chapter  5
26 Pages

Kingship and Nobility

T he earliest records from the Anglo-Saxon period give full p roo f o f the existence o f an aristocracy. T he Laws o f King Ethelbert o f Kent, for example, carefully distinguished between the eorlcund man and the ceorl, the latter in him self no insignificant figure in the social scale. I f anyone slew a m an on the king’s estate he was to pay fifty shillings as com pensation; if on a noblem an’s estate (eorlcundman) twelve shillings; for slaying a ceorls dependant the penalty was only six shillings. It seems certain that the general penalties for breach o f protection, or mundbyrd, lay in identical proportions at fifty shillings, twelve shillings and six shillings re ­ spectively, and it is highly probable, though we are not told so explicitly, that the wergeld o f an eorlcund man was three hundred shillings in contrast to that o f a ceorl which itself lay at the very respectable sum of one hundred Kentish shillings.1 Indeed this earliest o f English legal codes - and there is no good reason for not attributing it to the early years o f the seventh century - displayed a most elaborately graded society. Archaeological evi­ dence is confirm ing the legal picture. T he latest investigation of the whole complex burial ground at Sutton Hoo dem onstrates increasingly that the dram atic area of burial m ounds, including the royal ship burial itself, was separate and exclusive, to all appearance a royal and aristocratic preserve. No ordinary interm ents have been found in the area, though there are bodies which suggest sacrificial victims, buried in pre-Christian days to accompany those aristocrats

worthy o f com m em oration in conspicuous m ounds. Sutton Hoo may indeed in its burial practices bear witness to a unique m om ent in English history when ruling k indreds were acquiring m astery over m ore o r less perm anen t political groupings. Certainly the student who approaches it in the hope o f discovering prim itive dem ocracy is fated to receive a ru d e shock.