Return to the Early English Church
"He was the third English king to become High-King (Bretwalda) of all the provinces south of the river Humber, but he was the first to enter the kingdom of heaven."
Bede, Ecclesiastical History
Bede goes on to say that
"Among the many benefits that his wisdom conferred on the nation, he introduced, with the consent of his counsellors, a code of law framed on the Roman pattern, which was written in English and remains in force to this day. The first of his laws is designed to protect the Church he embraced, and decrees that satisfaction must be made by any person who steals property from the Church, the bishop, or other clergy."
The Old English law-code of Æthelbert was the first to be written in any Germanic language and is the oldest document in English, presumably issued after his conversion about AD 602. There are ninety laws, and, indeed, the first does deal with compensation to be paid to the church and its clergy.
1. The property of God and the Church [is to be paid for] with a twelve-fold compensation; a bishop's property with an eleven-fold compensation; a priest's property with a nine-fold compensation; a deacon's property with a six-fold compensation; a cleric's property with a three-fold compensation; the peace of the Church with a two-fold compensation; the peace of a meeting with a two-fold compensation.
Most of the other laws deal with breaches of the peace and wergeld, the payment dependent on the social status of the victim.
21. If anyone kills a man, he is to pay as an ordinary wergild 100 shillings.
23. If the slayer departs from the land, his kinsmen are to pay half the wergild.
27. If a freeman breaks an enclosure [homestead], he is to pay six shillings compensation.
28. If anyone seizes property inside, the man is to pay three-fold compensation.
30. If anyone kill a man, he is to pay with his own money and unblemished goods, whatever their kind.
74. The compensation for [injury to] a maiden is to be as for a freeman.
The laws of Æthelbert illustrated above exist only as part of an early twelth-century compilation, the Textus Roffensis. Annotations in the right-hand margin are by a sixteenth-century antiquarian. In the eighteenth-century, the bound volume was sent to London and accidently dropped in the sea. The water stain still can be seen.
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