Danegeld and heregeld

King-Cnut-stowe_ms_944_f006r.jpgIn 1066 the total population of England was somewhere between 2 and 2.5 million.  North and East of the A5 – or Watling Street- a good chunk of the population was of Scandinavian (largely Danish) descent being in the Danelaw part of the country.  Localhistories.org state that the population was much smaller than it had been in Roman times given that they identify a figure twice that of Anglo-Saxon England. 90% of the Anglo-Saxon population  in 1066 were involved in agriculture.

We know that England was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe at the time – in part we know this because of the collection of Danegeld during the period when Ethelred the Unready was king. In 1018 the Saxons gave King Cnut £82,000 which is a staggering sum of money.  In total the Vikings netted something in the region of £137,000 between 991 and 1012.  Clearly things were going from bad to worse for the Saxons.

Essentially following the second wave of Viking incursions from 1012 onwards Ethelred paid the Vikings money to go away – not understanding that they were freelancers and that once word spread that the Anglo-Saxons were handing out cash that more Vikings would turn up to benefit from the bonanza.  In later years Danegeld became heregeld or Army Tax.  Somewhat ironically we know that one of Ethelred’s mercenaries was the very nordic Thorkell the Tall who signed up in 1014 for £21,000.

Since 90% of the population were required to work the land it stands to reason that the heregeld was not to pay for new weapons or to pay homegrown soldiers but to pay a largely mercenary force to send the Vikings on their way.  This was not an entirely successful policy on the Saxons part as the Danes led by Cnut occupied England between 1016 and 1042.   They continued to levy the tax. Cnut died in 1035 and was succeeded by his sons Harthacnut and then Harold Harefoot.

Notwithstanding the change in rulers from Saxons to Vikings to Saxons and then Normans, heregeld continued to be collected until 1162 with a slight interruption during the reign of Edward the Confessor who discontinued its payment in 1051.  It was noted by Florence of Worcester as paying for a vessel and eighty warriors.

It is not surprising that the value of a penny in terms of its weight declined until Edward the Confessor placed a halt, albeit a temporary one, on the tax.  Every village was required to pay.  Bartering and exchange of good was not an option.  Thus the mint had to produce more coins and didn’t have sufficient metal of the job.

Rather uncharmingly, heregeld was the first nationally collected tax in Europe.  It also demonstrated that Ethelred was capable of levying a tax because he had the necessary bureaucracy in place to do so.  It was during this time for instance that the office of sheriff first appears in the written record.  Unsurprisingly the Normans kept the system in tact.  We know that Norman sheriffs usually paid a fee in order to acquire the job – these so called “farms” demonstrate that not only was the sheriff an important administrative official representing the monarch but that it was a highly lucrative job.  The person who was sheriff could control the other local magnates because it was his job to collect the heregeld and could thus dominate his locality as well as pocketing part of the taxes that he collected.

One of the problems of the taxation during Saxon times was that smallholders often found it difficult to pay the tax so during this period the make up of Saxon hierarchy changed so that there were fewer free holders and more villeins.

The image at the beginning of this post comes from the British Library


Lambert, Tom. Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England.

Lawson, M.K. The collection of Danegeld and Heregeld in the reigns of Aethelred II and Cnut  The English Historical Review, Volume XCIX, Issue CCCXCIII, 1 October 1984, Pages 721–738, https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/XCIX.CCCXCIII.721