New translation of the king's modification of the death penalty now available
King Æthelstan (‘king of the English’ 927-939) is known for his severe treatment of those caught red-handed as thieves. They were executed.
The king, however, had second thoughts about the age at which a thief could be put to death, and also about the minimum value of the property stolen which could lead to execution. As a result, he modified a previous law of his own to reflect his change of mind on the matter.
But don’t go thinking Æthelstan was some big soft-hearted ruler. Blessed ones, I really don’t think you good folk of the twenty-first century would detect much in the way of compassion in this powerful king’s soul.
After all, even after the modification had been made, you could still be executed as young as 15, and for as little as 12 pennies, if you were caught in the act of stealing. And if you were younger than this, and the amount was smaller, you could still yet lose your life if you resisted arrest or attempted to flee.
It really was, as the legal historian Tom Lambert puts it, ‘a distinctly merciless order’ that Æthelstan ushered in.
A copy of Æthelstan’s modification for theft, originally written probably between 930-939, is uniquely preserved in Textus Roffensis, the ‘book of Rochester’, which was compiled around the year 1123 and is cared for by Rochester Cathedral.
Now, for the first time, there is an accessible modern English translation of this particular text within Æthelstan’s laws. This translation, along with commentary and notes, has been authored by the other Monk of this website, Dr Christopher Monk.
All you need to do in order to read the new translation is follow the first link below. And if you want to catch up with the ongoing programme of translations of and interpretative articles about Textus Roffensis, you can follow the second link.