The word oath comes from Anglo-Saxon. Athelstan was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 AD, and the first King of England from 927 to 939. He united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into England.
The requirement for credible witnesses to commercial transactions can be traced as far back as Kentish law of the seventh century. The laws were promulgated by Kings Hlothhere and Eadric between 673 and 685 and survive in the Textus Roffensis (Rochester law book), Hlothere and Eadric’s code, Decree 11.
If any man of Kent buys chattel (property) in London, he shall have with him two or three unblemished freemen (honest men) or the king’s town-reeve as witness.
Around 930 AD, Athelstan compiled a code of laws. Cattle theft was a problem. To prove rightful ownership from a sale or trade, the law required that the sale of chattel (property) be witnessed by a neutral third party. The impartial witness would take an oath to act truthfully and in the law’s best interest.
English Laws Regarding Witnesses
Athelstan, Council of Greatanlea, ordinance 12: And we have ordained, that no man buy any property out of port over 20 pence; but let him buy there within, on the witness of the port-reeve, or of another unlying man; or further, on the witness of the reeves at the folk-mote [town meeting]. [a reeve was a magistrate for a port, town or shire, a shire-reeve, or sheriff]
Athelstan, The Dooms of the Witan of Exeter, Capitulary 1: And let there be named in every reeves district as many men as are known to be unlying, that they may be for witness in every suit. And be the oaths of these unlying men according to the worth of the property without election. [a jury list of “good men and true”]
King Edgar’s Laws, Capitulary 6: [Edgar the Peaceful, reigned 959 to 975] And let every man, with their witness, buy and sell every of the chattels that he may buy or sell, either in a burh [burg, fortress] or in a hundred [unit of a county, wapentake in Danish]; and let every of them, when he is first chosen as witness, give the oath that he never, neither for money, nor for love, nor for fear, will deny any of those things of which he was witness, nor declare any other thing in witness save that alone which he saw or heard; and of such sworn men let there be at every bargain two or three as witness.
The unlying man witness was a port reeve, priest, landowner, or one of the king’s financial officers. Purchasers were instructed to inform their neighbors of the names of witnesses to their purchases.
Oath Changes After the Norman Conquest in 1066
In 1066, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, began the Norman Conquest by defeating England at the Battle of Hastings.
The recording of legal matters in writing developed mainly after the Norman Conquest. The Normans also brought the use of the seal, adopted from the Roman chancery practice of the Catholic church.
Since writing provided more permanent and reliable evidence than an oral declaration, the English courts placed more credence on it. A deed was a written document sealed by the maker as evidence of his consent. At first, deeds were accompanied by oaths. But, the oath requirement for deeds was dropped from use while the legal pre-requisites of writing, sealing, and delivery (signed, sealed, and delivered) remained.
Nothing But the Truth
The 13th century marked the first use of the phrase “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” in an oath, which became a routine part of English trials.
Ancient oaths referred to local gods, or sacred relationships, including “I call Zeus to witness“, “by the immortal gods“, or “I call to witness the ashes of my ancestors.”
Some oaths include a curse for perjury, as “May the gods destroy me,” if I speak falsely.
Sacred Stones and Other Objects
From ancient times, sacred stones were used in oath-taking ceremonies. In Ancient Rome, a Jupiter Stone (Iuppiter Lapis), in the Temple of Jupiter, was considered to represent the god Jupiter, as the divine law giver. The severe penalty for breaking the oath was shown at the time of sacrifice, a part of the ceremony. In the ancient world, sacrifice was often part of the oath ceremony.
When ancient tribes chose a king, they would stand on stones, signifying a strong, steadfast, enduring commitment.
The Old and New Testaments contain religious and ceremonial references to stone. In Hebrew, the word eben-ezer means “stone of help,” referring to a stone monument memorializing help from God.
Churches were often built upon religious sites, marked by the presence of sacred stones.
In addition to sacred stones, other sacred objects, including altars, were used to take an oath. Some warriors, including ancient Greeks, Romans, and some Germanic peoples, swore on their weapons, perhaps as emblems of the war god. Oaths by weapons lasted into the Christian period.
In northern Siberia, indigenous Ostyak and Vogul hunters and trappers regard the bear as the most holy animal. For a binding oath, they swear on the head of a bear.
In India, some indigenous tribes swore on the head or skin of a tiger, because being killed by a tiger meant you could not be reincarnated and would be forever extinguished from the world, both physically and spiritually.
The Celts often threw valuable swords, spears and shields into sacred rivers, lakes, and bogs as a sacrificial offering to the gods. Insular Celts of the British Isles swore their oaths by their tribal gods, and the land, sea, and sky; as in, “I swear by the gods by whom my people swear” and “If I break my oath, may the land open to swallow me, the sea rise to drown me, and the sky fall upon me.”
Using an oathing stone is an old Scottish tradition where the bride and groom place their hands upon a stone while saying their wedding vows, taken from the ancient Celtic custom of setting an oath in stone.
A blood oath, to signify brotherhood or an alliance, required each party to make a small cut in the finger, hand or forearm and mix blood as they pressed the wounds together.
Garlic and onions were treated as gods by the Egyptians when taking an oath, says Pliny, while Juvenal derides them for their veneration of these garden-born deities. But there is no direct evidence from the monuments of their having been sacred. They were admitted as common offerings on every altar. Onions and other vegetables were not forbidden to the general public. They were principal articles of food.
The coronation oath was administered to every king and queen, by an archbishop or bishop of the realm, in the presence of the people, who reciprocally took an oath of allegiance to the crown.
It reads: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of this kingdom of England, and the dominions thereto belonging, according to the statutes in parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same? Reply: I solemnly promise so to do.
Will you to your power, cause law and justice, in mercy to be executed in all your judgments? Reply: I will.
Will you to the utmost of your power, maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the gospel, and the protestant reformed religion, established by the law? And will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm, and to the churches committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law, do or shall appertain unto them, or any of them? Reply: All this I promise to do.
The king or queen shall lay a hand upon the holy gospels, and say the things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep, so help me God, and shall then kiss the book.
Lying under oath about a material, relevant fact is the crime of perjury. There were no penalties for perjury until the mid-16th century. It was originally believed that the risk of God’s vengeance would compel the witness to tell the truth.
English Common Law in North America
American law comes from English common law, except for Louisiana, from French law. Jamestown Colony (1607), the Pilgrims (1620) and other New England and Atlantic Coast colonists brought English laws and traditions to America.
After swearing the oath, witnesses were expected to kiss the Bible. This is depicted in the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 (see mural above), in the video from the 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams, Part 4, Reunion [new window].
The raised right hand is lifted up toward God. The gesture of lifting the hand toward heaven was an Israelite form of oath. Abraham said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up mine hand unto the Lord, God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth.” Genesis 14:22
The phrase “So help me God“, is often traditionally added to the end of an oath.
Affirmation in Lieu of Oath
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, witnesses raised their hand toward God when swearing an oath (see Gen. 14:22-23, Deut. 32:40, Dan. 12:7, Rev. 10:5-6). This may be the origin of the custom of asking the witness to raise his or her right hand when making an oath in legal proceedings.
After the Reformation and the split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-47) there was more religious opposition to giving an oath. Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, and other religious dissenters declined to swear an oath before God, because of an admonition by Jesus Christ to “Swear not at all; neither by heaven … nor by the earth …” (Matt. 5:34-37).
To accommodate these groups, an affirmation was added as an alternative procedure. As a result, courts are no longer so strict about ensuring that oaths contain a religious element. A witness can choose to affirm, rather than swear an oath.
An affirmation is a secular variant of the oath. It is a declaration made on personal honor, promising to tell the truth, without any reference to a deity or sacred object.
In court, a witness may testify under solemn oath or affirmation. A court may allow a minor witness to “promise” to tell the truth.
Holy books, other than the Bible, may be used for a solemn oath, to accommodate other religions.
If the phrase sworn to is used, it is an oath. For an affirmation, the word affirmed is used. Many documents combine the words into the phrase, sworn to or affirmed, to include either method to encourage telling the truth.
Authority to Administer an Oath
Only certain authorized public officials, including notaries, may administer a solemn oath or affirmation. An oath or affirmation may not be self-administered.
1. George Washington inauguration oath, [Public domain] U.S. capitol mural
2. King Athelstan, stained glass, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Map of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, by Sakurambo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
4. King James Bible, 1611, by Church of England [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[Last-Modified Date 2017-04-23] new image