It is impossible to understand the determination with which the various contenders pursued their claims without understanding the value of the prize for which they were competing. The civilization and culture that in the eleventh century distinguished England from her European neighbours were less important to them than her wealth, which was legendary and colossal, even after the Viking depredations of Æthelred’s reign. Looking back from this distance in time, it is easy to think of Anglo-Saxon England as a remote, comparatively brief and homogeneous phase of history, in much the same way that we think of Tudor or Victorian England. This would be to underrate its duration and its significance. The Anglo-Saxons ruled England for six centuries, as long as from the Middle Ages to the present day, about as long as the duration of the Roman Empire, a period broken only by the twenty-five-year kingship of Cnut and his sons. Naturally, during these six centuries, much changed, and the barbaric paganism of the original settlers evolved relatively peacefully into the rich, sophisticated, Christian kingdom of 1066, of which it has been said that ‘the most important economic developments before the Industrial Revolution took place in the later Anglo-Saxon period’.xxi In the confusion of Dark Age Europe, and unlike the parvenu Norman dukedom founded in 911, England stood out among other European states for its antiquity, its long-established line of kings, most of them highly effective rulers, its well-developed governmental systems, its stable and well-regulated currency and, in consequence, its thriving economy and prosperity.
It was conspicuous, too, eventually, for another characteristic: its unity. How much of this was due to the fact that it was, to all intents and purposes, an island state is difficult to assess; the fact is that, in comparison with other western European states of the time, such as proto-France or Germany, it was a united and self-conscious nation state. The English king’s writ in the eleventh century ran fairly consistently throughout his realm, admittedly less strongly in the north towards the Scottish border, though the legal concessions allowed in the Danelaw were more apparent than significant. By contrast, the French king (or king of the western Franks, as he was more correctly known at this date) had real authority over an area little larger than the Ile de France, and was hemmed in on all sides by vassals who may technically have owed him allegiance but who in fact governed (and contended among themselves) as independent sovereigns in their own lands such as Anjou, Maine, Blois, Ponthieu and Normandy. The English state may have started in the fifth century as a conglomeration of independent kingdoms known loosely as the Saxon Heptarchy; but it was a more homogeneous body than has always been recognized, in which the various petty kingdoms very soon had more in common with each other than with either the former British races whom they encountered on arrival or with the continental districts from which they had come. They quickly came to share a language that would have been in some degree intelligible in any of them. The Venerable Bede, born in the seventh century, described the languages of Britain as English, British (that is, Welsh), Scots, Pictish and Latin; he did not subdivide English into West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian or Kentish. Individual kingdoms expanded or shrank by a natural process of ebb and flow. Every now and then, one particularly strong ruler would manage to assert his power over his peers and achieve the slightly legendary title of Bretwalda or ruler of all Britain; this usually ceased at his death and the title lapsed until a successor or a rival was strong enough to claim it. Inter-marriages between the different royal houses produced a network of alliances and kinships that meant there was more to connect the various kingdoms than to separate them. The importance of the conversion of the English and the developing institutions of the Church can hardly be overestimated. Monasteries were being founded the length and breadth of England, all working to the same rule, with monks and abbots (many of them from the most powerful and noble families in the country) moving between them; the importance of their unifying role is obvious, as was that of the metropolitan sees of Canterbury and York.
The ninth-century Viking invasions also played an important part in breaking down what by that time remained of the old divisions and pushing the various constituent parts of the country together. To begin with, it seemed that the old Anglo-Saxon England would be submerged beneath the Scandinavian invaders; but after the fight-back by Alfred and his successors, England in more or less its eleventh-century form had emerged with Wessex predominant, and Alfred’s grandson, King Athelstan, could without exaggeration call himself king of all England. It is said that King Edgar, Athelstan’s nephew, made a point of circumnavigating his entire kingdom every year by sea. If he did, he must have taken in Scotland and Wales as well, over which the English kings rarely had more than a nominal supremacy, but certainly the King of Scotland and Kings of Wales were among the eight subject kings who reputedly rowed Edgar on the river Dee at his coronation. More practically, he promoted the unity of his kingdom by introducing a uniform currency all over England that he alone controlled and that was withdrawn periodically, usually every five or six years, and replaced by another. Apart from providing a significant source of royal revenue for himself and his successors, since all moneyers had to buy the new dies from the king when this happened, this reform promoted the development of the economy at home and abroad, where English coins were much respected. This was to be one of the English customs that the Conqueror did not abolish.
Thus, when the Viking raids resumed in the tenth century, the raiders found a united country in which the Byrhtnoth who confronted them at Maldon in 991 may have been a nobleman of the former kingdom of the East Saxons but who announced himself to them as ‘Æthelred’s earl’, fighting to protect the West Saxon Æthelred’s England, his land and his people, with an army that included at least one Mercian and one Northumbrian, and representatives of all the social classes of England, united in a determination to defend their country. If, as has been suggested, The Battle of Maldon was not written until about thirty years after the battle, it looks even more like a deliberate attempt to portray the defence of a kingdom united in race and class. It throws into sad contrast the verdict of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1010, later in the reign of Æthelred, when the demoralization of the country had led to a situation in which ‘no shire would any longer help its neighbour’.
Because of the length of time that the Anglo-Saxon rule lasted, it was naturally not the same throughout, but there were, none the less, consistent threads running through the period. The kingdoms that the seventh-century Ine and the tenth-century Athelstan ruled were indeed very different in many respects, but those over which Athelstan and Edward the Confessor ruled were not in essence very dissimilar. The Domesday Book (1086), one of William’s most famous (and, it must be said, most valuable) achievements, aimed to take a snapshot picture of England ‘on the day King Edward was alive and dead’, 5 January 1066; many of the institutions that it records as having existed then and that survived the conquest have been shown to go far back in history, many of them to a time well before King Alfred or even King Ine. It has been surmised that some of the most important elements of them, for example the system of hundreds, the local government units into which the shires were broken down for administrative and tax purposes, may well go back to a common Indo-European culture, for traces of it have been noted in Carolingian France also. Many of them survived far into the future as well. The shire structure itself continued through the conquest unaltered and untampered with until 1974. A retiring prime minister, resigning his parliamentary seat in the early years of the twenty-first century, still had to apply for the stewardship of the Chiltern hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in Buckinghamshire.
The system of justice meant that wherever a man lived, he was rarely in a district so remote that he did not have access to a court of law: the king’s court, the shire court, the hundred court. The involvement of the different ranks of the people in the different levels of the national administration of justice was also a unifying factor, and gave the public at large a voice in national affairs that could never have been imagined in, say, Normandy during the reign of autocrats such as Duke William or his father. There were written law-codes in England from the time of King Æthelberht of Kent in the sixth century, and there are many hints between the times of Æthelberht and Edward the Confessor that not even the king could be regarded as being above the law (not least the agreement between Æthelred and his people that he would be accepted back as king provided he ruled better). In considering why the Angevin kings were to prove more effective legislators in England than in their homeland of Anjou, Patrick Wormald suggests that this could be because in the tenth and eleventh centuries, English kings had laid down the law as no other western rulers did.xxii Henry II, he points out, made law like no other twelfth-century king because he inherited a system of royal justice that was already uniquely well developed and active. There had never been any written law-code in Normandy. It has been said that
the English kings, like the Carolingians but unlike most of the Carolingians’ successors, maintained a system of rule in which their contact, via public courts, with a fairly large number of free classes mattered for them, and for those classes. That those courts and classes survived the Conquest may well have done much to determine the later history of England.xxiii
It has been estimated that in Anglo-Saxon England there were rarely more than two layers of lordship between the yeoman and his king. A situation in which King Alfred could give judgement in a case while he was in his chamber washing his hands was recorded for posterity not because it was unusual but because it was habitual – one of the plaintiffs had appealed to the king from the local shire or hundred court.xxiv It is true that in the days of Alfred’s descendants, particularly during the reign of Æthelred when the need to pay Danegeld led to the frequent levying of extra taxes, this independence of the peasant-farmer was to some extent eroded, probably in the main because of the increasing difficulty smallholders experienced in maintaining themselves. A bad harvest could bring them to the verge of starvation; a Danish raid could reduce them overnight to beggary. It made sense in such cases for a smallholder to trade in his nominal independence for the security of binding himself and the land that he had inherited in some form of servitude to a lord who was able to protect or maintain him. There is little doubt, however, that the process was accelerated and, to some extent, brutalized by the conquest; Stenton has noted that ‘many peasants who in 1066 had been holding land immediately of the king, or as the voluntary dependents of other magnates, are represented in Domesday Book by villani [serfs] on the estates of Norman lords.’xxv
Moreover, the sophisticated system of land tenure in England meant that the kings always knew exactly what they could count on in terms of revenue and fighting men, and their subjects knew what their liabilities were as precisely. It has been calculated that in the whole of England, there was not a scrap of land unaccounted for in the assessment system. Each hundred was broken down into so many hides of land (carucates in the Danelaw, sulungs in Kent). Theoretically, the hide was originally the amount of land sufficient for a peasant family to live on, but very soon the hide ceased to have any relationship to a specific area of land (just as the modern pound has ceased to have any relationship to a specific weight of gold) and became simply a unit of assessment, so that hides in different parts of the country might be assessed differently, often according to the wealth or productivity of the area. A man’s ownership of, say, five hides of land might typically mean that he was liable for so much in taxes, for the provision of a fighting man with all his equipment for a specified number of days a year when the king needed him for the defence of the realm, and for various other services. Such services might include, depending on the owner’s rank, duties of hospitality and escort to the king or his family, food rent (the laws of Ine tell us that the food rent from a ten-hide estate should be ten vats of honey, three hundred loaves, twelve ambers of Welsh ale, thirty of clear ale, two full-grown cows or ten wethers, ten geese, twenty hams, ten cheeses, an amber of butter, five salmon, twenty pounds of fodder and a hundred eels) and other miscellaneous services such as maintenance of hedges. Some of these might be remitted in special circumstances; the three services that were almost never remitted, whether the land were owned by a layman or the Church, were military service, the construction and maintenance of the country’s fortifications and bridge-building. It was this efficient system of assessment that made it possible for Æthelred to raise quickly as extra taxes the vast sums of money that were needed to pay off the Danes between 991 and 1016. It is hardly surprising that they kept coming back for more.
However efficient the tax-collecting system, it would hardly have worked if the money had not been there to be collected. Despite the frequent plundering raids, England was known to be wealthy – indeed, its notorious wealth had much to do with the frequency of the raids. Through the six centuries of its existence, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom had been a trading nation, but it had also achieved renown in various kinds of manufacture. Much of the detail of what the country once produced and contained is still obscure, despite recent archaeological research, and will no doubt remain so because by its nature it was perishable; the remaining archival evidence indicates only a fragment of what must once have existed. But there is enough information in the surviving letters, wills and deeds to give some idea of what people produced and had to dispose of. The evidence of the sheer amount of bullion in the country is impressive, without considering its artistry which, by all accounts, was equally so. As far as imports are concerned, especially those made of precious metals, even William of Poitiers, no friend to the English, and a man who believed that the sooner English treasures were sanitized by passing into Norman hands the better, noted the country’s wealth:
To this most fertile land merchants used to bring added wealth in imported riches. Treasures remarkable for their number and kind and workmanship had been amassed there, either to be kept for the empty enjoyment of avarice, or to be squandered shamefully in English luxury.xxvi
If we consider merely the Sutton Hoo treasure of c.650, the greatest find yet discovered, we are looking at imports from Byzantium, the Mediterranean, Egypt and Sweden at the very least, and at jewellery that may well have been made in Kent, a known centre for this particular kind of fine workmanship. Frequent references in the various codes of laws drawn up by successive kings make it clear how important trade was to the country and how vital they considered it to be that foreign merchants should be protected and their trade properly regulated.
Commerce was not the only channel through which foreign goods entered the kingdom. The diplomatic and marriage alliances that the English kings had built up throughout Europe meant that there were many ways in which trade could be promoted, and goods and gifts of great value passed backwards and forwards. Dorothy Whitelockxxvii quotes an impressive list of the valuable gifts sent by Hugh, Duke of the Franks, to King Athelstan when he asked for the hand of Athelstan’s half-sister Eadhild in marriage.xxviiiThe eldest son of King Æthelred who predeceased his father, another Athelstan, left to his brother, Edmund Ironside, ‘the sword which King Offa owned’. One can only conjecture whether this is the Hungarian sword known to have been sent by Charlemagne as a gift to the great Offa of Mercia; it may well have been. Swords were among the most treasured items a man could have, and were passed down as precious heirlooms, as was armour of all kinds, but swords had a particular value and were often decorated with quantities of gold and silver. Offa’s sword was clearly priceless and Edmund Ironside put it to good use; but items of greater monetary though possibly less historical and symbolic value passed regularly between England and Europe.
It was not only through royal marriages and diplomatic dealings that there was contact with the outside world. One of the most striking things in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the frequency with which pilgrimages to Rome (sometimes even to Jerusalem) are mentioned. Many of these were, naturally, journeys made by clerics; all archbishops had to go to Rome to collect the pallium or stole of office from the Pope. But many of them were made by lay people of all ranks, from kings downwards. The Chronicle also refers on several occasions to a special school or hostel in Rome built to accommodate the English pilgrims who went there (and, on some occasions, to accommodate their graves); and one of the achievements of Alfred and Cnut on their visits was to negotiate better terms for the English who made what was then an extremely hazardous journey. The itinerary of Archbishop Sigeric who fetched his pallium in 990 has survived, and records the names of seventy-nine stages on the journey from the Somme to Rome. On the assumption that each stage meant at least one night’s lodging, the journey would have taken not less than three months in each direction, when the cross-Channel voyage and any necessary travel within England to the south coast are included. An archbishop would have been able to ride; those who had to go on foot probably took longer. Pilgrims normally made their wills before leaving. But those who returned brought goods of foreign workmanship with them, apart from any spiritual benefits.
Trade, however, internal as well as external, was the most important element in English prosperity in the late Anglo-Saxon period. It depended to a great extent on the maintenance of the means of communication. The three basic services that landowners were rarely, if ever, excused contributed to this: if service in the fyrd or national host and the building and repair of fortifications were demanded primarily for purposes of the defence of the realm, the work on fortifications would have included the maintenance of roads, and the bridge-building requirement, though it might also have military aspects, was a significant contribution to the ability of merchants and goods to move around the kingdom. The evidence of caches of coins from the period all over England confirms that money did move around, for the vast majority of the coins found so far were minted miles from where they were dug up. One of the problems of knowing what was exported is the fact that, as already noted, much of it has perished during the last thousand years. Pottery tends to last better than other things and more pottery of the period has survived than anything else; if wood and leather and textiles were profitable articles of trade, as the written evidence suggests, few examples have been recovered to prove or illustrate it and we must rely on written sources for information. Henry of Huntingdon, writing about sixty years after the conquest (the basic conditions he described are unlikely to have changed significantly in the interim), tells us that, although little silver was mined in England, a large amount came into the country from Germany in payment for English exports (he mentions particularly fish, wool and cattle) so that there was more silver in England than in Germany itself.xxix As for the imports, the merchant in Ælfric’s Colloquy, that delightful dialogue between a schoolmaster and his pupils, designed to be used to teach schoolboys Latin, gives us a list of what he brought back from overseas in the tenth century: purple garments and silks, precious stones and gold, various vestments and pigments, wine and oil, ivory, brass and tin (Cornwall must have seemed as remote as overseas to many Englishmen), sulphur and glass.xxx
Few artefacts, whether made in England or overseas, have survived from before 1066. This is easily understandable if we consider what hazards they were exposed to throughout the period of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Early Anglo-Saxon England, like most Dark Age European countries, was a violent place; and in the ninth century there was the first wave of Viking invasions, starting with the sack of Lindisfarne in 793 and continuing with the looting of most of the other English monasteries and churches for the precious metals and jewels with which they were lavishly and reverently endowed. What had been stripped was painstakingly restored during the comparative peace of the tenth century, only for the second wave of Danish depredation to begin in the 980s. Throughout the period, fire was a constant danger in a society that built largely in wood; textiles and books were especially vulnerable. The minsters in Canterbury (both of them) and York were all destroyed by fire shortly after the conquest. Christianity meant that burials from the age of the conversion onwards took place without grave goods such as those found at Sutton Hoo, and where pagan burial sites did exist, they were frequently looted (that Sutton Hoo survived unlooted is, like the endurance of the Bayeux Tapestry, one of more inexplicable miracles). After the Norman Conquest English art treasures, particularly artefacts in gold and silver, were exported to Normandy and elsewhere in Europe on a scale unequalled in Europe until the days of the Nazi Property Transfer Office, no doubt to protect their original owners from the shameful luxury of which William of Poitiers complained. Finally, there was almost the worst act of vandalism of all, the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation, during which innumerable pieces of religious art were broken up or melted down. Items made of precious metals were always at risk of being melted down, either for refashioning in more modern styles or, more usually, for their cash value. William of Malmesbury records one such instance, this one not the responsibility of the Conqueror but of his heir, William Rufus:
The bishops and abbots flocked to the court complaining about this outrage, pointing out that they were not able to meet such heavy taxation. . . To which, the officials of the court, replying as usual with angry expressions, said: ‘Do you not have reliquaries made of gold and silver, full of the bones of dead men?’ No other reply did they deign to give their petitioners. So, the latter, seeing the drift of the reply, stripped the reliquaries of the saints, despoiled the Crucifixes, melted down the chalices, not for the benefit of the poor but for the King’s treasury. Almost everything which the holy frugality of their ancestors had preserved was consumed by the avarice of these extortioners.xxxi
Fortunately, there are records that give some idea of what England was once like. Dorothy Whitelock has given a good description of what the churches once had:
. . .while the St Cuthbert stole and the Bayeux tapestry let us understand why English needlework was so prized on the Continent, it is the constant reference to precious objects – a cloak of remarkable purple, interwoven throughout with gold in the manner of a corselet, which was turned into a chasuble; robes of silk interwoven with precious work of gold and gems; a beautiful chasuble that shone like gold when worn in the house of the Lord; a chalice of gold flashing with gems ‘as the heavens glow with blazing stars’; great candelabra, all of gold; images of the saints, covered with gold and silver and precious stones; and countless other treasures – vestments, altar-cloths, tapestries, dorsals, shrines, croziers, bells, etc. – which explains the great impression made on the Norman conquerors by the richness of the equipment of the English churches. We should never have guessed this without the aid of literary records.xxxii
Professor C. R. Dodwell has taken the trouble to go through all the written records and bring together the evidence they contain about Anglo-Saxon artefacts. His valuable book, Anglo-Saxon Artxxxiii, has revealed an impressive amount of information about what used to exist, even if practically nothing of it has survived. It is clear from this that the average Anglo-Saxon, and even more the higher ranking ones, believed in conspicuous display. Anything that could be fashioned in gold was made of it. Objects that could not be made entirely of gold would at least be covered with it, like the ship presented by Earl Godwin to King Harthacnut, which not only had a gold-encrusted prow but was also equipped with eighty warriors, each of whom wore two gold arm-rings and had a partly gilded helmet, a sword with a gilded hilt, a battle-axe edged with gold and silver and a shield with gilded boss and studs. The description of Cnut’s ships supports the evidence for this kind of display:
So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships.xxxiv
Professor Dodwell discovered that much of what emerges from the study of everyday documents such as wills and charters supports what might otherwise have been taken for artistic hyperbole in poetry:
If, in Beowulf, there are references to a gold-plated hall, we are told that, in the eleventh century, the domed architectural canopy that surrounded the high altar at Waltham was gold plated and had columns, bases and arches also embellished with gold, and a tenth-century portrayal of another canopy in a cathedral shows parts of the capitals and bases in gold. If, in that epic poem, the eaves of the same hall were said to be adorned with gold, we know that, if life had been his companion, as a contemporary delicately put it, King Eadred in the tenth century would have adorned the east porch of the church at Winchester with gilded tiles. If the same poem mentions a gold figured tapestry, we know that even sails in the eleventh century could be embroidered with historic scenes in gold.xxxv
As he points out, the poets were not dreaming up gilded visions but delineating the tastes of the world around them. The golden banner that illuminated the dragon’s den in Beowulf was paralleled by Harold’s golden and jewelled banner of the Fighting Man at Hastings, sent to the Pope by William after the battle as part of the spoils of war. Kenneth Clark, in his lectures on civilization, made the very accurate point that, when an Anglo-Saxon poet wanted to put his ideal of the good society into words, he spoke of gold.
Particular generosity was lavished on religious books and codices, and the magnificent standard of their production can be seen from survivors such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Canterbury Codex Aureus, now in the Stockholm Royal Library. We know that St Wilfrid commissioned a gospel book for his church at Ripon in 678, to be ‘in letters of purest gold on purpled parchment and illuminated’; and he had a case made for it of purest gold, set with gems. Ironically, the very splendour lavished on such productions was to be their undoing, for it would be the gold and jewelled covers that attracted the attention of the illiterate pagan robbers. The Codex Aureus provides an interesting example of this. It was looted by Vikings who stripped it of its golden jewelled cover, but had no use for the illuminated manuscript inside; they therefore sold this back to an Anglo-Saxon nobleman named Alfred for yet more gold, and it was restored by him to Canterbury.
Among the interesting characteristics of Anglo-Saxon life noted by Professor Dodwell was the passion for precious possessions in comparison with land which, after the conquest, would be prized by the Normans above any other form of wealth (though this is not to imply that the Anglo-Saxon was indifferent to land; there is ample evidence that he was not). Land, which he could pass on to his heirs, might come later when he could no longer fight; gold came first. It was the responsibility of any lord to reward the warriors who followed him with gold rings and gilded weapons. The aristocratic Anglo-Saxon would have had gold arm-rings (weighing anything up to 100 mancuses of gold at 4 grams a mancus) on both arms, his clothes would have been made of wool and imported silk with woven gold borders, with the addition of furs for warmth; his sword and dagger would have had hilts covered and decorated with gold and silver and inlaid with jewels. He could, in fact, have been wearing the price of a substantial estate. He would retain his warriors by the generosity with which he lavished gold rings and weapons on them. This could (from the point of view of William of Poitiers) be accounted for by a weakness for luxury and display; it was more probably due to the conveniently portable nature of precious metals during periods of invasion and rapine. There is also the point that you could not be taxed on the possession of gold. When Godwin was exiled in 1051, the ample treasury he is reported to have packed into his fleet would have been in gold and jewels. But what Dodwell says of the importance to the Anglo-Saxons of the changing and shifting and reflected light on gold and silver and precious stones in a northern landscape that must for most of the year have been dark and overcast is the most interesting of all:
Æthelwulf remarks on how the changing light gave vibrancy to gold vessels and, in the dark interiors of northern buildings, unlit as yet by a general and generous use of windows, we can understand how the warm glow of gold would give a delicate tremulousness to the surface of art treasures as they caught and reflected at various angles the northern light or the gleam of wax lamps or candles.xxxvi . . . Perhaps, indeed, it is in the sea and the mesmeric fascination it still has for us today that we can recapture some of the Anglo-Saxon interest in colour. Though the sea can change almost imperceptibly from blues to bruise-coloured greys and greens, its real visual attraction lies in the fact that each colour can vary within its own range in terms of ‘depth’ and ‘brightness’. The merest ruffling of the surface produces an exciting mobility of brightness of the same hue which gives a new animation and interest to the whole. This vibrancy the Anglo-Saxons managed to achieve even in their coloured outline drawings, and the almost shimmering quality of some of their coloured drawings reminds us of Æthelwulf’s interest in the tremulous flames of the hanging torches at night which he likened to gleaming stars.xxxvii
Quite apart from its treasures, however, England was, on the whole, a good country to live in by the standards of the times. It was, in many ways, a remarkably fluid society. There were, of course, class distinctions, as there were in every country at that time, but the possibilities of crossing class barriers seem by eleventh-century standards very enlightened. The basic ranks of society under the king, starting from the top, were ealdormen (after Cnut’s reign, known as earls), thegns (subdivided into king’s thegns, who presumably held land directly from the king, and others who held from intermediate lords, and who roughly equated to gentry and yeomanry), and churls, or free peasants and farmers; these classes were differentiated by their wergild or blood-price, the compensation that had to be paid to their kin if they were killed. The wergild of a nobleman was 1,200 shillings, that of a thegn 600 shillings, that of a churl 200 shillings. Below all these came the unfree men or slaves, who naturally had no wergild. But the situation was not static. A churl who did so well that he possessed five hides of land on which he paid the appropriate taxes was assessed at the wergild of a thegn and achieved a correspondingly higher social status; and if his son and grandson continued to hold the same amount of land, the title, the status and the financial obligations became hereditary. A merchant who had crossed the sea three times in his own ship and at his own risk was also entitled to be upgraded to thegnship, a significant encouragement to trade. An unfree man could be manumitted by his lord and become free and technically could start to aim at thegnship. Equally in times of hardship and famine, a man might, in desperation, sell himself or his family into slavery for the sake of food and maintenance, and a free man who failed or was unable to pay judicial fines might be sentenced to lose his liberty and become unfree. If he were, he could be redeemed by his relatives on payment of a stipulated sum. It was a system where, by contrast with Normandy, less attention was paid to blood or descent than to achievement. Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England under the king, was the grandson of a Sussex thegn of no particular distinction. Society in Anglo-Saxon England was, as in contemporary Europe, brutal, violent and frequently unjust; but there were more aspects of it that mitigated the general misery than elsewhere.
Many of the ideas relating to family were remarkably modern. The position of women in society might well have been envied by their descendants in the post-conquest period and much later; it is clearly stated in the law-codes that ‘no woman or maiden shall ever be forced to marry one whom she dislikes, nor be sold for money’. She had legal rights to shares in the property of the household and to the care of the children if there were a divorce or separation and, if widowed, a second marriage was, in theory at least, entirely at her own discretion. Indeed, according to the first Kentish laws, divorce was extremely easy in Anglo-Saxon society; a woman who wished to leave her marriage with her children was entitled to half the goods of the household. Her freedom to own and dispose of land was remarkable, compared with the post-conquest period when the property of a woman became the property of her husband the moment she married. It has been suggested that Harold’s mistress or handfasted wife, Edith,xxxviii may have been the woman named in the Domesday Book as Edith the Fair or Edith the Rich, in which case she clearly came of good family and held extensive lands in her own right throughout East Anglia and Buckinghamshire. The Domesday Book also records the situation of a woman in Yorkshire called Asa who held her land
separate and free from the rule and control of Beornwulf, her husband, even when they were together, in such a way that he himself could make neither gift nor sale of it, nor forfeit it. After their separation she herself withdrew with all her land and possessed it as its lady.xxxix
Not until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882 were women to enjoy such financial independence again. Moreover, a woman did not have to be of noble birth to enjoy such rights: the Domesday Book records the grant to Ælfgyth the maid of two hides of land in Buckinghamshire
which she could give or sell to whom she wished, and of the demesne farm of King Edward she herself had half a hide which Godric the sheriff granted her as long as he was sheriff, on condition of her teaching his daughter gold embroidery work.xl
Gold embroidery work was, of course, one of the most highly prized and rewarded skills of the time and one for which the English were particularly renowned.
As for the upbringing of children, the ideas expressed in one of the gnomic poems (essentially collections of sententious utterances) were positively advanced even by twentieth-century standards:
One shall not rebuke a youth in his childhood, until he can reveal himself. He shall thrive among the people in that he is confident.
The history of education in Anglo-Saxon England divides into five periods: the conversion period, when missionaries from both Rome and Ireland brought learning and books with them; the first high period of the Church, when Alcuin, an English missionary at the court of Charlemagne, recalled regretfully the richness of the library of York Minster that he had left behind and of which Alfred was thinking when he remembered the churches filled with treasures and books; the first Danish invasions, in which so many of those books and treasures were plundered or destroyed; the beginning of the revival of learning under Alfred, and the gradual building up again of libraries and teachers during the peaceful times of Athelstan and Edgar; and then the second wave of Viking invasions under Æthelred, less destructive than the first but bad enough. At least Cnut was a devout Christian and his father Sweyn Forkbeard nominally one – Æthelred never had to answer the unanswerable question his forefather Alfred was faced with: how can you trust the oaths of pagans to whom nothing is sacred, not even their own gods?
The first and most important educational necessity throughout these centuries was to train recruits for the priesthood and the cloister. That the various minster schools succeeded in this is indicated by the number of English missionaries who went to convert the heathen on the Continent, such as St Boniface, or were sent for to take education and civilization to foreign schools, as Alcuin was recruited by Charlemagne. These men were accustomed to send back to England for books unavailable to them where they were working; English book production was clearly of a high standard. Boniface wrote to ask the Abbess Eadburh to copy St Peter’s epistles for him in gold. This would presumably be for ceremonial occasions, but more workaday books were in demand also. Dorothy Whitelock listed the writings that were then available in England:
They were, of course, familiar with the Bible and the writings of the Christian Fathers, and with the Christian poets, Juvencus, Prudentius, Sedulius, Prosper, Fortunatus, Lactantius, and Arator. Bede makes use of a number of historical writings, of Josephus, Eusebius (in Latin translation from the Greek), Orosius, Cassiodorus, Gregory of Tours, etc., and of saints’ lives such as Paulinus’s Life of Ambrose, Possidius’s Life of Augustine, Constantius’s Life of Germanus. Of classical authors, both Bede and Aldhelm knew Virgil and Pliny at first hand, and Aldhelm used Lucan, Ovid, Cicero, and Sallust. Citations of other authors occur, but could have been taken from the works of Isidore of Seville, or from the Latin grammarians, of whom a really remarkable number were available in England already in the seventh century. Some very rare works had already found their way to England, and one, the grammar of Julian of Toledo, owes its preservation to this circumstance, for all surviving manuscripts go back to an English copy.xli
And the English monastics were not just reading these books, they were writing new works for themselves. Bede’s and Aldhelm’s works were produced at this period.
It is impossible to know how far learning reached the lay population in the eighth and ninth centuries. There may have been, probably were, noblemen and women who were literate and could read Latin as well as English. Many of the most famous founders of monasteries, such as Benedict Biscop, the founder of Bede’s monastery of Jarrow/Monkwearmouth, and a noted buyer of books, must have come into this category; many, like him, must have entered monasteries or taken holy orders later in life. If there had been no tradition at all of lay education, Alfred would hardly have lamented in his letter on the state of learning in England (?890s) that there were now few people north or south of the Humber who could even read English or translate a letter from Latin into English, or make use of the books that remained. It is not entirely clear from his letter whether he is thinking of clerics or laypeople or both. He may have been thinking primarily of priests or monks; but if he had been thinking only of the clergy, his programme of translations into English of the books that were most necessary for all men to know would look rather strange. He would never have supposed that it would have been sufficient for a priest or a monk to know only these particular books and only in English. Their needs would have been far more extensive. His programme of translation, as well as his own words, ‘all men’, imply a determination to reach the laity. Asser, one of the scholars whom Alfred recruited to make his court a centre of learning, speaks in his life of Alfred of the king’s children being educated
in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well. In this school, books in both languages – that is to say, in Latin and English – were carefully read; they also devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent that, even before they had the requisite strength for manly skills (hunting, that is, and other skills appropriate to noblemen), they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts.xlii
We may well suspect that Asser is laying it on a little lavishly here, but even allowing for exaggeration, his specific mention of other noble children and some of lesser birth makes it fairly clear that, in theory at least, Alfred’s conception of education was not limited to the Church and that the origins of comprehensive education may be found in England nearly two hundred years before the conquest.
There is no such direct testimony of the state of general literacy as Alfred provides in his letter from the reigns of his immediate successors, but there is little doubt that many could and did read. Professor James Campbell comments:
The use of written English went with a considerable degree of lay literacy; no doubt as both cause and effect. Æthelweard’s translation of the Chronicle was the first book written by an English nobleman and, for nearly four centuries, the last. Two of Ælfric’s theological treatises were written for thegns. The relative abundance of inscriptions, not only on churches but also on, for example, brooches and rings, is suggestive. A layman who learned to read in the Confessor’s reign would be able to make out his father’s will, the king’s writs, the boundary clause of a charter, or a monastery’s inventories. In Henry II’s day, mere literacy would have won him none of these advantages. If he wanted them he had to learn Latin. There is no doubt that some did so; but it would be unwise to be confident that they were more numerous than those who were literate in English a century or more earlier. If the late Anglo-Saxon state was run with sophistication and thoughtfulness, this may very well be connected with the ability of many laymen to read.xliii
In addition to these legally useful documents, the religious texts available to the Anglo-Saxon layman in English would have included the Gospels, the psalms, the Hexateuch, the creed, the confessional formulae, homilies and the lives of the saints. Ælfric’s translation into English of the Old Testament was commissioned by a nobleman. Perhaps he wanted to have it read to him in his own tongue; but possibly he wanted to be able to read it himself. It is worth remembering that, from the earliest period, the various codes of laws had all been written in English, implying an ability in those who were not Latinists to read them. After a papal council at Rheims in 1050, King Edward ordered that a record of what had been said and done there should be written in English and a copy kept in the king’s treasury. This would not be necessary for the clergy and could therefore only have been designed for the convenience of laymen. There is a tradition that King Harold owned books – not just religious books, which any pious man might have, but books on hawking – which has caused his biographer to hazard the cautious guess that he may have been literate. It would be more surprising if he had not been. He had been virtually running the highly sophisticated Anglo-Saxon state of which Professor Campbell speaks for years before he was crowned; a state in which, since at least the days of Alfred, one of the primary instruments of government was the royal writ, which recipients were expected to be able to read. His sister, the queen, had received an excellent education at the abbey of Wilton, where there was a school for aristocratic young ladies, and one may assume that her younger sister, Gunnhild, who later took the veil, had been similarly educated; it would be strange if less trouble had been taken over the education of the boys of the family. We know from the anonymous author of the Vita Ædwardi that Godwin took care to have his sons trained in all the accomplishments that would make them useful to their king. Indeed, Frank Barlow has pointed out that, of all the English kings after Cnut, Harold was the only one who received a political education suitable for the office.xliv There is no evidence either way for Duke William’s literacy. One of his biographers asserts categorically that he was not and that all his sons were similarly illiterate.xlv The Norman court, he points out, was not a centre of culture. Orderic Vitalis writes of his having witnessed a charter by making a cross.xlvi Indeed, the point has been made by David Bates that, ‘for almost the first century of its existence, the government of the Norman rulers was illiterate’xlvii – a circumstance that considerably complicates the writing of its history during that period. After Hastings, the new regime was to be much distressed to discover the extent to which English was used for the everyday affairs of church and state; the Normans made haste to substitute Latin, which their own clerks were able to understand.
Alongside the literacy or otherwise of the laity in England was something that is much more easily estimated: their affection for the old Germanic heroic poems and lays. This was one of the most lasting gifts that they brought from their continental homelands and it endured right up to the conquest. Of all the countries of Europe at that time, England was far ahead in having a flourishing vernacular literature, much of which is unfortunately lost, though enough has survived to give us a feeling for its quality. Before 1066, there was little to challenge it, apart from the Celtic literature of Ireland and Wales and the French chansons de geste, the stories of heroic deeds, of which there were probably once many, though few, and those mostly considerably later, have survived. TheChanson de Roland is the most important early example to survive and cannot much pre-date the conquest in its present form. There had certainly been vernacular poetry on heroic subjects in Germany, but it was mainly oral; only scraps and shards of this have survived in written form, such as the tantalizingly short piece of the heroic poem Hildebrand. The great age of the Icelandic sagas came well after the conquest.
England, on the other hand, had the distinction of having poems not just of heroic deeds but also of a more reflective nature, asking the questions that good poetry has always asked about the unfathomable mystery of existence. It is miraculous that we have as much of it as we do: the odds must always have been heavily against its survival. In its original form, when the Anglo-Saxons first came to England, it must have been a purely oral tradition that they brought with them. When a more literate age arrived with the conversion, it was highly unlikely that the monks, then the only literate people, would have given priority to committing the pagan songs of pagan gods and heroes to paper. (Though it is a mistake to exaggerate the prudishness of the cloister; Professor Campbell has pointed out that a tenth-century transcription of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, the part concerned with the techniques of seduction, may well be in the hand of St Dunstan.) But the songs did somehow survive, indeed they must have flourished, and even in monasteries they must have had a following, or Alcuin would not have asked the Abbot of Lindisfarne his indignant question, Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?, ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ Ingeld, prince of the Heathobards, makes a brief appearance in Beowulf, the only surviving Anglo-Saxon epic, in one of its many digressions through old Germanic legend. Freawaru, daughter of Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, is given to him in marriage to heal the breach between his people and hers. But, prophesies Beowulf, the peace offering will surely turn sour, when the Heathobards see the daughter of their enemy at the feast, and indeed the blood feud breaks out again even more strongly with Ingeld torn between love for his bride and his duty of revenge and loyalty to his people. The fact that he could be referred to so allusively, both in Beowulf and in Alcuin’s letter, implies the existence at some time of many well-known songs or poems about Ingeld and the Danish/Heathobard feud, so that the hearers or readers of Beowulfwould quickly pick up the allusion.
There is a similar reference in Beowulf to the story of a fight at Finnesburg, of which we have confirmation in a mere fifty lines of another poem on the subject; the fragment of vellum on which it was originally written has vanished since it was transcribed in the seventeenth century but, to judge by what we have, it must have been a poem of considerable distinction, though probably shorter than Beowulf. The fragment describes the resumption of another blood feud; the young prince, trapped in the hall of his host, sees lights in the night sky and warns his followers that they signal the advance of enemies:
Here there is no dawn from the east, here no dragons fly,
It is not the horns of this hall that burn,
They come to attack us. Birds sing,
The grey wolf howls, wooden war-gear echoes,
Shields receive the spear. Now shines the moon,
Wandering beneath the clouds; now arise deeds of woe
That will work harm to our people.
It is the combination of the small natural details (the alarmed birds singing, the moon shining erratically through the clouds) with the more standard descriptions of heroic lays (the wolf howling, the sound of spear on shield) that gives it its peculiarly evocative magic. But what is common to all the surviving Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry – Beowulf, the remains of Finnesburh and Waldere, the remnant of a poem on Walther of Aquitaine (and also in the remnant we have of the Old High German Hildebrand) – is a dignity of proportion and style that gives it its indubitably epic stature. Beowulf being received by Hrothgar at Heorot is fully comparable to Odysseus at the court of Alcinous. Heroic epic rarely springs, fully formed, from the head of an original poet; generations of shorter, possibly cruder lays and songs on its subject herald its appearance. Many generations of legends and shorter poems on the subject of Beowulf and his exploits, now lost, must have preceded and generated the epic we have now. Not all would have been in English, but some undoubtedly were.
Beowulf itself (probably dating from the eighth century in its present form) has only survived through a series of happy accidents, the last being the rescue in 1731 of the only surviving manuscript (though in a damaged form) from the disastrous fire in the Cottonian Library in Ashburnham House, Westminster, in which it was then held. As with so much else of the civilization of the Anglo-Saxons, we are tormented by our ignorance of what has been lost, as well as grateful for the little that has been saved. Not all of what has endured is on the epic scale or concerns blood feuds and monsters. Among the rest is something that at that date was peculiar to England – as far as we know, that is, since again we can never know what has been lost of the work of other countries – and that is poetry of a more reflective nature. Most of it has a peculiarly elegiac or lyrical character. Some are shorter poems reflecting on the human condition, the loss of a lord, a wife deserted by her husband, a husband who has made good overseas sending for his wife. Many mourn the transitory nature of worldly happiness, such as The Ruin, in which the poet broods over the remains of what was probably an ancient Roman city, possibly Bath, or The Wanderer in which the narrator laments:
A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
When all this world’s wealth standeth waste
Even as now, in many places over the earth,
Walls stand, wind beaten,
Heavy with hoar frost; ruined habitations. . .
The maker of men has so marred this dwelling
That human laughter is not heard about it
And idle stand these old giant works.
How that time is gone, he mourns, vanished beneath the shadow of night, as though it had never been. But if the predominant mood of Anglo-Saxon poetry was elegiac, it was flexible enough to serve other purposes: to depict the frenzy of battle, as when the sparks from the clashing swords blaze ‘as if all Finnesburh were aflame’ or to portray the almost Miltonic ambition and resentment of Satan in the retelling of the Genesis story (‘I could be God as well as He’). The Old English Genesis may have been a biblical story, but Satan, declaring war on heaven, does so in the old Germanic heroic spirit:
Strong comrades, bold-hearted heroes, stand by me, who will not fail me in the fight; they, brave men, have chosen me for their master. With such can a man lay a plan, carry it out with such companions in war. They are keen in their friendship to me, loyal in their hearts; I can be their leader, rule in this kingdom. Thus it seems not right to me that I need flatter God any whit for any benefit; no longer will I be his follower.xlviii
But he finds himself in another land, ‘void of light and teeming with flame, a great peril of fire’, many hundreds of years before Milton described a later Satan’s ‘darkness visible’.
There are quantities of riddles, a verse form in which even monks thought it permissible to indulge (which is presumably why so many, comparatively speaking, have survived) and which frequently illuminates life in Anglo-Saxon England. This riddle has more modern resonances:
The monster came sailing, wondrous along the wave; it called out in its comeliness to the land from the ship; loud was its din; its laughter was terrible, dreadful on earth; its edges were sharp. It was malignantly cruel, not easily brought to battle but fierce in the fighting; it stove in the ship’s sides, relentless and ravaging. It bound it with a baleful charm; it spoke with cunning of its own nature: ‘My mother is of the dearest race of maidens, she is my daughter grown to greatness, as it is known to men, to people among the fold, that she shall stand with joy on the earth in all lands.’xlix
It is an iceberg.
And there is that unforgettable, extraordinarily powerful and fully achieved masterpiece, The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ’s cross speaks of its experience of the crucifixion with a passion and imaginative originality that were not to be recaptured in English poetry for three centuries after the conquest:
As a rood was I raised up; I bore aloft the mighty King, the Lord of Heaven; I durst not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails; the wounds are still plain to view in me, gaping gashes of malice; I durst not do hurt to any of them. They bemocked us together. I was all bedewed with blood, shed from the Man’s side, after He had sent forth His Spirit. I have endured many stern trials on the hill; I saw the God of hosts violently stretched out; darkness with its clouds had covered the Lord’s corpse, the fair radiance; a shadow went forth, dark beneath the clouds. All creation wept, lamented the King’s death; Christ was on the cross.l
When poetry was written in English again, it had a different character, the difference not always easy to define but probably due in part to the fact that, while before the conquest much of the most impressive work had been written for an aristocratic audience or readership, by the time of its revival it was being written for a more popular and provincial public. It was not until the fourteenth century that it regained its old authority.
Anglo-Saxon poetry has been accused of a gloomy overemphasis on the darker side of human existence. It is true that it tends to dwell on the transitoriness of life and of pleasure; happiness in any Dark Age society probably was transitory. But it reflects the circumstances of the life in which it was written. Just as the Anglo-Saxons’ love of gold was derived in part from the way its radiance lighted the darkness and cold of their churches and houses, so their poetry mirrors the harshness of their daily existence. The reader is always conscious of the gloom and wildness of the northern landscape that produced it: the cold, the hard life extracting a living from the soil, the seaspray in the face, the loneliness of a life deprived of the support of a lord, contrasted with the warmth and joy of feasting in the hall and the company of comrades. It calls to mind Bede’s famous story of the Northumbrian ealdorman’s comparison of the life of man to the sparrow flying through the warm lighted hall, passing from the cold darkness outside to another unknown darkness on the other side. There is none of the joy of the merry month of May in Anglo-Saxon poetry. But there is a noble melancholy and an elegiac lyricism, combined with a stoic acceptance of fate, and a courage ‘perfect, because without hope’,liexquisitely summed up in the words of Byrhtwold, the old retainer, at the battle of Maldon:
Mind shall be the braver, heart be the fiercer,
Courage be the greater, as our strength lessens.
Here lies our lord, hacked and cut down,
A brave man in the dust; ever will he mourn
Who thinks from this war-play to return home.
England was unique in Europe in 1066 in having a fully developed vernacular prose. Its most remarkable manifestation is, of course, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded in English events from the seventh century onwards at a time when chronicles would normally have been written in Latin. It was, in fact, not one chronicle but several, different versions being maintained at different ecclesiastical centres around the country. Its establishment has been credited to Alfred, as part of his campaign to promote writing in English that could be read in their own tongue by all of his people who were literate. There is no written evidence to support the claim, but the coincidence of the appearance of a chronicle in English at the time when Alfred was campaigning for essential books to be available in English is, to say the least, suggestive, especially since it would have taken a certain amount of central authority to get the project going in the first place. Whatever the origin of the Chronicle, it does, in itself, provide an overview of the development of written English, from the earliest entries, such as the rather incoherent but vivid account of the blood feud in 755 between Cynewulf and Cyneheard (the first ever substantial piece of historical writing in Europe in any vernacular) to the bitter irony of the late tenth- and early eleventh-century entries on the Danish raids in the reign of Æthelred and the fluency and power of the account of Count Eustace’s affray at Dover and the outlawing of the Godwin family in 1051. The Cynewulf and Cyneheard episode gives a fair sample of Alfredian prose in its early stages, though it may be a reworking of an earlier account of the episode that had been handed down: after telling us that Cynewulf had held the kingdom of the West Saxons for thirty-one winters, it continues:
He wished to drive out a prince named Cyneheard. . . and when [Cyneheard] heard that the king was lying with a woman at Merton, he rode there and surrounded the bower before the king’s men were aware of him. And when the king perceived that, he went to the door and there valiantly defended himself until he saw the prince and then rushed at him and severely wounded him. And then they were all fighting with the king until they had slain him. And when the king’s men heard the din from the woman’s bower they rushed there, whoever was readiest and swiftest; and the prince offered all of them life and goods but none would accept. And they fought together until all were slain but one Welsh hostage, and he was badly wounded. And in the morning when the king’s thegns that had been left behind heard that the king was dead they rode thither with his ealdorman Osric and his thegn Wiferth and the men who had been left behind, and found the prince where the king lay slain and the gates had been locked against them, and there they were fighting. And he offered them lands and goods at their own choice if they would grant him the kingdom, and told them that kinsmen of theirs were within who would not go from him. And they answered that no kinsmen were dearer to them than their lord, and they would never follow his slayer. And they offered that their kinsmen should go safely hence; and they said that the same had been offered to their companions who had been with the king. They said that they cared for this ‘no more than your companions who were slain with the king’. And they were fighting around the gates until they got inside and slew the prince and all who were with him, all but one who was the ealdorman’s godson, and his life was spared though he was much wounded.
The confusion of personal pronouns, the abrupt unexplained switch from the third to the second person, all mark it out as early experimental prose; but nothing conceals the vitality and immediacy of the account given, even though it must have been written well over a hundred years after the events described. The contrast in fluency and control with the much later Chronicle extracts already quoted is striking but this early piece was written by a clerk who already had an instinctive feeling for the rhythms and potentialities of English prose.
Outside the Chronicle, it is equally possible to track the development of the language in flexibility and sophistication from the slightly elementary individuality and sincerity of Alfred’s first efforts to the fiery eloquence of Archbishop Wulfstan’s Sermon of the Wolf and the classic elegance of Ælfric. It is impossible not to wonder what would have resulted if the language had been allowed to continue along its well-established trajectory; but the development of the prose, like that of the poetry, was stamped out brutally overnight on 14 October 1066. When in the 1070s the English language ceased to be used for political and administrative purposes, there was no longer any central authority to establish and propagate a standard ‘received’ English and it broke down into a confusion of regional dialects. Indeed, it is likely that the written Old English that has descended to us, the Wessex form of the language, must always have been something of a literary and bureaucratic mandarin, probably different from its spoken form even in Wessex, certainly different from what was spoken in Mercia or Northumbria. With the loss of its dominance, the regional variants had their way. Thus, when English prose began to be used again for literary purposes, three centuries later, it was, in effect, a new English, and had returned to the tentative experimentalism that Old English had shown in Alfred’s day. Not until Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, roughly four hundred years after the conquest, did it show itself again as a fully developed literary medium.