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



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