Was There Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon England?

Anglo-Saxon England was, in many ways, a typical medieval society. But was there more scope for social mobility than in neighboring Normandy and France?

Apr 17, 2024By Dan Bulman, MPhil Medieval History, BA Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic

social mobility anglo saxons england


The Anglo-Saxons, descendants of a varied assemblage of north Germanic tribes, ruled England for over 600 years. During this time, they had a profound impact on the UK’s language and culture.


The structure of Anglo-Saxon society, however, was largely thrown out due to the more cutting-edge knightly aristocracy imposed by Duke William of Normandy in 1066. Yet surviving evidence suggests that, compared to the rigid hierarchy imposed by the Normans, there was a degree of social mobility in Anglo-Saxon England. Just how much hope did the ambitious individual have of getting ahead in pre-Conquest England?


Medieval Hierarchies

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The Chronicle of John of Worcester from CCC MS. 157, Source: The Digital Bodleian


European thought once held that society was made up of three essential components: Those who worked (laboratores), those who prayed (oratores), and those who fought (bellatores). These categories were held to be mutually supportive. The bellatores protected the meek so that they might work in peace to provide the warriors with their keep. Oratores provided for the spiritual needs of the bellatores who sinned by shedding the blood of other Christians.


The first justification for the “Three Orders” appears in the writings of Adalbero, bishop of Laon, and Gerard, bishop of Cambrai in the early eleventh century, although there is mention of it in the translations into Old English of Latin texts by King Alfred (871-99) and his court. It went on to have a pervasive influence on how medieval people thought about their role in society.

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The chronicler John of Worcester reported several dreams that Henry I, son of William the Conqueror and king of England, 1100-35, reportedly shared with his physician, Grimbald. In his dreams, Henry was approached by disgruntled representatives of each of the three orders of society: workers, knights, and the clergy. Collectively, this was supposed to represent discontent with Henry I’s government. It is notable here that the three orders already form the neatest representation of the body politic at large.


The idea was to cast a long, 700-year shadow. The formalization of the Three Orders as the Three Estates, and the aristocracy’s defense of their privileges in the face of popular discontent, would fuel the French Revolution of 1789. The descendants of those bellatores who had once defended the meek protested in vain as their former charges strung them up from gibbets and lampposts in the streets of Paris.


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Ruins of Sandal Castle, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Though bishops and clergy might represent the relationships between the three orders as symbiotic, a hierarchy is evident. This is visible not least in the physical relationship of the castle, a potent symbol of the knightly class, to the farming hinterland lying below and around it. Several historians, furthermore, conceive that the feudal relationship which resulted from the Three Orders as based on military force, intimidation and what some churchmen referred to as “bad lordship.” The medieval peasant was no more equal to his knightly protector than the hapless New Jersey restaurateur was to Tony Soprano.


In this triangular social world, particularly in medieval Europe where the bellatores fought on horseback as knights, it is perhaps not surprising that there were visible barriers to advancement. Peasants were barred from entry to a profession in which possession of a sword, lance, chainmail, and a horse was a minimum requirement. As the centuries wore on, knighthood became a more defined emblem of social status, and society became yet more crystallized.



The Structure of Late Anglo-Saxon Society

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Anglo-Saxon peasants fight on as their higher-status and better-trained companions, the thegns, lie strewn over the battlefield, from the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Late Anglo-Saxon society was similarly organized into three orders. Beyond this, there were other similarities with knightly Europe. Anglo-Saxon England was certainly a stratified society, with many different social ranks. Each of these ranks had their own rights and responsibilities, which are revealed to us by a collection of sources the detail of which is almost unrivalled in western Europe.



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A group of Anglo-Saxons forming a plow team, using oxen, 11th Century, Course: Medieval.eu


Firstly, there were several ranks of peasants. As a class, free peasants who owned their land and were not subject to a lord were often referred to as ceorls. Beneath this, among peasants who were subject to a lord, there were various designations ranging from gebur (unfree peasant) to geneat (tenant) in status, with each owing a particular service to their lord.


The eleventh-century text The Rights and Ranks of People (Rectitudines Singularum Personarum), sets out in exact detail those services which lords could expect from their servants. Geneates, for example, were expected to pay taxes and build dwellings on an estate. Gebures, on the other hand, would have to work on their lord’s land for two days a week all year-round, and three during harvest time.



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Anglo-Saxon thegns (center) fighting Norman knights from the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century, Source: The BBC


Above the various ranks of peasants stood the thegn. If searching for an equivalent for the knight of medieval mainland Europe, the thegn is the closest parallel one can find in Anglo-Saxon England. The class of thegn is thought to have originated in the warbands of the early Anglo-Saxon kings. Several writers, including Bede and the anonymous writer of the epic poem Beowulf, help us to visualize this tableau. They conjure for the reader a timber hall heady and redolent with the smell of roasted meat and the sound of feasting. At the center we find a king supported by his warband of friend-companions, the gesithas. In the gesith of the seventh century, we find the ancestor of the later thegn.


By the eleventh century the term thegn came to designate a diverse social group, including wealthy king’s thegns alongside more provincial lesser thegns. Historian H. R. Loyn pointed out that service was central to the social identity of the thegn. They served as warriors, and thegns clearly identified this as a key justification for their privilege. The heriot, a sort of Anglo-Saxon inheritance tax, was a symbolic bequest of the thegn’s arms and armor back to their lord following the thegn’s death.


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The seal of the king’s thegn Godwin, 11th century, Source: The British Museum


Yet thegns also served a governmental function as messengers, tax collectors and legal officials. The seal of the otherwise unknown king’s thegn, Godwine, suggests that thegns had a role in the administration by the eleventh century, beyond being mere military retainers. From the class of thegn the king might choose his sheriffs, who were responsible for representing the king’s interest within a shire, including collecting revenues due to him.



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Harold Godwinson, as earl, swearing on sacred relics to support the claim to the English throne of William, Duke of Normandy, from the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Above the thegns in the hierarchy were the earls. The word seems to have developed from the Old Norse Jarl, and was probably introduced through Scandinavian influence after the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. The term also had an English ancestor in the ealdorman, who generally ruled just one shire (county) and who gave his name to modern alderman.


The eleventh century earl had control of a wider area than the ealdorman, stretching across several counties. By the mid-eleventh century there were four main earldoms: Wessex, in the south of England, Mercia, in the Midlands, East Anglia, and Northumbria, comprising the northern counties. Earls were expected to lead the warriors of their earldom in battle and preside over the shire court, in return for the “third penny,” a share in fines and payments made to the court.


By the time of the Norman Conquest, some earldoms, such as Wessex, were becoming hereditary. Besides defending the realm, earls would lead offensive campaigns with authority delegated to them by the king, as happened in 1054 when the Northumbrian Earl Siward led an army to depose the historical Macbeth. Earls might act as patrons of monasteries and churches, or establish their own, as Harold Godwinson did with Waltham Abbey. It was, in many ways, a golden age for the aristocratic “great man.”


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The Pharaoh’s court from the Old Testament represented as an Anglo-Saxon king with his courtiers in the Old English Hexateuch, 11th Century, Source: The British Library


Late Anglo-Saxon society, then, was composed of many different social ranks performing varied functions. As a Christian society, there was a class of oratores: bishops, abbots, priests, and monks who prayed for the souls of the living. The bellatores were the earls and thegns who, by the eleventh century, had a military as well as an administrative role. The laboratores were the various classes of peasants who owed service to their lords, be they thegns, earls, or the king himself.


Social mobility in Anglo-Saxon law

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The text of Geþyncðo, as it appears in the 11th-century manuscript Cambridge CCC MS 201, Source: Parker Library on the Web


Where Anglo-Saxon society appears to differ from that of eleventh-century Mainland Europe is in how permeable social barriers were seen to be. One of the most extraordinary sources from the entire Anglo-Saxon period is the early eleventh-century text Geþyncðo. It is thought to have been written by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (1002-23), who was exceptionally well-informed about Anglo-Saxon law.


This document proves without doubt that Anglo-Saxon England was a society deeply concerned with social status. Here social position is equated with the possession of property and the outward accoutrements of distinction. Yet the law also conceives of social mobility as something not only possible, but facilitated by established traditions.


The most important dividing line in Anglo-Saxon society was between thegn and ceorl, noble and commoner. Therefore, perhaps the most interesting is the statement in Geþyncðo regarding the attainment of the status of thegn:


“And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of land of his own, a bell and a castle-gate, a seat and special office in the king’s hall, then was he henceforth entitled to the rights of a thegn.”


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Reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon Farmhouse, 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The text goes on to make a similar promise for merchants:


“And if a trader prospered, that he crossed thrice the open sea at his own expense, he was then afterwards entitled to the rights of a thegn.”


In other words, successful free peasants and merchants could lay claim to noble status if they passed a property qualification and if they could look the part. In the case of a landowner, by having a fortified homestead and attached church. For merchants, it meant engaging in long-distance trade on a regular basis and providing luxury goods that might serve to enhance their own, and others’, social status.


The text’s promise for the clergy was that if a churchman


“prospered with his learning so that he took orders and served Christ, he should afterwards be entitled to so much more honour and protection as belonged by rights to that order.”


This vague statement seems to suggest that those most deserving and learned priests, as with ceorls and thegns, should be able to rise in the church hierarchy, becoming deacons, archdeacons, and abbots. The picture we receive, then, is of a society which, while mapping on broadly to the universal idea of the “Three Orders,” was essentially porous both within and between its social categories.


Anglo-Saxon Social Mobility: The Reality

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Peasants in the field, from Queen Mary’s Salter, 1310, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. There can only have been so much room for parvenus in a relatively densely settled, agrarian population. Since the term “thegn” carried a connotation of service, demand for suitable lords to pledge fealty to (known as “commendation” in Anglo-Saxon England) may have outstripped supply. The meaning of Geþyncðo, which can be translated as “Dignity” or “Propriety,” suggests that the text reflected society as the author thought it ought to be, rather than society as it necessarily was.


It is likely, furthermore, that to be a ceorl was itself a fairly privileged position; most peasants in England would have been tenant farmers for whom becoming a thegn would have seemed an impossible dream.


The evidence for the rise of individuals from ceorl to thegn, and within the class of thegn itself, is singularly lacking. In an age in which most laymen were illiterate, and books were produced on vellum made from the costly hides of sheep and cows, rather than on paper, chroniclers rarely mentioned the careers of those below the rank of king and earl. Yet the fact that legal thinkers mention the possibility of social mobility at all suggests that it was conceivable at the very least, and may have been an observable phenomenon.


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The preparation of vellum used for writing. The cost of this material meant that Anglo-Saxon written records were somewhat rare, Source: Botanical Art and Artists


The means through which peasants could attain noble status remains a matter of speculation. The reference to an “office in the king’s hall” reinforces the idea that to be a thegn was to perform service. Perhaps thegns might serve as a bailiff for a royal or aristocratic estate. In order to “prosper” and hold five hides of land (usually around 500 acres), the ceorl might inherit land through his kinship group, known as folkland, or acquire it through purchase from a neighbor who had fallen on hard times.


On occasion, a greater lord might want to ennoble an individual so that he might perform military service for a part of his estate, since a landholder needed to provide a warrior from every five hides of land they possessed.


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King Edgar (959-75) seated between his two principal advisers, Dunstan and Æthelwold, Source: The British Library


The church might be a more fluid hierarchy, with appointments based on learning and therefore merit. Yet it is notable that many of the most prominent bishops of the Anglo-Saxon period, such as Dunstan of Canterbury and Æthelwold of Winchester in the tenth century, were both scions of noble families. For those lower-born priests who rose to become abbots or bishops, probably rather rare in Anglo-Saxon England, the societal impact was mitigated by the inherent (though not universally followed) inability of priests to marry and pass dignities and land on to their kin.


A further point of interest in Geþyncðo is seen in the passage concerning the status of an earl:


And if a thegn prospered, that he became an earl, then was he afterwards entitled to an earl’s rights.”


Here we are slightly better informed, for one of the most important figures in eleventh-century England, Earl Godwine, did just that.


The Rise of Earl Godwine

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King Cnut and his wife, Emma of Normandy, give a golden cross to the church at New Minster, Winchester, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031, Source: The British Library


Godwine’s father seems to have been a thegn from Sussex named Wulfnoth Cild who was responsible for burning a large part of the Anglo-Saxon royal fleet in 1009. Such a service from Godwine’s family might have been well-remembered by the Danish King Cnut, who conquered England in 1016. Godwine became Earl of Wessex in 1018 and was father to King Harold Godwinson.


Subsequently, we find Godwine engaged in varied business on behalf of Cnut in England and Scandinavia, and for Cnut’s sons Harold and Harthacnut. He even murdered a young claimant to the throne named Alfred, who was a son of Cnut’s predecessor Æthelred Unraed (“ill-counsel”), in 1036. When Alfred’s older brother Edward the Confessor assumed the throne in 1042, Godwine had his daughter Edith married to the new king. To stay ahead politically, Godwine had to move with the times.


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Godwine’s son, Harold Godwineson’s crowning himself, 13th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite Edward’s evident dislike for his parvenu father-in-law, it was impossible to dislodge Godwine. After a dispute between Godwine’s men and some of Edward’s French allies in the town of Dover in 1051, Godwine was expelled from England, only to return the following year with a mercenary fleet and the men of Wessex at his back. In Godwine we find the prototype of that later magnate whose caprice was to keep the royal crown oscillating between two different families in England during the Wars of the Roses: Warwick the “Kingmaker.”


Godwine also built up a remarkable landed estate that was, according to the evidence of the Domesday Book written in 1086, second only to the king. There is evidence that he acquired lands from the Church. At a time of invasion, it is not unlikely that there were also other lands available to be scooped up by land-hungry parvenus, their original owners having fallen unsung on unknown battlefields, or forced to sell their lands to pay for the cupidity of conquering Danes.


How Typical was Earl Godwine?

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Cnut’s North Sea Empire, within which the king relied on loyal magnates to support him, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Godwine was far from the only earl to be promoted from the ranks of the thegns. There is evidence that both Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Siward, Earl of Northumbria, began their careers as thegns in the king’s court. There are other earls that attest to King Cnut’s charters, such as Hrani, who appear to have been Scandinavians and found high office within the new kingdom. Other earls such as Odda of Deerhurst and Ralph de Gael were also promoted during Edward the Confessor’s reign.


Since being a thegn meant to serve a higher lord, and given that most prominent king’s thegns were young men, it is likely that there was something approaching an order of seniority when it came to promotion in Anglo-Saxon England. When earldoms became vacant, the most deserving thegn would receive them, whether or not their family had particular links in the area. Thus, Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig became Earl of Northumbria after the death of Siward in 1055, passing over Siward’s son Waltheof. This was a strong contrast to later Norman earldoms which were strictly hereditary and conferred on those with strong regional power-bases.


What is striking though, is that all of the above earls, with the exception perhaps of some of Cnut’s Scandinavian magnates, either belonged to established families who had held earldoms before (such as Leofric of Mercia), or were related to the ruling house (in the case of Odda and Ralph, Edward’s nephew, and possibly of Siward). Though Geþyncðo might claim the barrier between thegn and earl to be porous, family connections and lineage certainly counted for much when hoping to rise in the Anglo-Saxon social world. Overcoming these connections, in the case of Godwine, involved performing dishonorable yet invaluable service for monarchs who needed just such a strongman to get their hands dirty.


Getting Ahead in Anglo-Saxon England

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Modern illustration of The Battle of Maldon, 991, where many young Anglo-Saxon noblemen fell to invading Vikings, from Hutchinson’s Story of the British Nation, by Alfrd Pearse, 1922, Source: Wikimedia Commons


There is something of a discrepancy, then, between what Anglo-Saxon law claimed was possible in terms of social mobility, and the reality. Godwine’s rise, though impressive, is notable precisely because it was exceptional.


It is interesting to note, therefore, that the text Geþyncðo was compiled in the immediate aftermath of the Danish Conquest in 1016, a period in which numerous dispossessions were taking place as the Danes swept away the flower of Anglo-Saxon youth and nobility, leading to vacancies within the elite. Though the text might purport to portray society as it should be, this may be a convenient cover for its real purpose as the legal rubber stamp for an unprecedented land grab by a new, conquering Danish aristocracy.


This is not to say that we need to dismiss the possibility, for example, that peasants might become thegns. Undoubtedly some did, perhaps in greater numbers than the few thegns that were able to capitalize on periods of unrest and instability to project themselves into the political elite as earls. Still, Anglo-Saxon society was not as hierarchical as its successor state Norman England, with its stress on lineage and inheritance through the first son, known as primogeniture. In Norman society, an earldom was seen as a hereditary dignity rather than a public office.


Yet if searching for something approaching what 21st-century observers would see as social mobility or meritocracy in the Anglo-Saxon past, even the most intrepid of researchers would be digging for a long time.

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By Dan BulmanMPhil Medieval History, BA Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Dan studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA) and Emmanuel College, Cambridge MPhil), specializing in the history of the British Isles during the Central Middle Ages (900-1200). He was particularly interested in social history, including the relationship between land and power, documentary culture, and the expression of social status. He wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the family of Earl Siward of Northumbria and his MPhil on the role of the Warenne family in Anglo-Norman politics during the first two generations of the Norman Conquest. He is an avid reader and is pleased to be contributing to the Collector as a writer.