Law-code of King Cnut


This is the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, issued by King Cnut (reigned 1016–35) with the advice of his counsellors.

This manuscript contains a collection of laws from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, plus excerpts from canon law and other texts composed by Archbishop Wulfstan (1002–1023) of York. Part of the manuscript was probably owned by Wulfstan himself. His distinctive handwriting can be seen in the annotations, including to a copy of Wulfstan’s most famous work, the ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’. Written before Cnut’s conquest of England in 1016, the ‘Sermon of the Wolf’ blamed the imminent defeat of the English on the lawlessness of the population.

Although Wulfstan condemned Cnut’s forces in the ‘Sermon of the Wolf’, after the Danish conquest of England he became one of the new king’s administrators and even drafted some of his lawcodes. This is the earliest surviving copy of laws issued in Cnut’s name at a meeting at Winchester around 1020 or 1021. Wulfstan incorporated the law-codes of earlier English kings into his text, making it the most extensive record of law in Anglo-Saxon England.

Written in Old English, the code begins, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted.’

Among its provisions are punishments for committing adultery, perjury and sorcery, together with measures for reforming the coinage and for repairing bridges and fortifications.

Many of its clauses deal with murder, which was punishable by outlawry or death. Marked by the first red initial is a law stating that, ‘If anyone plots against the king or against his own lord, he shall forfeit his life and all that he possesses.’

Also in the volume are copies of the laws of King Edgar (reigned 959–975), and part of the laws of King Alfred of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899) and King Ine of the West Saxons (died in or after 726).

Full title:
Anglo-Saxon law-codes I Cnut (3r–16r); II Cnut (16r–41r); II-III Edgar (42r–44v); Alfred and Ine (45r–48r, 51r–57v: imperfect); Romscot (48r); ‘Judex’ (48r–50v)
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Cotton MS Nero A I

Full catalogue details

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