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Then was in the burghs
Beowulf, the Scyldinga,
The dear king of his people.

With them the Scyld
Departed to the ship,
While many were prone to go
In the path of their lord.
They him then bore
To the journey of the ocean
As his companions,
He himself commanded;
Whence with words they governed
The Scyldinga of battle. 8


The birth that was thought illustrious conferred personal honour, but no political rank or power. No title was attached to it which descended by heirship and gave a perpetuity of political privileges. That was a later improvement. In theoretical reasoning, and in the eye of religion, the distinction of birth seems to be an unjust prejudice; we have all, as our Great Alfred and Boetius sang, one common ancestor, and the same Creator, Protector, and Judge ; but the morality and merit of society is the product of very complicated and diversified motives, and is never so superabundant as to suffer uninjured the loss of any one of its incentives and supports.

The fame of an applauded ancestor has stimulated many to perform noble actions, or to preserve an honourable character, and will continue so to operate while human nature exists. It creates a sentiment of honour, a dread of disgrace, an useful pride of name, which, though not universally efficient, will frequently check the vicious propensities of passion

8 M6. Cott. Lib. Vit. A. 15. p. 129, 130.



or selfishness, when reason or religion has exhorted in vain. The distinction of birth may be therefore added to the exaltation of the female sex, as another of those peculiarities which have tended to extract from the barbarism of the Gothic nations a far nobler character than any that the rich climates of the East could rear.

That there was a nobility from landed property, By prodistinct from that of birth, attainable by every one,

perty ; and possessing (what noble birth had not of itself) political rank and immunities, is clear, from several passages. It is mentioned in the laws, as an incentive to proper actions, that through God's gift a servile thræl may become a thane, and a ceorl an eorl, just as a singer may become a priest, and a bocere (a writer) a bishop.' In the time of Ethelstan it is expressly declared, that if a ceorl have the full proprietorship of five hides of his own land, a church, and kitchen, a bell-house, a burghate-seat, and an appropriate office in the king's hall, he shall thenceforth be a thegn, or thane, by

The same laws provide that a thegn may arrive at the dignity of an eorl, and that a massere, or merchant, who went three times over sea with his own craft, might become a thegn." But the most curious passage on this subject is that which attests, that without the possession of a certain quantity of landed property, the dignity of sitting in the witena-gemot could not be enjoyed, not even though the person was noble already. An abbot of Ely had a brother who was courting the daughter of a great man; but the lady refused him, be

right. 10

10 lbid. 70.

9 Wilk. Leg. Sax. 112. 11 lbid.

BOOK cause, although noble, he had not the lordship of VII.

forty hides, and therefore could not be numbered among the proceres or witena. To enable him to gratify his love and her ambition, the abbot conveyed to him certain lands belonging to his monastery. The nuptials took place, and the fraud was for some time undiscovered. 12

The principle of distinguishing men by their property is also established in the laws.

Thus we read of twyhyndum, of syxhyndum, and of twelf. hyndum men.13 A twyhynde man was level in his Were with a ceorl", and a twelfhynde with a thegns; and yet Canute calls both these classes his thegns. 16 But though property might confer

distinction, yet it was the possession of landed proX perty which raised a man to those titles which

might be called ennobling. Hence it is mentioned, that though a ceorl should attain to a helmet, mail, and a gold-hilted sword, yet if he had no land he must still remain a ceorl. 17

The species of nobility which was gained by official dignities appears to have appertained to the ealdorman, the eorl, the heretoch, and the thegn, when he was a king's thegn. A certain portion of rank was also conceded to the gerefa and the scir-reve. There was a still inferior degree of consequence derived from being ealdor of an hundred, and such like minor offices, which the laws sometimes recognise.

12 Hist. Eliens. 3 Gale, Scrip. 513.
13 Wilk. Leg. Sax. 25. 33.
14 Ibid. 64., and 3 Gale, 423.

15 Leg. Sax. 16. 16 “ I Cnut, king, greet Lyfing, archbishop; and Æthelwine, shireman, and all my thegns, twelf-hynde and twi-hynde friendlily.” Wanley, Cott. MSS. p. 181.

17 Leg. Sax. 71,
18 As in the ealdor of the hundred. Leg. Sax. 81.





The dignity from office conferred some bene- CHAP. ficial distinction on the family of the person possessing it; for the laws speak of an eorlcunde By office. widow, and defend her by exacting compensations, for wrongs committed against her, much superior to those of other women.

OFFICIAL dignities were conferred by the king, and were liable to be taken away by him on illegal conduct. This is the language with which, according to Asser, Alfred addressed his great men: “I wonder at your audacity, that by the gift of God, and by my gift, you have assumed the ministry and the degree of the wise men, and yet have neglected the study and labour of wisdom. Therefore I command, either that you lay aside the ministry of earthly power which you enjoy, or that you study wisdom more attentively." 20 In the laws we find an ealdorman threatened with the loss of his shire, unless the king pardon him, for conniving at the escape of a thief.2 So a thegn is threatened with the perpetual loss of his thegnship for an unjust judgment, unless he prove by oath that he knew not how to give a better decision. But the king in this case also had the option of restoring him.22 In: the same manner the gerefas are menaced with the deprivation of their post of honour, on committing the offences described in the law.23 The exact nature and duties of these dignified officers will be considered more minutely under the head of government. 24 19 Leg. Sax. 7.

20 Asser, Vit. Ælf. 71. 21 Leges Inæ, p. 20. 22 Leges Edgari, p. 78., et Cnuti, p. 135. 23 Leg. Sax. 69. 24 A curious privilege allowed to the great may be here noticed. This was, that his friends might do penance for him. The laws of



The rest of the Anglo-Saxon society consisted of three descriptions of men ; the free, the freed, and the servile.

In talking of the Anglo-Saxon freemen, we must not let our minds expatiate on an ideal character which eloquence and hope have invested with charms almost magical. No utopian state, no paradise of such a pure republic as reason can conceive, but as human nature can neither establish nor support, is about to shine around us when we describe the Anglo-Saxon freeman. A freeman among our ancestors was not that dignified independent being, “ lord of the lion heart and eagle eye,” which our poets fancy under this appellation ; he was rather an Anglo-Saxon not in the servile state ; not property attached to the land as the slaves were. He was freed from the oppression of arbitrary bondage : he was often a servant, and a master, but he had the liberty to quit the service of one lord and choose another.

That the Anglo-Saxon freemen were frequently servants, and had their masters, may be proved by a variety of passages in our ancient remains : « If any give flesh to his servants on fast-days, whether they be free or servile, he must compensate for the

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Edgar state that" a mighty man, if rich in friends, may thus with their
aid lighten his penance.” He was first to make his confession, and
begin bis penance with much groaning. Let him then lay aside his
arms and his idle apparel, and put on hair-cloth, and take a staff in
his hand, and go barefoot, and not enter a bed, but lie in his court-
yard.” If this penance was imposed for seven years, he might take to
his aid twelve men, and fast three days on bread, green herbs, and
water. He might then get seven times one hundred and twenty men,
whomsoever he could, who should all fast three days, and thus make
up as many days of penance as there are days in seven years, p. 97.
Thus a penance of seven years might be got through in a week.


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