Saxon Law

Saxon law - compensation | History - The Strange Case of the Law
Saxon law courts | History - The Strange Case of the Law
Saxon punishments | History - The Strange Case of the Law
The Development of the Jury | History - The Strange Case of the Law
Lawyer Harry Potter discusses the development of the common law role of the Jury under Henry II.
The Strange Case of the Law - 1 Laying Down the Law (BBC)
Trial by ordeal
(Edited for Classroom use)

(BBC Four) is presented by a criminal defence lawyer called Harry Potter.

He aims to show how England’s legal system is its greatest gift to civilisation, but revelled in the blood and guts of early trials.

With loving detail, it was revealed how ordeal by red-hot poker was a mode of proof, how an unfortunate’s testicles were used as footballs and, in an early incarnation of compensation culture, how “if one disables another’s genital member, one is to buy him off with three person payments”. That is, to compensate him with the three children he is unable to sire – which sounds more like a punishment than a reward.

By Ben Lawrence Telegraph

Suitable for teaching 14 to 16s.

An introduction to the earliest known English Law Code, at Rochester in Kent. Lawyer Harry Potter investigates the Textus Roffensis, the Rochester Book written in 600AD. It is the first such writing in English, and the first law code. It is a list of fines or compensation for accidents, injuries and wrongs. Harry Potter reads examples, first in Anglo-Saxon then in modern English.


The organisation of Saxon society into ‘shires’ and ‘hundreds’ is explained, with the example of a shire court at Scutchhamer Knob in Berkshire. Early trials were based on oaths. The lawyer Harry Potter discusses why oaths were effective in a religious society.


Physical evidence of how justice worked in Anglo-Saxon England has been found at the Saxon judicial execution cemetery at Harestock on the outskirts of Winchester. Archaeologist Andrew Reynolds and lawyer Harry Potter discuss the site’s prominent location and how the remains of one of the sixteen skeletons from the site provides evidence of execution by decapitation.


The Anglo-Saxons used trial by ordeal to determine proof through the Judgement of God, the Judicium Dei. The two main types of ordeal are explored, trial by hot iron and trial by water. Harry Potter then discusses with legal historian John Hudson why people were chosen to be subjected to ordeal. The introduction of trial by combat by the Normans is explored with re-enactor Jesper Lorenzen who explains the purpose of the combat in civil and criminal cases concluding with an account of a trial by combat involving Thomas of Eldersfield.


In Dark Age England, guilt could be determined by ordeal, i.e. clergy burning a suspect with a hot iron, seeing if God would help heal their wounds. Or they would see if they would sink or float when put into sanctified water. Deeply barbaric superstitious nonsense. For all the imperfections of our 21st century Western, secular justice system, it’s still a vast improvement.    Tony Robinson

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