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.
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.
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!).
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
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