The term thegn from OE þegn, ðegn "servant, attendant, retainer", is commonly used to describe either an aristocratic retainer of a king or nobleman
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

 in Anglo-Saxon England, or as a class term, the majority of the aristocracy below the ranks of ealdormen and high-reeve
High-reeve was a title taken by some English magnates during the 10th and 11th-centuries, and is particularly associated with the rulers of Bamburgh. It was not however only used by rulers of Bamburgh...

s. It is also the term for an early medieval
Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the High Middle Ages...

Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

n class of retainers.


Old English þeg(e)n "servant, attendant, retainer" is cognate with Old High German
Old High German
The term Old High German refers to the earliest stage of the German language and it conventionally covers the period from around 500 to 1050. Coherent written texts do not appear until the second half of the 8th century, and some treat the period before 750 as 'prehistoric' and date the start of...

 degan and Old Norse þegn ("thane, franklin, freeman, man").

The thegn had a military significance, and its usual Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 translation was miles, meaning soldier, although minister was often used. Joseph Bosworth
Joseph Bosworth
Joseph Bosworth , English scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and Anglo-Saxon literature, was born in Derbyshire.-Biography:Educated at Repton, whence he proceeded to the University of Aberdeen, he became in 1817 vicar of Little Horwood, Buckinghamshire, and devoted his spare time to literature and...

 describes a thegn as "one engaged in a king's or a queen's service, whether in the household or in the country," and adds, "the word in this case seems gradually to acquire a technical meaning, and to become a term denoting a class, containing, however, several degrees."

But, like all other words of the kind, the word thegn was slowly changing its meaning, and, as William Stubbs says (Constitutional History, vol. i.), "the very name, like that of the gesith, has different senses in different ages and kingdoms, but the original idea of military service runs through all the meanings of thegn, as that of personal association is traceable in all the applications of gesith." After the Norman conquest of England
Norman conquest of England
The Norman conquest of England began on 28 September 1066 with the invasion of England by William, Duke of Normandy. William became known as William the Conqueror after his victory at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, defeating King Harold II of England...

 in 1066, William the Conqueror replaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with Normans and the new Norman French ruling class replaced the Anglo-Saxon terminology with Norman French. In this process, king's thegns became barons, and thegns appear to have been merged in the class of knight
A knight was a member of a class of lower nobility in the High Middle Ages.By the Late Middle Ages, the rank had become associated with the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior....


Gesith and thegns

The precursor of the thegn was the gesith, the companion of the king or great lord, a member of his comitatus
Comitatus (Classical meaning)
Comitatus was a Germanic friendship structure that compelled kings to rule in consultation with their warriors. The comitatus, as described in the Roman historian Tacitus's treatise Germania , is the bond existing between a Germanic warrior and his Lord, ensuring that neither leaves the field of...

, and the word thegn began to be used to describe a military gesith.

It is only used once in the laws before the time of Aethelstan
Athelstan of England
Athelstan , called the Glorious, was the King of England from 924 or 925 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great and nephew of Æthelflæd of Mercia...

 (c. 895-940), but more frequently in the charters. H. M. Chadwick says that "the sense of subordination must have been inherent in the word from the earliest time," but it has no connection with the German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 dienen, to serve. In the course of time it extended its meaning and was more generally used. The thegn became a member of a territorial nobility, and the dignity of thegnhood was attainable by those who fulfilled certain conditions. The nobility of pre-Conquest England was ranked according to the heriot
Heriot, from Old English heregeat , was originally a death-duty in late Anglo-Saxon England, which required that at death, a nobleman provided to his king a given set of military equipment, often including horses, swords, shields, spears and helmets...

 they paid in the following descending order: earl, king's thegn, median thegn. In Anglo-Saxon hierarchic society, a king's thegn attended in person upon the king, bringing with him his men and resources. A "median" thegn did not hold his land directly from the king but through an intermediary lord.


The thegn was inferior to the ætheling, the member of a kingly family, but he was superior to the ceorl, and, says Chadwick, "from the time of Æthelstan the distinction between thegn and ceorl was the broad line of demarcation between the classes of society." His status is shown by his wergild. Over a large part of England this was fixed at 1200 shilling
The shilling is a unit of currency used in some current and former British Commonwealth countries. The word shilling comes from scilling, an accounting term that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times where it was deemed to be the value of a cow in Kent or a sheep elsewhere. The word is thought to derive...

s, or six times that of the ceorl. He was the twelfhynde man of the laws, sharply divided from the twyhynde man or ceorl.

Geþyncðo, Rectitudines Singularum Personarum and Norðleoda laga

In a document known as Geþyncðo
Geþyncðo , meaning “Dignities”, is the title given to an Old English legal tract on status and social mobility, probably written by Wulfstan , Archbishop of York between 1002 and 1023...

we learn: "And if a ceorl
A churl , in its earliest Old English meaning, was simply "a man", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant", still spelt ċeorl, and denoting the lowest rank of freemen...

 throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king's hail, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy." A hide of land was considered sufficient to support a family. And again—"And if a merchant throve, so that he fared thrice over the wide sea by his own means, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy." In a similar manner a successful thegn might hope to become an earl
An earl is a member of the nobility. The title is Anglo-Saxon, akin to the Scandinavian form jarl, and meant "chieftain", particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king's stead. In Scandinavia, it became obsolete in the Middle Ages and was replaced with duke...

. In addition to the thegns there were others who were thegns on account of their birth, and thus thegnhood was partly inherited and partly acquired.

Thegns and local administration

The twelve senior thegns of the hundred
Hundred (division)
A hundred is a geographic division formerly used in England, Wales, Denmark, South Australia, some parts of the United States, Germany , Sweden, Finland and Norway, which historically was used to divide a larger region into smaller administrative divisions...

 play a part, the nature of which is rather doubtful, in the development of the English system of justice. By a law of Aethelred
Ethelred the Unready
Æthelred the Unready, or Æthelred II , was king of England . He was son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth. Æthelred was only about 10 when his half-brother Edward was murdered...

 they "seem to have acted as the judicial committee of the court for the purposes of accusation," and thus they have some connexion with the grand jury
Grand jury
A grand jury is a type of jury that determines whether a criminal indictment will issue. Currently, only the United States retains grand juries, although some other common law jurisdictions formerly employed them, and most other jurisdictions employ some other type of preliminary hearing...

 of modern times.

Growing class

The increase in the number of thegns produced in time a subdivision of the order. There arose a class of king's thegns, corresponding to the earlier thegns, and a larger class of inferior thegns, some of them the thegns of bishops or of other thegns. A king's thegn was a person of great importance, the contemporary idea being shown by the Latin translation of the words as comes (compare "count
A count or countess is an aristocratic nobleman in European countries. The word count came into English from the French comte, itself from Latin comes—in its accusative comitem—meaning "companion", and later "companion of the emperor, delegate of the emperor". The adjective form of the word is...

"). He had certain special privileges. No one save the king had the right of jurisdiction over him, while by a law of Canute we learn that he paid a larger heriot
Heriot, from Old English heregeat , was originally a death-duty in late Anglo-Saxon England, which required that at death, a nobleman provided to his king a given set of military equipment, often including horses, swords, shields, spears and helmets...

 than an ordinary thegn.

Taini in Domesday Book

In Domesday Book
Domesday Book
Domesday Book , now held at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond upon Thames in South West London, is the record of the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086...

, OE þegn has become tainus in the Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 form, but the word does not imply high status. Domesday Book lists the taini who hold lands directly from the king at the end of their respective counties, but the term became devalued, partly because there were so many thegns.


Compare the separate development of the concept of "vassal
A vassal or feudatory is a person who has entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support and mutual protection, in exchange for certain privileges, usually including the grant of land held...

", from a warlord's henchman
Henchman referred originally to one who attended on a horse for his employer, that is, a horse groom. Hence, like constable and marshal, also originally stable staff, henchman became the title of a subordinate official in a royal court or noble household...

 to one of Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

's great companions.


During the later part of the 10th and in the 11th centuries, it became common for families or comrades to raise memorial runestones, and approximately fifty of these note that the deceased was a thegn. Examples of such runestones include Sö 170 at Nälberga, Vg 59
Norra Härene Runestone
The Norra Härene Runestone, designated as Vg 59 by Rundata, is a Viking Age memorial runestone that is located on the grounds of Dagsnäs Castle about seven kilometers south of Skara in Västergötland, Sweden.-Description:...

 at Norra Härene, Vg 150
Velanda Runestone
The Velanda Runestone, designated as Vg 150 in the Rundata catalog, is a runestone that is dated from the late tenth century or the early eleventh century and which is located in the village of Velanda, which is about 8 kilometers southeast of Trollhättan, Västergötland, Sweden.-Description:The...

 at Velanda, DR 143
Gunderup Runestone
The Gunderup Runestone, or DR 143, is located in Gunderup, North Jutland County, Jutland, Denmark. It is notable because it is one of few runestones raised in commemoration of a woman.-Description:...

 at Gunderup, DR 209
Glavendrup stone
The Glavendrup stone, designated as DR 209 by Rundata, is a runestone on the island of Funen in Denmark and dates from the early 10th century. It contains Denmark's longest runic inscription and ends in a curse.-Description:...

 at Glavendrup, and DR 277
Rydsgård Runestone
The Rydsgård Runestone, designated as DR 277 under Rundata, is located in the woods just outside the park at Rydsgård manor, which is near Skurup, Skåne, Sweden.-Description:...

 at Rydsgård.

Endnotes, references and sources

  • This entry retains some updated public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Abels, Richard P. (1988), Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England, British Museum Publications ISBN 0-7141-0552-X

External links

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