Yes. Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, slaves and slavery were an accepted part of life.
The Anglo-Saxons did not introduce slavery to Britain (both the Celts and the Romans kept slaves) but it is estimated that at times during the Anglo-Saxon period more than 10 percent (and possibly up to 30 percent) of the population were enslaved.
Where did Anglo-Saxon slaves come from?
In the early Anglo-Saxon period, many slaves were likely to have been members of the conquered British population, or their descendants. Slaves were also taken from rival Anglo-Saxon settlements, tribes, and kingdoms. The near-constant wars, skirmishes, and conflicts during the Anglo-Saxon period provided a ready supply of slaves.
Being a spoil of war was not the only way people could be forced to become slaves. Slavery was the punishment for a range of different crimes (for example, some forms of theft), and penal slaves were commonplace in Anglo-Saxon society.
It was also possible to voluntarily enter a life of slavery. In times of extreme economic hardship, parents might have been forced to sell their children into slavery, and even whole families might have elected to avoid starvation by becoming slaves.
During the Anglo-Saxon period, English slaves were exported all over the world, often from Ireland via Bristol. English slaves could find themselves being put to work in Iceland, Scandinavia, or Arabic Spain.
How were Anglo-Saxon slaves treated?
Slaves had very few rights in Anglo-Saxon society. And, although not all slaves would have lived in the same conditions and suffered the same experiences, life would have likely been intolerably hard. Historian Marc Morris says that it is clear from studying Anglo-Saxon law codes that slaves could be branded and punished by castration, mutilation, stoning to death, or being burned to death.
Laws set down during the reign of Alfred the Great set out that “the four Wednesdays in the four Ember weeks are to be given to all slaves, to sell to whomever they please anything of what anyone has given them in God’s name, or what they can earn in any of their spare time.”
Slaves had value as property. If a slave was harmed by another, that person would have to compensate the slave’s owner, not the slave who suffered the injury. If a slave was killed, the slaveowner usually received a sum of money equivalent to the price of eight oxen.
In Anglo-Saxon society, as well as the slaves themselves, slaveowners were responsible for the conduct of their slaves.
What did Anglo-Saxon slaves do?
Slaves filled many functions in Anglo-Saxon society. Although many of them were known to work the fields as agricultural labourers, many also served as cooks, weavers, millers, dairymaids, or domestic servants. Some of the slaves were forced to become concubines. There is even evidence that some slaves were put to work as priests.
Were Anglo-Saxon slaves ever granted their freedom?
Anglo-Saxon slaves were sometimes granted their freedom. This could happen for two main reasons. Firstly, it could happen as a form of punishment levied against the slave’s owner. The slave would benefit in situations like this, but that wasn’t the aim. The aim was to deprive the slave’s owner of his property.
Secondly, manumission (the freeing of slaves) became an accepted practice of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. Slaves were sometimes freed on special occasions, or their grant of freedom was set down in the slaveowner’s will.
Manumission might have been motivated by a desire to demonstrate God’s power and grace, or to better the souls of the released slaves’ former masters. However, although there is evidence to suggest that Christian Anglo-Saxons pitied slaves and knew that life as a slave was a life full of sorrow, this knowledge did not stop them from keeping slaves. And it did not stop slavery from being an accepted part of life throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.
Slave Raiding and Slave Trading in Early England – David Pelteret
The Church and Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England – Patricia M Dutchak
Normans and Slavery: Breaking the Bonds – Marc Morris
Learn more about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting our resources page.