A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 1

east anglia

Saxon Law and Order

The whole system of government worked downwards from the King himself who had an assembly called the 'Witan' (a word meanlng 'wise men') which included among its number thanes, bishops and abbots. These would travel with the king and discuss or make decisions on laws, gifts of land, or major criminal cases.

In the 10th century, following the conquest of the Danelaw lands, the country was divided into 'shires', usually centred around a large town. The word 'shire' still survives and appears as part of many counties today, and some also still have the boundaries set in Saxon times.

Each shire had its law court or 'Shire Moot' which met twice a year and dealt with the more serious crimes or disputes. The Shires themselves were divided into smaller units known as 'Hundreds' which were based on areas which could contain or support 100 hides (a measure of land of about 100 acres) or households. Halesworth was situated within the Blything Hundred, and these Hundreds survived as administrative units into the 20th century.

Each Hundred also had its own Hundred Moot or court, which met monthly to deal with local criminal cases, or to announce and carry out any royal commands or instructions. There were also Burgh Moots in the more established towns, and an early 16th century Moot Hall can still be seen at Aldeburgh, where it is now used as the Town's museum.

Judgement in a crime could depend on trial by ordeal. With this a priest would be called to ask the defendant to choose between the iron or the water ordeal. In the ordeal of water, the defendant would be thrown into a pond or river, and if he floated he was guilty, but would be declared innocent if he sank! In the ordeal by iron, he would have to carry a red-hot iron bar for a short distance. If the wound healed in three days he was innocent, sometimes the defendant had to pick a stone from a bowl of boiling water without being scalded.


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