding men should.’. This is taken to mean that they would ride his errands when required, lend him their horses, make fences when he wished to hunt, and generally be obedient to the Bishop’s commands. It might in some cases mean that a thegn was expected to fight for his landlord.

34 Domesday Book lists 45.

35 At the height of the English monastic movement (the English Renaissance) the numbers were vastly more. According to Mayr-Harding (p 152) the monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow in AD 716 had 600 monks between them, and the nearby nunnery at Winborne had 50 nuns.

36 Burton, p 9

37 The Anglo-Saxon word ‘geld’ derives from ‘geldan’ meaning, to pay, restore, make an offering, serve, or worship. In subsequent years the amount paid increased substantially. The Danes demanded payment in gold. There is considerable speculation regarding where sufficient gold was found to satisfy these demands, and a substantial case that much of it was derived from trade.

The self-interest of the land-holding nobility had become so great that by 1009 they were quite unable to cooperate in any defence of the nation, and so in 1016 the Danish king Cnut became king of all England. Archbishop Wulfstan represented this miserable situation as ‘God’s judgement upon a treacherous and wicked people’. In the next fifty years worse was to come.38

By the time of the Norman invasion the population had reached two million, four times the number at the time of the first Christian missionaries.39

But it is unlikely that there were more free men occupying land, and the revenue of the crown – the food rents – was probably little more. The concept of a hide had changed from the amount of land required to support a family, to a unit of land on which taxation could be exacted.40

The introduction of church taxes and the Danegeld had shown that much could be exacted by an avaricious king. Some historians argue that this was what attracted William of Normandy to hazard the invasion of Engla-lond in 1066.41

38 The period included civil war, further extraction of Danegeld, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record cold so severe that birds and fish died (1039) and consequential pestilence that lasted almost ten years, tempest damaging crops (1042), famine (1044), cattle murrain (1054).

39 The population of the British Isles is estimated at 2 million at the turn of the millennium ( Fontana Economic History of Europe). Most of that growth would have been in England.

40 A geld hide.

41 No sooner than William was crowned the Anglo Saxon Chronicle says ‘he laid on men a geld exceedingly stiff.’ And, the next year ‘he set a mickle geld’ on the people’.

Appendix 1 : Charters

The following is a translation of the text of the charter held in St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury dated 605 granting land to St Augustine for the building of a monastery. It differs from later charters only slightly. It appears as S2 in Sawyers Catalogue.

In the#name#of#our#Lord#Jesus#Christ.###It#behoves#every#man#who#lives#according to#God#and#hopes#and#prays#to#be#rewarded#by#God#to#show#his#consent#with#


























Eadbald.##Hamigils.##Augemund  referendarius.–Hocca.##Grafio.##Thangil.##Pinca.##Geddi.

Translation Anna McClelland.


Asser; Life of King Alfred; trans Cook, Albert, S; Ginn and Co, Boston, 1905

Burton, Janet; Monastic and Religious Orders in England 1000 – 1300; Cambridge 1994

Bede; Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England; trans Sellar A. M.; George Bell and Son, 1907.

Cipolla, Carlo Ed; The Fontana Economic History of Europe, The Middle Ages; Fontana Books, 1972.

Pestell, Tim; Landscapes of Monastic Foundation, The Establishment of Religious Houses in East Anglia c. 650 – 1200 ; The Boydell Press, 2004.

Tait, James; The Medieval English Borough; Manchester University Press; Manchester, 1936

Goodwyn, Charles Wycliffe; The Legend of Saint Guthlac; John Russel Smith, London, 1848

Lemanski, S. Jay; The Rectitudines Singularum Personarum: Anglo-Saxon Landscapes In Transition; A Thesis Presented to The Graduate Faculty of the University of Akron; August, 2005

Maitland F. W.; Domesday Book and Beyond, Three Essays in the Early History of England ; Cambridge University Press, 1907.

Martin, G and Williams, A (translators); Domesday Book, A Complete Translation;

Pengiun Classics, 2004.

Mayr-Harding, Henry; The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England; B. T. Batsford, London 1972

Sawyer, P.H; Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography. London,

Stenton, Frank; Anglo-Saxon England; Oxford University Press; Oxford; 1971

Stenton, Frank; The thriving of the Anglo-Saxon Ceorl, in Preparatory to Anglo- Saxon England : Being the collected papers of F. M. Stenton

Vinogradoff, Sir Paul; The Growth of the Manor; George Allen and Unwin; London:

Watkins, Ann E (translator); Aelfric’s Colloquy; Paper No 016 of the Kent Archaeology Society.

Whitelock, Dorothy; English Historical Documents c. 500 – 1042; Eyre Methuen, London 1979


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