The social structure of Anglo-Saxon England has six parts. The king alone is the head of society. Beneath the king are the Æthelings, the princes of the blood who are eligible to rule. The third category is eorls or nobles. They are the influential rulers of the shires who served as councilmen, warriors, and advisors. After them came the thegns who were the “knights” of the era, although the true idea of a knight had not evolved yet. The thegns owned large portions of land and served the nobles as warriors. The fifth category is the churls. These are the free wealthy land-owning peasants who were the moneybags of England. Eventually city life would dominate and take over the lending business of the churls. Finally, the villeins were the un-free peasants. Although they were tied to the land, the land could not be taken from them under any circumstances.
The political structure is divided into three parts with a class for townships by themselves. First, the kingdom is ruled by the king and consists of all his land. He is advised by the Witan and his officers: the Chancellor, the Count of the Stables, and the Treasurer. The Witan is comprised of mostly nobles and churchmen. Second, England is divided into forty shires. Each shire is governed by an eorl, but eventually eorls had several shires to oversee so shire reeves (sheriffs) were appointed. Each shire has its own system of courts and government. Third, the hundred is a political unit of one hundred hides. A hide is enough land to support a thegn, his horse, and his family. Hides vary in sizes so hundreds did also. Each hide has a local court and a local official. Finally, the township has its own class. While the town paid rent to the person who owned the land, the town was fairly independent once it received its charter. Merchant guilds run the towns and are often the money lenders for the local nobles. London banks for the king.
The legal structure consists of the Witan and the local courts. If a noble is tried, he can ask for a trial by combat where he fights his accuser. The lower courts have trial by ordeal, oath-helpers, presentment court, and the wergild with bots. Trial by ordeal varies but it normally involves physical afflictions (burning brands or drowning). Other forms of courts allow oath-helpers which are two people who swear by God that you are innocent. Presentment courts are people who testify to the true facts they know of the case. The wergild and bots are monetary payments that avert blood feuds and fights.
– Hannah S. Bowers