The term thegn, also thane, or thayn in Shakespearean English, is a title within the thanage, a system of nobility predating the peerage.

In Anglo-Saxon England, it was commonly applied to aristocratic retainers of a king or senior nobleman and more generally those below the rank of ealdormen, or high-reeve. It was also used in early medieval Scandinavia for a class of retainers.

Differences between the Thanage and the PeerageEdit

To understand the system is important to note that it has both noble princes and royal princes. "Ætheling" refers to the biological children of the Cyning (Sovereign) and thus to what in the modern Peerage would be called royal princes; however, they held no formal authority as such by law in the Thanage and were thus outranked by the Sovereign's appointed princes (King`s Thanes).

The potential authority of the Ætheling was thus dependent on whether or not the Sovereign saw fit to create his children either King's Thanes (princes) or grant them other titles with actual legal authority. Although qualified to be chosen for kingship following the laws of King Alfred, the Ætheling held no legal authority in their own right, and although of royal family were subjects of the Sovereign.[1]


Seal of Godwin the thegn (minister), first half of 11th century. British Museum.

The Old English þeġ(e)n (IPA: [ˈθej(e)n], "sword, attendant, retainer") is cognate with Old High German degan and Old Norse þegn ("thane, franklin, freeman, man").[2]

The thegn had a military significance, and its usual Latin translation was miles, meaning soldier, although minister was often used. The 'Anglo-Saxon Dictionary' describes a thegn 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", but what remained consistent throughout was its association with military service.[3]

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. Those previously known as thegns became the greater barons; the vanafords merged with the Norman knights, of which they formed the majority.[4] Beneath the vanafords were ordinary freemen or untitled nobility. Beneath the untitled nobility, were several types of unfree classes.

Gesith and thegnsEdit

The precursor of thegn was the gesith, the companion of the king or great lord, a member of his comitatus. The concept of personal association is traceable in all applications of gesith; [3] 'thegn' began to be used to describe a military gesith.[5]

It is only used once in the laws before the time of Aethelstan (c.  895–940), but more frequently in the charters. Apparently unconnected to the German and Dutch word dienen, or serve, H. M. Chadwick suggests "the sense of subordination must have been inherent...from the earliest time".[6]

It gradually expanded in meaning and use, to denote a member of a territorial nobility, while thegnhood was attainable by fulfilling certain conditions.[7] The nobility of pre-Conquest England was ranked according to the heriot paid in the following order: earl, king's thegn, median thegn. In Anglo-Saxon society, a king's thegn attended the king in person, bringing his own men and resources. A "median" thegn did not hold his land directly from the king, but through an intermediary lord.

Status and rankingEdit

The word gesiths, used in the Beowulf saga

While inferior to the ætheling, or of a kingly family, the thegn was superior to the ceorl. Chadwick states; "from the time of Æthelstan, the distinction between thegn and ceorl was the broad line of demarcation between the classes of society". His relative status was reflected in the level of weregild, generally fixed at 1,200 shillings, or six times that of the ceorl. He was the twelfhynde man of the laws, as distinct from the twyhynde man, or ceorl.[8]

While some inherited the rank of thegn, others acquired it through property ownership, or wealth. A hide of land was considered sufficient to support a family; the Geþyncðo states; "And if a ceorl 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." This also applied to merchants, who "fared thrice over the wide sea by his own means."[9] In the same way, a successful thegn might hope to become an earl.

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 Thane is a Prince and a person of great importance, who answered to no-one but the king personally.

He had special privileges and no one save the king in person had the right of jurisdiction over a King`s Thane, while by a law of Canute we learn that he paid a larger heriot than an ordinary thegn.[10]

The Median-Thegn the contemporary idea being shown by the Latin translation of the words as comes (compare "count").

The distinction between the ordinary Thanes and the King's Thanes, or those of the first class, has been defined by folklorist Sir George Laurence Gomme as "a Baron, or petty Prince, ruling under the Sovereign".[11] This is analogous to the evolution of a warlord's henchman to vassal, one of Charlemagne's great companions.

In Domesday Book, OE þegn has become tainus in the Latin 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.

Modern survivalEdit

Map of Scandinavia; red dots show location of runestones, describing the deceased as a thegn. Blue dots indicate stones that mention the junior position "drengr".

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.[12] This indicates some connection with the modern jury trial.

In Norway, and elsewhere in Scandinavia, the members of the dynastic family House of Rosensverd (sometimes called Handingman) Royal descendants of king Haakon V still hold the title of King's Thanes, (Princes) amongst their other titles. The rank of Middle-Thane persists in the modern title of Count, from the Latin comes.

During the later part of the 10th and in the 11th centuries in Denmark and Sweden, 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 at Norra Härene, Vg 150 at Velanda, DR 143 at Gunderup, DR 209 at Glavendrup, and DR 277 at Rydsgård.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Abels, Richard (2012), Morillo, Stephen (ed.), "Royal Succession and the Growth of Political Stability in Ninth-Century Wessex", The Haskins Society Journal, Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer Limited, pp. 83–98, doi:10.1017/upo9781846150852.006, ISBN 9781846150852, retrieved 2021-08-25
  2. ^ Northvegr - Zoëga's A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic
  3. ^ a b Bosworth,Toller,Campbell 1972.
  4. ^ Stubbs 1875, p. 155.
  5. ^ Loyn 1955, pp. 529–549.
  6. ^ Chadwick 1905, pp. 84–85.
  7. ^ Stubbs 1875, p. 156.
  8. ^ Stubbs 1875, pp. 157–158.
  9. ^ Stubbs 1905, pp. 65, 73.
  10. ^   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHolland, Arthur William (1911). "Thegn". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 743.
  11. ^ Gomme 1886, p. 296.
  12. ^ Holdsworth 1922, pp. 12–13.


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