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From the Roman historian Tacitus we get a picture of the
administration of Saxon law long before they came to settle in Britain. His "Germania" tells us of the deliberation of the
chiefs in smaller matters and the deliberation of all in more important ones. "Yet even those matters which are reserved for
the general opinion are thoroughly discussed by the chiefs... in the assembly, actions may be brought and capital crimes prosecuted.
They make the punishment fit the crime."
It was not long after the conversion of the Saxon peoples
to Christianity that written laws began to be enacted in England to provide appropriate penalties for offenses against the
Church (and therefore against God). In Kent, King Aethelbert (601-04) was the first to set down the laws of his people in
the English language; his laws constitute by far the earliest body of law expressed in any Germanic language. They show no
sign of Roman influence but are more in common with the Lex Salica issued by Clovis for the Salian Franks.
The basis of Kentish society in Aethelbert's time was the
free-peasant landholder, without any claim to nobility, but subject to no lord below the king himself, an independent person
with many rights. Throughout early English history, society seems to have rested on men of this type. As head of a family,
he was entitled to compensation for the breaking of his household peace. If he were to be slain, the killer had to compensate
his kinfolk and also pay the king. The king's food-rent was the heaviest of the public burdens. Early on, it had consisted
of providing a quantity of provisions sufficient to maintain a king and his retinue for 24 hours, due once a year from a particular
group of villages. Long after Aethelbert's reign, the king's servants of every degree were still being quartered on the country
as they traveled from place to place to carry out their duties.
Other Kentish laws date from the reigns of Hlothhere and
Eadric, brother and eldest son of Egbert. These were mainly enlargements of previous laws. They show a somewhat elaborate
development of legal procedure, but they also recognized a title to nobility which is derived from birth and not from service
to a king. More significant, however, is the fact that the men who direct the pleas in popular assemblies are not ministers
of the king, but "the judges of the Kentish people." All in all, the laws show a form of society little affected by the growth
of royal power or aristocratic privilege.
Under Wihtraed (695-96), laws were set down mainly to deal
with ecclesiastical matters. They were primarily to provide penalties for unlawful marriages, heathen practices, neglect of
holy days or fast days, and to define the process under which accused persons might establish their innocence. The Church
and its leading ministers were given special privileges, including exemption from taxation. The oath of a bishop, like those
of a king, is declared uncontrovertible, and the Church was to receive the same compensation as the king for violence done
to dependents. Within 90 years, the Church which Aethelbert had taken under his protection had become a power all but equal
with the king himself.
By the early part of the 10th century, the government had
begun to regard the kin as legally responsible for the good behavior of its members, though respect for the kin did not mean
that the ties of kindred dominated English law. There had been earlier passages which ignored or deliberately weakened this
primitive function of kin. For example, a ceorl who wished to clear himself at the altar must produce not a group of his kinsmen,
but three men who are merely of his own class. Mere oaths from his own family circle were looked upon with suspicion by the
authorities, and thus encroachments upon the power of the kin to protect its own members constituted a rapid advancement of
English law even before the end of the seventh century.
From the laws of Ine (688-95), the strongest king in Southern
England during his long reign, it is clear that he was a statesman with ideas beyond the grasp of his predecessors. His code
is a lengthy document, covering a wide range of human relationships, entering much more fully than any other early code into
the details of the agrarian system on which society rested. They were also marked by the definite purpose of advancing Christianity.
Not merely a tariff of offenses, it is the result of a serious attempt to bring together a body of rules governing the more
complicated questions with which the king and his officers might have to deal. It stands for a new concept of kingship, destined
in time to replace the simple motives which had satisfied the men of an earlier age.
Ine's laws point to a complicated social order in which
the aristocratic ideal was already important. The free peasant was the independent master of a household. He filled a responsible
position in the state and the law protected the honor and peace of his household. He owed personal service in the national
militia (the fyrd); and unlawful entry through the hedge around his premises was a grave offense. In disputes concerning land
rights, which he farmed in association with his fellows, it was necessasry for the King and his Council to provide settlement.
The free peasant was thus responsible to no authority below the king for his breaches of local custom.
By the year 878 there was every possibility that before
the end of the year Wessex would have been divided among the Danish army. That this turn of events did not come to pass was
due to Alfred. Leaving aside the political events of the period, we can praise his laws as the first selective code of Anglo-Saxon
England, though the fundamentals remained unchanged, those who didn't please him, were amended or discarded. They remain comments
on the law, mere statements of established custom.
In 896, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication
that the lands which had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. It made him the obvious leader of all those
who, in any part of the country, wished for a reversal of the disasters, and it was immediately followed by a general recognition
of his lordship. In the words of the Chronicle, "all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the
power of the Danes." The occassion marked the achievement of a new stage in the advancement of the English people towards
political unity, the acceptance of Alfred's overlordship expressed a feeling that he stood for interests common to the whole
English race. Earlier rulers had to rely on the armed forces at their disposal for any such claims.
The Code of Alfred has a significance in English history
which is entirely independent of its subject matter, for he gives himself the title of King of the West Saxons, naming previous
kings such as Ine, Offa and Aethelberth whose work had influenced his own. The implication is that his code was intended to
cover not only the kingdom of Wessex, but also Kent and Mercia. It thus becomes important evidence of the new political unity
forced upon the English people by the struggle against the Danes. In addition, it appeared at the end of a century during
which no English king had issued any laws. Following Alfred's example, English kings, unlike their counterparts on the Continent,
retained their right to exercise legislative powers. As a footnote, Alfred insisted that to clear himself, a man of lower
rank than a kings' thegn must produce the oaths of 11 men of his own class and one of the Kings' thegns.