What is an Anglo-Saxon Moot?

The history of the Saxon Moot, also known as the Anglo-Saxon Moot or simply the Moot, is a fascinating aspect of early medieval governance in what is now England.

Under Anglo-Saxon rule, regular gatherings known as moots were convened for each county, or shire, where legal cases were adjudicated, and local issues were deliberated.

These ‘shire moots’ saw attendance from local lords and bishops, the sheriff, and notably, four delegates from each village. Following the Norman Conquest, these assemblies were transformed into what became known as the County Court.

This evolution marked the introduction of representative government at a local level, a significant shift in the administration of local affairs.


The Saxon Moot was an early form of assembly that played a crucial role in the social and political life of the Anglo-Saxons from approximately the 5th to the 11th centuries. This assembly was an essential part of the early medieval political system, serving as a forum for judicial matters, legislation, and decision-making.

Origins and Early Function

The origins and early function of the Saxon Moot, or the Anglo-Saxon Moot, trace back to the Germanic tribal customs of the early medieval period.

Following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain, the Anglo-Saxons, migrating from what is now Germany and Denmark, began settling in Britain from the 5th century onwards. They brought with them a rich tradition of local governance and law, deeply rooted in their societal norms, which laid the foundation for the Moot system.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Britain
Southern Great Britain in AD 600 after the Anglo-Saxon settlement, showing England’s division into multiple kingdoms.

Initially, the Moot was a grassroots affair, deeply embedded in the local community. These assemblies were held at a designated place known as the “moot hill” or “moot place,” often an open-air location of significance such as a notable hill, tree, or other natural landmarks.

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The primary purpose of these early moots was to address local issues. They served as a platform where free men of the community, typically landowners and family heads, could gather to discuss and resolve matters of local importance. This included disputes over land, the management of common resources, and the implementation of local by-laws.

The Moot was also a key judicial body at this stage. In a time where centralized law enforcement was non-existent, the moot served as the primary means of adjudicating disputes and administering justice at the local level.

Social Bonds and Communal Norms

The decisions made at the Moot were based on customary laws, which were oral traditions rather than written statutes. These customs varied from region to region but were generally respected and upheld by the community.

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In addition to its legal and administrative functions, the early Moot was also a social gathering, fostering a sense of community and mutual responsibility.

The act of coming together in these assemblies helped reinforce social bonds and communal norms, which were crucial for maintaining order and stability in the largely agrarian and decentralized Anglo-Saxon society.

The Gartree Oak is believed to have been one of these venerated trees and served as a gathering spot or moot for the elders of the Gartree Hundred, a local administrative area. Picture is from Michael Wood’s Story of England is a six-part BBC documentary series written and presented by Michael Wood.

These early Moots were democratic in nature, insofar as they involved the free members of the community in decision-making processes. However, their scope was limited to local affairs, and the influence of individuals was often determined by their social status, wealth, and land ownership.

As the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began to form and consolidate, these local assemblies evolved into more complex and hierarchical structures.

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Eggardon Hill, Dorset. Site of an Iron Age Hill Fort, Bronze Age burial mounds and the Saxon 'Hundred Moot' meeting place.
Eggardon Hill, Dorset. Site of an Iron Age Hill Fort, Bronze Age burial mounds and the Saxon ‘Hundred Moot’ meeting place.

This evolution was partly driven by the need to manage larger territories and populations, and partly by the increasing centralization of political power in the hands of kings and nobles.

However, the fundamental principles of the Moot – communal decision-making, local justice, and customary law – continued to play a vital role in the governance of Anglo-Saxon England for several centuries.

Shire and Hundred Moots

As the Anglo-Saxon political landscape evolved and became more sophisticated, the Moot system also developed into more structured and hierarchical forms, notably through the establishment of the Hundred Moots and Shire Moots.

These assemblies represented a significant advancement in the administrative organization of early medieval England.

A well-shaped circular tumulus with a dished top, near the edge of Barkhale Wood. Listed as a bowl barrow later used as a moot mound.
A well-shaped circular tumulus with a dished top, near the edge of Barkhale Wood. Listed as a bowl barrow later used as a moot mound. Madehurst, West Sussex, England.

The Hundred Moots were regional assemblies that emerged as an intermediary layer of governance. They were named after the “hundred,” a geographic division that was originally thought to represent an area containing one hundred households.

These Moots gathered representatives from multiple villages or communities within a hundred. The Hundred Moots served broader administrative and judicial functions than their village counterparts.

They were responsible for handling more significant legal disputes that extended beyond the boundaries of a single village, including matters that affected the entire hundred. These assemblies also dealt with more serious criminal cases and played a role in maintaining law and order on a regional scale.

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The Shire Moot, also known as the Shire Court, was a still larger assembly that covered an entire shire, the equivalent of a modern county. The Shire Moot was a pivotal institution in Anglo-Saxon governance.

It was typically presided over by the king’s representative, often the shire-reeve (sheriff), and attended by the most influential people of the shire, including local lords, bishops, and earls.

Most Serious Cases

The Shire Moot had substantial authority and responsibilities. It was not only a judicial body dealing with the most serious cases but also played an essential role in the administration of the shire, including fiscal matters such as the collection of taxes and the implementation of military duties.

Both the Hundred and Shire Moots were crucial in the integration of local governance with the larger framework of the kingdom.

It was originally used as a Saxon moot (c.7th century-11th century). There is doubtful evidence of a small motte and bailey castle of the late 11th or early 12th century (between 1086 and 1153). Only earthworks remain.
It was originally used as a Saxon moot (7th century-11th century). There is doubtful evidence of a small motte and bailey castle of the late 11th or early 12th century (between 1086 and 1153). Only earthworks remain.

They provided a mechanism through which the central authority, represented by the king and his officials, could exert influence and control over the regions. These assemblies ensured that local decisions and actions were aligned with the interests and laws of the kingdom, thus maintaining a degree of uniformity and cohesion across the realm.

The existence of these assemblies also demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of governance, where different levels of administration were recognized, each with its specific roles and responsibilities.

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The Hundred and Shire Moots maintained the traditional values of communal decision-making and local justice, while also adapting to the needs of a more complex and organized society.

They played a critical role in the evolution of English legal and administrative systems, setting the stage for the development of more centralized forms of governance in later periods.

The Role of Kings and Ealdormen

The role of kings and ealdormen (high-ranking nobles) within the Saxon Moot system was pivotal in shaping the governance and judicial processes in Anglo-Saxon England.

As the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms grew in size and complexity, the influence of these central figures became increasingly significant in the functioning of the Moots, particularly at the levels of the Hundred and Shire Moots.

At times it would be necessary to summon people to come to the mote for judgement and proclamations.

Kings in Anglo-Saxon England were not just symbolic figures; they played an active and central role in governance. One of their key responsibilities was to ensure the effective administration of justice and the maintenance of peace across their realm.

Anglo-Saxon Moot

To this end, kings would often participate in or preside over important Moots, especially the Shire Moots. This practice, known as “itinerant kingship,” involved kings traveling around their kingdom to attend various assemblies.

This not only allowed them to directly oversee the administration of justice and the enactment of laws but also served as a means to demonstrate and reinforce their authority among the local nobility and populace.

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Ealdormen were another crucial element in this governance structure. They were appointed by the king and were often responsible for overseeing large territories within the kingdom. In many respects, the ealdormen were the king’s representatives in the regions, ensuring that royal decrees and policies were implemented.

A Saxon moot. The manor court met here once a fortnight and the offences and disputes of the tenants were tried and punished. Pamphill, Kingston Lacy, owned by the National Trust

They also played a leading role in the Shire Moots, often acting as the presiding official in the king’s absence. Their presence and authority in these assemblies were instrumental in integrating the local governance structures with the central authority of the kingdom.

Anglo-Saxon Moot High-Ranking Figures

In the Moots, both kings and ealdormen had the power to propose new laws and amendments to existing ones. These proposals would be discussed and agreed upon in the assembly, reflecting a system that, while hierarchical, still retained elements of communal decision-making.

The involvement of kings and ealdormen in the Moots also meant that these assemblies were key venues for political maneuvering and negotiation among the Anglo-Saxon elite. Decisions made in the Moots often reflected not just legal judgments but also the political dynamics of the time.

The participation of these high-ranking figures in the Moots underscored the interplay between local and central governance in Anglo-Saxon England.

It was a system that recognized the importance of local autonomy and decision-making while ensuring that such local actions were aligned with the broader interests and stability of the kingdom.

An apparent Moot at Pamphill, Wimborne, Dorset.
An apparent Anglo-Saxon Moot at Pamphill, Wimborne, Dorset.

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The presence of kings and ealdormen in the Moots helped to maintain a balance between local traditions and the centralizing tendencies of a growing state.

This dynamic was crucial in the development of the English governance system, laying the foundations for more centralized forms of administration that would emerge in the later medieval period.

Moot and Anglo-Saxon Law

The Witenagemot, often referred to as the “meeting of the wise,” was the apex of the Anglo-Saxon governance system and played a crucial role in the political landscape of early medieval England.

This assembly was distinctly different from the more localized Moots, such as the Hundred and Shire Moots. The Witenagemot was a national assembly, comprising the realm’s most influential and powerful figures, including bishops, ealdormen (high-ranking nobles), and the king’s own thegns (retainers or minor nobles).

Originally called Cwichelmeshlaew or Cwichelm's Barrow, it is recorded as having been the place where King Edwin of Northumbria killed Cwichelm of Wessex in AD 636 and, in the Middle Ages, became the meeting point of the shire moot which was abolished in 1620
Originally called Cwichelmeshlaew or Cwichelm’s Barrow, it is recorded as having been the place where King Edwin of Northumbria killed Cwichelm of Wessex in AD 636 and, in the Middle Ages, became the meeting point of a Anglo-Saxon Moot which was abolished in 1620

Unlike the regular and more localized Moots, the Witenagemot was convened only at the behest of the king and did not meet at fixed intervals.

It was typically called together to discuss matters of national importance and urgency, such as succession disputes, declarations of war, and the enactment of significant laws or policies. The decisions made in the Witenagemot were of the highest order, affecting the entire kingdom.

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The Witenagemot’s composition reflected the hierarchical nature of Anglo-Saxon society. Its members, being the most senior and respected figures in the kingdom, held considerable influence.

Bishops brought not only their religious authority but also their skills in literacy and administration, making them invaluable in the formulation of laws and policies.

Ealdormen, with their extensive lands and control over regional military forces, were crucial in implementing the decisions made by the Witenagemot throughout the kingdom. The king’s thegns, though lesser in rank than bishops and ealdormen, were closely aligned with the king and often held significant local power.

The king’s role in the Witenagemot was central. He would preside over the meetings and had considerable influence over the proceedings.

Swanborough Tump is a Saxon Moot for the men of the Swanborough Hundred. This marker stone also commemorates the fact that the future King Alfred met his brother at the tump in AD 871
Swanborough Tump is a Anglo-Saxon Moot for the men of the Swanborough Hundred. This marker stone also commemorates the fact that the future King Alfred met his brother at the tump in AD 871.

However, the Witenagemot was not merely a rubber-stamp for the king’s will. It was a forum for discussion and debate, where members could express their views and counsel the king. The decisions of the Witenagemot were often the result of consensus or majority opinion among its members, reflecting a collaborative approach to governance.

The Witenagemot’s authority in matters of succession was particularly notable. In the absence of a clear hereditary principle, the Witenagemot often played a decisive role in choosing the next king.

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This process involved not just identifying a successor from among the royal family but also ensuring that the chosen individual had the support of the kingdom’s leading figures. This practice underscores the balance of power between the king and the kingdom’s elite, a balance that was central to the functioning of Anglo-Saxon governance.

In summary, the Witenagemot was a vital institution in Anglo-Saxon England, embodying the interplay between monarchical authority and aristocratic power.

It served as a high council to the king, providing a platform for the political, religious, and military elite to influence the direction of the kingdom. The Witenagemot’s role in shaping the political landscape of the time laid the groundwork for the development of more structured parliamentary forms of governance in later English history.

The Decline of the Saxon Moot System

The decline of the Saxon Moot system began with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, which marked a profound shift in the country’s political and legal landscape.

The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, imposed a new feudal system that centralized power in the hands of the monarch and the Norman aristocracy. This new system gradually supplanted the more decentralized and communal structures of the Anglo-Saxon Moots.

Under Norman rule, the local and regional assemblies of the Moots were overshadowed by the introduction of Norman-style courts and administrative practices.

The judicial authority of the Moots was usurped by the royal courts, which were more tightly controlled by the king and his Norman officials.

The feudal system also altered the social and political dynamics of England, with land and power becoming more concentrated in the hands of a small, elite class. This shift diminished the role of the broader community in governance, a hallmark of the Moot system.

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Despite this decline, the legacy of the Saxon Moots endured in various ways. The principles of communal decision-making and local justice, central to the Moot system, influenced the development of later English legal and political institutions.

One notable example is the English Parliament, which, over time, evolved into a representative assembly embodying the communal spirit of the Moots. The Parliament’s role in legislation and governance echoed the functions of the Witenagemot and the larger Moots.

The common law system of England also bears traces of the Moots’ influence. The emphasis on precedent and customary law in the English legal system can be traced back to the practices of the Moots, where decisions were often based on established customs and previous judgments.

This connection highlights the Moots’ role in fostering a legal culture that valued consistency, precedent, and community-based justice.

Furthermore, the very structure of local governance in England retained remnants of the Moot system. The parish councils and other local assemblies, which emerged in the later medieval period, can be seen as descendants of the village Moots.