Anglo-Saxon Society | GCSE History Revision | Anglo-Saxon & Norman England

Anglo-Saxon Society | GCSE History Revision | Anglo-Saxon & Norman England


The Anglo-Saxons: let’s lay the basics
down. First of all, who were they? The Anglo-Saxons were the people who settled
in England after the Romans left. They came from parts of what is now Germany,
Belgium and the Netherlands. There were roughly 2 million Anglo-Saxons, which
despite being an incredibly large number, is actually very tiny for a population –
if you consider that the current population of England is around 55
million. One explanation for this low population could be the low life
expectancy and high infant mortality rates.
Most of the population farmed land in order to grow the resources they needed
to live. So now we have the very basics, what about the structure of Anglo-Saxon
society? Almost every society that ever has been or is, has at least some form of
hierarchy. Someone at the top, perhaps a king, and a large group of
people right at the very bottom, normally the poor, Anglo-Saxon society is
certainly no exception to this. At the very bottom of the social hierarchy were
slaves, making up roughly 10% of the population. They could be bought and sold
and were seen as property. However, slaves were punished less harshly for
committing crimes, so to not damage their ability to work. Across the water,
the Normans thought slave ownership was barbaric but for Anglo-Saxons slaves were
a normal part of life. Next up in the hierarchy, were the peasant farmers, who
made up most of the population – as shown by this diagram I’ve nicked from the
textbook. Peasant farmers would rent small farms from a lord, doing a certain
amount of work for him before they were allowed to use the rest of their harvest
to support themselves and their family. And if they didn’t do the work for the
Lord, they could risk losing their rights to use the land – which would be a
disaster! There was another type of peasant farmer,
as well, the ceorl. Ceorls were “free peasant farmers” (peasant farmers who were
not tied to their land). Like the ordinary peasant farmer, the ceorl would do work on
the land for the Lord, however, they could go and work for a different lord if they
wished to. Moving up the ladder, we find thegns, “local Lords”. By the year 1060,
England had between 4,000 and 5,000 thegns. In order to become a thegn, you
must meet certain requirements, such as owning more than five hides of land.
Hides, by the way, was a measurement of land, roughly similar to
120 acres. Anyway a thegn must own more than five hides of land and live in a
manor with a tower and separate Church. Thegns formed part of the aristocracy.
They were its warrior class. Earls sat at the top of the aristocracy,
above thegns and second from the King. They ruled over vast areas of land, called
‘earldoms’. They would compete with each other, as well, through loyalty, to be the
most trusted and relied on by the King. Some would even sometimes challenge the
King to gain further power. Of course, at the top, sat the king, himself. But
there isn’t really much to say about him, he just kind of did what most kings do:
ruled. Unlike the rest of Europe, where social status depended on ancestry, who
your parents were and their parents and their parents… In Anglo-Saxon society,
there was room to move up and down the social ladder. A successful peasant, for
instance, or a merchant who made many successful trips in their ship, and
fitted all the criteria, could become a thegn. Slaves could be freed by their
masters and ceorls could sell themselves into slavery as a desperate
measure. Successful thegns could become earls. Earls; kings. And bad earls could be
demoted to thegns. So there we have it: Anglo-Saxon Society.

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