I got inspired to go into this while watching a programme on the Normans, noticing how very much they had changed the status of women. This article from Hullwebs is good …
As far as marriage is concerned, Anglo-Saxons generally had clear and sensible legislation for the rights of women. The husband was to pay morgengifu (‘morning gift’) in money or land to the woman herself, and she would have personal control over it to give away, sell or bequeath as she chose. Places with names such as Morgay Farm and Morgay Wood were probably given as morgengifu, so the amount of land given seems to have been fairly large at least in these cases. Marriage agreements were made between the two families but the girl did have a say in who she married, and her kin seem to have mainly acted as legal and financial advisers. The following is an example of an Anglo-Saxon marriage contract (as cited in Fell):
Here is declared in this document the agreement which Godwine made with Brithric when he wooed his daughter. In the first place he gave her a pound’s weight of gold, to induce her to accept his suit, and he granted her the estate at Street with all that belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen and 20 cows and 10 horses and 10 slaves.
Within marriage, finances belonged to both the husband and the wife. This we know from wills and charters. Æthelbert’s law number 79 from the seventh century says about divorce:
If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.
This gave women independence and security. On the other hand, Æthelbert 77 shows that deception was not acceptable:
… if there be guile, let him bring her home again, and let his property be restored to him.
For the purpose of protecting married women, there was also a law that a wife shall not be held guilty for any criminal activity of her husband. Widows were protected in the issue of inheritance: Æthelræd’s law stated that they should not be forced into second marriages, and Cnut had a law against forcing widows to become nuns.
Attitudes to women were more dominated by class than sex in Anglo-Saxon England. The basic class distinctions for women were slave vs. free, and virgin vs. married vs. widow. For example, in Ælfred’s law the penalty for raping a free woman was ten shillings, while the penalty for raping a slave was only five shillings. In addition, a free woman would get the money for herself, but the fine for a slave would be paid to her master. However, heroic literature has several examples of slaves rising from their original class. Beowulf, for instance, mentions a queen called Wealhtheow, which means foreign (or Welsh) slave.
Because people were allowed to choose their spouses, marital relationships could be very rewarding. The word ‘friendship’ was often used for the relationship between husband and wife. Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence of organised prostitution in Anglo-Saxon England. Ecclesiastical writings from that time speak a great deal about incest, prohibiting it strictly; however, this does not mean that incest as we understand it was common, for their definition of incest covered marriages between wide degrees of kin. …
Very different from what we’re used to thinking perhaps. women lost their rights and status when the Normans came. We began to get them back with the Married Women’s Property Act which my great aunt Ursula Mellor Bright was responsible for bringing about. We’re still working on it 132 years later …