13 October 2010

Money Matters: Anglo-Saxon Wergild

By Lisa Yarde

In the sixth century, King Ethelbert of Kent established the wergild, or "man-payment", which fixed the amount of compensation a victim's family could demand for a murder. The Anglo-Saxons hoped to prevent the more common solution for punishing perpetrators of violent crimes: blood feuds between families, a vicious cycle of retribution that lasted generations. By the eighth century, wergild extended to all kinds of crimes, such as theft of property, excommunication, breach of the king's peace, rape or marrying a widow within a year of her husband's death.

The wergild helped define varying classes of society. A higher social status meant the victim's family could demand a larger payment. Everyone, except slaves, had an assigned worth that determined the value of clergymen and kings to the lowliest freemen. The varying Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established amounts of wergild. In eighth century Kent, a nobleman was worth 300 shillings, while the wergild of a freeman was 100 shillings. Kentish law defined a shilling as the worth of a cow.

In other parts of England, where the cost of one sheep set the value of a shilling, the value of a nobleman was 1200 shillings, with 200 shillings for the value a freeman. Under King Alfred the Great, acts of mutilation required specific compensation: 30 shillings for cutting off an ear, 60 for a nose, 9 for a finger and 20 for a toe. Women held the same wergild as male members of their class, and pregnant women had their own value, plus half of that for an unborn child.

If the perpetrator of a crime had been determined, a precise set of rules determined how he or she should pay the wergild. His or her family often disassociated themselves; those who provided shelter to a murderer might forfeit their lands to the king. Hostages in varying number from both sides of the perpetrator's family stayed with the victim's family as a surety.

During this time, the king's peace proscribed blood feuds. After twenty-one days, the victim's family received an initial payment (healsfang) of the wergild. Another twenty-one days later, the overlord of the victim, be it the king, a member of the clergy, or a nobleman, received some compensation (manbot), for being deprived of the victim's service through death or of rents owed, through theft. The king also received a payment (fihtwite) for the initial "breaking of his peace" during which the crime was perpetrated. The victim's family received the rest of their compensation in installments. Often, the payments went only to male members of a family.

What happened when a victim's family did not receive the wergild? In the late tenth century, the nobleman Wulfbald fought with his stepmother over property from her late husband. The widow demanded the wergild, but Wulfbald refused even when King Ethelred ordered it. His property was forfeit to the king, but he held it until his death. Wulfbald's wife and son inherited his claim. They arranged the death of a cousin, Eadmer, who supported Wulfbald's stepmother along with fifteen of Eadmer's men. Only the intervention of the archbishop of Canterbury and the threat of excommunication ended the rebellion of Wulfbald's son.

Failing wergild payments, it did not always devolve into blood feuds. In 1049, Earl Sweyn Godwinson of Hereford, the son of the powerful Earl of Wessex, had a disagreement with his cousin Earl Bjorn Estrithson of Huntingdon over some land. He arranged a meeting with Bjorn and killed him. King Edward the Confessor exiled Sweyn for the murder of his cousin. When the king declared him nithing, "a man without honor," Sweyn fled the country. His father Godwin interceded and the king allowed Sweyn's return, provided he agreed to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He completed it, but died on the journey home. He never paid the wergild to Bjorn's family.

Lisa J. Yarde is a historical fiction author. Her ON FALCON'S WINGS, an epic medieval novel chronicling the starstruck romance between Norman and Saxon lovers, is available now.