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)