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Courts in the early medieval world

Early medieval courts were a matter of the local men agreeing things, rather than a single judge making arbitrary decisions. This applies as much to Scandinavian “thing-moots” as English courts. Meetings took place at different levels:

The hundred court

A hundred was the basic administrative unit of Anglo-Saxon England. It was analogous to the Carolingian centenna; in the Danelaw the equivalent unit was called the wapentake. As the name suggests, a hundred was roughly a hundred hides of land.

A hundred court was relatively small in scale, a bit like a modern parish council or residents’ association. It was likely to discuss local matters, for example property transactions (which needed to be witnessed), betrothals, announcing the wills of less important men and local disputes (stray animals, encroachment on rights or boundaries). Hundred courts met roughly monthly. Sometimes two or three hundreds held meetings together at a convenient point on the boundary.

The shire court

The shire court was rather larger, likely to be attended by all of the substantial landowners. They were something between an Althing and a modern local authority/local council. The ealdorman and diocesan bishop were required to attend, to clarify what the law said. Shire courts met twice a year and would be major events in local politics – the place to resolve disputes, show off your importance and make major announcements (thegns’ wills, major gifts to churches etc). Legal cases which could not be resolved at the hundred court were referred up to the shire court. In the eleventh century, English kings addressed writs to shire courts with formal announcements – e.g. the appointment of a new bishop, grants of royal land or rights. Since the shire/wapentake was the main military unit, this was the place for the thegns and their retainers to get to know each other, practice shieldwalls, feast and generally bond.

The royal court

The king and his extended household acted as the ultimate court and source of justice or dispute-resolution (especially for cases concerning the most important nobles). Any and all of the major magnates (ealdormen/earls, bishops) would expect to attend royal assemblies, and foreign delegations might well be present. The affairs of the kingdom would be discussed – wars, taxation, alliances, candidates for royal offices – but also the king’s personal interests. Foreign alliances were largely about the king’s personal relationship with his counterparts. Some favoured magnates would get greater access to the king (e.g. being able to talk to him in private), and therefore have more influence on policy.

Credits: with thanks to Benedict Coffin.