Anglo-Saxon Legend: Beowulf

We know not who wrote the epic 3,182 line Anglo-Saxon poem; Beowulf, written in Old English.

The Beowulf story is set within a warrior society, a blood-curdling tale of gore and brutality, about a hero governed by duty, honour and bravery.  It tells the story of Beowulf, a young warrior and his victories.

Grendel, the semi-human monster, repeatedly attacks the Great Hall of Herat, by dragging away his prey, one victim after another.

Beowulf is summoned to the court of the Danish King; Hrothgar.  Whose castle has been under siege these past twelve years.  His knights are being constantly slaughtered night after night, by the monster; Grendel.

Beowulf and Grendel come face to face in battle.  Beowulf, rips Grendel’s arm from its socket, and Grendel hobbles back to his lair where he bleeds to death.

Grendel’s mother seeks revenge the following night, from the likes of Beowulf.  A great under water fight takes place between Beowulf and the monstrous matriarch, with Beowulf emerging as the victor.

Beowulf returns home to Sweden a hero of his people.  He rules for many years, and his people believe he is a wise ruler.  According to legend, a dragon guarded the city’s treasure, and all was quiet for some 300 years, then things changed the dragon is disturbed and he goes on the rampage; burning Beowulf’s hall to cinders.

Beowulf summons up all his courage, and makes a pledge to his people, that he and his follower’s will kill the dragon.  Beowulf’s follower’s gazed upon their leader and the dragon, and fear seeped through their bodies, as they fled in fear.

Wiglaf a young kinsman stands by Beowulf, prepared to fight side by side in battle.  As Beowulf prepares to vanquish the dragon, his sword shatters and the creature inflicts a deadly poison venom upon him.  Wiglaf and Beowulf kill the beast as the venom seeps through Beowulf’s body, as life is slowly taken from him.

Wiglaf proved himself in battle, and loyal to his King, earning the trust of Beowulf, who passes his throne to him… a worthy successor and King.

The poem concludes with a gloomy prediction which talks about catastrophes which will strike down Beowulf’s people, now their hero had died.

Beowulf’s people lament, that he had been a gracious and fair minded King, with kindness of heart.

English and Norman Differences

How different were the English and Norman societies on the eve of the conquest?  Having the same ancestral heritage, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the fundamental differences were small.

Immigration and Land

To speak of the differences between English and Norman society is to start from the wrong standpoint.  We should never forget that the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons came from the same basic stock.

At rock bottom, they were each Scandinavian immigrant’s who had settled in another land and taken over from its ruling aristocracy.  It should therefore not surprise us that on fundamental level, English and Norman social structures were very similar.  What is interesting is the way these similarities received different shadings because of the time and place in which each side had finally settled down.

For both societies, land was the defining currency.  The Lord owned the land, which he parcelled out amongst his followers in return for service.  They in turn settled the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own lordship (of which the greatest gift was land).

Success in war generated more land and booty, which could be passed around.  If a lord wasn’t successful or generous enough, his followers would desert him for a better lord.  It was a self-perpetuating dynamic fuelled by expansion and warfare in which the value of man was determined by his war-like ability.  The lord led warriors; the warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves.

The Hearth

The basic building block of the system was the hearth.  On his land, the Lord owned a hearth-hall, within which he housed his retinue warriors.  His tenants brought their produce to this hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue.  In return, the lord provided all on his land with security.  It was when the lord was unable to provide security he got worried; lack of security was the defining trait of bad lordship.

This is best exemplified in the epic Saxon poem Beowulf, in ehich the adventurer Beowulf is drawn into the hearth of the Danish King Hrothgar by the King’s famed generosity.  There, he rids Hrothgar of the monsters which are threatening the security of his hearth and is generously rewarded.  Beowulf finally dies trying to win a treasure hoard from a dragon threatening his own land – a potent combination of security and gold, the two driving forces of lordship in his time.


In 10th century Anglo-Saxon England, this dynamic had been complicated by a highly chequered history.  In administrative terms, it meant that pre-Norman England had become the most organised state in Western Europe.  The king controlled a land divided into shires, on ewhich taxation was assessed and levied.  These taxes were collected in coin from the burhs and fresh coin was minted 3 times a year in 60 royal mints arranged throughout the country.  In respect, it was a very Roman system.

It is even likely that Edward the Cinfessor had a Chancery headed by the clerk Regenbald.  The whole system was run by a set of royal officers, with individual reeves looking after the system.

The Germanic System

Overlaid into this was the old Germanic system of lordship and the hearth, but it had been altered almost beyond recognition by the demands of the previous two centuries.

Military service was still technically based on land loaned from a lord in return for service.  Yet by the 10th Century, this land had often been granted away in the form of bookland, which was a royal gift in perpetuity to a loyal retainer.  Alfred and his successors had dealt with the problem by instituiting the fyrd and military obligation was measured in hides.

In essence, the Anglo-Saxon kings had bypassed the problem of lordship by imposing duties on the land itself.  Large landowners were now expected to bring a retinue of thegns with them, based on the hideage of their land, and the very definition of a thegn was someone who could afford to arm himself as a warrior with the proceeds from his land.  The more powerful thegns themselves had retinues of housecarls, old-style military retainers who served in the hope of being granted bookland and thegn status in return for their loyalty.

The Norman System

By contrast, the Norman system was much more basic.  In Saxon terms, the Normans were Second or third generation immigrants to Northern France.  According to their own foundation myth, the land of Normandy was granted to their founder, Rollo c911, and he and his successors ruled it as marcher lords, of the frontier on behalf of the Frankish king.  Therefore, the Norman system was coloured by Frankish practice and was still firmly entrenched in the lords hearth.

Whilst technically the Norman Duke had the power to call out a general levy, he usually relied on his military familia, which was the complex set of family ties and loyalties he had established with the great magnates who occupied his land.  By the time of William, this relationship had hardened from one of mutality in which the Norman nobles were fidelis (faithful men), to one of dominance, in which the duke was dominus (lord).  William himself has had a lot to do with that change.  It was this familia which helped govern the country and owed personal loyalty to the duke.

Though Norman dukes controlled the coinage in their domain, no new coins had been minted since the time of William’s grandfather.  The duke still called upon his nobles to provide an army when he wanted to go to war, and they obliged in the expectation of a share in the spoils of conquest.


In essence, both systems had a similar root, but the differences were crucial.  The Norman system had led to the development of a mounted military elite totally focussed on war, while the Anglo-Saxon system was manned by what was in essence a levy of farmers, who rode to the battlefield but fought on foot.  This is not to say that the English thegn was any less formidable than the Norma knight, as Hastings was to show.  In the crucial months leadings up to the Hastings campaign however, Harold was to be hamstrung by the limitations of the fyrd.  On the 14th October 1066, much of Harold’s tiny force was made up of housecarls of his most powerful magnates because the fyrd had been disbanded.


Yet the similarities remain more important than the differences.  On a macro level, they meant that William could come in and superimpose the Norman system onto the Saxon with virtuality no problem – thegns simply became Norman knights (or Norman knights became thegns).  The emphasis of obligation returned to the old familia structure, which we used to call feudalism.  The methods of Anglo-Saxon knigly control, the use of writs, courts and sheriffs became the instruments of dominance fotr the new Norman King, who also introduced the concept of justiciars and regents to represent the king when he was abroad in the rest of his land.

English Law

Finally, the Normans introduced one major change into English Law.  Prior to the Conquest, cases were tried in front of juries selected from the hudred on the basis of Trial by Ordeal or Trial by Oath Taking.

Oath Taking was a specifically Saxon process whereby a man would rely on the oaths of his lord and peers to vouch for his innocence and good name – the higher the status of your oath-helper, the better your chances of success.  It relied on good lordship and reciprocity to make it work.

These were complemented by the Norman practice of Trial by Battle, in which the judgement of God was determined not by the speed it took you to heal from the ordeal, but by the success of your champion in battle.  In this, it typified the military onus of Norman Society and provides a final telling example of the cruder nature of the Conquerors.

The Battle of Hastings is probably the most famous battle to have been fought on British soil.

Anglo-Saxons and Normans

Normans and Anglo-Saxons each were Scandinavian immigrant’s who had settled in another’s land, and taken over from its ruling aristocracy.  English and Norman basic social structures were similar.

Land was the defining currency, for both societies.  The Lord owned the land which was parcelled out amongst his followers in return for service.  They in turn would settle upon the land as minor lords, surrounded by a retinue of warriors, their reward for service would be parcels of land.

Success in battle generated more land and treasures, which was shared around.  If a lord wasn’t generous enough, his followers would desert him, seeking a better lord.  The lord led his warriors; and the warrior fought for his lord; both would be serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers.

Basic building block of the system is known as the hearth.  The lord owned a hearth-hall upon his land, where he would house his retinue warriors.  Tenant farmers brought produce to the hearth-hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue.  In return, the lord would provide security for all who resided on his land… lack of security defined a bad lordship.

Best described in the Saxon poem entitled; Beowulf.  Beowulf is drawn into the hearth of King Hrothgar by his generosity.  Beowulf rids Hrothgar of monsters threatening the hearth and receives a generous reward.  Beowulf dies trying to win a treasure from a dragon threatening his lands.

In 10th century Anglo-Saxon England, in pre-Norman England had become one of the most organised states in Western Europe.  The land was divided into shires, controlled by the King upon which taxation was levied, and collected in coinage from the burhs.  This appeared to be a Roman based system.

The Normans were immigrants from France.  The land of Normandy granted to their founder; Rollo in AD911.

Anglo-Saxon and Norman systems differed much.  The Norman system, had seen the creation of mounted warriors focussed on war, whilst Anglo-Saxons were managed by many a farmer.

Prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Normans introduced cases to be tried in front of a Jury.  Saxon cases would rely on oaths of a lord and peer to vouch for one’s innocence.  Later this would be changed to “Trial by Battle” or “Trial by Combat.”

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