We learn from History that we never learn anything from history. — G. W. F. Hegel

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

The Laws of the Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons, having terrified the Picts, Scots, and Britons, so that they no longer dared come into the main part of the island, settled down quietly in the kingdoms they had founded. As there were generally seven of these kingdoms, they are known as the Heptarchy, or the Seven Kingdoms.

You must not imagine, however, that the Anglo-Saxons entirely gave up fighting, for they often quarrelled and waged war against one another. But whenever any great danger threatened them, the Seven Kingdoms united under the command of the bravest of their kings, who was given the title of bretwalda, or head of the army. Besides the king, there were the earls, noblemen who were the governors and judges of certain provinces; the thanes, who served the king; the churls, who were the farmers; and, the lowest and largest class of all, the slaves, or serfs.

The people believed that the Anglo-Saxon kings all belonged to the race of Woden, but the crown did not always pass from a father to his eldest son, as it does now. Whenever a king died, the principal men of the tribe assembled in a council which was called the Witenagemot, or assembly of wise men. Here they talked the matter over and elected a new king, who could reign only by consent of the people. The Witenagemot also met two or three times a year, to decide what had best be done, and what new laws should be made, or to judge any case which could not be settled by the earls.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon punishments were by fines, a larger sum being asked for the murder of an earl than for that of a churl, and the killing of a horse or a cow being rated higher than that of a slave. Each earl had a sort of court over which he presided, and when a man was accused of a crime, he could prove his innocence either by getting ten men of his own class to swear he had not done wrong, or by submitting to an ordeal.

Now, as you probably do not know what an ordeal was, I must explain to you that it was a test of some kind. For instance, there was the ordeal by water, in which the accused was forced to plunge his hand into boiling water. If, at the end of a certain number of days, his burns were healed, he was said to be guiltless; but if they were not well, he was condemned as guilty. Sometimes the accused had to pick up a bar of iron heated red-hot, or had to walk blindfolded over nine heated ploughshares, or to plunge his hand or foot into boiling oil or pitch. Of course, we know that it was impossible by this plan to find out whether a man was innocent or guilty; but the Anglo-Saxons fancied that God would plainly show them who was right and who was wrong.

In these trials by ordeal, if the accused was a friend of the executioner, or if he had given him a present, the iron, water, or oil was not heated so hot as when the accused was an enemy, or even a stranger. So while some of the old Anglo-Saxon laws have proved worthy of being preserved, no one can regret that the trial by ordeal has been long ago given up.


Front Matter

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee