How to Win a Lawsuit in the Early Middle Ages


During the reign of King Æthelred II (978–1013 and 1014–1016) there was an emphasis in charters on acknowledging an estate owner’s past crimes, which had led to the state seizing their lands and often passing the property rights to loyal followers as a reward for their service. It is difficult to know whether the crimes described were ‘out of the ordinary’ or if they reflected increasing lawlessness towards the end of the tenth century.

However, as the Kingdom of the English expanded during the tenth- and eleventh-centuries, land became a highly lucrative possession and disputes regarding estate ownership became more frequent. This period, therefore, witnesses a sharp increase in the number of legal documents, also known as charters, drawn-up to prove in court the legitimacy of one party’s claim to a contested property in the hopes of permanently ending the conflict. There are two sides to every story, but the surviving documents belonged to the dispute’s victors. Historians are left with biased and highly sensationalised accounts of lawsuits that were commissioned and weaponised by one party who attempted to discredit the claim of another (whilst also making them look as lawless and rogue as possible during the process).

There were no lawyers, barristers or any form of full-time legal profession in early medieval England. A non-biased system for recording court proceedings did not exist. The consequence is the survival of a relatively low number of charters and lawsuits in written form. Historian Patrick Wormald identified 178 surviving dispute records between 740 and 1066 AD, while over 600 Frankish (sources written in what is now modern-day France) records survive from the same period. The narratives that describe property disputes must be treated with caution and historians must consider who commissioned or wrote the document and for what purpose.

Lands Changing Hands

During lawsuit trials,
litigants weaponised documents by rewriting the past in a way that legitimised
the writer’s (or the person who commissioned the document to be written for
them) property claim in the present and to prevent the case being reopened in
the future. The authors of charters, also known as charter draftsmen, gave a
lot of consideration to how they would portray the series of events surrounding
the property dispute. Charters, therefore, became crucial legal instruments
during the tenth century; they were highly crafted and tailored for each
individual case, forming a key strategy in the pursuit of victory.

Certain charters functioned
as statements to be submitted to the court and read aloud to the presiding
judges (known as the witan in Old English, meaning ‘wise men’) as part of
ongoing legal proceedings. Some charter draftsmen, like the creators of ‘the
Crimes of Wulfbald’ narrative, incorporated accounts of crimes that had led to
the forfeiture of a noble man or woman’s land into later charters. These
charters granted the seized lands to loyal followers of the crown or local
elite and served as a way of protecting the new owner against claims arising
from the individuals involved in the earlier stages of the history of the

Today, we would consider
court documents to be non-biased and an objective record of the facts
surrounding a case. However, early medieval charters can be treated as literary
texts, as well as historical and legal texts, due to the creativity involved in
constructing the narrative. This requires historians to take an
inter-disciplinary approach when conducting their analysis of charters.

Video Resource

Resource activities

How to Win a Lawsuit in the Middle Ages: Worksheet activity

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Activity questions

  • 1. How powerful were early medieval kings?
  • 2. What role did violence and threat play in tenth-century England?
  • 3. If you were a barrister, how would you convince a present-day jury that Wulfbald was the rightful owner to the lands in Kent?

Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading

  • British Library

    The British Library has a large collection of medieval and early modern European charters, some of which are digitised and can be explored online.

  • Charter basics

    A helpful guide to charters, how they were written, and the different types of charters produced and their various uses during in the early Middle Ages

  • Online dictionary

    An online dictionary where you can look up Old English words and phrases

  • Pase

    A database where you can look up Old English names of litigants mentioned in lawsuits and discover if their names are mentioned elsewhere in other contemporary sources – be careful there were lots of people with the same or similar names mentioned in the same sources!

  • Electronic Sawyer

    The Electronic Sawyer is an online catalogue of all 2,000 of the surviving early English charters (written in both Latin and in Old English). Each Charter is numbered and categorised by their Sawyer number: S (number). For example, the charter that records ‘the crimes of Wulfbald’ is referred to by historians as S 877.