Anglo-Saxon Slavery Handout

Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

Hlafdige Arastorm

©  2005      Tchipakkan aka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor

Historically slavery was an accepted side effect of war and of the general attitude that it was acceptable to force people to do what you wanted if you were able to do so. Slavery was seen as the natural consequence of losing a war or being unable to support yourself. Different cultures had different cultural expectations for slaves, but most had some sort of protection from the worst abuses. Aside from war, people could become slaves as a legal punishment, by legal arrangement to get the support of an owner, or sometimes they were simply kidnapped for what they could be sold for, not unlike the activity of  cattle raiding.

In Anglo-Saxon England slavery was a legal situation- not considered intrinsic to a person, or even necessarily permanent. Laws started being recorded about the time of the conversion to Christianity, and many of those laws- including those on slavery are based on Christian or  Biblical attitudes- which at the time was that slavery was acceptable, as long as Christian slaves were able to fulfill all their Christian obligations.

The word Theow is the standard Old English term for slave (or servant). The words wealh and wilisc were used for both Celt and slave and are related to the modern word Welsh, which indicates a clear bias in their relationship with the conquered British. When the Danes took over Northumbria, Mercia, Anglia, etc. they brought their own words thrall and lising for freedman and attitudes about slaves, which were more harsh than those of the Anglo-Saxons, possibly because of their continued heathenry, or more probably because of their financial involvement with the slave trade.

Between the time of the Christian conversion and the Norman Conquest there was a general increase in the rights of the slaves, but at the same time, others were losing rights. The beginning of the manorial system meant that the nobles needed people to work their land. It was financially favorable to slave-owners to free their slaves, give them land, and in exchange, require them to do a certain amount of work for their ex-owners. The increase in numbers of the technically free yet obligated folk, occurred at the same time as the free men had to take on more work for the increasingly powerful lords, thus blurring the lines between all those who worked the land, and ending, shortly after the Norman invasion with a general peasant class. Another generation after that and the Church were even willing to give up its slaves.

The Church’s position of slavery had been that while it was a good thing for Christians to free Christian slaves, for the church to free a slave was to financially harm the Church, so it was strongly discouraged. Once all the advantages were available through serfs, the Church (in England) gave up their slaves as well.


Carver, Martin, The Age of Sutton Hoo, Boydell, Woodbridge 1992

Chadwick, N.K, Celt,and Saxon, Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge at the University Press, 1964

Fourth Council of Toledo: On the keeping of Slaves, 633

Griffiths, Bill, An Introduction to Early English Law, British Library, 2000

Hassall, Paul, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Medieval Legal History,

Lester, G.A., Anglo-Saxons, The, How they Lived and Worked, David Charles, Newton Abbot, 1976

Pelteret, Davod A. E., Slavery in Early Mediaeval England, Reign of Alfred to the 12th Century, Boydell Press, 1995

Pollington, Stephen, The Mead Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003

Scott, S. P., The Visigothic Code,

Thrupp, John, The Anglo-Saxon Home, Elibron Classics, London, 2005/1862

Westerman, William Linn, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity, American Phiolosophical Society, 1974

Feel free to e-mail me with any questions:

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