Tuesday, 19 January 2021

How to Get Rich Quick! or Judicial Dispossession and Enslavement in 11th c. England

What was the scandal that got RBS into trouble after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008?  It boiled down to some small business loan managers (a few bad apples) lending to good businesses with good managers, calling in the debt at the first sign of stress, forcing liquidation of the business (and often the proprietor's home if it secured the business loan as collateral), and then pocketing a hefty profit on the excess value of the business and the house relative to the debt.  That's nasty!

It may be nasty, but it wasn't a new business model.  11th century tax collection by the king's reeves worked on pretty much on the same principles.  This is why Eadric Streona - Eadric 'the grasper' - was so hated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, besides his habit of backing out of battles at the last minute and changing sides to whoever looked like winning.   

Tax collection worked like this:
  • The king's reeve comes to your land and says you owe a certain amount of Geld (tribute to the king), Danegeld (pay off to the Vikings), or Heregeld (retainer to the Vikings to protect you);
  • and then something like "Nice farm you've got here. It'd be a shame if something should happen to it."
  • You do not get to negotiate the assessment, and your ealdorman - essentially a war-lord with assigned territory from the king - will be standing behind the reeve with armed warriors to prevent you doing violence to the reeve;
  • As a perk of office, the Reeve is permitted to buy your land for the Geld assessment if you cannot pay the geld assessment. If it was the biannual or annual assessment in the spring or the fall, you should have set the geld aside or be able to pay it from your livestock;
  • Either you pay up the Geld assessment or Bad Things Happen:
  • Either you pay up the Geld assessment or Bad Things Happen:
  • Either you pay up the Geld assessment or Bad Things Happen:
    • The Reeve declares you in default of your Geld assessment;
    • The Ealdorman as judical agent of the king can force you to make good the default by one of three methods:
      • You sell your slaves (not so bad), your wife (depends how you get on with her whether it's bad or not), or children (generally pretty bad) in the local slave market to make up the Geld assessment.
      • The Ealdorman judicially enslaves you for the Geld assessment and sells you in the market, though generally this was a local sale to keep you near your kin.  Sometimes your kin bought you if they liked you.
      • The Ealdorman judicially dispossesses you of your land which can be bought by anyone who pays the value of the Geld.  The Reeve is standing there with a big bag of gold and silver and can come up with the Geld price right then and there, so the Reeve gets the land for the Geld-price then sells it to the Ealdorman or one of his local retainers at a quick profit a back at the local mead hall when they've got the gold and silver money together from looting, friends or family.  The Ealdorman is happy, the Reeve is happy, and one of the military retainers of the Ealdorman is happy!  Yay!
It's ugly, but generally Anglo-Saxons chose to sell their children before the Danish Conquest.  They had more children back then, so anything more than two for working a smallholding could be considered spare.  Lots of children got sold into slavery for default of Geld.  Initially they were used for prostitution and then when they got old and ugly, if they lived so long, they would be sold for labour in mines, salt-works, agriculture, aquaculture, weaving, etc.

This is why around 1011 Bishop Wulfstan began to get agitated:

You could see and sigh over rows of wretches bound together with ropes, young people of both sexes whose beautiful appearance and youthful innocence might move barbarians to pity, daily exposed to prostitution, daily offered for sale.  - Vita Wulfstani, as translated by M. Swanton, Three Lives of the Last Englishmen (London, 1984), p. 126.

It is worth noting that Bishop Wulfstan didn't object to slavery in principle.  He objected to prostitution and the sale of slaves to non-Christians.  The church owned more slaves than anyone in Anglo-Saxon England as they had big estates that were exploited on very scholarly and industrialised principles of capital and labour.

Maybe you would hope that the business model for taxation and slavery would change under new management with King Cnut?  Nope.  If anything the Danish earls that took over from Anglo-Saxon ealdormen after 1016 were much worse because the Anglo-Danish war for the conquest of Saxon England had been so bitter and bloody, and Cnut had been betrayed by the Saxon earldormen who invited King Aethelred back from exile after King Swein's death.  The conquering Danes would take the Saxon women and children too, but what they really wanted was the Saxon land.
From now on Anglo means the Angles from the North of England who were allied with and kinship with the invading Danes.
King Cnut's early reforms divided England into 5 earldoms.  Each earl was a sub-king in his domain, and could rule pretty much as he pleased as long as he paid tribute to King Cnut twice a year.  The royal tribute was collected by Huscarls and carried to London by the London Lithsmen, a fleet of royal mariners sworn loyal only to the king.

Ealdormen didn't exist anymore under Danish rule, and you can take that literally, as according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1016 'all the nobility of England was destroyed'.  Eadric Streona and a few other complicit Saxon carry-overs were allowed to live a short while and then killed on Christmas Day 1017.

King Cnut created the Huscarls as an Anglo-Danish (no Saxons allowed) fraternal order to collect the taxes for the king, and every Huscarl was sworn personally loyal by oath to the king and brother Huscarls.  Becoming a Huscarl required election by brother Huscarls, proof of glory in battle, and possession of gold and silver trimmed weapons.  In other words, impoverished and defeated Saxons need not apply.  Thanes, who used to swear oaths to the king, were demoted to serve earls as landed retainers.

The first five Danish earls had almost unlimited power as sub-kings in their earldoms to administer justice however they saw fit.  It is notable that all four 1017 earls were sea-lords who had commanded great fleets of war-ships during the Danish Conquest and knew how to rape, loot, and pillage via waterways: Erik Hakonson, Thorkell the Tall (foster-father and military tutor to King Cnut and greatest Viking ever!), Ulf Thorkellson, Eilaf Thorkellson and Godwin Wulfnothson.  They also had thousands of land-hungry skippers and mariners who wanted to settle on the conquered land and take wives.  Such Saxon women who survived and didn't escape to convents, or such as survived the Danish raids on convents, might have become wives or concubines of the conqueroring Anglo-Danes. The Danish mariners and warriors and their Danish wives wouldn't farm though; they would buy Saxon or other inferior slaves for that.

In general the Anglo-Danish earls saw fit to profit from looting the churches and abbeys, judicial dispossessions, and violent or judicial enslavement from 1016.  Land ownership concentrated rapidly into the families of earls and their military retainers.  Slave exports from Bristol, Winchester and York boomed as enslaved Saxons were sold east to get silks, spices and dyes to please the womenfolk of the noble households and display more glory of conquest for higher Huscarl social status.  The Huscarls voted on status every year and where you sat at the Huscarl table in their hall in London depended on this status.  Reputation and glory meant a lot to Huscarls.

At first King Cnut did nothing about this, preferring to cash in with the others from exploitation of his own earldom of Wessex, Sussex and Kent.  Only after he became king of Denmark and Sweden on the death of his brother King Harald in 1021 did King Cnut begin to take royal administration more seriously.

He made Godwin earl of Wessex, Sussex and Kent in 1021.  Earl Godwin had been dux or minister of the king since 1018, probably the royal reeve and commander of the London Lithsmen (king's ships).  He is described in the Vita Aedwardi as 'dux et baiulus' - war-lord and office-bearer.  Earl Godwin may have been in charge of Sussex before 1021 because only Sussex was organised as 'rapes' on a model that was similar to Godwin's life-long good friend Count Baldwin V's administrative reforms around the same time in Flanders.  Each rape had a fortress, a river, and an assigned territory to support the military in the fortress with provisions and tribute.  The Romans recognised a similar model of civitas and tributary pagus for Belgic and Germanic auxiliary tribes.  The Danes also had a rape model for tributary land exploitation, but not so well organised.

From 1021 Earl Godwin was married by Cnut's urging to his foster-sister Gytha Thorkellsdottir, sister of Earls Ulf and Eilaf.  He also became subregulus, meaning Godwin acted as king of England when King Cnut was away in his other kingdoms or conquering the Baltic.   This change of subregulus demoted Earl Thorkell the Tall, who was father of Godwin's wife Gytha and foster-father to King Cnut.  Thorkell and King Cnut fell out for a while.  They made up when King Cnut made Thorkell's son Ulf, Earl of the West and Midlands, the foster-father of his son Harthacnut and Jarl of Denmark because he was married to Cnut's sister Estrith.  After he ordered Ulf killed he made Thorkell jarl of Denmark and his sister Estrith subregulus.  (Yeah, 11th century royal families are complicated.)

The church was generally free of royal and manorial taxation, but that didn't secure it from Godwin. 
Godwin was notable throughout his life for looting churches and abbeys and dispossessing them of land.  He saved his worst violence for the reign of King Edward, according to a monk of Canterbury, but early on he took Berkeley from nuns who he killed or sold into slavery (wife Gytha refused to eat the produce there), he took Steyning when Bishop Aelfwine died though it should have passed to Fecamp Abbey, he took Bosham from Canterbury daring the archbishop to complain to the king, etc.  It was said he acquired the great sandy port at Plumbsted by fraud and Folkstone by bribing the archbishop. 

After securing the Baltic through violent conquest, in 1026-27 King Cnut travelled to Rome with his Norman wife, Queen Emma, the widow of King Aethelred and mother of exiled sons Edward and Alfred, as well as Cnut's son Harthacnut and daughter Gunhilda.  He secured travel and trading privileges from the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and a new lot of Roman-trained clerics to improve royal administration in England.  When King Cnut came back he issued a letter to Englishmen telling them they could now travel freely through the Empire to get to Rome or markets of the Empire (good for English slave exports!) and instructing his earls and reeves not to judicially dispossess or enslave people unfairly.  King Cnut even forced Earl Godwin to give a port at Bretda he had dispossessed on becoming earl back to Fecamp Abbey, in a restoration writ sometime after 1028.  Godwin would come back to raid the port three times while in exile in 1051 and 1052 and then violently take all of the great port at Rameslege from the clerics until 1066.

The Huscarls were exempt from Heregeld assessments on their own lands, which greatly increased the oppression of others over time as property ownership concentrated in the Huscarls.  Fewer and fewer freemen had to meet higher and higher Heregeld assessments.  No wonder the English hated that tax!  King Edward repealed the Heregeld in 1051, but Godwin and the other earls reinstated it the next year after a successful rebellion forced King Edward into virtual retirement, powerless, within Westminster. As the Lithsmen were disbanded it is not clear if King Edward ever collected taxes from his powerful and troublesome earls in the later years of his reign.

Whether King Cnut was ever able to curb his powerful earls from raiding, looting and dispossessing the weak and vulnerable isn't really very clear.  By 1066 the children of Earl Godwin, four of whom became earls and one of whom became queen, owned over 2/3 of all land in England that wasn't owned by the church in Domesday Book.  Earl Harold Godwinson, later King Harold, looted and dispossessed at least two bishoprics when the bishops died: first Helmham in the first earldom he held in Essex, then Wells in the second earldom he inherited from his dad in Wessex.  Elder brother Sweyn Godwinson looted the abbey at Leominster and took the abbess as captive to seize her estates for ransom.  Younger brother Tostig also raided churches and abbeys when he became earl of Northumbria, prompting a revolt by the proud Angles who had never been looted after the 1016 conquest until Tostig arrived. 

Today the government still lets the rich and powerful exempt themselves from paying taxes so that the burdens fall more heavily on the poor and hard-working.  Today the government still looks the other way when powerful corporations loot and pillage, although they drew the line at the predatory antics of RBS - at least for a while.  Today the government can still force the sale of your goods and home to meet a defaulted tax debt.  That's bad, but not as bad as if they forced you, your wife and your children to be sold into slavery and shipped east.

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