Anglo-Saxon term that evolved from the verb thegnian, to serve, thegn acquired a more precise definition from the age of Alfred the Great in the ninth century to the end of Anglo-Saxon history in England with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. A thegn was primarily one of the king's retainers, but the term was also used for a servant of the more powerful counts of Anglo-Saxon England, who at times caused difficulties of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In either case, service was rewarded with higher status and territory for the thegn.
   Although the term thegn appeared only once in Anglo-Saxon laws before the tenth century, it appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf and replaced the early Anglo-Saxon term gesith (noble) at some point during the early Middle Ages. And whatever term was used, the function of royal servant was one of honor and prestige and was a duty that eventually became hereditary. Indeed, in exchange for service the kings began to grant thegns hereditary rights to lands that had been granted as reward for the services rendered. In this way, the thegns were transformed into a landed nobility, even though the king retained rights over the thegn and his land. Moreover, proximity to the king and the special relationship between the two brought the thegn greater prestige in society. This heightened status was recognized as early as the sixth century by the higher wergeld given the thegn, which was six times or more that of an ordinary peasant. Thegns were relatively numerous and could be wealthy in their own right or dependent on maintenance from the king.
   The basic duty of the thegn was that of service. One of the primary duties, of course, was military service. The thegn was personally called to serve in the king's host as mounted infantry, and refusal to do so could lead to the loss of the thegn's lands. The thegn's other military duties included bringing a certain number of his own men into military service to the king, and building and repairing roads and fortifications. They also had civil obligations, such as standing as witness to the king's charters. Thegns also oversaw administration of the kingdom at the local level and were the king's representatives in the shires, keeping him in touch with local affairs. As the king's men, the thegns also played a role in royal justice on a panel that was a sort of precursor to the modern grand jury.
   See also
 ♦ Loyn, Henry R. Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest. 2d ed. London: Longmans, 1991.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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