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About this book

This book is a study of the exercise of royal authority before the Norman Conquest. Six centuries separate the 'adventus Saxonum' from the battle of Hastings: during those long years, the English kings changed from warlords, who exacted submission by force, into law-givers to whom obedience was a moral duty. In the process, they created many of the administrative institutes which continued to serve their successors. They also created England: the united kingdom of the English people.

Table of Contents

1. Through a Glass Darkly: The Origins of English Kingship

Abstract
The origins of English kingship lie in the fitfully-lit, if no longer pitch-dark years of the fifth and sixth centuries; the age of the adventus Saxonum and the English settlements, where archaeologists tread warily and historians venture at their peril.2 Sources for these centuries are not completely lacking, but they are fragmentary, partial and ambiguous. Continental writers of the fifth and sixth centuries occasionally refer to events and people in Britain, but indigenous sources are few and mostly composed much later than the events they describe. We must wait until 731 for Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle was not put together until the reign of Alfred (871–99).3 The Historia Brittonum, attributed to the Welsh scholar Nennius, was assembled earlier in the ninth century, and the Annales Cambriae may be contemporary for the seventh and eighth centuries, but not for the fifth and sixth.4 The Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britonum) was written in the middle of the sixth century by the British monk and priest Gildas, but its usefulness is vitiated by uncertainty as to precisely where Gildas lived, and by the fact that he was not (and did not claim to be) an historian; the work is a polemic on the abuses of contemporary British kings and churchmen, and moral concerns colour its historical content.5 Moreover Gildas had little interest in the English except in their role as the instrument of God’s punishment upon the sinful British. The archaeological record for the fifth and sixth centuries is scarcely more tractable. Numerous modern accounts have been constructed upon these materials, many of them plausible, some mutually exclusive; but in general it is hard to disagree with the conclusion of J. M. Kemble that ‘the genuine details of the German conquests in England [are] irrevocably lost to us’.6
Ann Williams

2. The Time of the Warlords

Abstract
In contrast to the fifth and sixth centuries, our sources for the seventh century are relatively abundant. Chief among them is Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, completed in 731. Indeed we see the seventh century very largely through Bede’s eyes, which has drawbacks as well as advantages. Bede was an historian of genius, but he had little interest in secular affairs as such. He betrays extreme reluctance to divulge any scandal or unpleasantness, though he cannot quite conceal the sheer thuggery often practised not only by secular, but also ecclesiastical magnates.1 An antidote to Bede’s sweetness and light is provided by the Life of Wilfrid, bishop of York, composed by Eddius Stephanus within ten years of Wilfrid’s death in 709. Wilfrid’s episcopal office brought him closer than the cloistered monk to the violence and treachery of seventh-century politics and, though ostensibly a saint’s life, Eddius’s work differs from the usual hagiographies in advancing a polemical justification for his hero’s stormy career.2
Ann Williams

3. The Shadow of Mercia

Abstract
After Bede’s death in 735, the narrative sources diminish. For Wessex there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, though that is not contemporary until the end of the ninth century, and for Northumbria the annals added to Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (the Continuations), and those which now form part of the Historia Regum, once attributed to Symeon of Durham.1 There is also a poem on the Church of York by the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin, which carries its story down to the death of Archbishop Ælberht (780).2 It is unfortunate that no Mercian religious house produced an historian to chronicle the deeds of its eighth-century kings, though the Life of St Guthlac, composed in the reign of King Ælfwald of East Anglia (713–49), contains some material on the early career of King Æthelbald (716–57).3 Much information can be gleaned from the correspondence of the West Saxon missionary saint, Boniface, and from that of Alcuin.4 There is an increasing number of royal charters, from Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia and the kingdom of the Hwicce.5 Though much of the detail is inevitably lacking, it is still possible to gain a general idea of how the Mercian kings achieved and maintained their hold over much of southern England.
Ann Williams

4. Strategies of Power

Abstract
In the seventh and eighth centuries successful kings gained power by conquest, but their hard-won confederations were rarely stable; what was welded together in one generation dissolved in the next, to be reassembled in other equally short-lived hegemonies. The real problem was not to acquire but to maintain control. Lordship was based upon rewarding faithful service, and kings especially were expected to be generous: both kings and queens ‘must first of all be free with gifts’.2 Bede praises Oswine of Deira because he was not merely ‘tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manners’ but also ‘bountiful to nobles and commoners alike’, and the Bernician King Oswald had at his court an official specifically charged to distribute alms to the poor.3
Ann Williams

5. All the King’s Men

Abstract
The early kings of the English appear before us surrounded by their advisors, councillors and servants. Bede gives us a vivid picture of Oswine of Deira, about to dine with Bishop Aidan, ‘warming himself by the fire with his ministri’ (literally ‘servants’); the members of his household (hired), who dwelt with him and accompanied him on his journeys.1 Such progresses could be full of pomp, as another Bedan vignette, this time concerning Oswine’s kinsman, Edwin of Northumbria, shows:
So great was his majesty in his realm that not only were banners carried before him in battle, but even in time of peace, as he rode about among his cities, estates and kingdoms (civitates siue uillas aut provincias) with his ministri, he always used to be preceded by a standard-bearer (signifer).2
It was one of Edwin’s household who saved his lord’s life from an assassin sent by Cwichelm of Wessex, by taking in his own body the blow meant for the king.3
Ann Williams

6. Out of the North: The Impact of the Vikings

Abstract
In the first half of the ninth century, a balance of power was struck in Southumbrian England.2 Mercian dominance came to an end with the battle of Ellendun (825), when Ecgberht of Wessex (802–39) defeated King Beornwulf (823–6). As a result the East Angles threw off Mercian control and retained their independence until they were conquered by the Danes in 880.3 The south-east passed into the control of the West Saxons; Baldred, the Mercian sub-king of Kent, was driven out by Ecgberht’s son, Æthelwulf, probably in 826 or 827.4 Sigered of Essex was probably expelled from his kingdom at about the same time.5 The West Saxon conquest of Kent brought with it control of the commercial centres of the south-east, and especially of the minting-centres at Canterbury and Rochester.6 After the expulsion of Baldred, the moneyers in both towns struck coins in the names of Ecgberht and his son Æthelwulf (839–58); even the London moneyers struck for Ecgberht in the years around 829–30, though they then seem to have ceased operation until c. 843, after which their issues carry the name of Beorhtwulf of Mercia (840–52).7
Ann Williams

7. The Making of England

Abstract
On Alfred’s death the frontier between English and Danes was defined, roughly speaking, by the line of Watling Street. To the north and east lay the Danish kingdoms of York and East Anglia. Eastern Mercia was dominated by individual jarls and their warbands, most of them probably under the nominal control either of York or East Anglia.2 In the far north lay the remnant of Bernicia, still governed by a line of English rulers established at Bamburgh, but under pressure not only from Danish York but also from the ambitious Scottish kings.
Ann Williams

8. Rule and Conflict, 978–1066

Abstract
King Edgar’s death in 975 at the age of 32 was perhaps unexpected. He left two sons, Edward aged about sixteen by Æthelflæd eneda (‘the white’), and Æthelred son of Queen Ælfthryth who was eight or nine. Support for Æthelred’s succession was orchestrated by his mother, Æthelwold of Winchester and Ælfhere of Mercia, while the archbishops, Dunstan and Oswald, and Æthelwine of East Anglia declared for Edward. The participation of the two most powerful laymen south of the Trent produced a dangerous confrontation, but before the end of the year Edward had gained general acceptance. On 18 March 978, however, he was murdered at Corfe (Dorset) by adherents of his half-brother. The corpse was hastily buried at Wareham, and only after its discovery and proper interment at Shaftesbury Abbey was Æthelred consecrated king.2
Ann Williams

9. The Ill-Counselled King

Abstract
Æthelred II (978–1016) has been saddled with the worst reputation of all the Old English kings. His pejorative nickname, unræd (‘ill-counselled’) is recorded only from the thirteenth century, but his reign has been seen as a time of disaster, exacerbated by bad advice, vacillation, treachery and cowardice. His most recent biographer has done much to salvage his good name, but still with the proviso that he was ‘a poor judge of men’.2
Ann Williams

10. The Danish Conquest

Abstract
In the eleventh century the English royal house could trace its origins, without employing too much fiction, back to the seventh century. Cnut’s dynasty had no such antiquity, though his propagandists soon began to manufacture one.2 But despite their attempts to make him a descendant of Ivar inn beinlusi, his historical ancestry goes back only to his greatgrandfather, Gorm the Old (d. 958), known chiefly from the runestone he erected to his wife Thyre (‘Denmark’s pride’) at Jelling (Jutland). Jelling, the centre of the family’s power, was developed by Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth (958–87), whose own runestone boasts that ‘he won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian’. Towards the end of his reign, however, he was deposed by his son, Swein Forkbeard, and died on 1 November 987.3 In Swein’s time, the centre of royal power in Denmark began to shift from Jelling in Jutland towards the eastern lands, notably to Roskilde in Sjaelland, soon to become the richest of the Danish bishoprics.4 Impressive though the achievements of Harald and Swein were, neither the Danish kingdom nor its nascent church were as developed as their counterparts in England.
Ann Williams

11. Authority and Ambition, 1042–66

Abstract
The shadow of 14 October 1066 hangs over Edward the Confessor, last of the West Saxon dynasty, and his successor Harold II Godwineson, last of the Old English kings.1 Modern historians have tended to concentrate on the weaknesses in the kings and their kingdom which permitted the extinction of the West Saxon line, and the conquest of the country.2 Yet in these years the English regained southern Cumbria, established a client-kingdom in north Wales, and won one of their most decisive victories over a viking host at the battle of Stamford Bridge.3 These are scarcely the achievements of a kingdom in terminal decline.
Ann Williams
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