The King's Council, or witan, taken from 11th century image Old English Hexateuch
Crime in society has always existed, but peace has always been the objective, even in the Dark Ages.
Laws were made by kings with the help of their advisers, known as the witan. Ordinary people had rights to protect themselves, their families and property, and it was up to them to seek justice. The nobles had their rights of privilege too.
In Anglo-Saxon times adultery was an offence that could end in death, sometimes by drowning. Slander would get your tongue cut out and thieves could have their hands cut off. In many cases though, fines were imposed for offences including murder of a freeman or slave. Only the murder of a noble would result in execution. Or if the king decided you needed to lose your head then so be it.
Early England was a violent and dangerous place and its lawlessness is well documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, archaeologists studying burials from the seventh and eighth centuries believe that the larger kingdoms had secured a stable society. To maintain the peace kings introduced civil justice and law codes that included capital punishments for the very serious offences. Burials have been found in non-consecrated ground containing bodies of people who have been decapitated and with their hands tied: obviously criminals. Written sources have frequently mentioned the judicial courts and range of punishments and executions for the guilty. See Crushedfor the types of trials carried out during the seventh century.
The results of trials were decided by leaders (kings or chieftains for example) and verified by clergymen. The use of juries didn't come about until the reign of Henry III in 1219. Trial by combat was introduced by William the Conqueror in 1066 and lasted until 1819.
There were plenty of hand-to-hand battles to account for the mutilated bodies found, but the way the criminals have been laid out indicates the purpose of their death. Many were buried face down with rocks on their backs as if to weigh them down and often they were buried in batches, suggesting particular execution periods. They were buried outside the towns or village borders as if they were not welcome in the community. There were many hangings, as the evidence of gallows suggests, but even so, heads were still cut off from the bodies. The reason for this is so that the person would not be resurrected or his spirit come back to haunt the living. I have included examples of this in Gulfyrianand The Dark Garden.
In December 2019 42 skeletons were found in a development site. They were all found face down with their hands tied behind their backs. First impressions are that they are from the Anglo-Saxon period, but archaeologists are yet to carry out a full study. Watch this space.
This method of peace-keeping and control was designed to keep order and to inflict suffering on the wrong-doers. Thank goodness we no longer live in the Dark Ages...
Ordeal of boiling water from a Sachsenspiegel manuscript (1350-1375). Photo courtesy the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany
Trial by fire involved the accused carrying a red-hot iron. (Getty images)
by William Andrews
A compelling read which looks at the methods of public order in Engalnd and northern Europe during the Medieval period.