As in Ancient Rome, slaves in Anglo-Saxon England could gain their freedom:

The manumission (freeing) of slaves was solemnized by ceremony, the presence of witnesses, and legal documentation...

The freeing ceremony could be performed in church, or at a cross-roads – symbolic that the freed now chooses his or her own path.


slaves who had gained their freedom would become part of an underclass of freedmen below the rank of ceorl.

Note: ceorl or churl = ordinary freeman, "a non-servile peasant",

According to the article Roman freedmen – slavery in ancient Rome, the book The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History (pdf), as well as Freedom and Slavery in Roman Law and Oxford Classical Dictionary, Roman freedmen sometimes (but not always) had some legal and / or social obligations to or dependency on their former owners as there were different conditions of manumission. These might include having to work part-time for the former master, restrictions on who a freedman could marry and legal provisions concerning property. It was also common for them to take their former master's name (e.g. Marcus Tullius Tiro was freed by Marcus Tullius Cicero).

Did freedmen have any obligations to their former masters in Anglo-Saxon England? If so, do we know what they were?

For the time frame, any time from the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England to the Norman conquest would be of interest, though I doubt much is known about the early period. I'll narrow this if it proves too broad (which may be the case if the Viking presence changed things).

Note: I did not make it clear in the original wording of this question that I am citing Rome merely as a source of examples of what obligations freedmen might have. In clarifying this point, I do not in any way intend to invalidate Pieter Geerkens' useful and informative answer.

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    I'd always kind of thought of Ancient Rome and Anglo-Saxon England as being mutually exclusive. Could you be more specific about the time period in question?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 19:27
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    Can't really write a proper answer right now, but the article Slave raiding and slave trading in early England does mention a number of instances where slaves gained their freedom but doesn't mention any obligations of those slaves to their former owners. Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 1:41
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    I'm not convinced by the duties ascribed to Roman freed persons - it doesn't sound particularly 'free! A freedwoman could not divorce her former master, but not sure she was bound to marry him. AFAIK many slaves were freed on the understanding that, once free, they would take an oath detailing their obligations to their patronus - Cicero suggests that if they fail to do so they can be reinslaved - but this "freedom" sounds more like slavery!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 15:49
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    @TheHonRose You have a point. Upon further investigation, the source I quoted generalized too much. I've edited to reflect this. Thanks for the input :) Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 22:58
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    @TheHonRose you're quite correct. While freedman often had economic ties to their former masters, and were often considered part of the household and family, there was no obligation to perform free labour or enter into forced marriages as far as I've ever heard. That would effectively mean they were still slaves... Maybe some provided services for their former masters in exchange for (for example) lodging in their domicile, but that's probably it.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 7:02

1 Answer 1


The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms form in Britain in the early 6th century, which is 150 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period:

Anglo-Saxon law was written in the vernacular and was relatively free of the Roman influence found in continental laws that were written in Latin. Roman influence on Anglo-Saxon law was indirect and exerted primarily through the church. There was a definite Scandinavian influence upon Anglo-Saxon law as a result of the Viking invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries. Only with the Norman Conquest did Roman law, as embodied in Frankish law, make its influence felt on the laws of England.

So Roman tradition is the wrong place to look for the customs and legalities of manumission in the second half of the first millenium C.E. The original Germanic traditions of the invading (and ruling) Anglo-Saxons would have slowly melded with Scandinavian influences of the Vikings from the 8th Century on. The formalized traditions and records of English Common Law can be traced to the Norman Conquest.

My answer to the question "How were laws promulgated in the Middle Ages?" provides additional links to Description and History of Common Law and an academic paper on The Jury and the English Law of Homicide 1200-1600.

I don't have time just now to do more than peruse them quickly, but here is a casual descriptions of slavery in Anglo Saxon England and a more academic introduction to The Church and Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England.

  • +1 Appreciate the links and effort, and also the direction in which to go. Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 5:50

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