Ethelbert and the Code of Laws


Ethelbert of Kent was the third overlord of Saxon England, following Aelle of Sussex and Ceawlin of Wessex. He held power at the turn of the 7th century. This third overlord was also important because he carved into the history of written tradition a code of laws that still resonates throughout the law today.

His was not the first society to adopt the ancient practices that made up much of this set of laws; rather, his was the first society to write it down in a fashion to be followed. The dominant element of this code of laws was the idea of kinship. Specifically, every free man depended on his kindred for protection. Simply put, this meant that a man could count on his relatives to support him in matters of economics, politics, and simple protection. In terms of defending one’s home and property from invaders, this meant a great deal, since a man need no longer depend only on his own flesh and blood to defend his lands. The law said that his kin must support him, and so support him they did The relationships were usually mutual in this understanding, and this forged a bond that proved difficult to break.

Now, if you as a free man could depend on your kin to support you against invaders and such, then you might think that you could depend on your kin to bail you out of trouble as well. To wit, you could plunder a little bit yourself, knowing that your family would back you up and help you out if you got caught. This was where it got complicated. This was also where we see echoes of ancient civilizations and laws.

At was the practice in ancient times to punish an entire family for one member’s wrongdoing. Even such eventually enlightened civilizations as the ancient Hebrews once had as a practice the idea that all family members were fair game for retribution. If a man offended you or stole from you, you could take it out on him–and his son and his daughters and his property as well. (Now you might think that this was an effective deterrent, but such was not always the case.)

Anyway, this idea has its complement in Ethlebert’s kinship system, in that one’s kin was bound to fight for and with one if one were in trouble. In a land full of families and blood ties, this was a powerful incentive indeed to refrain from angering your neighbors, since you knew that if you did you would be facing a whole clan instead of just the man you offended. The reverse is true as well, in that you as a kinsman would be bound to support your uncle or nephew or brother if he was in trouble with the law or the neighbors.

Such a kinship kept family ties strong but often resulted in completely unnecessary deaths. But then unnecessary deaths were the norm in Britain at this time in history.

What it all means is this: Ethelbert has his place in history not only because he ruled Kent but also because he gave us a code of laws that bridged past and future law.