Laws and Legislature In Anglo-Saxon England:
Any system of government has three basic functions:
The first step was to divide the shires into hundreds (in Danish areas, the term wapentake was used), a reorganization, which probably occurred during the reigns of Edward the Elder, and Athelstan. After this, each hundred was further divided under Athelstan into groups of ten freemen called tithings, of which there seem to have been ten in every hundred.
One man in each tithing was senior to, and responsible for, the other nine, and he was called the tithingman. In every hundred, a hundredman was appointed and he, together with the ten tithingmen and a clerk, met every four weeks if possible, "at the time of the filling of the butts".
The main function of this group seems to have been administrative: the king spoke to the shire-reeve, the shire-reeve spoke to the hundredmen, and the hundredmen spoke to the tithingmen. However, Athelstan and Edgar both passed laws that reinforced the hundredmen as the principal law enforcement arm of the Anglo-Saxon executive. Hundredmen were responsible for seeing that legitimate trading was encouraged and cattle-theft actively discouraged. If a village failed to report suspicious movements of cattle, the hundredmen could see to it that the herdsmen were flogged. In following the trail of a thief, the hundredman was to take one or two men from each tithing. The hundredmen and tithingmen were not a police force as we would recognize it: prime responsibility for bringing offenders to justice still remained with the victim. However, they filled an important role in dealing with crimes that broke the king's peace, a group of crimes that were considered to be against the king himself. They may also have acted as a useful body of men that the courts could call upon if necessary. For example, Ethelred issued a code at Wantage for use in the Five Boroughs: twelve of the leading men in the hundred, together with the king's reeve, were to swear on relics that they would accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one. They were then to seize the men who had been frequently accused and against whom the reeve was taking action.
The Hundred Court:
The hundred court met every four weeks, in the open if possible and usually at a prominent local landmark that gave its name to the hundred. The king's reeve usually presided over the court. It had many functions, and was a mixture of parish council business meeting, planning enquiry, and magistrates' court. By the end of our period the king, the Church, and landlords with interests in the district all found it essential to establish and maintain a permanent presence in the hundred where much of the routine legal business connected with their affairs would be conducted.
Edward the Elder decreed that the hundred courts were to judge the worthiness of every lawsuit and to appoint a day for it to be heard and settled. They did not have to hear the case there and then. Above the hundred court was the shire court which met twice a year, usually about Easter and Michaelmas (29th September), and was presided over by the ealdorman, the bishop and the king's senior reeve in the area, the shire-reeve (or sheriff), with all the major landowners in the shire, or their reeves, present. Lawsuits made up only a small part of the shire court's time, which was filled up with all the other business essential to the smooth running of the shire. Lawsuits could be passed up to the shire court from the hundred court, though we are not sure why this would be necessary. Presumably, it would occur in cases where the hundred court was unable to reach a judgment, or where disputes crossed the boundary between two hundreds.
Bringing A Suit:
If the hundred court accepted the validity of the lawsuit, a day would be appointed on which the defendant should appear. (If the defendant was not at court to hear the charge, then we must assume that someone would be delegated to go and tell him of it.) If the defendant did not turn up on the appointed day, the plaintiff had to repeat his lawsuit, before witnesses, at the next hundred court and a new date would be set. This way, a defendant could avoid appearing before the court for some time, but eventually the court would decide that enough was enough and he would lose the suit by default. On the appointed day, assuming that the defendant appeared, the plaintiff would make a preliminary oath to prove the honesty of his motives. He would then repeat the charges before witnesses and the defendant.
The basic principle of the law was that 'denial is always stronger than accusation', so, in most cases, the defendant would be allowed to bring forward an oath to prove his innocence. This was achieved with the aid of oath-helpers, the number of which depended on the nature and severity of the charge involved. Interestingly, these oath-helpers were not required to give any evidence or information. The defendant swore: "By the Lord, I am guiltless both of deed and instigation of the crime with which N charges me", and the oath-helpers simply swore in support of this: "By the Lord, the oath is pure and not false that M swore". Usually, that was enough, and the defendant walked away free. To our cynical 20th century minds, this may seem incredibly naive and wide open to abuse, but a hundred was a small area - perhaps a thousand people or so - bound together by a web of duties, rights, oaths, and promises, and everyone knew everyone else. The oath-helpers would know the facts behind the case as well as anyone else, which is why there was no need for them to give evidence. A man who was known to be guilty would have a hard job getting together the requisite number of oath-helpers.
Sometimes, a defendant might not be considered 'oath-worthy'. If he had a record as long as your arm, for example, or if he had been caught in the act or with stolen goods. In such a case, the plaintiff was awarded the oath if he could bring forward witnesses to the crime, who would swear: "In the name of Almighty God, so I stand here by N in true witness, unbidden and unbought, as I saw with my eyes and heard with ears that which I pronounce with him". If the plaintiff had been given the oath, or if it had been granted to the defendant and he had failed to find enough oath-helpers, the defendant might then go to the ordeal, the judgment of God, rather than admit to his guilt.