Tuesday, 4 June 2019

"Word Hoard" and the Difficulties of Making Dialogue Authentic

"I hold your oaths fulfilled." These words are spoken by Aragorn in the film version of Tolkein’s The Return of the King

I found myself thinking about whether all of the dialogue was derived from Old English (OE). The short answer is no, but it did remind me of a time when I decided to see if it was possible to construct dialogue for my novels – set in Anglo-Saxon England – using only words derived from either OE, or old Norse (ON).



Here’s some dialogue from a very early draft of one of my novels: 
"No no, all is well; you sit. It is cooler here in the yard. I was thinking, though, that the roads from the south may be hard enough to ride on now, which means that Lord Helmstan might be home soon. Can we bake a few more loaves? Would it help to knead the rest outside?"
 "It would, my lady, thank you. There is enough flat bread to see us through, but if I can find how my idle daughters do with the grinding, I can bake with yeast and the finest ground meal to make bread for the lord. With your leave, I will go now and get that husband of mine to lift me down another bag of meal."
Hmm. It doesn't flow brilliantly well, does it? And the words aren’t even all derived from OE, or even pre-Conquest words. Lift, for example, is 12th-century ON, while bag is 13th-century ON.

So, if we want to pepper the dialogue with OE-derived words, what can we use, and what can't we use? It's surprising:

Alliterative couplets are okay - hale and hearty, forgive and forget.

But whilst we can reckon, we can't count.

We can't want, but we can crave, or wish.

We can eat our food at the board, but not the table, and we'll sit on a stool, not a chair.  Sounds a little uncomfortable; a bit basic. It gets worse:

You can't smile; you can only smirk or grin. (But since that means 'to bear your teeth' it doesn't sound as benign as a smile, somehow.)

You can't have a smell or an aroma; you can only have a stench. And this leads to another problem: so many OE words now have these negative connotations, and we have the Normans to thank for a lot of that.

And as for those Four-Letter-Words, well, the really nasty ones are not Anglo-Saxon and oddly, although I've just said that they hold such negative connotations, the Anglo-Saxon four letter words are now considered relatively inoffensive and, after all, they simply described body parts/functions - shit, arse, etc.

Of course, it can also boil down to a matter of how the words and phrases sound. If you were to discuss an 'Ursine preference for forest-based defecation' it would somehow sound more archaic than saying 'Bears like to shit in the woods,' and yet one would be more authentic than the other (even though like is 12th-century ON).


It seems that we really need those ON words. When, in Alvar the Kingmaker, I needed Alvar to respond to a threat, I found I couldn’t do it without the word ‘try’, which is thirteenth-century ON. But "You can try. Mercia has never yet bent to the rule of a Dane, be he Viking or Churchman," was preferable to: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough." All OE-derived words, yes, but a little too modern-sounding!



Some other words just don't translate at all - for flower you'd have to use blossom but that's not really a singular noun, in so far as one couldn't pick a blossom. You can't have ceremony, or feast, or celebration. The OE word for such occasions is symbel, but it hasn’t survived in modern English.

We also need to consider that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t think in the same terms as we do. Interestingly, while eyes, chin, nose, brows and cheeks could all be used, I could find no OE word which equates to face (a word which traces its origins only to the thirteenth century) and to describe beauty in OE terms you’d have to talk of winsomeness.

Bearing in mind these differences in concepts, I tend to have my characters say naught because nothing meant something entirely different, akin to being an outcast, literally no thing. Dream is another word which conveyed a different concept, being more like a waking vision, or daydream, rather than something which visits only the sleeping mind.

It doesn’t do to be too strict with the language when discussing familial relationships, either. We can't have uncle, aunt or cousin, although we can have brother, sister, mother and father. Grandmother should really be greatmother, but it's clunky. In other family matters though, we can choose the OE forms, and have burials instead of funerals and weddings instead of marriages, which helps to build up the Anglo-Saxon 'voice'.


So, wherever there is a viable alternative to a modern/French-derived word, I’ll use it. Where it becomes nigh on impossible, though, is with the little, useful words. The following dialogue, from To Be A Queen, would have been difficult to write without using the conjunction because:

"So be it. But it is only because she is my sister that I bow to you."
   The sharp scything noise set his teeth on edge. Every Mercian in the room had his hand on his sword hilt, the blade hitched up to protrude from the scabbard. Alhelm stepped forward and fixed the piercing blue gaze on Edward once more. "No, my lord, it is only because she is your sister that we bow to you."

Could I have used an alternative? Sometimes, therefore will do instead, but not in all cases. I asked Jim Sinclair, OE specialist, for a suggestion, and he told me, “One possibility is for or that, as in 'But it is only for that she is my sister (Ac hit is ānlīce for þæm þe hēo is mīn sweostor.)’” While this might have been more authentic, I think it would have weakened the sound of the exchange between the characters.

Because is not the only ‘little’ word which is necessary to aid flow. Others are seem, appear, doubt, and grateful (which is very modern, originating in the sixteenth century).

In another line from Alvar, the titular character gets rather cross with Bishop Oswald and Alvar’s brother asks him if he is behaving himself. Alvar replies: 
 “I should have felled him where he stood. Rotting crow-body…” Alvar sat down and shoved his legs out straight in front of him. “I reminded him that he is not one of us, but I only spoke the truth.”

For authenticity, I’d have needed to find another word for reminded. But it’s not so easy. Perhaps, ‘I bade him hark back'? Hmm, I don’t think it works as well.  Try it yourself - and no, you can't have reconsider, or pointed out!

In the following passage from To Be A Queen, the words in bold are Edward’s thoughts. They are not OE, but they are short, conveying urgency:
Five or six more steps through a river suddenly flowing treacle brought him to the bubbles of wet cloth. Batting aside a floating shoe, he grabbed the centre of the sodden, sinking lumps. Waist deep only, merciful Jesus, but so many weeds. Come here girl. He flipped her over and lifted her clear of the dragging wetness. Legs planted, he centred his weight and brushed the hair from her face. She coughed and he allowed himself to breathe again.
Girl is 13th century, merciful is 12th century. Could I have used OE? Again, I asked Jim Sinclair who said, "Tricky. Girl would be maid or maiden which are somewhat archaic and so narrower in meaning, though would work quite nicely in OE. Merciful is virtually impossible; there are some wonderful words for mercy/merciful in OE which haven't [survived] and the closest I can get is mild-hearted, which I don't think really does it."

Later in the chapter:
"I am here to look after you while my father cannot. As one day I will look after Wessex as my father has not. You are my sister. What else is there to know about why I saved you from drowning?" 
I asked Jim how I could say this without using save or rescue. He told me, "There's no obvious candidate here that I can think of. Possibly something simpler like kept from (Why I kept you from drowning) but, again, it's not really the same." Furthermore, drowning is 13th c. Drenching is the closest we can get using OE, but it doesn't convey the same meaning.

In the following two short sentences, is there a pithy alternative to the bold words?

1. "Kings are only as strong as the men who surround them."  Jim’s response was, "In OE you would use the word ymb meaning about, so maybe "Kings are only as strong as the men about them," or "...as the men they keep about them."
2. "Sometimes it is but one man who makes the difference."  Jim told me, "There are few OE options that have survived, but maybe an alternative idiomatic expression might be 'to turn the tide' - "Sometimes it is but one man who can turn the tide?"

So, whilst we seem to have established that it's necessary to use later words to make the dialogue flow, there are some which can nevertheless be used to give a 'flavour' of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking and talking. 



For example: 
"Hit one, and the other will bleed. Ceolwulf only wears the king-helm because Guthrum's Vikings hold it on his head."

Here, I feel that king-helm is better than crown, and king-seat would be a better alternative to throne. (Even today, modern German is full of compound nouns.) Weapon-man is better than warrior; fyrdsman better than soldier. To continue giving a sense of time and place, in describing a royal vill and its layout, I used fowler's hut instead of mews.

Still, as authors we can't be sticklers; I'm not sure we would want novels set in Chaucer's time, for example, to have dialogue in impenetrable Middle English. 

I find that I can now hear my characters speaking in a way which is nothing like Old English, but is also not too modern sounding and I hope I’ve found a happy medium. Ultimately, then, it has to be a tale (not a story!) of authenticity (14th via Old French) versus truth (OE).

And if you don't agree, then have a read of this book and see if you still want to use only OE words:




You can find all my books in hardback, paperback* and Kindle format HERE


* Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is not yet available in paperback.

[a version of this article appeared on EHFA]

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Government in the Reigns of Edgar and Æthelred II

Last time I gave a brief overview of the events leading up to the reign of Æthelred the 'Unready', son of King Edgar.

Neither Edgar (959-975) nor his son Æthelred (978-1016) came to the throne free from controversy. Both of them succeeded their elder brothers, who reigned only briefly. King Eadwig succeeded his uncle in 955, while his brother Edgar was declared king in Mercia and the Danelaw. With the existence of two royal courts it seems likely that civil war was not far away when Eadwig died on 1st October 959. He had issued so many charters that a degree of irresponsibility is probable, and he had quarrelled with Abbot, later Archbishop, Dunstan and driven him into exile.


King Edgar

Æthelred was Edgar’s younger son, and succeeded his (step) brother Edward when he was murdered at Corfe. Throughout his reign he was never entirely able to escape from the fact that the murder had been committed for his sake. [See previous post here for the background to this incident.]



Æthelred II the 'Unready'

The youth of these kings produced an environment where faction could arise. Powerful ealdormen could be found influencing politics and the monarch, even changing the face of war, as was the case at the end of Æthelred’s reign.

This then was the political situation over which Edgar and Æthelred had to govern.

The king normally stayed in the south, and his presence in the north was made to be felt by his appointed ealdormen. Within the royal court there was a strict hierarchy, evidence of which comes from a scrutiny of the witness lists of Æthelred’s reign, where athelings, ealdormen, thegns and bishops subscribed in strict order of seniority. 


This order normally changed only when one subscriber died, but the witness lists of Æthelred’s reign show how powerful particular ealdormen could become. Eadric Streona headed the lists from 1009 x 12 to 1016, in the lifetime of other ealdormen who had once been his seniors. The king had no choice but to rely on these men for their cooperation and support, which was to some extent ensured by their attendance at the royal council, the witan, where laws were deliberated upon and promulgated.


The king with his witan

Edgar relied heavily on the bishops and abbots within the witan. He was the great patron of the monastic revival, overseen by bishops Oswald, Dunstan and Æthelwold. Many grants of land were made to the Church, and the ecclesiastical support thus ensured gave Edgar the means to check the power of the ealdormen. Oswald was given the triple-hundred* of Oswaldslow to the exclusion of Ælfhere of Mercia, and the leases of Oswald are an indication of his power. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 975 “Ealdorman Ælfhere had very many monasteries destroyed...” This action arose more out of political rivalry it seems, than anti-monasticism.

In contrast, the early years of Æthelred’s reign show him undoing much of Edgar’s work, with lands being taken away from religious foundations, such as Abingdon, Rochester and Winchester. Until 993 it seems that Æthelred was being led astray by ealdormen who took advantage of his youth and ignorance. Fortunately for the Church, these lands were restored after 993 when, with different ealdormen emerging, Æthelred was seen to mend his ways with the restoration of the privileges of Abingdon.


Charter of King Æthelred's

There was a long tradition of financial organisation in Anglo-Saxon England. In the tenth century traditional renders gave way to the Geld. The payment of Geld involved the handling of coinage; King Athelstan (924-939) decreed that each burh (borough/fortified town) would have a mint, and he attempted to limit the number of moneyers. Edgar reinforced this legislation in his own law codes. “There shall run one coinage throughout the realm.” [2] Every borough was expected to issue coinage.

Edgar’s reforms set the standard and the system was continued under Æthelred. During his reign there were more than 60 mints in operation. Of course, there was a great increase in the output of the mints at this time because of the payment of the Danegeld, something with which Edgar was not confronted. It was probably at the instigation of Archbishop Sigeric after Byrhtnoth of Essex was killed at Maldon (991), that the decision was taken to pay the Danes in the hope that they would go away.

“In this year it was decided to pay tribute to the Danes … on this occasion it amounted to £10,000. This course was adopted on the advice of Archbishop Sigeric.” [3]

The payment of the Danegeld indicates two things: the amount of fluid wealth in England and the capacity of the English to tap it.

Another form of taxation (albeit strictly a military tax) was the Ship Soke. Most of the evidence we have for this comes from the reign of Æthelred. The much-quoted entry for 1008 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that

 “In this year the king gave orders that ships should be speedily built throughout the whole England: namely one large warship was to be provided from every 300 hides, and a a cutter from every ten hides, while every eight hides were to provide a helmet and a corselet.”

Æthelred was reacting sensibly to the Danish threat, but there is evidence to suggest that this was no innovation. F.E. Harmer (Anglo-Saxon Writs) pointed out that in 1003/4 Archbishop Ælfric made a bequest of ships and H.P.R. Finberg [4] credited Edgar with the invention. He cited the Triple Hundred of Oswaldslow created by Edgar, and said that Edgar organised efficient naval patrols around the shores of Britain.

The origin of the Hundred is somewhat hazy. Most of what we know about this administrative unit is derived from a document known as the Hundred Ordinance. Dated somewhere between 939 and 960, the Ordinance is the subject of controversy among historians who are unable to agree upon its author. But the Ordinance was definitely in existence by Edgar’s reign. It decrees that the hundred court should meet every four weeks, and that each man should do justice to other men there. II&III Edgar reinforces the Ordinance, by stating that the borough court is to be held thrice a year and the shire court twice, and the hundred court is to be attended as was ‘previously established.’

Æthelred’s laws make frequent reference to the hundreds, in particular the importance of oath-taking. In III Æthelred, the ‘Wantage code’, which deals mainly with the Danelaw, we find what Finberg called the earliest known reference to the sworn jury of presentment: 
“and the twelve leading thegns … are to come forward and swear on the relics which are put forward into their hands that they will accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one.”
Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in IV Edgar, the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Niels Lund [5] said that the whole point of the letter is to notify the Danelaw that he wishes a new law to apply to all his kingdom, that he knows that this is a violation of their privileges but nevertheless he asks them to accept it. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw.

It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig.



King Eadwig


It has been said that Æthelred also recognised the validity of the Danelaw, but in fact his dealings with these provinces sharply contrast with those of Edgar. In IV Edgar the king is careful not to offend the Danes to whom he owes a great deal. Æthelred was not so subtle. Dorothy Whitelock suggested that he appointed to office men he had himself advanced, rather than men belonging to old established families. He was quick to seize lands in the Danelaw, for example those of the murdered Sigeferth and Morcar.

In the Wihtbordesstan code, sanctions against lawbreakers are left to be decided by the Danes, while Edgar and his councillors provide the rules for the rest of England.

“And it is my will that secular rights be in force among the Danes according to as good laws as they can best decide upon. Among the English, however, that is to be in force which I and my councillors have added to the decrees of my ancestors.”
A comparison of Æthelred’s Wantage and Woodstock codes, shows that Æthelred on the other hand, attempted to impose English law on the Danelaw. Known respectively as III and I Æthelred, these codes were issued at more or less the same time, Wantage being specifically for the Danelaw.

I Æthelred says, “If, however he (the accused) is of bad reputation, he shall go to the triple ordeal.”

III Æthelred says, “And each man frequently accused is to go to the triple ordeal and pay four-fold.”

Not only did Æthelred set out the sanctions he imposed in the Danelaw, but he took a portion of the fines as well. Fines in the Danelaw were heavier than elsewhere in the country. It has been said that these measures show how much Æthelred was firmly in control of the Danelaw. Lund argued that rather it shows how Æthelred was attempting to gain firm control. He had no reason to think that he could rely on the north for support.

On the contrary, he feared treachery, which led to his securing hostages from Northumbria in 991, and to the notorious massacre of St Brice’s day in 1002. His relations with the Danes are highlighted by the readiness with which the north accepted the Danish conquerors. The murdered Sigeferth and Morcar belonged to a northern family so powerful that Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside’s marriage to Sigeferth’s widow gained him enough power to become the accepted king of the Five Boroughs. [6] It was people like these whom Æthelred, in total contrast to Edgar, managed to alienate by his attempts to impose English law on them.



Edmund Ironside


Edgar’s was a peaceful reign, free from invasion. All he had to do was respect the Danelaw; he had already been shown their loyalty in 957. Æthelred on the other hand was plagued by raids from the sea. He had to pay tribute to the raiders from Denmark, and was never assured of the loyalty of the Danes in his own country. It is possible that Edgar introduced the Ship Soke, but it was certainly highlighted in Æthelred’s reign, because of the wretched situation in which he found himself. In short, the differences in the administration of these two kings stems from the difference in their reigns. One was always at peace; the other seemed permanently to be fighting off invasion.


[1] EHD (English Historical Documents) 1 113
[2] II&III Edgar 59-963 EHD 1 40
[3] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 991
[4] The Formation of England 550-1042
[5] King Edgar and the Danelaw, Med. Scand. 9
[6] The five main towns of the Danelaw: Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby

* Triple hundred - an area of land, three times the administrative unit of the hundred


(All above images are in the public domain)

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

King Edgar and his Earls: A Brief Overview

Ahead of an in-depth look at government in the reigns of King Edgar and his son, Æthelred the 'Unready', here's a brief overview of tenth-century politics:

In 937 King Athelstan was declared king of not only England but of the Scots and Irish too. For whatever reason - and there's been surprisingly little conjecture about this - he never married. It is usually suggested that he agreed not to marry so that the throne would pass to his half-brothers. Upon his death the throne passed very quickly to those two brothers and then, in 955, to his young nephew Eadwig who reigned for only four years and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar 'the peaceable'.



Athelstan's half-brother Eadred had subdued the Viking kingdom of York, chasing Erik Bloodaxe to his death atop Stainmore, and Edgar was able to rule a kingdom which was free from Viking attack and, ostensibly, united.

But Edgar's succession had only been possible by initially splitting the kingdom, with the old kingdom of Mercia allying itself to him against his brother in Wessex. Nature abhors a vacuum; so too, it seems, does human nature. Anglo-Saxon history now becomes one not of warring kingdoms and marauding invaders, but in-fighting, back-stabbing, and courtly intrigue.

Putting aside the unfortunate but very timely (for some) death of Eadwig at the age of just 19, Edgar's court soon filled up with men seeking favour, power, wealth and influence. Edgar was young - 14 or 15 - and seemingly pious; one of the first acts of his reign was to recall the exiled abbot, Dunstan, who had been banished by Eadwig. The story famously goes that Dunstan caught Eadwig frolicking in bed on his coronation day with his wife and her mother. It wasn't long before Dunstan became bishop of Worcester - he eventually became archbishop of Canterbury - and Edgar supported him and the bishops  Æthelwold and Oswald in their reform of the monasteries as they attempted to establish uniform adherence to the Rule of St Benedict. 

The old kingdoms had transmuted into earldoms and the earls of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became the first 'over-mighty barons'. The old kingdoms might have vanished but tribal sensibilities and border disputes had not (the Mercians, particularly, had rallied behind a nationalist flag when they rose up in support of Edgar).

The Churchmen had the chroniclers on their side, but there is some evidence which points to their feathering their own nests, taking land unlawfully, and there is an account of Archbishop Oswald feasting royally in his abbey at Ramsey while outside, folk starved, unable to pay the food rents owed to the Church.


Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse - David Deardon
(nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon abbey). Attribution



The earls of East Anglia were members of what amounted to a dynasty, descended from a man whose epithet "Half-king" tells all we need to know about his power.


The earl of Mercia, Ælfhere, was a minor member of the royal family and equally well-connected. Notoriously tempestuous, he took exception to the bishop of Worcester's increasingly frequent attempts to establish centres of power and authority within his earldom. That same bishop, Oswald, also illegally held in duality the archbishopric of York, and thus trod on the toes of the earl of Northumbria, too. That earl, Oslac, was banished in 975, although we are not told why.

Bickering was kept to a minimum by Edgar. Strong, cocksure, he played the factions against one another and inspired devotion from them all. He recognised the Danelaw, he built up the fleet, and was famously rowed along the River Dee by several kings who bowed in homage to him.


But he, too, died young, although not childless. He left two sons - a third had died in infancy - but his marital history is rather difficult to unravel. Some say he had three wives, some two, but what is clear is that his surviving sons were half, not full brothers. One, Edward, was the son of - in my view - Wulfthryth, whose status was unclear and who was the subject of much gossip by the later chroniclers, some of whom thought she was a nun who had been seduced by the king. The other son was Æthelred, born to Edgar's anointed queen, Ælfthryth.

A charter from Edgar's reign shows clearly that Ælfthryth's elder son, who died in infancy, had taken precedence over Edward, but it was Edward who initially succeeded his father, reigning for three years, although he was not universally loved, or supported. 

The factions divided, with the Church and the East Anglians supporting the firstborn son, Edward, while Ælfhere of Mercia supported the queen, whose son had been born 'in the purple'. What followed has been labelled the 'anti-monastic reaction' but was essentially a politically-driven righting of perceived wrongs.

And there it might have ended, with squabbling and a few land-grabs. But someone, and many pointed fingers at the queen, decided to remove Edward from the scene. Permanently.


And so the years of 'peace' had seen the growth of politics, self-serving nobles and the development of sharp elbows in the corridors of power. Now, the king of England was  Æthelred. He was young, he was badly-counselled, (as Christopher Brooke puts it, "Dissidence and half-suppressed revolt ... in Æthelred's time now walked openly") and the Vikings were getting ready to sail again. So many young, strong, and politically astute Anglo-Saxon kings had died young, while Æthelred was to live long enough to see all their hard work unravel, in spectacular fashion.

Next time: Government in the reigns of Edgar and Æthelred II

If you want more about Ælfhere, and the Mercians generally, today (30 April 2019) my history of Mercia is available in the US.


Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Military Service in Tenth-Century England

Last time I talked about duties and obligations in tenth-century England; today I'm concentrating on military service.

Æthelred II (the 'Unready')

Land granted by the king was known as ‘bookland’ and was absolved from all service with the exception of three. According to a grant by King Edgar (959-975) [1] those three things were: fixed military service, the restoration of bridges, and of fortresses. A grant by Æthelred II (979-1016) [2] calls for national military service, the construction of fortresses and the restoration of bridges. The Thegn’s law [3] tells us that:

“He be entitled to his book right, and that he shall contribute three things in respect of his land: armed service, and the repairing of fortresses and work upon bridges. Also in respect of many estates further services arise on the king’s order, … equipping a guardship, and guarding the coast, and guarding the lord, and military watch …”

The king was prepared to grant away rights privileges but not, it seems, his right to military service. The exact nature of the service is not stipulated, but it must have been important. Archbishop Wulfstan and Ælfric the Homilist divided Anglo-Saxon society into three orders: those who fight, those who labour, and those who pray. Does this mean that the aristocracy was a warrior class? The nobility was required to provide military equipment [4] and there can be no doubt that a substantial part of their service was of a military nature.


A charter of King Æthelred II

Just as the heriot (war gear) varied according to rank, so the military service requirement differed for men of varying resources. The king had at his disposal his household troops.* Mercenaries were employed, (the career of Thorkell the Tall is evidence of this) but in essence the composition of the fyrd was based on a territorial levy. The requirement was for one man from every five hides of land. Service was basically for sixty days, in a system of rotation, but only in times of war. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 920 tells us that “when this division of the English levies went home, the other came out on military service and occupied the fortress at Huntington.” [5] A landowner with more than five hides of land would be responsible for providing the requisite number of men.

A fine was payable for neglect of military service, and this ‘fyrd-wite’ was set at around forty shillings per man. Commutation, a payment in lieu of service, was lower, at around twenty shillings per obligation. A thegn liable to service could have his lands confiscated if he defaulted. [6] This did not necessarily mean that a thegn had to fight. He could send the required number of men without going himself; he would still be fulfilling his obligation.

Mention is made of two types of fyrd (army), the select fyrd and the great fyrd. The distinction between the two might have been thus: the select fyrd consisted of soldiers who fought in battle, and the great fyrd may have been the back-up, repairing bridges and fortresses. [7]

The expensive equipment of the ealdormen, king’s thegns and the lesser thegns would have set the aristocracy apart from the ordinary fighting ceorl. The poem, The Battle of Maldon, describes the ornate trappings of a nobleman in battle:

“An armed man then went to the Earl,
Wanting to strip him of his armbands, armour,
Ring-mail and ornate sword.”



The battlefield from the air - Terry Joyce
terry joyce / Northey Island / CC BY-SA 2.0

Clearly the nobility who fought did so with expensive war gear, but to fight was not their only obligation. As landlords, they were responsible for the organisation, summoning and assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the essential organisation to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estates.

The military crisis precipitated by the resumption of  Danish raiding served to place emphasis on the fighting role of the thegn. But was the aristocracy a warrior class?

Their military equipment set them apart in wealth and status from the rank and file, and their bookland was held from the king immune from all except military service. Yet if this was a warrior aristocracy one would expect to see them holding their land as a reward for military service, and their status deriving from their military rank. This was clearly not the case; that land was not held as reward for military service is a major stumbling block for any historian trying to prove that pre-Conquest England was feudal.

Land was granted for many reasons. King Æthelred II granted Æthelwig land because he did not wish to sadden him. [8] Apart from his being a servant of the king there seems to be no other reason for the grant. A ceorl could amass all the weapons of a thegn and still remain a ceorl if he did not possess five hides of land. [9] Land remained the source of wealth and the indicator of status. Military service was an important part of a nobleman’s duties but, as we have seen, it was only one of many. [10] One might also expect that in times of peace less emphasis would be placed on the thegn as a warrior than in times of war.

*During the time of Cnut, the household troops were referred to as housecarls. Cnut’s reign was not in the tenth-century, though, and Nicholas Hooper’s article [11] provides, for me, compelling argument to suggest that the housecarl differed little from the English thegn.

[1] Grant by King Edgar to his thegn Ælfwold 969 EHD (English historical Documents) 113 p519
[2] Grant by King Æthelred to his thegn Æthelwig 992-995 EHD 117 p525
[3] Origins of English Feudalism 61 p145 “The Rights and Ranks of People”
[4] For more on this, see my article on Defining the Nobility in Later Anglo-Saxon England
[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A) 921 (920)
[6] This point is discussed by DJV Fisher in the Anglo-Saxon Age Ch13
[7] See Warren Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Institutions. There is also a possibility that the Select fyrd served locally, and that the Great fyrd was the national army
[8] EHD 117 p525
[9] See HR Loyn The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p167
[10] See last times’s article on duties and responsibilities HERE
[11] The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century - N Hooper

(Above illustrations - public domain unless otherwise accredited)

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Duties and Obligations in Tenth-Century England

Placing oneself under the protection of a lord was a solemn and ceremonious affair. In England it took the form of a hold-oath, or fealty oath. The physical act of bowing was accompanied by the oath:

By the lord before whom this relic is holy, I will be to N [name of lord] faithful and true, and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to God’s law, and according to secular custom; and never, willingly or intentionally, by word or by work, do aught of what is loathful to him, on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfil that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” [1]

Essentially this is a negative commitment, a promise not to act against the lord’s interests. Nevertheless, a personal bond of this nature carried with it certain positive obligations.

For the king’s thegn, lord and king were the same person. A thegn whose lord was not the king still had a duty to the monarch. (It should be remembered that the king’s title was cynehlaford or lord-king.) Thegns in turn would have men who called them lord. The role of lordship entailed a dual responsibility, that of serving one’s lord, and that of protecting one’s men.

The king with his witan
The king was ever mindful of the need to control his ealdormen. Their attendance at the royal council was one way of ensuring their co-operation, and failure to attend a summons to the witan was punished severely. The witan had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king, and at times it acted on its own; following the death of a king the election process for his successor was carried through in the witan. It was in the royal council that the laws were promulgated. Its members met indoors, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how, in 978, “the leading councillors of England fell down from an upper storey at Calne, all except the holy Archbishop Dunstan, who alone remained standing on a beam.” [2] Business transacted in the witan included general, financial and judicial matters. Essentially though, its function was as a deliberative and consultative body.

Saint Dunstan


The test of royal authority is how effectively it is felt in the localities. The law codes abound with directions to individual ealdormen to ensure that laws are enforced. King Edgar commanded that:

Earl Oslac and all the host that dwell in his ealdormanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Ælfhere and ealdorman Æthelwine, and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [3]

King Edgar

There is some evidence to suggest that the ealdormen disliked the king’s reeves (administrative officials). A breach of the law by a reeve could only be dealt with by the king [4] and when Æthelred II adopted the policy of appointing reeves instead of ealdormen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1002 Ealdorman Leofsige slew Ælfric, the king’s high-reeve. The grant of Æthelred’s explains why these men were disliked. The reeve broke the law by giving Christian burial to those who had forfeited the right. Instead of punishing him, Æthelred granted the reeve their land. To the ealdormen it must have seemed that the reeves were above the law.

Naturally the king’s officials were instrumental in the enforcement of law and order, and their duties included presiding over the shire and hundred courts. The Hundred Ordinance [5] directs that the hundred court is to meet every four weeks. II&III Edgar acknowledges this and states that the borough court is to be held three times a year and the shire court twice a year. It also succinctly sets out the duty of those presiding over the courts:

And the bishop of the diocese and the ealdormen are to be present, and there to expound both the ecclesiastical and the secular law.” [6]

The shire court was unspecialised in the tenth-century, and did not develop into a full royal court until after the Norman conquest. It had a variety of functions, including procedures in outlawry. [7] It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, and the shire-reeve gradually became recognised at the chief executive royal officer.

The hundred court met on an appointed day, and anyone who failed to appear had to pay thirty shillings compensation. Each man was to do justice to another. Great concern was shown over theft. Compensation had to be paid to the victim; half of the offender’s remaining property went to the hundred, and half to the lord. Æthelred II’s reign saw an emphasis placed on the importance of oath-taking, and the origins of the jury of presentment.

The twelve leading thegns are to come forward and swear on the relics … that they will accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one.” He who pronounced a wrong judgement could forfeit his thegnly status, and “A sentence where the thegns are unanimous is to be valid.”

The importance of all courts was to provide a place where good witness could be obtained. King Edgar ordered thirty-six witnesses in each borough, and twelve in each hundred. [9]

Æthelred II

By the middle of the tenth-century it was becoming customary for lords - ecclesiastical or lay - to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Many hundreds fell into private hands; a lord often had considerable rights here and in his own lands. The grants were usually laid down in the charters as rights of “sake and soke”, these being rights of jurisdiction and to the profits of justice. 

A charter of Æthelred II
This usually meant the control of a court. These rights were not granted lightly, and were really intended to emphasise royal authority rather than to weaken it. Grants of rights over a hundred court involved financial advantages, and the right to appoint hundredmen. HR Loyn suggested that the sheriffs (shire-reeves) played an important part in preventing the disintegration of royal power as private jurisdiction grew. [10] Landowners exercised other specific rights on their estates. They had a right to impose a toll on goods sold within the estate, the right (known as team) to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale belonged to the vendor, and the right (infangenetheof) to hang a thief caught on the estate.

The nobility served the king, and were granted lands and privileges as a reward for that service. As lords they could expect service from their own men, and in turn they had a duty to protect those who called them ‘lord’.

(Next time - the obligations of military service)

[1] Origins of English Feudalism 59 p145 - Of Oaths (c.1920)
[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 978
[3] IV Edgar 15. & 15.1
[4] EHD (English historical Documents) 117 p525
[5] This document is often called I Edgar, but was possibly written before Edgar’s reign. It was definitely in existence during Edgar’s reign.
[6] II&III Edgar 5.2
[7] HR Loyn - The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p138
[8] III Æthelred 3.1 & 13.2
[9] IV Edgar 4. & 5.
[10] HR Loyn Op Cit p163. By 1086 approx. 130 hundreds were in private hands.

All images used above are copyright free in the Public Domain

Ealdormen Ælfhere, Æthelwine and Oslac appear along with Kings Edgar and Æthelred in Alvar the Kingmaker



Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Winchcombe & Its Anglo-Saxon History

Winchcombe is a pretty Cotswold town, not far from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. Walking or driving along its main street, one can immediately see that it has history.




Quaint cottages nestle side by side, the yellow stone seeming to soak up and yet reflect the sunlight. But the history of Winchcombe goes much further than these old buildings would suggest. In fact, at one time, there was a separate 'county' of Winchcombeshire.

The town lies in what was once the ancient tribeland of the Hwicce, an area which was absorbed into the greater area of Mercia, but which originally had its own kings. These kings gradually had their status reduced, eventually issuing and witnessing royal charters as sub-kings of Mercia.



Osric, Sub-king of the Hwicce, founder of Gloucester Cathedral

Winchcombe first made the 'headlines' in the eighth century, when Cenwulf became king of Mercia. Cenwulf succeeded after the death of Ecgfrith, son of Offa. Ecgfrith's reign was short - a matter of some five months - and Cenwulf had no direct links with the previous kings. It is possible that he was descended from a sister of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, but equally he may have been connected to the Hwicce, for he made claims to 'hereditary lands' in the heart of the Hwiccian territory.

Cenwulf was no less a warlord than previous kings, and in 801 he was attacked by the king of Northumbria. He also, notoriously, captured the king of Kent, who went by the name of Eadberht Præn. Cenwulf put his own brother on the Kentish throne, thus bringing the kingdom of Kent under direct Mercian control.

But Cenwulf's hold on Kent was weakened by his long-running dispute with the archbishop of Canterbury, and it is perhaps this for which he is most remembered. His argument centred around Kentish minsters and the question of whether there should be lay control of ecclesiastical lands. Cenwulf went so far as to threaten to exile the archbishop unless the matter was resolved, and the dispute involved not only Cenwulf, but his daughter, too.


Carving of Cenwulf at Winchombe
Cwoenthryth was not only the daughter of the king, but she was an abbess too. She was the first abbess of Winchcombe Abbey, and her father had also appointed her abbess of the royal minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet in Kent. The arguments about whether Church or State should control these lucrative sites rumbled on. Some believed that the archbishop even forged documents to support his case.

When Cenwulf died (he was buried at Winchcombe), Cwoenthryth was named as his heir. This doesn't mean that she succeeded to the throne, but that she inherited his property, which included the minsters. The Councils of Clofesho* debated her right not to be an abbess, but to own the abbeys themselves. The councils found in favour of the archbishop, but Cwoenthryth was allowed to remain as abbess and retained possession of Winchcombe, although she had to surrender the lands in Kent.

There is a legend surrounding her, which may or may not have something to do with her long-running dispute with the Church. According to this legend, she arranged to have her young brother Kenelm murdered because she wanted to be queen. A dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peters in Rome, alerting people to the whereabouts of the body, which was then re-interred with all ceremony at Winchcombe. The story goes that when she saw the funeral procession, she recited a psalm backwards in order to cast a spell, and her eyeballs promptly fell out, splattering the psalter in front of her with blood.

Winchcombe Abbey fell into decline in the latter part of the ninth century, and in the tenth it was reformed as part of the Benedictine Monastic Reformation in Edgar's reign, when the clerks were replaced with Benedictine monks.

In the eleventh century, Winchcombe was once again in the 'news'. One of the most reviled earls of Mercia went by the name of Eadric Streona - whose epithet has been translated as 'the Grasper' - and it is possible that part of his notoriety stemmed from his treatment of Winchcombeshire. By this time, Mercia was no longer a kingdom, but its earls were still powerful men, ruling vast areas of land.

Eadric made his career in politics and warfare, and famously vacillated at crucial moments. He was accused more than once of murder, and he was a notorious turncoat. Supposedly on the side of Æthelred the Unready - he was married to the king's daughter - he went over to Cnut's side, changed his mind to fight with Edmund Ironside - son of Æthelred - before once again changing sides and leading his men from the battlefield at a pivotal moment in 1016, ensuring that Cnut had the victory over Edmund. After this it was agreed that the country be divided between the two, but Edmund died shortly afterwards, and Eadric's family were, according to some sources, involved in that death, too.

A page from Hemming's Cartulary
But it seems that Eadric's nickname, which might more accurately be translated as 'Acquisitive' came from his administrative dealings. Hemming, a monk of Worcester, compiled what has come to be known as Hemming's Cartulary, and in it, Hemming reports that ‘He [Eadric] joined townships to townships and shires to shires at will; it was he who amalgamated the hitherto independent county of Winchcombe with the county of Gloucester.’


There has been huge and long-standing debate about when and how the shires of Mercia came into being. The old territories such as that of the Hwicce disappeared, with new boundary lines cut through traditional areas. Whether or not Eadric can be blamed for this, it is clear that Hemming thought him to be a grasping man, acquiring lands at the Church's expense to line his own pockets, and local men would have no cause to remember Eadric fondly.

So Mercia's status had been reduced from that of kingdom to that of ealdordom and then earldom, and the independent county of Winchcombeshire was no more. There is no trace left of the original abbey building, although it is said that stones from the abbey have been incorporated into other buildings in the town, and some of the stones are housed in a collection at nearby Sudeley Castle.

If you are immune to nettle stings and don't mind climbing steep hills, you can visit St Kenelm's Well, a site where the funeral procession rested before the little murdered king, Kenelm, was buried at Winchcombe. But your intrepid researcher has done all that for you:-




So, instead, take a walk through the pretty town of Winchcombe and wonder where the stones of the once famous abbey now hide within the walls of the newer buildings.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author. Illustration of Hemming's Cartulary is a Public Domain image via Wikipedia] * Clofesho has never been conclusively identified.


Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available from Amazon and Amberley Publishing


To read about the mother of Æthelred the Unready, a woman who was also accused of murder, check out Alvar the Kingmaker



And for details of my other books,
find me HERE