Local and District Courts of Justice

Book 2, Chapter 6, The End of the Ninth Century – Anglo Saxon Language

In a former chapter the functions and powers of the Witenagemot were fully explained. In addition to this Supreme Court there were others which arose at various times, and must be concluded to have sprung out of special exegencies. They are interesting as the germs out of which in after ages more perfect systems of judicature arose. It was not until after a lengthened process of incrustation and settlement, spread over many generations, that the methods and usages of established English law came to be settled and determined. Next to the Witenagemot, appears to have been the Sciregemot, or meeting of the shire, in which presided the Bishop of the Diocese and the Ealdorman, attended by the Seiregerefa, the county thanes, and the persons who brought the King’s message or writ. All persons, excepting “common thieves,” were to be protected in attending these meetings, which appear to have been convened from an uncertain number of the county hundreds, being sometimes from eight, three, two, or one.

The causes within their jurisdiction were chiefly disputes concerning land, and sometimes criminal cases. Until the time of Alfred, there were no justices or judges, but he separated their offices from that of the sheriff, and they attended at the Sciregemots with certain Lah men, or lawmen, the origin of modern lawyers. For the use of these persons, Alfred is said to have collected the customs of the several counties of the kingdom into one body, called the Domboc, or book of judgment, the statutes of which were ordered to be observed by his Son, Edward the Elder, and which existed in the time of Edward IV, though it is now unfortunately lost. As at this time there was no notion of eliciting truth by cross questioning, a cause was frequently decided by the Wager of Law, which was perhaps the rude type of future trials by jury.

This proceeding was extremely ancient, and consisted in providing eleven compurgators, to swear that they believed an accused person innocent of the crime attributed to him, after the charge against him had been formally made, and the witness produced. It was, however, allowed only for certain crimes, and where the accused bore a fair and irreproachable character and the number of twelve oaths was required, as has been formerly explained. Sometimes, however, thirty compurgators appeared on each side, and an acquittal from the plunder of the dead, required the oaths of forty eight full born thanes. Testimony was estimated according to the legal value set upon every person. Whilst the Ordeal’s were popular, the trials by jurators were but little used, but as those absurd appeals to Heaven declined, legal tribunals were more resorted to, and juries became more frequent.

After the Sciregemot, the Folc-gemot was a court for cheap men, or merchants, to declare the number of their followers to the Gerefa, in the event of their being accused. The Folc-gemot was ordered not to be held on a Sunday, and if any one disturbed it by a drawn weapon, he had a penalty of one hundred and twenty shillings to pay to the Ealdorman. In the reign of Athelstan, it was enacted that a merchant who had made three long sea voyages on his own account should be admitted to the rank of a thane. The Hundred courts came next to the County court in the Anglo-Saxon judicature, having been probably derived out of it for the convenience of the people, that they might have justice done to them at their own doors, without expense or delay. The Hundredary presided over it, and here were transacted sales of land, registering of wills, manumission of slaves, &c.

It was held monthly, had the jurisdiction of ten tythings, and was a repository for deeds and charters. In some of the northern counties, the hundred was called a Wapentake, because, when the governor of the district first entered on his office, he appeared in the field on horseback bearing a lance, which all the chief men of the hundred touched with a similar weapon, to evince their unanimity. As much of the judicial proceedings of these courts rested on oaths, the penalty for perjury was very great in the Anglo Saxon legislature, a perjured person being ranked with witches, murderers, &c., declared unworthy of the ordeal, disabled from becoming a witness again, and when he died was denied Christian burial. “In the name of the Almighty God,” ran the form of a Saxon witness’s oath, “as I stand here true in witness, unbidden and unbought, so I oversaw it with mine eyes, and overheard it with mine ears, as I have said it.”

Occasional references have been made to Anglo Saxon money, and it is necessary here to explain the signification and value of the coins whose names have been used, so far as these can now be understood. Divested of technical difficulties, and without determining whether the Saxons had two distinct weights, called pounds, it appears that the money weight  so named, contained five thousand four hundred grains troy, that out of this were coined forty-eight shillings, or two hundred and forty pennies. The “mark” was a Danish coin, or rather a money denomination, for it is doubtful if it was an actual coin, and occurs in the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun. It was in value two-thirds that of the pound. The “mancus” was equal to six Saxon shillings, or thirty pennies.

The coins most current were the shilling and the penny, and higher values represented by other names, such as the mark, the mancus, and the pound, were usually paid in shillings and pence. Of the latter a large number have been found and more are occasionally being brought to light. It was a custom, when paying a sum of money by tale, to pay more than the nominal amount, in order to provide for depreciation by wear. When a merchant paid a debt of one pound in shillings that had been some time in use, he paid fifty, instead of forty eight, and when pennies were tendered, two hundred and fifty were required for a like debt. The standard of Anglo Saxon money, as determined by modern tests, was one part copper to nine parts silver: and any infringement of this was punished by death or by cutting off the right hand, which was nailed to the door of the mint. The “sceatta” is another coin frequently mentioned, and is thought by some to be the fourth of a penny, and by others to be equivalent to a penny. The name was used as a general term for money. “To pay your sceat,” was, idiomatically, to pay your reckoning, and hence, perhaps, a modern vulgar phrase, “pay your shot.”

Alfred’s Penny

The Saxon silver penny, weighing twenty two and a half grains troy, purchased as much as seven shillings would do at the present day. Thus by the laws of Athelstan, the price of a sheep was fixed at four pennies, and its wool at two fifths of the entire value, of a sow, eight, of a cow, twenty, of an ox, thirty, of a man, forty eight. The common price of the best land per acre was sixteen pennies. The value of all articles, however, greatly fluctuated with the unsettledness of the times, so that it is impossible to erect with precision any standard of comparison between the relative values of commodities then and now.

Chapter 6, Ancient Towns and Highways

Domestic life of the Anglo-Saxons



Bells and Churches

Ancient Towns


Chapter 6, Internal Fittings of Houses



Chapter 6, Anglo-Saxon Furniture

Anglo-Saxon Furniture

Food and Drink


Furniture and Beds

Household Economy

Treatment of Slaves

The Toilette

Costume and Ornaments

Chapter 6, Anglo Saxon Hunting and Travelling


Travelling and Inns


The Calendar

Chapter 6, Anglo-Saxon Language

Anglo-Saxon Language

Local and District Courts of Justice


Categories: Book 2

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