A couple months back I started a new series, consisting of posts about the various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon society. I began at the top, with the Kings and Queens, and gave you a brief idea of what their roles were at the time.
Today we are going to move a little further down the ladder to the next class, which consisted of three groups: the aethling, ealdorman, and thegn.
These terms were not necessarily exclusive of one another, and their meanings can be difficult to interpret with the little information we have. So, again, bear with me as I try to explain something that can be murky at best to even trained historians!
Technically, in the 7th century, an aethling could refer to any high nobleman, but as time went on the term began to get more precise, and by the ninth century it referred specifically to the sons or brothers of reigning kings.
Ealdorman is also a rather fluid term in the seventh century context. It refers to high-status men, including those of royal birth; but generally more so to those who had power and authority independent of the king.
Thegn and ealdorman could be used interchangeably, both referring to the men of high status described above. But generally, kings would be the top, followed by the aethlings, the ealdormen, and then the thegns. For the purposes of this article, I will refer mainly to thegns, but understand that both aethlings and ealdormen had much the same status and function as thegns in Anglo-Saxon society at this time.
And before we go any further, I should note that it seems as if the word thegn replaced the original term, gesith, or king’s companion (especially in a military sense, but not exclusively). By the time of the Norman Conquest the term gesith had pretty much disappeared, replaced by thegn. But as for when exactly this exchange of terms happened, historians are unclear.
So, who were the thegns, and what did they do? And how did one achieve this high status?
To answer those questions, you have to get a broader picture of the society in general at the time, which was, of course, agriculturally based. A thegn would have been considered wealthy because he had a considerable amount of hereditary or granted land (or likely both), and perhaps even some property in a town. The land may or may not be in the same counties; it wasn’t until later that land began to get consolidated under one person in one area.
The thegn would be socially connected to important people as well as royalty, and he would be the manager of a large estate consisting of many men under him in status. The thegns were the king’s right hand, literally (in battle) as well as figuratively, doing a lot of the administrative work of the kingdom.
Thegns could hold important positions in the king’s court or household, or be appointed to the office of reeve (or manager) of one of the kings estates (vils); or sheriff (shire-reeve), charged with managing the affairs of a certain area.
All of the thegns had military obligations to the king. They would fight in the king’s battles and would gather men in the fyrd to fight under them.
Anglo-Saxon culture was honour-based. Loyalty to one’s lord was very important. From what I can tell, a formal spoken oath came along later in the Anglo-Saxon era, so in the 7th century it’s unclear whether or not a thegn would give such a spoken pledge. And perhaps this is why, as I explained last week, that the thegns and other noblemen of the kingdom had the power to withdraw their support of a king and elect another in his place. The relationship between the two was very much reciprocal–if the king was not a worthy warrior and the thegns did not get suitable treasure from their lord in thanks for their loyalty to him, they had the power to replace him.
Treasure in this context was not just shiny things, although those were certainly important. Kings would also grant land seized from defeated rivals, along with slaves.
The thegns and ealdormen had a great deal of power in Anglo-Saxon society. Many people would never see the king, but the thegns held local authority, and were the ones who would be administering justice, arranging for the local bridge to be repaired, or gathering support for the king in his military ventures.
All in all, the upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society had it pretty good, relatively speaking, compared to the class below them, called the coerls. They will be the subject of my next post in this series.
Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage