In Anglo-Saxon times women could hold, devise, inherit and sell land. Women were also allowed to manage their land. This, of course, was more beneficial to women from wealthier families as these families actually held significant tracts of land. Anglo-Saxon women could also bequeath their property and other belongings themselves. The Anglo-Saxon woman could also indict someone in court. This was not the case for the Anglo-Norman woman as stated in Fell “in the twelfth century no woman could appear in a criminal court as plaintiff, let alone witness, except concerning her husband’s murder or her own rape” (164). In the Anglo-Norman time there was a great difference between an adult unmarried woman and a married woman that played an important role in the freedom they had; the first having more legal freedom than the latter (Loengard 167). When speaking of unmarried women this mostly meant widowed women. The Anglo-Norman had a similar status to the Anglo-Saxon women, legally, and her position on these fronts was exponentially superior to her wed contemporary. As Johns states
such power was magnified greatly if a widow who was also an heiress could exert
influence in her second marriage by retaining some control or influence over her
inheritance. Dowager countesses-heiresses had the potential to be among the most
powerful independent women in society. They can be considered a sub-set of widows
who were a distinct status group who enacted their own policies and stratagems, and
had economic power rooted in land tenure and rank. (Noble women 70)
This again shows that rank played an essential role on the power a woman could hold but also that women’s power often lies in how they can influence men. Many widows remarried, whether completely voluntary or not it is difficult to say, but they were able to buy their “freedom” from remarrying. Widows were often also used as a reward for the incoming Norman nobles who fought for William the Conqueror. The contrasts with the law of Cnut in which it is stated that either partner can refuse a marriage.
In Anglo-Norman times a more feudal society emerged by Norman example. This meant that land was given in return for military service, and military service was expected of those that held land. In the eyes of the Normans military service was strictly for men so land was held mostly by men. The land that was given to these men came from the widows mentioned above and from heiresses but also from the Anglo-Saxon nobles displaced by the Conquest. The establishment of a more feudal society thus contributed to the diminished position of women.
Henry I’s laws devised between 1114 and 1118 discuss the violence against women, in particular rape and it was termed a bootless crime, crimes “which are only punishable only by death or loss of member” (Saunders 50). So despite the many ways in which women lost rights according to the laws in Anglo-Norman England, this was one case in which the law was similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons, though perhaps the “compensation” here is of a different nature than the wergild women received in Anglo-Saxon England. The wergild received would depend on several factors such as the social and sexual status of the women. The consequences of the Anglo-Saxon law could have been that lower class women were more likely to be raped as the wergild would be easier to pay compared to that of noble women who were thus more protected. William I might have instituted these harsh punishments towards rapists so as to deter his own soldiers from raping Anglo-Saxon women during the conquest of England and not so much to change the wergild structure put in place by the Anglo-Saxons (Ritscher 5-6). It can be said that the Anglo-Norman law did more to protect women as the punishment was so severe that it served as a deterrent towards the rape of any women, no matter class. However, women would have to immediately after their rape go to a law-officer to show their injuries (Fell 164). Thus it is unlikely that perpetrators were convicted as very few people would have the ability to do this after such an assault upon their person.
Primogeniture was not prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society whereas it became an established practice in the Anglo-Norman time. The importance of women bringing forth the future male heir thus increased greatly. As Stafford states “Although there were Mercian princes at the end of the ninth century, none of them established his claim to follow his father on the throne” (44). However, in Anglo-Saxon times, especially in the middle and later period, the women and more specifically their lineage, could play an important role in the consolidation of power for kings. A woman from noble lineage could strengthen the rule of her husband and in turn also that of their child. Aethelflaed’s own royal Mercian lineage through her mother would help support her husband’s claim as Lord of the Mercians. Stafford adds that “AEthelflaed . . . played to internal Mercian insecurity as well as external anti-Viking alliances. She helped establish a husband whose claims to the Mercian throne were as debatable as those of most of his ninth-century predecessors (Mercia 43). With more importance put on the first born son there was also an added pressure for noble women to produce this heir.
Not all of the changes in the position of women can explicitly or implicitly be linked to the Norman Conquest. Many of these changes had already started developing in the late Anglo-Saxon period such as the change from the Morgengifu that a wife would receive from a husband instead the wife’s family had to pay a dower to the husband. McNamara and Wemple state that “the bridegift . . . was turned over to her on her wedding day and usually represented a specific piece of land. But in the tenth and eleventh centuries fewer deeds gave the wife outright ownership, and even the usufruct was generally restricted to the use of the husband and wife jointly, not the wife exclusively (women and power in the Middle Ages 96)