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Ivory seal of Godwin, an unknown thegn – first half of eleventh century, British Museum

In later Anglo-Saxon England, a thegn (pronounced /θn/; Old English: þeġn) or thane[1] (or thayn in Shakespearean English) was an aristocrat who owned substantial land in one or more counties. Thanes ranked at the third level in lay society, below the king and ealdormen.[2] Thanage refers to the tenure by which lands were held by a thane as well as the rank.

The term thane was also used in early medieval Scandinavia for a class of retainers, and thane was a title given to local royal officials in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent in rank to the child of an earl.


The Old English þeġ(e)n (IPA: [ˈθej(e)n], "man, attendant, retainer") is cognate with Old High German degan and Old Norse þegn ("thane, franklin, freeman, man").[3][dead link]

Thegn is only used once in the laws before the time of Aethelstan (c. 895–940), but more frequently in the charters.[4] Apparently unconnected to the German and Dutch word dienen ('to serve'), H. M. Chadwick suggests "the sense of subordination must have been inherent... from the earliest time".[5] It gradually expanded in meaning and use, to denote a member of a territorial nobility, while thegnhood was attainable by fulfilling certain conditions.[4]

The thane had a military significance, and its usual Latin translation was miles, meaning soldier, although minister was often used. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary describes a thane as "one engaged in a king's or a queen's service, whether in the household or in the country". It adds: "the word... seems gradually to acquire a technical meaning... denoting a class, containing several degrees".[4]


The word gesith/gesiþ (plural gesithum/gesiðum), the precursor of thegn, used in the Old English epic poem Beowulf

In the 5th century, Germanic peoples collectively known as Anglo-Saxons migrated to sub-Roman Britain and came to dominate the east and southeast of the island. Based on archaeological evidence (such as burials and buildings), these early communities appear to have lacked any social elite. Around half the population were free, independent farmers (Old English: ceorlas) who cultivated a hide of land (enough to provide for a family). Slaves, mostly native Britons, made up the other half.[6]

By the late 6th century, the archeological evidence (grander burials and buildings) suggests the development of a social elite. This period coincided with the Late Antique Little Ice Age and the Plague of Justinian. These events would have caused famine and other societal disruptions that may have increased violence and led previously independent farmers to submit to the rule of strong lords. The Old English word for lord is hlaford ('loaf-guardian' or 'bread-giver').[7]

The early law codes of Kent use the Old English word eorl ('high born', 'noble') to describe a nobleman. By the 8th century, the word gesith ('companion'; Latin: comes) had replaced eorl as the common term for a nobleman.[8][9] There were both land-owning and landless gesiths.[10] A landless gesith would serve as a retainer in the comitatus of a king, queen, or lord. In return, they were provided protection (Old English: mund) and gifts of gold and silver. Young nobles were raised with the children of kings to someday become their gesith.[11] A gesith might be granted an estate in reward for loyal service.[8]

By the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon society was divided into three main social classes: slaves, ceorlas ('free men'), and þegnas ('thegns', 'aristocrats').[12] Thegn (Old English: þeġn) meant servant or warrior, and it replaced the term gesith in the 10th century.[8] Law codes assigned a weregeld or man price of 200 shillings for a ceorl and 1,200s for a thegn.[13]

Ranks and functions[edit]

Thegns were divided into three ranks: ealdormen (later earl), king's thegns, and median thegns.[14] Below ealdormen were king's thegns, so called because they only served the king. The lowest thegnly rank were the median thegns who owed service to other thegns. The higher a thegn's rank, the greater the heriot he paid to the king.[14]

Thegns were the backbone of local government and the military. Sheriffs were drawn from this class, and thegns were required to attend the shire court and give judgment. For these reasons, historian David Carpenter described thegns as "the country gentry of Anglo-Saxon England".[15] Although their exact role is unclear, the twelve senior thegns of the hundred played a part in the development of the English system of justice. Under a law of Aethelred they "seem to have acted as the judicial committee of the court for the purposes of accusation".[16] This suggests some connection with the modern jury trial.

Social mobility[edit]

Children inherited thegnly status from their father, and a thegnly woman who married a ceorl retained her noble status.[13] A successful thegn might hope to be promoted to earl.[4]

A prosperous ceorl could become a landlord in his own right and aspire to thegnly rank. In the legal tract Geþyncðo, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (1002–1023) detailed the criteria for attaining thegnhood: "And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of his own, a belhus and a burhgeat [a defensible manor house], a seat and special office in the king’s hall, then was he henceforth entitled to the rights of a thegn."[17] The legal text Norðleoda laga ('law of the Northern People') also included the five-hide qualification but added that the land had to be kept for three generations.[18]

Thegnhood was also attainable to the merchant who "fared thrice over the wide sea by his own means."[19]

Post-conquest England[edit]

Scandinavian runestones of thegns are marked in red, those using the junior position "drengr" in blue

In 1066, there were an estimated 5,000 thegns in England.[20] After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror replaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with Normans, who replaced the previous terminology with their own names for such social ranks. Those previously known as thegns became part of the knightly class.[4]


During the later part of the tenth and in the eleventh centuries in Denmark and Sweden, it became common for families or comrades to raise memorial runestones. Approximately fifty of these note that the deceased was a thegn. Examples of such runestones include Sö 170 at Nälberga, Vg 59 at Norra Härene, Vg 150 at Velanda, DR 143 at Gunderup, DR 209 at Glavendrup, and DR 277 at Rydsgård.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Thane" Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  2. ^ Keynes 2014, pp. 459–461.
  3. ^ Northvegr – Zoëga's A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic
  4. ^ a b c d e Holland 1911, p. 743.
  5. ^ Chadwick 1905, pp. 84–85.
  6. ^ Morris 2021, pp. 49–50.
  7. ^ Morris 2021, pp. 50–55.
  8. ^ a b c Loyn 1955, p. 530.
  9. ^ Williams 2008, p. 5.
  10. ^ Loyn 1955, p. 532.
  11. ^ Jolliffe 1961, p. 14–15.
  12. ^ Williams 2008, p. 2.
  13. ^ a b Williams 2008, p. 1.
  14. ^ a b Williams 2008, p. 3.
  15. ^ Carpenter 2003, p. 66 quoted in Huscroft 2016, p. 28.
  16. ^ Holdsworth 1903, p. 7.
  17. ^ Liebermann 1905, pp. 456–458; Whitelock 1955, no. 52(A), p. 432; quoted in Williams 2008, pp. 2–3.
  18. ^ Williams 2008, p. 4.
  19. ^ Stubbs 1895, p. 65.
  20. ^ Huscroft 2016, p. 29.


  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1905). Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions. Cambridge University Press.
  • Carpenter, David (2003). The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066–1284. Penguin History of Britain. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140148248.
  • Huscroft, Richard (2016). Ruling England, 1042-1217 (2nd ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-1138786554.
  • Holdsworth, William Searle (1903). A History of English Law. Vol. 1. London: Methuen & Co.
  • Holland, Arthur William (1911). "Thegn" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). p. 743.
  • Jolliffe, J. E. A. (1961). The Constitutional History of Medieval England from the English Settlement to 1485 (4th ed.). Adams and Charles Black.
  • Keynes, Simon (2014). "Thegn". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald (eds.). The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (2nd ed.). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell. pp. 459–461. ISBN 978-0-470-65632-7.
  • Liebermann, F. (1905). Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. Vol. 1. Halle: M. Niemeyer.
  • Loyn, HR (1955). "Gesiths and Thegns in Anglo-Saxon England from the Seventh to Tenth Century". The English Historical Review. 70 (277): 529–549. doi:10.1093/ehr/LXX.CCLXXVII.529. JSTOR 558038.
  • Morris, Marc (2021). The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England: 400–1066. Pegasus Books. ISBN 978-1-64313-312-6.
  • Stubbs, William (1895). Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward the First (8th ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • "Thane". Encyclopedia Britannica. 20 July 1998.
  • Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. (1955). English Historical Documents c. 500–1042. Vol. 1. London: Eyre and Spottiswood.
  • Williams, Ann (2008). The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy, 900–1066. London: Continuum. ISBN 9781847252395.

Further reading[edit]