Above the ceorls, the peasants of the Anglo-Saxon world, sat the ‘theigns’. They were to all intents and purposes the middle class. To qualify as a theign a man needed to own a minimum of 5 hides of land. A hide was not an exact measurement in Anglo-Saxon England but roughly equated to enough land for a family to live on. Although a ceorl from the top end of that class, a geatsas, might own that much or even more land this alone did not qualify them to be considered theign-worthy; they still had to be promoted to that position.
Theigns were appointed by the king initially and they did service to him accordingly, if they failed in this respect they could lose their lands and be demoted to the peasant classes or even suffer execution if their transgression was considered serious enough. In the begin it seems that theigns were warriors who took on the more common duties of management and they were made responsible for overseeing the building and maintaining of defences, bridges, and the organisation of the fyrd; the Saxon army. They were expected to give military service for which they would supply their own equipment; horses, servants, arms and armour. Later, the theigns also took on a more administrative role in ensuring that the peasant classes obeyed the king’s law and fulfilled their duties.
As with the peasants the theigns had within their class further sub-divisions but these were not as clearly separated as in the ceorls. A theign’s rank with regard to his peers would largely depend upon how much land and wealth he owned. Lower theigns would have at least the minimum five hides although most would have more than that. Middling theigns would probably have double to three times as much whereas high-theigns would own land holdings of the size of estates.
Royal-theigns were high-theigns who had been appointed by the king and they were only one step down from becoming eoldermen, that is, a member of the ruling classes. As with the peasants ability and achievement were rewarded with grants of land and money, so it was quite possible for an adept Saxon to move from being a ceorl to becoming a theign. The law did not allow him to move beyond that class but his son, if equally capable, had the opportunity to become an eolderman and be granted an eorldom of his own.
As with huscarls the king was not alone in enjoying the service of theigns, particularly rich eoldermen also appointed their own theigns. Indeed, it was even possible for a high-theign to have lower theigns giving service to them.
In many respects the theigns were the backbone of the fyrd. They could be expected to be reasonably well equipped and they had the wealth to allow them the time to practice the martial arts needed by a Saxon warrior. Although not as numerous as the coerls the theigns were a more capable body of fighting men and would have formed the front line of a shield wall; most certainly they would be in the second line. Battle gave the theigns a chance to prove their bravery and prowess, and many a many enjoyed the boon of a new grant of land or pieces of gold given by whichever lord they owed allegiance to after such a display. This would make them eager warriors and, therefore, dangerous men when swords were drawn and battle joined.