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Frankpledge, earlier known as frith-borh (literally "peace-pledge"[1]), was a system of joint suretyship common in England throughout the Early Middle Ages. The essential characteristic was the compulsory sharing of responsibility among persons connected through kinship, or some other kind of tie such as an oath of fealty to a lord or knight. All men over 12 years of age were joined in groups of approximately ten households. This unit, under a leader known as the chief-pledge or tithing-man, was then responsible for producing any man of that tithing suspected of a crime. If the man did not appear, the entire group could be fined.

Frankpledge can be traced back to King Canute II the Great of Denmark and England (d. 1035), who declared that every man, serf or free, must be part of a hundred,[citation needed] that could put up a surety in money for his good behaviour. Frankpledge was more common in the area under the Danelaw, from Essex to Yorkshire. In the south and southwest of England, tithing was common. Frankpledge began to decline in the 14th century,[citation needed] and by the 15th century was superseded by local constables operating under the justices of the peace.

Function in Anglo-Saxon society[edit]

The essential characteristic of the frith-borh was the compulsory sharing of responsibility in legal matters among its members, which were traditionally ten in number, a group referred to as a teothung or tything, i.e. a "thing (assembly) of ten men".[2] The members of the tything, under the leadership of a tythingman chosen from among them, had the responsibility of producing in the court of justice any man of their number who was summoned.[3] If the individual did not appear, the remaining members could swear an oath to the effect that they had no hand in the escape of the summoned man. If they did not swear this oath before the court, the tything would be held responsible for the deeds of the fugitive, and could be forced to pay any fines his actions had incurred.[4] This examination of the members of the tything before the court is the origin of the phrase "view of frank-pledge".[5]

Later historical development[edit]

The frith-borh and its corollary, the tything, emerged from the traditional system of mutual accountability originally ensured by the social structure of kinship.[6] The first tythings were entirely voluntary associations, being groups formed through the mutual consent of their free members. The aspect of the system which initially prevented its being made universally compulsory was that only landed individuals could be forced to pay any fines which might be put upon the group. For...

...the landless man was worthless as a member of a frith-borh, for the law had little hold over a man who had no land to forfeit and no fixed habitation. So the landless man was compelled by law to submit to a lord, who was held responsible for the behaviour of all his "men"; his estate became, so to speak, a private frith-borh, consisting of dependents instead of the freemen of the public frith-borhs. These two systems, with many variations, existed side by side; but there was a general tendency for the freemen to get fewer and for the lords to grow more powerful.

— Albert F. Pollard, The History of England: A Study in Political Evolution

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the Norman rulers used the institution of the frith-borh to undermine the ties of kinship among their English subjects, as well as to increase and consolidate the power of their nobles and to establish a more stringent polity.[7] This continued until the 14th century, when the importance of the frith-borh laws began to wane. By the 15th century the system was superseded by local constables operating under the justices of the peace.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith (1857:230) notes: "The Anglo-Saxon term for the "view of frank-pledge" is "frith-borh" - literally "peace-pledge." The term "frith" became, by a very natural blunder, corrupted into "free;" and so (in the Norman French) the compound word was converted into Frank-pledge."
  2. ^ Cf. Stubbs (1906:12-13). It is probable that the households of the men were also to be included, thus the tything could also be seen as a "thing of ten households". Cf. Pearson (1867:250-1). To aid in the effort of administration, King Canute II the Great of Denmark and England (d. 1035) declared that men be organized into hundreds, a system of division which subsequently became common in the area under the Danelaw, from Essex to Yorkshire, while the tything remained common in the south and southwest of England.
  3. ^ Stubbs (1906:12-13). The hierarchical level above the tythingman was that of the borhsman, with the next being the borough-head or head-borough. Cf. White (1895:200).
  4. ^ Stubbs (1906:13).
  5. ^ Smith (1857:230).
  6. ^ Cf. Morgan (1885:300).
  7. ^ Thorpe (1845:334).


PD-icon.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Frankpledge". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
Olson, Trisha. "Frankpledge", The Catholic University of America - Columbus School of Law
Morgan, C. Lloyd (1885). The Springs of Conduct. London: Kegan Paul. 
Pearson, Charles Henry (1867). History of England During the Middle Ages, Vol. I. London: Bell and Daldy. 
Pollard, Albert F. (1912). The History of England: A Study in Political Evolution. London: Williams and Norgate. 
Smith, Toulmin (1857). The Parish: Its Powers and Obligations at Law. London: H. Sweet. 
Stubbs, William (1906). Lectures on Early English History. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 
Thorpe, Benjamin (1845). A History of England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, Vol. II. London: John Murray. 
White, Archer M. (1895). Outlines of Legal History. London: Swan Sonneschein & Co. 

Further reading[edit]