Were there different social classes in the early Anglo Saxon period?
We can see that throughout history and different cultures, society organises itself into groups and subgroups, usually based on religion or economic standing. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain there were social classes, in some ways similar to our modern understanding of hierarchies, in that there were ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ social classes, but in some ways they were very different from ours today. Anglo-Saxon and Celtic-British settlements were becoming increasingly expansive as the external threats grew. It made sense to band together for security and ‘manpower’. Settlements were headed by the chieftain, or ‘cūning’, from which we derive the word ‘king’. Even where the settlement was headed by a queen (rare!) she was still referred to as the ‘cūning’ in Anglo-Saxon. The word ‘cwene’ (queen) was usually only used for the wife of a king. The heir to the chieftaincy was the ‘ætheling’. Then there were the ‘ealdormen’ (elders) and the ‘thegns’, who were the nobles who were entitled to fight for the king at the head of troops and lead warriors into battle, and thus highly regarded. They often had their own family crests and banners which they fought under.
In early to mid-Anglo-Saxon times, society was strictly hierarchical. The view of society was that people were either freemen (the thegns and ealdormen, owning their own land and goods, often very wealthy, especially if in favour with the king/ cūning) or freed-men (ceorls, granted their freedom but of a low social class), or grant-bearers (the geburs, allowed to work their own small parcel of rented land but still bound to the king) or peasants/servants (villeins bound with no land). At the lowest level of this hierarchical society were the serfs and slaves. It was the chieftain/cūning who personally determined the level of freedom anyone was allotted. In the more enlightened communities social climbing could be allowed, if you kept in the cūning’s good books! Otherwise you were trapped for life: there was no social aspiration through education, for example, or business, and rarely through marriage as alliances amongst the higher levels of society remained politically expedient, not for love – and certainly not for the love of someone in a different class!