(a) The Anglo-Saxon legal system cannot be understood unless one realizes the fundamental opposition between folk-right and privilege. Folk-right is the aggregate of rules, formulated or latent but susceptible of formulation, which can be appealed to as the expression of the juridical consciousness of the people at large or of the communities of which it is composed. It is tribal in its origin, and differentiated, not according to boundaries between states, but on national and provincial lines. There may be the folk-right of West and East Saxons, of East Angles, of Kentish men, Mercians, Northumbrians, Danes, Welshmen, and these main folk-right divisions remain even when tribal kingdoms disappear and the people is concentrated in one or two realms. The chief centres for the formulation and application of folk-right were in the 10th and 11th centuries the shire-moots, while the witan of the realm generally placed themselves on the higher ground of State expediency, although occasionally using folk-right ideas.
The older law of real property, of succession, of contracts, the customary tariffs of fines, were mainly regulated by folk-right; the reeves employed by the king and great men were supposed to take care of local and rural affairs according to folk-right. The law had to be declared and applied by the people itself in its communities, while the spokesmen of the people were neither democratic majorities nor individual experts, but a few leading men - the twelve eldest thanes or some similar quorum. Folk-right could, however, be broken or modified by special law or special grant, and the fountain of such privileges was the royal power. Alterations and exceptions were, as a matter of fact, suggested by the interested parties themselves, and chiefly by the Church. Thus a privileged land-tenure was created - bookland; the rules as to the succession of kinsmen were set at nought by concession of testamentary power and confirmations of grants and wills; special exemptions from the jurisdiction of the hundreds and special privileges as to levying fines were conferred.
In process of time the rights originating in royal grants of privilege overbalanced, as it were, folk-right in many respects, and became themselves the starting-point of a new legal system - the feudal one.
(b) Another feature of vital importance in the history of Anglo-Saxon law is its tendency towards the preservation of peace. Society is constantly struggling to ensure the main condition of its existence - peace. Already in aethelberht's legislation we find characteristic fines inflicted for breach of the peace of householders of different ranks - the ceorl, the eorl, and the king himself appearing as the most exalted among them. Peace is considered not so much a state of equilibrium and friendly relations between parties, but rather as the rule of a third within a certain region - a house, an estate, a kingdom. This leads on one side to the recognition of private authorities - the father's in his family, the master's as to servants, the lord's as to his personal or territorial dependents. On the other hand, the tendency to maintain peace naturally takes its course towards the strongest ruler, the king, and we witness in Anglo-Saxon law the gradual evolution of more and more stringent and complete rules in respect of the king's peace and its infringements.
(c) The more ancient documents of Anglo-Saxon law show us the individual not merely as the subject and citizen of a certain commonwealth, but also as a member of some group, all the fellows of which are closely allied in claims and responsibilities. The most elementary of these groups is the maegth, the association of agnatic and cognatic relations. Personal protection and revenge, oaths, marriage, wardship, succession, supervision over settlement, and good behaviour, are regulated by the law of kinship. A man's actions are considered not as exertions of his individual will, but as acts of the kindred, and all the fellows of the maegth are held responsible for them. What began as a natural alliance was used later as a means of enforcing responsibility and keeping lawless individuals in order. When the association of kinsmen failed, the voluntary associations - guilds - appeared as substitutes. The gild brothers associated in mutual defence and support, and they had to share in the payment of fines.
The township and the hundred came also in for certain forms of collective responsibility, because they presented groups of people associated in their economic and legal interests.
(d) In course of time the natural associations get loosened and intermixed, and this calls forth the elaborate police legislation of the later Anglo-Saxon kings. Regulations are issued about the sale of cattle in the presence of witnesses. Enactments about the pursuit of thieves, and the calling in of warrantors to justify sales of chattels, are other expressions of the difficulties attending peaceful intercourse. Personal surety appears as a complement of and substitute for collective responsibility. The hlaford and his hiredmen are an institution not only of private patronage, but also of police supervision for the sake of laying hands on malefactors and suspected persons. The landrica assumes the same part in a territorial district. Ultimately the laws of the 10th and 11th centuries show the beginnings of the frankpledge associations, which came to act so important a part in the local police and administration of the feudal age.
The points mentioned are not many, but, apart from their intrinsic importance in any system of law, they are, as it were, made prominent by the documents themselves, as they are constantly referred to in the latter.