As you would expect with any society that was characterised by a hierarchical class system there would be the top class who were defined by their wealth and by the power that they wielded. In the Anglo-Saxon world the upper class were known as the aethelings, who were principally the royal family. The king was the obviously the head of this very exclusive group and he would be joined by his queen, their children who would hold the ranks of prince and princesses, and any other immediate family members such as brothers and sisters who would hold the same rank but be differentiated by their position in line to inherit the throne.
The position of aetheling granted many privileges but it also bestowed certain responsibilities too. Aethelings were expected to support the king and queen and to lead the army on campaign. Military service was considered important as the cult of the warrior was a mainstay of Saxon culture and it also gave the ambitious a chance to prove their worth against the enemies of the people. Harold Godwinson, when he was Eorl of Wessex, built up a formidable reputation for himself as successful warlord defeating King Gruffydd ap Llwellyn of Wales at the command of King Edward of England.
By their very nature the aethelings were few in number, certainly not enough to govern the whole of the kingdom. To assist in this there was a lower tier to the upper class known as the eoldermen. Again these were rich and powerful men given clearly defined areas of the kingdom to manage. They were responsible for administering the king’s law, taking military action to defend the peoples for whom they were responsible, and seeing that the kingdom was properly administered.
An eolderman usually had the title of eorl and he would be responsible for a whole shire or a particular town. In later days it was not uncommon for some eorls to be responsible for several shires. Although not originally an inherited title by the late 10th century it had become something of the norm for a particular title to remain with one family, such as Eorl Godwin passing on the Eorldom of Wessex to his second son Harold Godwinson.
Along with members of the aethelings and the archbishops and bishops the eoldermen formed the ‘Witan’. In essence the witan was the king’s council although he was not necessarily bound to call it or accept its’ recommendations. It did have one very important function, however, and that was to decide on who had the best claim to the crown should a king die without an heir; they may even have decided against a named heir if they found him lacking in some way.
In January 1066 England found itself in a situation where childless King Edward died without a named heir. Although the Eorl of Wessex had no direct claim to the crown it was suggested that King Edward favoured him as he lay dying. It was known that the Duke of Normandy also had his eyes set on the English throne but he had very little influence with the Witan. The claim that came from the King of Norway was dismissed out of hand. In choosing Harold Godwinson the Witan functioned well within its’ remit, irrespective of what the pope might think. In their eyes he was the only Saxon capable of fulfilling the duties of the king and they saw no reason why they should bow to a foreign duke with a questionable claim.