10

THE HEGEMONY OF WESSEX THE ENGLISH KINGDOM AND CHURCH REFORMS

‘The creation of the English kingdom through conquest is the primary theme of the first half of the tenth century.’ So wrote Pauline Stafford in her book Unification and Conquest (1989, p. 29) and, despite continuing reassessment of the balance between Wessex, the Viking lordships in the north and the remnants of Mercia, East Anglia and the other English kingdoms, it seems a safe generalization. Writing in 2003, M. K. Lawson speaks of the ‘obvious scale of the forces deployed by Edward the Elder in the reconquest of the Danelaw’, comparing it with the sheer extent of his father’s military measures, in terms of manpower, ships and fortress construction. He also points out that, though the sources are scant, we must assume the presence of an ‘array of refined and important details’ in logistics and command structure. It all led to the success of the West Saxon dynasty’s ‘audacious attempt to persuade the English people at large of its leadership.’1 As never before, the royal court of Wessex/England developed as the focus of patronage seeking, of factional rivals and agenda pushers, whether secular or clerical: in short, of political activity. The nobleman looking for grants of land or influence in local affairs, or a royal judgement favourable to a client, attended the peripatetic household of the king as much as possible. Here too came the bishop or abbot eager to promote reforms in the English hierarchy or initiate a building programme. As the royal house of Wessex extended its hegemony, so royal assets in both lands and patronage increased and the pull of the court became ever more powerful. During this period, too, more than one queen found suitors for her patronage, often in church matters.

Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia: consolidators of England

When King Alfred died in October 899 leaving his kingdom to his son Edward (known to history as Edward the Elder to distinguish him from a descendant), the upper reaches of English society must have sensed change in the air. For one thing, the comparatively recent title ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ seemed to be becoming standard usage. For another, Edward chose Kingston upon Thames in Surrey to hold his consecration – the first of the royal house of Wessex to do so. Exactly why he made the decision we do not know, but Kingston, near to the old Kentish lands and the once Mercian city of London, may have seemed more suited for a kingship wider than Wessex.

The new reign opened dramatically with an attempted coup that won support among the enemies of Wessex and for a time seemed to threaten Alfred’s line. It was led by Æthelwold, the son of Alfred’s elder brother King Æthelred I, cousin of the new king and representative of the senior line. He was undoubtedly ‘ætheling’, that is a ‘throneworthy’ member of the royal house. Indeed, according to a strict succession by primogeniture (i.e. descent in the senior male line) it was he, and not his uncle Alfred, who should have become king on the death of his father back in 871. He had been a baby then; now a man in his early thirties, he was bent on making good his claim. With a body of supporters, he seized the royal manor of Wimborne – the place where his own father lay buried. The bid failed. Edward, with a force of mounted levies, encamped against the barricaded manor house. His cousin refused to yield and made his escape under cover of darkness. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ‘came to the host in Northumbria’, that is to the Viking ‘kingdom’ of York where he may even have been acclaimed king (see chapter 7).

In 902–4, we are told by a northern version of the Chronicle, Æthelwold ‘came hither from oversea to Essex’ with a large fleet. Does this mean he sailed south with York Vikings, or that he had crossed over to Denmark and recruited supporters there? Either way, he and a substantial body of allies, both Danish and English, ravaged westward into Mercia, ‘seizing all they could’ before returning ‘east homewards’. The loyalist ‘Wessex’ Chronicle naturally calls him ‘prince’; a northern source speaks of him as ‘elected king’, and he was presenting himself as rightful king of Wessex. He would have offered those who followed him booty from the lands in Mercia and Wessex holding ‘disloyally’ for his cousins Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. The East Anglians may even have considered him as the true continuator of their royal line. According to the Annals of St Neot’s he was called ‘king of the Danes’, while the annalist also called him ‘king of the Pagans’.

Compared with its account of Alfred’s reign, and in particular of the tensions among his brothers prior to his succession, the Chronicle is very detailed for these years and the revealing account of the ‘rebellion’ of Æthelwold lights up the English political scene ‘as by a lightning flash’.2Nothing in the annals for Alfred’s reign could have led us to expect this. For a fateful moment the Norns, the three sisters of Norse myth who control men’s destiny, toyed with the thread of his family line – should they break it? In 903 King Edward fought a major battle against the raiders somewhere in Cambridgeshire. Many great men fell on both sides, among the Danes ‘their king Eohric and prince Æthelwold who had incited him to this rebellion’. Among the fallen there was also a possible claimant to Mercia. Although the following year ‘the host from East Anglia’ and ‘the Northumbrians’ forced Edward to come to terms, without Æthelwold the main threat was over.

In fact, Edward had now secured his position in the English kingdoms; he next trounced the Northumbrian Danes and thereafter proceeded to entrench his supremacy south of the Humber. A new Northumbrian raiding army in search of reprisals was caught between Wednesfield and Tettenhall in Staffordshire on 5 August 910 and went down to a crushing defeat that left three Danish leaders dead on a field of slaughter held by the English.

An essential partner in Edward’s extension and consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom was his sister Æthelflæd, wife of Æthelred of Mercia. She had always taken an active role with her husband in the military affairs of western Mercia. The two were responsible for the translation of the bones of Northumbria’s St Oswald southward into Mercia. Following Æthelred’s death in 911 after a long illness, during which she had been the effective power in the land, she continued to complement her brother Edward’s tactics. For William of Malmesbury she was ‘a woman of great determination’; for Pauline Stafford, writing in 1983, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, was the virtually independent ruler of Mercia from 911 to her own death 918 and a great ‘warrior queen’. We are told that she led her forces into battle and on occasion, it is believed, commanded the army on horseback

She expanded the network of burhs and continued to strengthen existing ones to serve as defensive and offensive pressure points against the Danish presence in eastern Mercia and the North. The section of annals known as the Mercian register, in the B, C and D manuscripts of the Chronicles, tells how after her husband’s death she built fortresses at Bridgnorth, in Shropshire, at the important centre of Tamworth and then at Stafford. She sent an army against the Welsh that captured the wife of the king of the Brecon region, ‘won the borough called Derby’ and took Leicester ‘by peaceful means’, receiving the allegiance of the majority of the Danish forces there. In the year of her death and ‘the eighth year of her rule over Mercia as . . . rightful lord [sic]’ she seems to have won recognition for a time as ‘Lady of the people of York’.3

Devised by Alfred as a defensive measure against invaders, the burghal system began to be adapted by his children as a tool of conquest and consolidation as they recovered the English position in the lands of the Danelaw. The new ‘burh’ towns became centres for royal administration and trade so that by the 950s, it has been said, ‘a burh was defined more by its mint and its market than by its ramparts.’4 From the start, artisans and merchants were encouraged to settle in these walled settlements, which would in time provide the preconditions for a market economy.

Worcester was a case in point. In the 880s, responding to a petition by ‘their friend’ Bishop Wærferth and with the approval of King Alfred, Ealdorman Æthelred and his wife Æthelflæd ordered the building of a burh at Worcester ‘for the worship of god and the protection of all the people’. In return the noble patrons would receive the bishop’s prayers and half of all his revenues from the market or street stalls. Since the church seems to have met the bulk of the costs in erecting the fortifications, it earned its concessions.

The burhs also evolved as a vital armature of the Anglo-Saxon state – centres from which the king’s officers presided over their region and made the royal presence felt throughout the kingdom. The great men were obligated in the king’s service to mobilize the workforce necessary for the maintenance of the burhs and the defensible market town soon emerged as ‘central to England’s political structure’. The point was fully demonstrated in the decades following the Norman Conquest. The Normans, eager to control and exploit that structure of centralization, demolished whole quarters of old English towns and burhs to make room for royal castles.5

The royal team of siblings, the Lady Æthelflæd and King Edward, made a logical division of labour. She looked after the western frontiers against the Welsh and the northwest against the incursions of Irish Vikings via Cheshire and Lancashire while at the same time making probing attacks into the northern Danelaw beyond Watling Street. Edward combated the Danish warlord kings in East Anglia and the east Midlands with the aim of extending West Saxon hegemony in those regions. Contemporaries could have viewed the same events as old-style Wessex and Mercia pursuing traditional interests under two rulers happy to cooperate.

The two royal establishments had not merged into a single court. We find a Mercian source describing the combined military forces as ‘English’, but to all intents and purposes Æthelflæd was a sovereign head of state, a unique position for a woman in the Europe of her time. After her death in 918 a group of Mercian nobles supported the succession of her daughter Ælfwyn as ‘Lady’. Edward may have felt threatened by the burgeoning success of his sister’s ‘dynasty’: he consigned his niece to a convent and took direct control in Mercia.

About this time, according to the Winchester Chronicle, the Welsh kings submitted to Edward at a great meeting at Tamworth, the historic seat of Mercian kingship and far from the border with Wales. Two years after this, with the West Saxon king’s rule now virtually undisputed south of the Humber–Ribble line, the Chronicle tells us that the rulers of north Britain, among them Ragnald, ‘king’ of Viking York, the lord of the Strathclyde Britons, and Constantine II, king of Scots, and the English lords of Northumbria independent of York, acknowledged him as their ‘father and lord’ at a great assembly in the Derbyshire Peak District on the frontiers between Mercia and the lands of Scandinavian York. As the West Saxon conquest of the Danelaw territories advanced with the extension of West Saxon power, the heterogeneous nature of the local administrations revealed a general lack of political solidarity among the Danish settlers.

King Edward died in the summer of 924 at Farndon on Dee, near Chester in Mercia. He left five sons and six daughters, the offspring of three partners. Of these the eldest boy was Æthelstan, who was of middling height, slim build and flaxen hair and with remarkable piercing blue eyes. He had been fostered at the Mercian court of his aunt Æthelflæd and had probably fought under her command, but his legitimacy was in question. It seems the dead king had meant that he should rule in Mercia, while Alfweard, his younger brother but the oldest legitimate son, should take the ancestral kingdom of Wessex. The prince, however, outlived his father by barely a fortnight and was also buried at Winchester. Æthelstan, with Mercian support, took over in Wessex as well and was consecrated at Kingston upon Thames, as his father had been, despite the claims of three legitimate half-brothers. But the consecration took place in the year following Edward’s death. The opposition party at Winchester had contended that although he was the child of Edward’s first union, his mother Ecgwyna was a woman of low birth, little better than a concubine, and that the prince was to all intents illegitimate. Æthelstan’s party by contrast claimed she had been the ‘noble concubine of his father’s youth’. It was not uncommon for a prince to take such a partner before he was considered of marriageable age: as Pauline Stafford explains, ‘such concubines were usually of high birth’.

William of Malmesbury would describe Ecgwyna as ‘an illustrious lady’, and she did have a daughter who was accepted in marriage as his queen by Sihtric, the ruler of York. Perhaps she was not of the highest rank, but even the bastard daughter of a powerful king may be acceptable as spouse to a lesser. The Welsh prince Llewellyn ‘the Great’ ap Iorwerth (d. 1240) was happy to marry Joan, the illegitimate daughter of John of England. Moreover, William had reason to be loyal to Æthelstan’s memory since the king had handsomely endowed his abbey and the royal tomb was still to be seen there. It was also claimed that the patriarch of the dynasty, his grandfather King Alfred, had inducted him in a ceremony recalling his own consular ‘consecration’ when a boy at Rome.

Æthelstan: ‘ruler of the whole of Britain’ and kinsman of Europe (924–939)

The title comes from an inscription found in the Coronation Gospels, which King Æthelstan received from his brother-in-law Otto the Great, the German emperor, on Otto’s accession in 936 and later presented to Canterbury Cathedral. In full the title reads ‘Anglorum basyleos et curagulus totius Bryttannie’6 – note that Æthelstan uses the term basyleos, the Greek word for ‘king’ but by his day used by the Byzantine emperors. By 937 Æthelstan was recognized as king throughout England, both Angelcynn and Danelaw, from Northumbria to Kent. By this time, too, he had forced homage from the king of Scotland and many Welsh rulers. In 930 at Nottingham he had presided over what in British terms was a truly imperial court attended by many English notables, two archbishops, three Welsh under-kings and six Danish jarls. Among the business Æthelstan conducted was a grant of lands north of Preston – this was the exercise of effective power. In 927 he established direct rule over Scandinavian York and so became the first king to rule all the lands of the English. In later campaigns he drove the Welsh back beyond the Wye and established the River Tamar as the frontier with the West Britons, in other words the Cornish. In 934 Æthelstan led a joint sea and land force against Scotland.

The mixed, if impressive, auguries at Æthelstan’s succession heralded an astonishing fifteen-year reign of major law codes, of preparations for currency reform and of military triumph. In 937, in the most important victory by a king of England between the death of his grandfather and Hastings, Æthelstan routed a coalition of Olaf Guthfrithsson, king of York and Dublin, Constantine of Scotland/Alba and Owain of Strathclyde, together with warlords from the Hebrides and the Danelaw, at the Battle of Brunanburh. It was the culmination of a conflict originating in the 920s when Ragnald, the Norse leader from Dublin, had defeated the Danes of York and the English lords of Bamburgh. Brunanburh made Æthelstan the most powerful of Britain’s rulers. His court was a magnet for English nobles from all over the country, and Welsh rulers, kings in their own world, resigned themselves to the status of sub regulus (‘under ruler’) in the eyes of the mighty West Saxon.

In his Latin Chronicle Ealdorman Æthelweard recalled that the English remembered Brunanburh as ‘the great war’. After Brunanburh, the Vikings in the north of England seemed for a time a spent force. (The Vikings on the Isle of Man may have kept the title ‘king’ until 1266 but caused no serious trouble in England’s affairs.) The Annals of Ulster recorded Brunanburh as a ‘lamentable battle’ in which several thousands were killed among the Norsemen and that Æthelstan, ‘king of the Saxons’, won a great victory. For all that, the actual site of the engagement is not known, although Paul Hill (2004), after an exhaustive discussion, concludes that the most likely candidates are Bromborough in the Wirral and Brunenburh in Yorkshire. He also notes that the English army included jarls from the Danelaw and Scandinavian mercenaries and that the great Anglo-Saxon poem on the battle recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 937 shows strong influence from the skaldic techniques of Norse epic poetry. For Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the twelfth century, the poem despite all its ‘strange words and . . . language’offered a memorial ‘of this nation’s deeds and courage’. The ‘nation’ of which this post-Conquest historian writes is a ‘patria . . . a fatherland . . . created not by the Norman conqueror but by his English predecessors.’7

For all its Norse elements it is a vibrant hymn to an English victory and echoes with the world of Beowulf and the scop. Standing by King Æthelstan, ‘lord of warriors and ring-giver of men . . . upon the fateful field . . . was his brother Prince Edmund’. As the field grew dark with the blood of men, exults the poet, ‘the sons of Edward . . . triumphant in war’ drove their enemies back to Ireland, back to Scotland, back to Wales. Never, since the Angles and Saxons invaded across the ocean from the east to win a kingdom for themselves, as old books tell, had there been such slaughter in this island by the sword. This allusion to the adventus Saxonum (the invasion across the ocean) is almost unique in Old English literature.

Æthelstan’s policy towards the English regions and provinces that still had a measure of independence was clear. Allies like Mercia or English Northumbria were due for absorption. As a fostered courtier at his aunt Æthelflæd’s Mercian court, Æthelstan had been sitting ringside when his father took over power there on her death in 918. He himself had similar intentions towards the rump English kingdom of Northumbria if only to counterbalance and eventually, one supposes, oust the Viking overlords there. He encouraged the spread of the cult of the great northern patron St Cuthbert in Wessex. The treasury at Durham Cathedral still holds a sumptuously embroidered stole that the king presented to the shrine of St Cuthbert in 934 and which was commissioned, or more probably worked in person, by his step-mother Queen Ælflæd.

Æthelstan not only fixed the English–West British boundary at the Tamar, he expelled a Cornish enclave in Exeter, beyond the river, and held his quasi-imperial great court in the city in 928 and 935. With the marriage of his sister to Sihtric, the Viking lord of York, he asserted claims to Wessex hegemony in the old territories of Northumbria. Two years later, by expelling Sihtric’s brother Guthfrith he established himself as king of all the English, as he was to remain until his death in 939. Yet for all his glory historians have sensed something sinister behind the reign. A remarkable number of his kinsmen found a premature or violent death in suspicious circumstances. Years later, the chronicler Symeon of Durham charged him with arranging the death of his half-brother Edwin, who was sent into exile in Flanders and drowned at sea.

While, remarkably for a king, Æthelstan never married, he was the best-connected ruler in the Europe of his day through marriages he arranged for his sisters or half-sisters. Edward the Elder left no fewer than nine daughters, of whom Eadgifu, the second born, had become queen of Francia by her marriage to Charles III of West Francia (ruled 892–922, d. 929). In 922 Charles was ousted in a dynastic struggle and incarcerated by his enemy, the Lord of Vermandois, but Eadgifu had escaped across the Channel to England with their baby son Louis. Thus, with a Queen of France in exile as a half-sister and her son the pretender to that disputed crown, when Æthelstan came to the throne in 924 he already had a personal connection with one corner of continental European politics.

His dynastic diplomacy would not have disgraced the Habsburgs. In 926 Eadhild married Hugh the Great, the Count of Paris, and far and away the most powerful man in West Francia (roughly modern France). Born about 938, their son Hugh Capet would be elected king of France in 987. Æthelstan married his sister Eadgyth to Otto of Saxony in 930. The initiative came from Otto’s father Henry the Fowler, elected king of Germany by the nobles of Franconia and Saxony, though not recognized by Swabia and Bavaria. He needed a ‘good’ marriage for his son and heir to boost his standing and the approach testifies to the high recognition of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the Continent. It seems to have been believed that the royal family was descended from St Oswald of Northumbria (see chapter 8). Envoys went between the two courts and Æthelstan sent two of his sisters for the young duke’s approval. It is supposed that the duke, later emperor as Otto I, chose the prettier. But while Eadgyth was apparently considered without parallel for her virtue by the English, and while Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, noblewoman and royal intimate, nun and imperial eulogist, praised her charm, regal bearing and her ‘radiant goodness and sincerity of countenance’, beauty as such does not feature anywhere on the inventory. Given that he married two other sisters into the ruling houses of Aquitaine and Burgundy, it was fitting that The Annals of Ulster should dignify him with the appellation of ‘roof-tree of the dignity of the Western World’.8

In the spring of 936 a deputation arrived in England to escort Æthelstan’s now fifteen-year-old nephew, Louis d’Outremer (‘from Oversea’), back across the Channel to be crowned in Laon Cathedral by the archbishop of Reims, as King Louis IV of West Francia. His English mother went into retirement at Notre-Dame, Laon. With one aunt married to the most powerful man in France and another to the king of Germany the young monarch might have expected a smooth ride. Unfortunately the half-English king of France was not properly submissive. He moved his court to Laon, away from the overbearing presence of Uncle Hugh in Paris, and then intervened in the region known as Lothringen (roughly modern Lorraine), which angered the nobles of East Francia. Uncle Æthelstan may have lent diplomatic or moral support. But Louis proved adept at European manoeuvring and came to terms with both his European kinsmen; his career seemed in the ascendant when he died, just thirty-three, in 951.

English connections with Germany continued through the cult of St Oswald well into the Middle Ages, as did more practical links, too. In the 990s Archbishop Egbert of Trier was proud of his English name and liked to boast of his descent from Ecgberht, king of Wessex in the early 800s. It seems that the archbishop was instrumental in the appointment of the English-born Leofsige as abbot of Mettlach on the bank of the River Saar. Praised by a modern German scholar as a ‘Renaissance man’ (‘Renaissancemensch’) before his time, Leofsige was noted as a physician, was something of a versifier and as a patron was responsible for one of the oldest structures in the modern Saarland, Mettlach’s octagonal Alter Turm (‘Old Tower’), built as a funerary chapel for St Leodwin.9

To the people of his day Æthelstan was a model of kingship: victorious in war; lord of kings; focus of Europe’s most illustrious royal kinship; rich in the wealth of this world and, more noteworthy still, in the wealth of the spiritual world. He was renowned as an expert collector of relics. When Hugh the Great sent to petition for the hand of the king’s sister in marriage the embassy, headed by Baldwin Count of Flanders, the king’s uncle by marriage, was laden with treasures of incredible worth – gemstones and exotic perfumes, horses with golden harnesses. But far above these was the sword of Emperor Constantine the Great, the almost conventional opulence of which was as nothing when compared with a simple iron nail set in the sword’s pommel, for this was one of the nails used at the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Nothing in Christendom could exceed the value of this, except for the spear with which the centurion had pierced the side of Christ as he hung upon the Cross or a portion of the Cross itself.

These were fitting gifts for a connoisseur of the numinous, one whose agents trawled Europe for relics much as the Getty Museum today does for works of art. In thanks for a favour Æthelstan had granted, a Breton church sent ‘relics, which we know you value more than earthly treasure’; in return the king distributed largesse from his hoard of holy treasure to monastic communities, with a prodigality to match the open-handedness of Hrothgar, ‘ring-giver of men’, from the ancient hall of pagan Heorot.

In the age of the itinerant royal household, when monarchs must travel their kingdoms to consume the food renders due from their subjects, the imperial court of Æthelstan on the move would have been an impressive sight indeed, though for the localities through which it passed back and forth, from Colchester to Winchester, Tamworth to Exeter, it must have been a serial nightmare of organization. When there were subject kings paying court or an archbishop or two, each with their own retinues, numbers might swell to as many as a thousand to be fed and housed, whether billeted on the locals or in tents and pavilions pitched for the few nights stay before the move on.

Literate and evidently also of artistic taste, Æthelstan, who claimed the scholar Aldhelm among his spiritual ancestors (he commissioned his tomb) and patronized his young kinsman Dunstan, the future archbishop of Canterbury, died at the height of his power to be succeeded by his brother Edmund, and in turn by their younger brother Eadred. Æthelstan is said to have fathered an illegitimate daughter.10

Dynasty

Edmund, who ruled from 939 to 946, was the first king to succeed to the rule of all England, thanks to the heroic reign of his predecessor – but it was an uncertain inheritance and he spent most of his time fighting to make it good. Although he had fought at Brunanburh, he would find it a short-lived triumph. First his brother’s death and then the resurgence of Olaf Guthrithsson of York destabilized the results of victory. In 940 the archbishops of Canterbury and York arranged a peace at which Watling Street was agreed upon as the boundary between Danish/Norse and English territories. In fact, shortly after that Edmund was able to recover the region of the Five Boroughs, a success celebrated like that at Brunanburh with a poem, albeit a short one in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Edmund also received the submission of the Welsh prince of Gwynedd. In the last year of his reign he even enforced a momentary English authority on Strathclyde. He died a violent death, stabbed to death at his royal vill of Pucklechurch as he intervened in a brawl trying to save a court official. There were many suspicious dynastic deaths in the tenth century; Edmund’s was certainly murder, though there is no evidence it was premeditated.

The nine-year reign of his successor, Eadred (d. 955), was marked by his eventually successful struggle to force the Danes of York to acknowledge his supremacy. The changes in his fluctuating authority are reflected in various regnal titles in successive charters, which twice designated him as ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons, Northumbrians, pagans and Britons’ and as ‘king of the English’. Probably of equal importance in the eyes of the king (nearing forty, it has been suggested, at his succession and subject to severe illness from about 950), was the move towards church reform inaugurated with his encouragement by his chief councillor, Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury. A man of ‘forceful personality’, Dunstan was driven from court on the death of his royal patron.

The new king, Eadwig, was either immature, lascivious and in thrall to a noblewoman set on marrying him to her daughter, or he just wanted to free himself of the domineering churchman. Possibly, of course, he was merely a victim of gossip. He was certainly young, little more than fifteen at his accession and, if we are to believe the scandal, sexually liberated in advance of what the twenty-first century normally expects from the tenth. Dunstan’s biographer, at least, credited the king with a taste for incestuous troilism, reporting that the churchman had to drag the recently consecrated monarch back to his coronation feast from a bedroom session with mother and daughter. Dunstan was ordered into exile, which he passed in Flanders, and Eadwig married the lady (i.e. the daughter). Later the church ordered the couple to separate on the grounds that the match was within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. It has been suggested that Eadwig and his bride could trace a common descent from King Alfred. Two years into his reign as king of the English, he faced insurrection in Mercia and Northumbria and was succeeded there as king by his brother Edgar. From this power base Edgar succeeded to the crown of Wessex on Eadwig’s death in 959. He ‘discarded two wives as his needs and aspirations changed’, notes Stafford.11

Ælfthryth, Edgar’s third partner and mother of the ill-fated Æthelred II ‘Unraed’, displaced Wulfthryth (possibly a concubine), who in turn had displaced Edgar’s first wife, the mother of Edward (later king and ‘Martyr’). The king’s marital status was sufficiently confused, even at the time, for some to hold that his third partnership was in fact adulterous. Both in England and on the Continent, kings inclined towards serial monogamy and the distinction between wife and concubine was essentially a question of dowry; it assured the wife of a measure of economic independence. The concubine, like a wife, might give her consent to the liaison but consent could be given in secret and in the last resort this, the vital element in a marriage from the church’s point of view, might depend on the word of the king. On repudiating Wulfthryth, Edgar made her abbess of Wilton, and here their daughter Eadgyth (St Edith) was to live an exemplary life of humble devotion, refusing all attempts to persuade her to accept a position as abbess.

Known as ‘pacificus’, which may be interpreted as ‘the peaceable’ or the ‘peace-maker’, Edgar, who was inaugurated as king probably at Kingston upon Thames about the year 961 and died in 975, certainly pacified his country with stern, possibly harsh rule. It is also true that there was no attack on his realm from either land or sea throughout the reign. In 973, a year of high ceremonial, he was rowed in state upon the River Dee at Chester by some eight lesser kings – Scottish, Welsh, British and Scandinavian. This may have been the culmination of one of the patrols of England’s coastal waters that Edgar was said to captain. (see chapter 8). Whit Sunday that same year, the king’s thirtieth, also witnessed his quasi-imperial consecration at Bath in an order of service (ordo) devised by St Dunstan that consciously invoked the Biblical concept of priestly intervention in the proclamation of King Solomon. The text on ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet’ has featured in every coronation up to that of Elizabeth II in 1953.

In a short poem the Parker Chronicle celebrates the king as valorous in deeds of war and notes the date as almost one thousand years since the days of the Lord of Victories, i.e. Jesus Christ set firmly in the tradition of warlords. Two years later different versions of the Chronicle lament the death of the king, ‘friend to the West Saxons and protector of the Mercians’, in whose reign, they recall, no raiding host had been able to win booty for itself. Edgar, King from 957 to 975, claimed supremacy of rule in Britain; in England his reign saw major organization of local government by shires, reorganization in church life and reform in the coinage. It firmly established the idea of a single English state.

Church, state and reform

With the arrival of Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop of Canterbury in 669 and his organization of the ecclesiastical structure, the English kingdoms got used to the idea of a supranational allegiance embracing the whole of their part of the island of Britannia. This combined with the emerging concept of an over-kingship, expressed in the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bretwalda’, to prepare the way for the idea of a geographical unity occupied by the ethnic unity of Angelcynn, in a country that Cnut would call Angla lond even though it was by then occupied by a mélange of ethnicities, such as Danes, Norwegians and British as well as Anglo-Saxons. The tenth-century Vikings of Dublin, on becoming Christian, distanced themselves from the Irish church to affirm allegiance to Canterbury.

Since the time of Bede the Angelcynn had recognized themselves in the Latin term gens Anglorum, which derived ultimately from the usage ‘Anglii’, adopted by Gregory I. Once the decision had been made at Whitby to adopt Christianity, the still strong current of Celtic Christianity and Irish traditions would eventually flow into a common channel of establishment religion. The distinction that apparently seemed important in 662 in some sense faded. This meant that saints from various provinciae or kingdoms came to be venerated as the common spiritual ancestry of the entire English nation. So Saints Chad and Cedd, trained by Aidan of the Irish/Celtic tradition at Lindisfarne on Holy Island, became venerated as the founding fathers of Christianity in Mercia and East Anglia, and those two patriarchs of Northumbrian Celtic tradition, Cuthbert and King St Oswald, found devotees and patrons of their cults across Southumbria. Even Wilfrid of Ripon, that most northern of saints, came to have a shrine at Canterbury.

No doubt the rituals and creeds of the Roman church’s tradition, the authority of its bishops and the local allegiances built on England’s evolving parochial structure knitted the Christian church into the fabric of English life. Whereas in the eighth century the founding and endowment of religious buildings had been largely the business of kings and nobles, John Blair has noted that 300 years later such patronage was increasingly the work of people of ‘middle-ranking’ status. The actual local church building was treated as community property in a way that modern parish clergy might envy, though clergy at the time could have mixed feelings on the subject. Pastoral letters complain of thoughtless behaviour in church, careless talk, eating and sometimes excessive drinking – the building was clearly a popular venue! In the Canons of Edgar, priests are warned not to carry arms on the premises – certainly not in the altar enclosure. But at the deep level of magic where pagan and Christian blend, the English saints – some of Irish antecedence, others, like Wilfrid, with Roman allegiance – provided a structural network, like the rafting laid down to receive the foundations of a fenland abbey, for the church in England and in the community as ‘nodes and links in a network which connected royal power to local piety over most of [the country]’. To this we can add the conviction of Anglo-Saxon churchmen that saw themselves and their compatriots as ‘a people of God, a new Israel’. For such an elite, ‘whose predecessors had passed through the desert of the Viking invasions’, the long tenth-century vernacular poem based on the book of Exodus would have been full of resonance.12 Sadly for them, many would live to see the return of the wilderness years with the renewal of the Danish raids after the reign of Edgar the Peaceable.

The monastic revival

About the year 950 an upheaval began in the English church that would last for the next thirty years as reforms were introduced that would reshape monastic life and so the cultural life of the country at large. This followed reforms heralded on the Continent by the founding of the abbey of Cluny in 910 and most powerfully expressed in the monasteries of Flanders and Lotharingia/Lorraine.

The English reform was managed by three men: Dunstan (924–88), a Somerset man, from a rich landed family with estates near Glastonbury; Æthelwold (?905–84), Winchester-born and in his youth at the court of Æthelstan; and Oswald (d. 992), son of a rich family of Danish descent; all three were subjects for important near-contemporary biographies. Less prominent but nevertheless important was Oda, archbishop of Canterbury from 942 to 958 and Oswald’s uncle.

Dunstan spent his early years at Glastonbury exploring a library still rich in classical as well as ecclesiastical texts and, so said the envious, too interested in the pagan texts for the good of his soul. Being bright, he naturally had enemies. A copy of the works of the Roman poet Ovid, then at Glastonbury, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, contains a finely drawn monumental figure of Christ with the monk Dunstan crouching at his feet. A note on the page tells us it was drawn by Dunstan himself and there are claims that he designed metalwork. In addition he was renowned as a singer and musician and seems to have exploited the effect of the aeolian harp (the sounds caused by the wind blowing through the strings of a free-standing instrument). Versatile, gifted and well born, he was prominent at the court of King Edmund and entered the church only at the urgings of an uncle, Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester. About 943 the king appointed him abbot of Glastonbury and it was now that Dunstan inaugurated a new era in English church life, rebuilding the monastery and introducing a revised Rule of St Benedict. Some time later Æthelwold joined Dunstan at Glastonbury, before going on at the request of the new king, Eadred, to reform the dilapidated monastery at Abingdon.

During these years Archbishop Oda had explored the reform movement on the Continent, already some four decades old, with a visit to the abbey of Saint-Benoît-de-Fleury, which held relics of St Benedict and was a hub of the reforming movement. At the same time Dunstan, who had been forced into exile by King Eadwig, was a refugee guest at the newly reformed monastery of Ghent in Flanders, while the third member of our reforming trio, Oswald, had made his way to Fleury at the suggestion of Oda, his uncle.

After the hiatus of Eadwig’s reign, the reform movement resumed under Edgar from 959. Dunstan was installed at Canterbury where he seems to have devoted himself to the affairs of the archdiocese rather than general monastic reform. However, Æthelwold, installed as bishop of Winchester in 963, and Oswald, now bishop of Worcester, pushed things along with vigour. At Winchester the monks in charge at both the Old Minster and the New Minster were unceremoniously expelled, possibly with violence, on the orders either of the king or, as one of his acolytes was later to claim, by Bishop Æthelwold. The same happened at other houses under his control. He then began the resettlement, so to speak, of church territories deserted since the Viking raids of a century or so before, notably in the Fens and East Anglia. Not only were the buildings in ruins or completely razed – at Peterborough sheep grazed the foundations – but both there and at Ely and Thorney the lands of their former endowments had mostly been expropriated. Æthelwold refounded all three and ensured their future endowments. All were to revive and extend their influence with sister houses.

Today the saint, in his lifetime seemingly tough and unloved, is remembered for the important customary for the reformed monastic life, the Regularis Concordia, that he compiled and above all for the majestic and exquisitely adorned manuscript he commissioned, the Benedictional of St Æthelwold. The Regularis drew on mostly Continental models for its rule, but it also made provision for election procedures that in England tended to favour monks above secular clergy and, in acknowledgement of the encouragement the reformers had received from King Edgar, enjoined that prayers be said for the monarch and the royal family. With his Benedictional, Æthelwold oversaw the production of the acknowledged masterpiece of the Winchester school of illumination.

One Fenland abbey, the great house at Ramsey, was indebted to St Oswald for its foundation. The community had been inaugurated as a dependency of the see of Worcester at Westbury on Trim near Bristol. But now, with land granted by Ealdorman Æthelwine of East Anglia and interested help from Fleury in the person of the renowned scholar Abbo, he set up a major teaching centre there.

The making and giving of law

Discussions of Anglo-Saxon law-making are liable to be dogged by the question of the extent to which the law books were actually used as legal texts and to what extent they were, rather, statements of principle or records of traditional provisions. According to Patrick Wormald, it seems that there is no instance of a judgement in which a law book was actually cited. An act from the reign of King Edgar (IV Edgar), however, carries an instruction that what ‘is made known in this document’ shall be written in ‘many documents’, and these are to be sent to two named ealdormen who in their turn shall send them in all directions, so that the measure ‘may be known to both poor and rich’. As always, the paucity of surviving records means that it is difficult to be certain of the conclusion to be drawn. It is the only act with such explicit instructions as to procedure. Are we to assume that it was standard procedure that many other documents now lost would confirm. Or, just the reverse, is it the only one to survive because very few such acts were issued? In any case, Ælfric commented ‘One thing is the ordinance which the king commands through his ealdormen and reeves; quite another is his own decree in his own presence.’13

In his chapter ‘Royal Government and the written word’, to which this section is heavily indebted, Simon Keynes noted that King Edgar commanded that Sundays be observed as a solemn festival from Saturday noon until dawn on Monday ‘under pain of the fine that the law book (domboc) prescribes’. While he adds that ‘we may not have the dog-eared copies that the judges actually used’, it seems pretty obvious that tenth-century law-makers could rest easy that when they issued laws judges, that is those presiding over public courts, often ealdormen, would have easy access to written codes where they were recorded, though probably not as an enduring frame of reference. The important thing was always the king’s ‘oral decree’, what he actually said. Professor Keynes proposes that it was a basic function of tenth-century law codes, at least, ‘to assist in the process of bringing knowledge of the king’s decrees into the localities’.

In the act referred to above, known as the Wihtbordesstan, Edgar made a ruling that would prove of fundamental importance decades later, namely that the Danes of his kingdom should follow ‘such good laws as they best prefer’. It was surely this that led the Danish king Cnut to promulgate the observance of the laws of King Edgar. For his English subjects, Edgar provided that they should observe the provisions that he and his ‘wise men . . . have added to the judgements (domum) of my ancestors’. The code is particularly stringent on the matter of theft and the disposal of stolen goods and describes a complex strategy, especially on cattle rustling, and prescribes extremely brutal punishment (steor) for English offenders.14

The previous chapter looked at the use of the English language in the law and officialese; here we turn to more specifically tenth-century legal technicalities and particularly in relation to land. A celebrated case shows the use of written evidence of title, whether diploma or charter. In a sheet of parchment addressed to King Edward the Elder and now held in the archives of Christ Church, Canterbury, Ealdorman Ordlaf explains how an estate in Fonthill, Wiltshire, came into the possession of the bishop of Winchester, and how at one point in the dispute a former owner had produced a written document ‘that was duly read and found to be in order’. In fact, Ordlaf himself abandoned his suit, for, although a dispute could turn on the possession of a diploma or other type of document, at this time the written word was just one among various modes – witness evidence or oath – of establishing or maintaining one’s right. The admissibility of written material in a court of law or other tribunal was still a matter for debate, perhaps in the same way as certain types of forensic evidence and phone tap records are today. In code I Edward (of King Edward the Elder) there is a specific injunction to all the king’s reeves that ‘judgements should be made in accordance with the law books (dombec) and “compensations paid as has been previously written”,’ which clearly implies that the regime was in the habit of issuing written injunctions to its officials on the ground.15

With the reign of Æthelstan the use of the written word in the proclamation and enforcement of the laws seems really to have taken off. The so-called Ordinance of Charities is written injunctions from the king specifically to his reeves. Three out of his six codes are in the first person. And there is evidence that the king’s ordinances could be available to officials of the shire court in written form – the Grately decrees (II Æthelstan) are referred to in one source as a scriptum, for example, as is the code III Æthelstan.

The coinage of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom

We have seen something of the development of the coinage under King Alfred; here we can trace it further. Up to the 850s England had half a dozen mints or so situated in or near the major seaports for Continental trade, though we have seen that archbishops of Canterbury might mint their own coins. The second and third quarters of the ninth century, with the mounting number of Viking incursions, saw a dramatic debasement of the currency both in England and on the Continent. The fineness of the English penny was restored by Alfred in a major monetary reform, which has been recently dated to c. 875–6, that is even before the victory over the Danes at Edington of 878. There is evidence to suggest that the king minted coins in 874 at London, the principal Mercian mint from the seventh century, and that the Winchester mint was established (or re-established?) in the 870s during the replanning of the city, dated to this period by archaeologist Martin Biddle. Alfred implemented his second and last currency reform about 880, adjusting the weight of the penny and introducing a new denomination, the round halfpenny.

With Alfred, followed by Edward the Elder, the network of mints was extended and deepened, apparently in step with the programme for the creation of defended burhs, though unfortunately few of their coins carry any mint signature. In the later 920s and early 930s there was a sharp rise in production, as a result perhaps of increased silver supplies from Viking Northumbria and the Irish Sea area, or possibly from increased production by Welsh mines. During the reign of Æthelstan (924–39), when the number of mints south of the Humber grew to about 40 nationwide, it became common to name the mint. No fewer than twenty-five moneyers operated in Chester alone, at least seventeen of them concurrently.

The first instance of the portrayal of a king’s crowned head on the coinage, as opposed to a chaplet, wreath or helmet, comes in the reign of Æthelstan.16 The Grately code, given at Grately in Hampshire as II Æthelstan in the late 920s, contains the earliest piece of Anglo-Saxon legislation to refer to the administration of the coinage. It specifies that there is to be one coinage over all the king’s dominion; that moneyers are licensed to operate only in towns; and that any found breaching this rule, or guilty of false moneying and unable to clear himself by the ordeal shall have the hand that committed the offence struck off and set on the mint. The code details the number of moneyers to be licensed in various centres: seven in Canterbury, for example, comprising four for the king, two for the archbishop, one for the abbot; in Rochester one for the king and one for the bishop; London eight; and Winchester six. There would also be a dozen or more in other named boroughs: Exeter was an important mint continuously from the reign of Alfred, Oxford from the reign of Æthelstan to the end of the period and in the east the importance of Lincoln as a die-cutting centre and mint was exceeded only by York.17

The practice of naming the mint lapsed for the most part until the early 970s when King Edgar seems to have made it obligatory. As Mark Blackburn notes in his work on the Grately code and the coinage on which much of this section is based, this means that it is possible not only to date the great majority of coins of the late ninth century and the early tenth, and to date them to specific periods within reigns, but also to suggest regions in which they were struck, in some cases identifying the actual mints.18 Moneyers, who were highly regarded as craftsmen, were appointed by the crown. For the best part of a century, from 973 to 1066, the national coin-types were changed every six years or so and all money had to be brought in and reminted. The succeeding types varied in weight in a way that suggests a systematic monetary policy. During this period there were at least forty and perhaps as many as seventy minting places in England and there was hardly a village south of the Trent that would have been more than a day’s walk from one of them. In medieval terms the Anglo-Saxon state operated a monetary system that was exceeded in its complexity and controls only by the Byzantine empire.19 In fact, the English king’s monopoly of minting rights was almost unique in Europe and the enforced integrity of the coinage respected at home and abroad. For generations, sterling was the currency of choice in much of northwestern Europe, where many mints copied the designs of the English coinage.

The English state

When King Alfred sought to administer his kingdom he was working within an old system of lordship, of courts and territories. In the twelfth century William of Malmesbury wrongly believed that Alfred had invented the hundreds and tithings of England; nor does it seem that he gave any new shape to the West Saxon shires whose origins date back long before his day. But by getting boroughs built and garrisoned, whether or not with market-friendly street plans, as excavated at Winchester, he opened the way to England’s urban future. The shiring of England was largely a tenth-century programme. ‘The creation of many of the midland shires’, it has been said, ‘cannot have occurred much earlier than the reign of Edward the Elder or later than that of Æthelred II.’20 It is reasonable to suppose that much of the work was done in the reign of King Edgar. It was well done. When British local government was reorganized in 1974 just three of England’s historic shires were dissolved: Cumberland, Westmoreland and Rutland, all three ‘Johnny-come-lately’ post-Conquest creations.

The basic, all-purpose tool of Anglo-Saxon administration, evolving at least from the reign of Alfred, was the administrative letter or ‘writ’. It was adopted and adapted for instructions to reeves, directives to ealdormen, and announcements in the shire court of land transfers, grants of privilege and official appointments. The document known as VI Æthelstan, although related to the king’s business in requiring every reeve to exact a pledge from his shire to observe the king’s peace, was issued in the name of the bishops and reeves of the ‘peace guild of London’. Given that the language of the people was the common means of communication in all official as well as social contexts, it is not surprising to find that the use of messages in written form was not confined to the royal government.

The king’s writ, then, authenticated by his seal, was a simple and effective means of conveying the royal will nationwide and of instructions to regions and individuals. The evolution of this brilliant tool of Anglo-Saxon administration during the transition from English to Norman is detailed by Richard Sharpe in his fascinating article (2003). He contrasts it with the large-format diplomas, written in an imposing script and in ponderous Latin, although, a significant detail this, breaking into English for the practical specifics of the boundary markers if a piece of real estate was the matter in hand. In the vernacular from the start, the gewrit uses an informal script even though, thanks to its seal, it was every bit as authoritative as the diploma. A kind of hybrid, the writ charter, first found in the reign of Æthelred II and in English up to the year 1070, opened with a general address to the thegnas summoned by the sheriff; later this official is to be designated subordinate to the comes (count), the Latin equivalent of the earl. As to the document itself, it was issued by the king at the request of the beneficiary, who paid for it, to be read aloud in the shire court. Up to 1066 it was, of course, read in English; for the next four years in English with a French translation, and then from 1070 onwards in Latin with translations into English and French.

The use of written documents was not, of course, unique to England, but the idea of using the vernacular in government always had been. In the opinion of Elton, there was nothing to match the writ – characteristically brief, concise, exact and highly authoritative. After the Conquest, once the English bureaucracy had trained its replacements in the mechanics of government, writs were turned into Latin. ‘The central organization built up by the Normans and Angevins – and by them bequeathed to later ages – grew upon those little scraps of parchment with their pendant seals.’21

Queens, questions of policy and an ominous intervention

With the death of Æthelstan, the ageing dowager Queen Eadgifu, widow of Edward the Elder, had used her position at the courts of her sons Edmund and Eadred to push the interests of her favourite reformers. She helped advance Dunstan and Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester. Queen Ælfthryth, third wife of her son Edgar, would occupy a similar position in court religious policy, her support going especially to Bishop Æthelwold. She used her influence with the king to settle land disputes in favour of Winchester and to cooperate in the foundation of her nunnery at Wherwell.

When Edgar died two court factions would face each other. On one side were supporters of Edward, the son of his first wife, led by Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, and the ealdorman of East Anglia; on the other stood Æthelred, championed by his mother Ælfthryth, patron of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and who in addition could call upon her relative Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia, and probably on her brother Ordulf, a substantial lord of southwest England. Edward was the older claimant but his mother had not been consecrated Queen, whereas Ælfthryth had been consecrated with her husband at the time of King Edgar’s ‘imperial’ coronation at Bath in 973. A century earlier the Carolingian princess Judith had been anointed queen on her marriage to King Æthelwulf. This had apparently been the first time Wessex had known a full queen in the technical, consecrated sense. Had she had sons their ‘throne worthiness would have been superior to that of their younger brothers’. So, more than a century later, Æthelred’s party now argued that he enjoyed a privileged status by virtue of his mother’s coronation, though at that time she was a wife of eight years standing and her son probably about five years old.

The ritual used for the queen recalled the ceremony used in West Francia when coronation was part of a queen’s marriage, so Ælfthryth received a ring as a sign of faith and, as the bishop poured the oil on her head in the presence of the great nobles, he blessed and consecrated her for her share in the royal bed. The crown used was considered the crown of eternal glory and it is tempting to think that we may have a sight of the actual headpiece in the depiction of the crowning of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven in the sumptuous Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Ælfthryth’s favoured churchman.22

Thanks to the vagaries of royal partnership rules, King Edgar ‘pacificus’ left two sons contesting his crown, each abetted by a court faction (and the younger by an ambitious mother). When the successful older son of King Edward was set upon and murdered at Corfe in Dorset in May 979, as he rode to visit his young brother Æthelred. The body was buried without ceremony. Few people doubted that Queen Ælfthryth was involved. The murderers were members of her household; the young king was dragged from his horse at the gates of her estate. Although regicide was considered a particularly heinous crime by the monastic reformers who had long been prominent in government, the killers were never brought to book.

In fact, the monastic restructuring and other church reforms under King Edgar had offended some churchmen and, perhaps more important, had encroached on aristocratic preserves and property interests. Edgar’s death had been followed by attacks on the properties of the reformed monasteries by rival court factions. Whatever the politics behind the crime, the surviving boy-king Æthelred does not seem to have been as grateful as his mother expected. There were rumours that she had beaten him about the head with a candlestick, outraged at his ingratitude.

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