The Thegn: Beholden to His King

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It’s always interesting to encounter words that have changed with time. Thegn is one of those words.

We now recognize this word as thane, originally meaning servant.

In Anglo-Saxon England, a thegn was a man who was given land by his king or by another hereditary noble. In return, the thegn pledged to enter into military service in the name of the king or noble.

(Now, it might seem that the thegn was getting the raw end of the deal here. Looking at this arrangement from a modern point of view, one might conclude that the thegn didn’t get anything, that he had to beg an important man for the right to own land and that he had to fight for that same man on a whim. Well, remember that this was the Dark and Middle Ages, in which land was doled out according to whims and preferences. It was very difficult to own land if you weren’t the biggest and baddest warlord around. Many thegns considered themselves lucky to be so honored by their social betters.)

In the first few generations of Germanic occupation of Britain, these men were called gesiths. Sometime about 650, the standard name became thegn. The name had changed, but the effect and responsibilities and particulars were the same.

So the thegn, then, would fight in the name of his king or lord. But the big benefit for him would be that he got to be the leader of this land. Yes, the king or land held the title to the land, but the thegn ruled in his master’s name. While the king or lord was away on other business or not paying too much attention, the thegn could order his servants around, make trouble for his neighbors, aid and abet criminal activity, help neighbors build walls or homes or fortifications, or do any other good or bad things he wanted to; and it was only when the king or lord came around to check up or to demand the military debt be paid that these thegns had to worry. In essence, they were the lords of the manor most of the time.

The thegns did get the raw end of the deal in inheritance, however. They couldn’t pass on their position to their sons. The son of a thegn would have to petition his king or lord for the right to be a thegn, just like everyone else. In this way, the masters kept their thegns in check.

For many thegns, their station was the best they were going to get and they took advantage of it.

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