Thegn or Thane, is an Anglo-Saxon word (þeg(e)n) meaning an attendant, servant, retainer or official, and cognate with Gr τεκνον, a child.
From the first, however, it had a military significance, and its usual Latin translation was miles, although minister was often used. Joseph Bosworth (Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, new ed. by TN Toller) describes a thegn as ?one engaged in a king's or a queen's service, whether in the household or in the country,? and adds, ?the word in this case seems gradually to acquire a technical meaning, and to become a term denoting a class, containing, however, several degrees.? The precursor of the thegn was the gesith, the companion of the king or great lord, the member of his comitalus, and the word thegn began to be used to describe a military gesith.
It is only used once in the laws before the time of Aethelstan (c. 895-940), but more frequently in the charters. HM Chadwick (Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions, 1905) says that "the sense of subordination must have been inherent in the word from the earliest time," but it has no connexion with the German dienen, to serve. In the course of time it extended its meaning and was more generally used. The thegn became a member of a territorial nobility, and the dignity of thegnhood was attainable by those who fulfilled certain conditions.
Thus from a document of uncertain date, possibly about the time of Alfred the Great, and translated by Stubbs (Select Charters) as "Of people's ranks and laws," we learn: "And if a ceorl throve, so that he had fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bellhouse and burh-gate-seat, and special duty in the king's hail, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy." And again--"And if a merchant throve, so that he fared thrice over the wide sea by his own means, then was he thenceforth of thegn-right worthy" In like manner a successful thegn might hope to become an earl. In addition to the thegns there were others who were thegns on account of their birth, and thus thegnhood was partly inherited and partly acquired. The thegn was inferior to the aethel, the member of a kingly family, but he was superior to the ceorl, and, says Chadwick, "from the time of Aethelstan the distinction between thegn and ceorl was the broad line of demarcation between the classes of society." His status is shown by his wergild. Over a large part of England this was fixed at 1200 shillings, or six times that of the ceorl. He was the twelfhynde man of the laws, sharply divided from the twyhynde man or ceorl.
The increase in the number of thegns produced in time a subdivision of the order. There arose a class of king's thegns, corresponding to the earlier thegns, and a larger class of inferior thegns, some of them the thegns of bishops or of other thegns. A king's thegn was a person of great importance, the contemporary idea being shown by the Latin translation of the words as comes. He had certain special privileges. No one save the king had the right of jurisdiction over him, while by a law of Canute we learn that he paid a larger heriot than an ordinary thegn.
But, like all other words of the kind, the word thegn was slowly changing its meaning, and, as Stubbs says (Const. Hist., vol. i.), "the very name, like that of the gesith, has different senses in different ages and kingdoms, but the original idea of military service runs through all the meanings of thegn, as that of personal association is traceable in all the applications of gesith." After the Norman Conquest the thegns appear to have been merged in the class of knights.
The twelve senior thegns of the hundred play a part, the nature of which is rather doubtful, in the development of the English system of justice. By a law of Aethelred they "seem to have acted as the judicial committee of the court for the purposes of accusation" (WS Holdsworth, History of English Law, vol. i. 1903), and thus they have some connexion with the grand jury of modern times.