Anglo - Saxon Crime and Punishment

A description of Anglo-Saxon society, crime and punishment. May be useful for test revision..

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The Anglo-Saxons Take Charge!

Roman Britain collapsed in 410, causing the Romans to withdraw and the Anglo-Saxons to take over. They reigned from 410-1066.

Some key dates of Anglo-Saxon Britain are as follows:

663 - Synod of Whitby establishes the Church of Rome's authority in Britain.

871-899 - Reign of Alfred the Great in Wessex

954 - England becomes a united country.

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Main Changes from Roman Britain

The Anglo-Saxons were made up of North German tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. These tribes merged power to form the Anglo-Saxons. They used basic, small-scale and local systems

The biggest differences from Roman Britain were:

  • The importance of community.
  • The influence of the Christian Church.
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The Anglo-Saxon Blood Feud

A new form of Anglo-Saxon crime and punishment was the idea of the blood feud. The blood feud worked on a simple system; If one person harmed or murdered another, the victim or their family was allowed to seek gory revenge on the criminal.

This had many flaws...because if the criminal was then murdered, their family would want revenge back again, and a vicious cycle would start to form. The blood feuds carried on between families for generations!

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Tithings

A tithing was a group of 10 free men within a hundred who hold responsibility for each other.

If one of the ten was a victim, the others would assist this person in catching their criminal, for example calling out a hue and cry.

If one of the ten was a criminal, the others would have to take this person to court, or all of the tithing would be in trouble. 

The system relied on community honesty and responsibility..but it sometimes lead to events similar to the blood feud. They were still expected to find the criminals themselves, however - like the Roman times. Continuity to today could even extend to a tithing responsibility being like a neighbourhood watch system.

There was no police force in Britain until 1829.

Glossary:

Hue and cry - Raising the alarm to form a mob to catch a criminal.

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Wergilds and Botgilds

King Alfred of Wessex reunited Britain in the 9th century, and to try and wipe out the effects of the blood feud, the Wergild and Botgild systems were introduced. 

Instead of killing back in revenge, the victim's family could demand payment from their loss from the murder.

Continuity to the modern times is a compensation kind of system. 

What was unfair was the hierarchy was involved in these payments, and people with different authority received different amounts of compensation. E.g killing an archbishop would demand higher compensation than killing a labourer. 

Glossary:

Wergild - Loss of a life

Botgild - Loss of a limb

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The Synod of Whitby

In 663 the Synod of Whitby marked the growing roles of the Christian Church when Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity.

Consequences of this meant changes in Anglo-Saxon Britain:

  • New laws
  • Reduction in the death penalty
  • Mutilation
  • Reforming offenders

The influence of the Church meant that the Anglo-Saxons weren't so quick to kill a person. However, actions such as mutilation could sometimes just end in death! 

Glossary:

Mutilation - Chopping off a limb.

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Community Court

The community decided whether someone was guilty or not guilty. In the court, a convicted criminal could have oath helpers. The victim could have folk moots. However, if the criminal was proved guilty they would be punished.The criminal could also choose to become an outlaw.

Glossary:

Oath helpers - People who swore on a cross to prove someone's innocence. 12 Oath helpers = innocence. 1 priest = 3 oath helpers.

Folk moots - Victim collected evidence.

Outlaw - A criminal living outside the village/community in a forest etc. Does not have to follow the law, but at the same time is not protected by it.

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Trial by Ordeal

However, if the community couldn't decide of someone's innocence, they turned to God for help...Trial by Ordeal.

Trial by ordeal involved putting a suspect through some kind of ordeal (hence the name) and leaving God to show their innocence.

For example...

  • Shoving a suspect's hand in boiling water, wrapping the wounds and three days later checking them. If they had healed, this was God's way of proving their innocence. A same situation was made with holding a hot iron for three paces.
  • Throwing the suspect in 'pure' water. If they sank, they were not guilty, if they floated, the water had 'rejected' them, proving they were guilty. 

However, being proved innocent sometimes meant death anyway! The popes made these trials, so therefore if one of them committed a crime they had to be trialled too...however they made it easy for themselves! If a pope was trialled, they just had to prove their innocence by eating the holy bread without choking on it...Another example of hierarchy!

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Anglo-Saxon Continuity and Change

There have been referenced to continuity and change throughout these cards, but to sum up all of those....

Continuity from Anglo-Saxon times to modern times, like the Romans were examples of crime. Also, Anglo-Saxon methods such as tithings are much like the modern idea of a neighbourhood watch. The Botgild and Wergild systems are similar to the idea of compensation. A hierarchy system is still present. Community decisions are still important and there is also no more death penalty in modern Britain either.

Change from Anglo-Saxon Britain to modern Britain is that trial by ordeal does not exist anymore, however there is continuity in trying to reform offenders nowadays. Also, the country is run by a Prime Minister and a monarch, not by the Church. 

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