Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Today’s post is part of a new series up here on the blog, in which I examine the societal structure of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. Last week I introduced the series, and this week I present Part 2, in which we will look at the top of the heap, the kings (and queens). Subsequent posts will follow in the New Year, but not one after the other. So keep your eyes open!


 

In the seventh century, Britain was very much an agricultural society. People lived in “holdings” – a plot of land in which they farmed and raised livestock. Everyone was engaged in this activity, from kings on down to the commoners. Of course, the further “up the ladder” you were in social standing,  the more land you would own and the more you would be able to fob off all the hard work to others.

Naturally, the kings were at the top of the social structure. How they got there, however, may not be as cut and dry as you might think. One fascinating fact about kingship at this time is that succession to the kingship of the various kingdoms did not necessarily depend upon familial ties. In other words, if you were the oldest son of a king, that didn’t  necessarily mean that you would take over as king when your father died.

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Beautiful icon of Oswald, King of Northumbria, available at ByzantineArt

This is because the Anglo-Saxons were warrior kings. A king had to prove himself a worthy warrior to become a king.* When one king was killed in battle (which was the usual and preferred way for a king to die) the king’s closest advisors, consisting of the highest ranked of the nobility and clerical class, would elect a new king. This group of advisors was called the Witan, although there is some dispute about that term today. But for the sake of ease, I will use that term.

Generally, of course, the Witan would choose the new king from the surviving family members of the old king. But the new regent had to be wary, for the Witan could also dispose of a king they felt was unworthy to rule. This happened only rarely, but it did happen nonetheless, and the new king had to keep this in the back of his mind. He had to win the favour of the Witan in order to keep his throne, and he would do that by showing his prowess in battle and showering his warriors with land, battle booty, and other honours.

The Witan would meet at least once a year, and always at the pleasure of the king. It did not have a fixed place to meet, but would happen wherever the king happened to be. At this meeting, called a witenagemot,  laws would be discussed, complaints could be heard, the king would endow people with land or titles, etc.

While not at battle, the king would spend much time travelling his kingdom and accepting foodrent, or feorm, from his subjects. The king had various royal vills, places he would go to during his tours of the kingdom, and it was there that the peasants would bring their feorm to the king. The amounts were based on how much land the peasant farmed, the basic unit being one hide, which was the amount of land needed to support one family. It would include things like honey, loaves of bread, ale, livestock, butter, cheese, and even eels (which seem to be a staple in the Anglo-Saxon diet. Eeww.). In return, the king was expected to keep good order in the kingdom, and deal with the mundane business of keeping roads and bridges in order. The king would have underlings who would do this work for him, of course. He would also take part in judging of legal cases, and also craft new laws of his own, all with the aim of keeping the kingdom working smoothly.

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Yeavering Bell, Northumberland. Located at the northern edge of the Cheviots, near the border of today’s Scotland, this was the site of one of the royal vills of the Bernician kings. At that time it was called Ad Gerfin (“hill of the goats”, for the wild goats that still populate the area). The faint line at the top of the hill marks the site of an Iron Age hilltop fort, the Anglo-Saxon settlement was on the other side of the hill, on a flattened area.  This was an important residence for the Bernician kings, a centre of power in the northern edge of their kingdom. A Roman style auditorium is part of the complex, and you can just imagine Oswald or Oswy holding court, surrounded by his loyal subjects. Image from Wikicommons.

Because his standing as a king depended on how generous he was with his loyal retainers, kings at this time spent a lot of time fighting, as this was the way they expanded their territories and gained treasure. The battles could be small ones; border skirmishes or minor raids into another’s territory. Or, they could be major battles, in which they deposed another king and expanded their own territory even further. It is because of this that most of the kings of this time died in battle, rather than of old age or infirmity. In Anglo-Saxon culture, dying in battle was the ultimate way to die for a warrior. Honour and loyalty to your lord was paramount, even to the extent that if your king died in battle, it was seen as cowardice if you did not die in battle beside him.

At the beginning of the seventh century there were twelve kingdoms, and by the ninth there were only four. This is due to the various kings conquering one another and amalgamating territory into bigger and bigger areas. Of course, although highly important, warfare was not the only way in which kings gained territory and expanded their kingdoms. There was also the tried and true method of treaties and marriage negotiations, whereby a king might marry the daughter or sister or other female relative of a neighbouring king, and/or negotiate treaties with them instead of going to war. War was expensive, and when it involved large numbers of men, it involved a lot of disruption for the ordinary people who would be called up to fight for the king. This would usually be in the summer, when they would rather be making sure they had enough food to eat for the winter.

The Anglo-Saxons had a patriarchal society, so, although women did have freedoms and power that we might find surprising in comparison with women in the later medieval period, the Anglo-Saxon queens were generally not rulers in their own right, nor were they regents on behalf of a under-age son. If a king was killed in battle, the surviving wife and children would often have to flee and seek shelter elsewhere, so that they would not be killed by the new king who would not want them around as usurpers. This is why Oswald and Oswy and their brothers were sent to exile among the Scots (Irish) of Dal Riata after their father Aethelfrith was killed in battle and Edwin took over the Bernician throne.

But the Queens were no milquetoasts, either. Generally they were daughters of kings and held influence and power of their own. And they were definitely not above getting involved in the politics of the day in order to further their husband’s or son’s or father’s ambitions, even, in some cases, going to the extreme. Penda of Mercia’s son, Peada, ruler of Middle Anglia, was said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been murdered through the treachery of his Northumbrian wife (King Oswy’s daughter, Alhflaed. Perhaps at the instigation of her father? Who knows, but it’s interesting to speculate!).

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Cynethryth was the wife of Offa of Mercia (757-796 AD). She seemed to have a considerable amount of influence, and her husband even had coins struck in her name, one of the very few medieval women to have this honour. Image from Medieval Girl

All in all, a king had a better standard of living than the common people, but his life was often cut short by war. A bit of a trade-off, I suppose. But one that most commoners would be willing to make, if given the chance!


*Another important qualification for kingship at this time was that the potential king’s  family lineage could be traced back to the god, Woden. Interestingly, this was important for pagan and Christian kings alike.

Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage

 

Posts in this series: 

Society News: Introduction 

10 thoughts on “Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

  1. Really interesting’ as usual.

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  2. I loved this post. I learned the word witenagemot, which is behind the Harry Potter council/high court, Wizengamot. I got the flavour of the region at the time. And I also had to challenge my own sense of the English-Scottish isle as an imaginary country–a territory that could be ruled.
    And, in that expansive scenery of northern England, why wouldn’t warriors just pass along beside the fort at night, a few miles away? Dishonour? Impractical?
    Boy, having a dragon would make warfare easier at the time!

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    • L.A. Smith says:

      Thanks! I didn’t know the Harry Potter connection, as I haven’t read HP yet (hangs head in shame). I suppose warriors could pass by at night but normally people didn’t travel at night unless they were up to no good, and so they would likely to be challenged by those watching from the hilltop, if they got too close! I did read also that the landscape at the time around the hill was quite boggy at places, so it would be hard to sneak around if you were not on the established road. It’s a spectacular spot, with gorgeous scenery the reward for those who hike to the top. Another place for my bucket list! Agree with you about the dragons. A flying beast would definitely come in handy…if you could tame one!

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      • Yes, we have spoken of that shame! But it looks like Rowling did some digging to find that name.
        Thanks for filling in the details of my blurry past memory. I wonder if aerial photography (like, X-raying the ground) is helpful for recreating the past.

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      • L.A. Smith says:

        Yes! Aerial photography is used a lot to discover outlines of buildings, etc. It’s really amazing what can be seen from the air. They can also use technology which can see under the surface, but I forget what that is called. 🙂

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  3. Steve says:

    Thanks for this. A book you may like, if you have not already read it, is Mayr-Harting, Henry. 1991. The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. London: Batsford.

    Referring to Anglo-Saxon “Britain” may be a bit misleading. England would be better, since the Anglo-Saxons did not rule the whole island of Britain.

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    • L.A. Smith says:

      Oh, thanks for the recommendation. Definitely interested, and I haven’t read that one. And also thanks for the clarification…the whole “naming” thing is so tricky. I guess I was defaulting to “Britain” as I don’t think “England” as a name was used at that time to refer to the island as a whole by the people who lived there…so I have been defaulting to the Roman “Britannia” (Britain) which at least would have been known at the time. Having said that, however, I’m not sure individual people would have been too concerned about the name for the whole island as they were most concerned about their own little part – Bernicia, Deira, etc,. But you are right, I do believe that historians today would refer back to that time/place as A/S England.

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  4. Sorry I haven’t been around in a while. Things have been pulling me from all ends. Anyway, I really liked this post, but I have a question. When did British rules of succession change from the Witan choosing the next king to the next king being the previous King’s oldest male child by default?

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    • L.A. Smith says:

      We all get busy, so no worries! Glad you stopped by again. The process of picking the next ruler of England definitely shifted once the Normans took over, but they were probably shifting a bit previous to that, under the Viking invasions. I’m not really certain about that, to be honest, as I have focussed my study on pre-Vikings Britain. But as the Vikings invaded and took over more and more territory there were not a lot of Anglo-Saxon kings left until Alfred took a stand and began to reclaim some territory and make some alliances with the Northmen. At least that’s my limited understanding of it all!

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  5. […] Society News: The Kings (and Queens) […]

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