top of page

Land Tenure in the Anglo-Saxon Period

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

The Anglo-Saxon Period stretched from 480 c.e. to 1066 c.e., and ended with the Norman take-over. Even with Danish kings, the landholding system endured. If English folk did not thrive, most had their basic needs for food, shelter, and safety met. They worked hard, ate simple foods, and within their families, they endured the heartbreak of high infant mortality. Some folk even lived to a ripe old age, dodging ailments, war, and accidents. In this blog, I look at how English land was held and worked during the Anglo-Saxon Period.

The lands the Anglo-Saxons took from the Romano-Britons or the unoccupied lands they cleared and inhabited, became known as folkland (folc-lond). These invading Angles and Saxons did not care for towns and cities and settled in small villages of usually less than twenty households (hiwises). The head of the household was the master of his land, with the right to kill trespassers and discipline slaves. Besides the area around the house (haga)--kitchen garden, chicken coop, etc.--the village community allocated strips of land for cultivation for a period of time, after which the strips might be re-allocated, turned over for pasture, or left fallow. The harvest belonged to the householder. Each household also had access rights to the meadow for grazing sheep and cattle, and to the surrounding forests for foraging wild foods, hunting, and cutting firewood and timber for building. The land required to support a household, the haga, the strips, the meadow and the forest came to be referred to as a hide.

The sharing of fields, decisions about when to let a field lie fallow, the maintenance of fences, etc., all required working together cooperatively, though each family would decide what crops to grow and what animals (and how many) to raise.

Each family also had to participate in military service ( the fyrd), i.e. send a stalwart lad or two to fight the king's enemies Households also had to assist with repairing fortifications, and building or repairing bridges. Each village had to provide annual food rent (feormi) to provide for the king and his travelling entourage, to be delivered to the king's agent in a central village.

By the seventh century, the unwritten custom (law) was that folkland could not be sold, only passed on to kin, except under special circumstances.

Here's where it gets interesting.

The seventh century also saw Engla-lond become Christianized after St. Augustine arrived with a gaggle of missionaries. The Christian Church was there to stay. The monks built their churches and monasteries with stone, not wood, reflecting permanence and authority. This was before castles dotted the map of Engla-lond--those impressive structures came with the Normans. Now the Church needed land on which to build and sustain the monks, but the land was folkland. So, the king added into law the granting of land charters to those building religious establishments. These lands were referred to as bookland (boc-lond). Granted in perpetuity, bookland could be conveyed (given, sold, or bequeathed) to anyone. A charter holder was exempt from taxation but had to maintain roads and bridges and supply men for the fyrd (military call-up).

But, Anglo-Saxon law evolved, as things do, and the religious requirement dropped away and was finally discarded. Bookland came to resemble full ownership in the modern sense. And here is where opportunism combined with greed and the lust for power. Those who proved themselves worthy of the king's favour, just might find themselves recipients of one or more land charters. The class that included thegns and earls (jarls in Danish) became the landed class, which also included wealthy bishops and archbishops.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress) Harald and Selia are given such a charter (thirty hides) and they struggle to meet expectations of their new roles as major obstacles arise. By the eleventh century, some important changes had taken place in agriculture in Engla-lond. The invention of the moldboard plough allowed the soil to be turned over and not just furrowed, which raised crop yields. The surplus grain meant profits for the landholder. Having resident lords or stewards managing tenant farms allowed for centralized crop storage and processing.

Some of the ecclesiastical manors (those of the Bishops of Winchester and Salisbury for example) were as large as any of the king's estates. The bishops would lease some of their lands to the landholding nobility and some to landless thegns. When Bishop Theodred of London died circa 952, he left 31 estates, 20 spread across Suffolk and 11 in other counties. Remember, each estate would oversee ten or more hides, with each hide averaging 120 acres depending on the terrain.

On the estates there existed three new social classes. The first class was the steward or estate manager (geneat). Next were the cottagers (kotsetlan) who were allocated five acres of arable land in return for working the lord's land on Mondays and three days a week at harvest time. The next class was the gebura, who held more land than the kotsetla, but they worked for the lord two days each week and three days at harvest time. They had to plough an acre each week during ploughing season, two acres per year for pasture rights, and three more acres a year as rent for the land. He also had to purchase seed from the lord, provide food for one hunting dog, and six loaves of bread to the estate swineherd. In turn, the lord provided two oxen, one cow, six sheep, and seven acres sown, as well as tools, house, and contents. These folk were free, but if they chose to leave, they took nothing with them.

Such were the social and economic systems in rural Engla-lond during the Anglo-Saxon Period. When the Normans invaded in 1086 and defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king, they brought many changes to English society. The feudal system was one. Enter knights and serfs. But that's a story for another time.

[My main sources for this blog were economist Raymond Makewell's article, Anglo-Saxon Land Tenure, and Dr. Helena Hamerow's online lecture on The Medieval Agricultural Revolution c.A.D. 800-1300.]

23 views0 comments


bottom of page