Social classes in Anglo-Saxon England revolved primarily around a unit of land ownership called the hide. A hide could be a variety of sizes: “anything from 40 acres to 4 square miles (120 acres seems to be an ‘average’ hide)” (Levick), though it was generally large enough to support one family, and was worth about £1. The more hides a person owned or governed, the more powerful he became.
Here is an example of some of the hides per province in England as recorded by Saint Bede the Venerable around the 7th century:
Isle of Wight: 1200 hides/sowlings
Mercia (north and south of the Trent): 12,000
“It appears that in such divisions much the larger portion was given to the king, and the remainder was shared among the chieftains, his immediate vassals. A subdivision then took place. Each principal proprietor, acting in the same manner, erected a petty empire for himself, and retaining a considerable part for his own use, allotted the rest, in different proportions, and on different tenures, to his followers” (Lingard 460).
So starting with the king, the hierarchy of social classes in 11th century England went down according to the relative amount of land owned. Classifications could be made approximately as follows:
1. King – As one might expect, the king owned the most land in the country. But an interesting distinction can be made between the kings of Anglo-Saxon England before 1066 and the revolutionary rule of William the Conqueror afterward. Before William, kings ruled over all the other lords as military leader, but did not technically own all the lands on which his vassals served (he might own half or more). In a sense he might easily claim lands if he so desired by wielding his innate power and influence. It was also his right to call upon men from any land to serve him in warfare. However, the thegns or earls underneath him could become extremely powerful in their own right, potentially as rich and powerful as the king himself. One can argue that this is why more internal conflict existed between the king and his subjects before 1066.
When William the Conqueror came along, he made it so that all lands belonged distinctly to him, so that in a sense every lord under his rule was borrowing from him and their power could easily be vanquished. “… as king of England he was ‘absolute.’ All was his to give away; what he had not expressly given away, belonged without question to him” (Jenks, Edward “The Development of Teutonic Law” 53)
2. Witan (Wise men) – The council of wise men, or witenagemot, involved the most powerful men of England other than the king himself. It consisted of earls, archbishops, bishops, powerful thegns, or any other courtly favorites that could meet with the king to discuss war and politics about three times a year. Inevitably, they were probably in such positions of power due to the amount of land they held, and if they were a king’s favorite for some other reason, they would probably soon acquire land accordingly.
3. Ealdormen (AKA Earl, Jarl, Viceroy) –
An ealdorman was technically the highest distinction of the thegn class who ruled over a shire or even larger province of England such as Mercia or Kent. These men usually came from royal blood, though sometimes–as in the case of Eadric Streona–they could rise to power in other ways. As such, the title was often passed down through generations until someone else rose above that family.
The title of ealdorman changed somewhat from the centuries leading up to the 1000s. Sometimes it referred to the leader of a single shire. Sometimes it referred to the ruler of the larger provinces. To keep the titles as clear as possible in my own stories, “ealdorman” almost always refers to the ruler of a much larger province, and the leaders of a shire are called “shire reeves.”
4. Shire Reeve: The shire reeve, as the name suggests, administered the law in each shire. During each shire court, he would uphold the king’s justice along with twelve other magnates, sort of like a modern Grand Jury. He would also visit each community of the shire at least once a year to collect the oaths of twelve-year-old boys to the king of Engla-lond. He would normally visit in October (Lacey 74, 151). The modern word “sheriff” comes from the term shire reeve.
5. Hundred-man: Put quite simply, the hundred-man was a thegn who ruled at least a hundred hides of land. Therefore there would be many such men in each shire.
6. Thegn (AKA ðegn, thane, house-carl, hearth companion, milite, or the equivalent of “knights” after the Norman Conquest) Weregald: 1200 shillings or more
As the number of names for this position suggests, the classification of thegn in Anglo-Saxon could mean a great number of things. There was a wide range of power amongst the thegn class, from lesser thegns owning just five hides of land to high thegns who eventually became hundred-men or ealdormen. In general, thegns owned lands, served as soldiers and bodyguards to the lords above them, and fought in the king’s fyrd during times of warfare. They also had other basic duties such as maintaining bridges or watch-towers. Thegns serving a hundred-man or ealdorman might be referred to as house-carls or hearth companions and the lord would call upon them as his personal retinue. Subsequently, depending on their own status, those same thegns might have a retinue of their own, and so forth.
7. Churls – AKA ceorls, freemen (Weregald 200 shillings)
This was the general class of Anglo-Saxon “free” men. In some cases they might own the land on which they lived, but often they would have to rent it from the lord or thegn above them. If they did not own their land, their lifestyle would vary according to the classifications below.
Churl 1 – Geneat: The geneat might serve as a companion to his lord thegn and receive land from him. Usually he must pay rent and perform other duties.
“The geneat’s duty varies, depending upon what is determined for the estate. In some he must pay ground rent and one store-pig a year, and ride, and perform carrying services and supply cartage, work and entertain his lord, reap and mow, cut deer-fences and maintain hides, build and fence fortifications, conduct strangers to the manor, pay church dues and alms, attend his superior, and guard the horse, carry messages far and near wherever he is directed.” (Gethynctho)
Churl 2 – Kotsetla: Did not pay rent, and therefore had to labor for his lord more than the geneat. But he was still more obliged to a few liberties than the next class, gebur.
“The kotsetla’s duty depends on what is determined for the estate. In some he must work for his lord each Monday throughout the year, or three days each week at harvest-time. He need not pay ground rent. He ought to have five acres; more if it be the custom on the estate; and if it is ever less, it will be too little, because his labour must always be available. He is to pay his hearth-penny on Ascension Day, just as every freeman ought, and serve on his lord’s estate, if he is ordered, by guarding the coast, and work at the king’s deer-fence, and at similar things according to what his station is; and he is to pay his church dues at Martinmas.” (Gethynctho)
Churl 3 – Gebur: Did not pay rent and owed his lord a great deal of service. In addition to working for his landowner at least two or three days a week, he would usually have to pay a tax, provide his lord barley and livestock, work his rented land, pay a “hearth penny,” give bread, and support one of the lord’s dogs. But once again, the gebur’s duties varied depending on the estate he worked and the demands of his lord. In return, the lord would lend him tools and various supplies to get started.
8. Slaves – The slaves require little explanation. But by law they did at least have some rights, and their lords were supposed to provide them certain goods and privileges, such as a share of the harvest, dead sheep and a cow for food, and a very small amount of money once or twice a year for personal supplies.
Most of what is known about laws surrounding social class in Anglo-Saxon England before 1066 comes from a compilation of texts called “Quadripartitus” translated to Latin during the early 12th century. To write this article I looked at a wide range of sources, but most of them used “Quadripartitus” as their own reference. In particular, recorded statements about social laws comes from the portion Geþyncðo or “Dignities.” Further conclusions have been drawn simply by interpreting the events of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other historical texts.
Jenks, Edward. “The Development of Teutonic Law”. Association of American Law Schools. Select Essays in Anglo-American History: Vol. 1. Little, Brown, and Company. Boston. 1907. http://www.archive.org/stream/selectessaysinan01step/selectessaysinan01step_djvu.txt
Lacey, Robert and Danny Danzinger. The Year 1000 : What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium. Little, Brown and Company, 1999. Print.
Levick, Ben. “Anglo-Saxon Social Organization.” 1990. Regia Anglorum Publications. 2002. Net: http://www.regia.org/Saxons1.htm
Lingard, John. The History of England from the First Invasion by the Romans, Vol.1. Third Edition. London. Printed for J. Mawman. 1845. http://books.google.com/books?id=zSgpAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR19&dq=the+history+of+england+from+the+first+invasion+vol+1&hl=en&ei=WLjSTICiOYWBlAf8zdWcDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=441&f=false
Thoyras, Rapin. The History of England: Third Edition.Translated by N.Tindal. London. 1743.
Williams, Ann. The English and the Norman Conquest. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1995.