Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Cnut

Wealth, Power and Influence in Later Anglo-Saxon England

The great magnates of Anglo-Saxon England were not poor men. Land has always been the most recognisable sign of wealth, and these men had plenty of it. The amount of land which a pre-Conquest nobleman could amass can be seen clearly in the case of Harold Godwineson. [1] As well as their own family lands, such men could hold land from their lord as reward for service. Bookland, as it was called, was originally granted by the king to his thegns with an ecclesiastical purpose in mind. By the tenth-century, however, land was being booked without any pretence that it would go to endow a church. Many thegns and ealdormen were benefactors of religious houses though – Wulfric Spott founded Burton Abbey, Athelstan ‘Half-king’, ealdorman of East Anglia 932-956, used his wife’s lands to form the nucleus of the large endowment of Ramsey Abbey, [2] and Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia 956-983, cited in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle as the destroyer of monasteries, [3] was a great friend to the religious houses at Glastonbury and Abingdon.

Dunstan – one time abbot of Glastonbury

The nature of the land grants varied little, and each one set out the conditions under which the land was booked. King Edgar granted to his thegn, Aelfwold, land at Kineton in Warwickshire as

“an eternal inheritance … and after the conclusion of his life (he may) leave it unburdened to whatsoever heirs he shall wish. Also the aforesaid estate is to be free from every yoke of earthly service except three, namely fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses.” [4]

It was not only the king who granted land. Oswald, bishop of Worcester, sets out the conditions under which he has granted his land in his letter to King Edgar. [5]

“That they shall fulfil the whole law of riding as riding men should and that they shall pay in full … church Scot and Toll. In addition they shall lend horses, they shall ride themselves, and, moreover, be ready to build bridges, … they shall always be subject to the authority and will of that archiductor who presides over the bishopric…”

King Edgar

The will of Wulfric Spott [6] is a fine example of the extent of lands in the possession of an influential thegn. He had lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, estates in Shropshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The will also refers to lands in South Lancashire and Cheshire.

The family of Wulfric Spott was one of the most influential and powerful of its day, with branches linked to the royal family and a regular involvement in power struggles and political rivalry. Wulfric Spott’s brother, Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was murdered in 1006, and his sons Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded. Wulfheah was one of the prominent ministri during the period when Aethelred II (Unready) was restoring royal favour to the Church (see below).

It is easy to believe that Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia 1007-1017, was Aelfhelm’s murderer. His rise to power certainly would not have been hindered by the removal of such prominent men who had surrounded the king. The rivalry does not seem to have stopped there, for Eadric is named as the murderer of the thegns Sigeferth and Morcar.

These brothers were members of this same family; Morcar was married to Wulfric Spott’s niece. There is a possibility that they were related to King Aethelred through his marriage to the daughter of Thored of Northumbria.

Vacillating between the causes of Edmund Ironside and Cnut in the war of 1015-16, Eadric was playing a dangerous game. Edmund had defied his father, Aethelred II (Unready), and married Sigeferth’s widow, thereby gaining the allegiance of the northern Danelaw. Cnut’s English wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, was the daughter of the murdered Aelfhelm, and the cousin of Ealdgyth, Morcar’s widow. It is also possible that this family was connected to that of Leofwine, who held Eadric’s ealdordom after the latter’s death. His son succeeded him, and his son Aelfgar married Aelfgifu who may have been the daughter of Ealdgyth and Morcar. So far, so confusing!

Encomium Emmae Reginae

But the Encomium Emmae Reginae shows us how important this family really was. It was written for Cnut’s second wife Emma, as a propaganda exercise for the claims of her son Harthacnut, and in Book III it denies that Harald is Cnut’s son. This in itself is not enough to refute Harald’s claims, and the Encomium further denies that he is Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son. Clearly his position as her son is important. If Emma denies that he is of this family, then she is not attacking them. The importance of Aelfgifu’s kinship is clear, and Emma does not wish to offend this great family.

Cnut with his sons Harald and Harthacnut

A simple equation which has always held true is that wealth equals power. King Aethelred II was called ‘Unraed’ because he was badly counselled. It is certainly true that for much of his reign he was guided by councillors acting in their own interests. The 980s were a period which Aethelred came later to regret. Many churches were deprived of their lands; an Abingdon estate was acquired by a king’s reeve, and Rochester was besieged. Aethelsige, one of the five most prominent men at this time, was responsible for the damage done at Rochester. The king himself admitted that this was a period when he was being manipulated by a group of men who, taking advantage of his youth, were acting in their own interests at the expense of various churches. In the next decade the prominent men were associated with the monastic cause and royal generosity to the Church was re-established.

The king needed his councillors and officials. He rarely acted without the consent of the witan (council). Royal authority could only be made to be felt throughout the kingdom through the king’s representatives. Yet it was all too easy for these men to become too powerful. The king rarely strayed from the south, and to the inhabitants of England north of the Humber, royal authority was remote.

Northumbria was never free from the Scandinavian threat, and the eorls (as they were called in the north) often had to deal with this problem on their own. It must have been difficult to trust them, but many thegns were encouraged to acquire estates in areas settled by the Danes, to help break down the isolation of the north. Another policy instigated was that of appointing archbishops to York who had sees elsewhere. This pluralism was designed to ensure ecclesiastical loyalty, and would also help to bring Northumbria out of isolation. Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. The ealdormen, if they wished to assert themselves, had to establish links in order to gain and retain control, and at times this must have looked suspiciously like treachery. Poor communications also did nothing to alleviate the danger of an over-concentration of power in too few aristocratic hands.

King Aethelred II

During the reign of King Alfred, ealdormen usually controlled single shires, but as the West Saxon kingdom expanded the ealdormen were given greater responsibility. Athelstan of East Anglia’s nickname ‘Half-king’ demonstrates how powerful these men could become. His ealdordom included East Anglia proper (Norfolk and Suffolk), Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, north-east Northamptonshire, and he probably governed the whole of the eastern Danelaw. [7] He kept his ealdordom under such control that Kings Edmund and Eadred were able to recover first the northern Danelaw, then Northumbria, and finally to conquer Strathclyde.

It is not surprising to discover that men like these did not always work together in complete harmony. The anti-monastic reaction which followed the death of Edgar in 975 found ealdormen Aelfhere and Aethelwine on opposing sides in the succession dispute. Doubtless Aelfhere was antagonised by the triple-hundred of Oswaldslow which had encroached upon his area of authority, but it has been suggested [8] that he had other, more personal reasons for opposing Aethelwine’s and Dunstan’s support of Edward; namely that Aethelwine’s ealdordom was East Anglia, and this meant East Anglia proper, Essex, and the shires which had at one time been the eastern part of the old kingdom of Mercia, and were still called Mercian in the tenth-century. Aelfhere, Aethelwine and Eorl Oslac of Northumbria were the most influential ealdormen of their day. Ambition and power perhaps inevitably cause conflict.

Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Thorkell the Tall, a Danish invader turned mercenary of Aethelred II, became the leading secular lord of Cnut’s reign. He was made governor of Denmark for a time and guardian of the king’s son. Cnut’s letter to the people of England [9] instructs Earl Thorkell to deal with those who defy the laws. Dorothy Whitelock* suggested that this was because the letter was sent to him from Denmark by Cnut and that Thorkell was acting as regent in Cnut’s absence. Power and trust indeed for a man who had earlier fought on the side of the English. Doubtless this was the kind of reward Eadric Streona had been seeking to secure himself when he changed sides during the war of 1015-16. He, of course, was not so fortunate. [10]

It is interesting to note that open conflict only occurred in times of unrest, for example during the succession dispute of 975, or the war of 1015-16. Athelstan ‘Half-king’ was loyal, as we have seen; Aelfhere of Mercia was invaluable to King Edgar when he was trying to assert himself as king of the Mercians. Only after Edgar’s death did Aelfhere’s resentment manifest itself. The king may have been ill-served upon occasion, and there is some doubt as to the effectiveness of the reeves as checks against the power of the ealdormen, but there was nothing in England to compare with the rise to power of the Capetians in France, and royal authority was never seriously challenged by the servants of the crown.

[1] Ann Williams – Harold Godwineson Battle 80
[2] CR Hart (in Anglo-Saxon England 2)- Athelstan Half-king and his Family
[3] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 975
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) 113 page 519
[5] Origins of English Feudalism 42 p133
[6] EHD 125 p541
[7] CR Hart ibid
[8] Ann Williams – Princeps Mercorum gentis; the family, career and connections of Aelfhere, Ealdorman of of Mercia 956-983
[9] EHD 48 p415
[10] The Encomium Emmae Reginae tells us Eadric’s fate: “He (Cnut) said ‘pay this man what we owe him; that is to say kill him, lest he plays us false.’ He (Eric of Hlathir) indeed raised his axe without delay and cut of his (Eadric’s) head with a mighty blow.”
*Author of The Beginnings of English Society, & Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut (English historical Review 62 1948)

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog site on 30th May 2016

Defining ‘Nobility’ in Later Anglo-Saxon England

The word ‘nobility’ is a vague term; no society in history could be described as having an upper social tier whose members were all of equal wealth and statues. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy certainly had more than one stratum, and any detailed study of these men must entail a definition of these different levels.

In the eighth-century, Bede wrote of a group of men called ‘comites’, the Anglo-Saxon translation of which is ‘gesiths’. In origin, a gesith was an honourable companion, usually of the king. Most often he would be of noble birth, and he would be either a retainer or the holder of an estate. By the tenth-century, the word was no longer used to describe a personal retainer. HR Loyn [1] suggests that by this time the gesith may well have been a retired retainer settled on his estate. He suggests further that the pattern in the tenth-century may have been as follows:

seal of Godwin the thegn – 11thc

“The retainer at court was termed ‘thegn’. If he was promoted , he became an ealdorman, and when he retired he became a ‘gesith’.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that by the tenth-century the thegns were subordinate to the king’s thegns and to the ealdormen, and that the gesith was no longer engaged in active service for the king.

One distinction between the gesith and the thegn was that of age; the thegn was a young man, the gesith more mature. Initially the thegn was not a powerful man, the term sometimes merely denoting a servant, albeit one who was free. By the tenth-century, however, ‘thegn’ had taken on a more specialised meaning. The law codes of the period show us something of how the thegns had become more important as servants of the king. They were given the responsibility of helping the king to ensure that the church was observing its rules:

And I and my thegns shall compel our priests to that which the pastors of our souls direct us (clerical celibacy).” [2]

It is also clear that the thegns now had their own class, with a recognisable rank:

“And my thegns are to have their dignity in my time as they had in my father’s.” [3]

Anglo-Saxon society was not a static one. Thegnship had developed as a class of its own, but this did not mean that one had to be born into that class to belong to it.

“And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of land of his own, a bell and a castle-gate, a seat and a special office in the king’s hall, then was he henceforth entitled to the rights of a thegn.” [4]

It is doubtful how many achieved this, but the opportunity was at least there in theory.

Thegns were graded according to their relationship with the king. The king’s thegns would recognise no other lord than the king [5] and might themselves be lords to other thegns. The lesser thegns would have a lord other than the king. Their heriot (see below) would go to their lord, not the king.

From among his thegns the king appointed ealdormen. These men were the king’s representatives in the localities. The main ealdordoms were Northumbria [6], East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. The office was not strictly hereditary, although many ealdormen succeeded their fathers. In the king’s lands his presence was felt through his reeves, but increasingly the king’s reeves were used as a check against the ealdormen. A grant of King Aethelred II’s shows that an ealdorman had no authority to deal with a breach of law by a king’s reeve, and had to appeal directly to the king. [7]

Aethelred II (Unraed – ‘Unready’)

The Witan was the high council, and its members were powerful wealthy thegns, and bishops and abbots. The bishops were powerful men, usually from noble families themselves. The witness lists to royal charters show a strict order of seniority. The king signs first, followed by the archbishops, bishops and abbots. The ealdormen sign next, followed by the king’s thegns. Among the ealdormen, there was also a strict order; the most influential of the moment signed above the others. Usually the order changed following the death of an ealdorman, but it was possible for some to gain prominence without such an event. Eadric Streona, Ealdorman of Mercia in the reign of Aethelred II, headed the lists in the lifetime of men who had at one time been his seniors.

charter showing the witness list

The heriot (war-gear), as defined in II Cnut [8] also demonstrated seniority of rank: among the earl’s heriot is the requirement “eight horses, four saddled and four unsaddled.” The requirement of the king’s thegn is “four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled.” Of the lesser thegn the corresponding requirement is for “a horse and its trappings.”

The law of the North People, and the Law of the Mercians [9] show the position of the nobility in relation to lesser men. The Law of the North People sets out the wergild* thus:

The wergild of the archbishop and the atheling is 15,000 thrymsas
That of a bishop and an ealdorman 8,000 thrymsas
That of a king’s high-reeve 4,000 thrymsas
That of a mass-thegn and a secular thegn 2,000 thrymsas
A ceorl’s (churl) wergild is 266 thrymsas

(* wergild was essentially the price, or worth, of a man’s life; a payment due to the family by the person who killed him)

In the Law of the Mercians a ceorl’s wergild is 200 shillings, and a thegn’s wergild is “six times as much.” So between the thegn and the atheling, the wergild is doubled each time. In contrast, the thegn’s wergild is six times that of a ceorl. Despite the professed opportunity for social mobility, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was clearly set apart from the rest of society by a substantial distance.

Cnut

As well as possessing considerable rights over his lands and his vassals, a lord had a duty to safe-guard his men. The terms of the fealty oath are vague, but there is other evidence which describes more fully the nature of the personal bond between a man and his lord. In the reign of Edward the elder (899-924), a letter was written to the king describing the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. [10] It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. Although this practice was forbidden [11] there are many other illustrations in the law codes of the lord’s obligations to his man.

A tenant who did not pay his rent could expect his lord to be lenient and exact no penalty. [12] If an accused man ran away, his lord had the responsibility of paying the man’s wergild to the king. [13] Any master who forced his slave to work on a feast day forfeited the slave and paid a fine. [14] An accused man could expect his lord to stand surety for him, and if the man ran away from the ordeal it was the lord who had to pay his wergild. [15]

The betrayal of a lord was beyond compensation, according to the laws of Cnut. [16] The personal bond was a two-way responsibility, and the man must be seen to honour his obligations to his lord. The Battle of Maldon shows how seriously this responsibility was taken. Eadric resolves to serve his lord in battle and “now that the time had come to fight, before his lord he duly kept his vow (hold-oath).” When Byrhtnoth is killed, his men have a duty to avenge his death. Traditionally this means that they have to kill the whole of the Viking army to ensure that they kill the actual soldier by whose hands Byrhtnoth has been slain:

“They all intended one of two results,
To love their lives or to avenge their dear one.”

In this stratified society, every man had a duty to protect the men in his care, and to serve the man who protected him. At the top level, the king of course served no-one, and had only the responsibility of protecting his people. At the lowest levels of society the obligation would be only service. The aristocracy had two duties: they served the king (and their lord if they had one) and in return they were rewarded. They had their own men who served them as lord, and in return they offered their man protection, especially under the law.

[1] Gesiths and Thegns in Anglo-Saxon England from the Seventh to the Tenth century – HR Loyn
[2] IV Edgar 1.8.
[3] IV Edgar 2.a.
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol 1 52 – A Compilation on Status (1002-1023)
[5] “And no-one is to have any jurisdiction over a king’s thegn except the king himself.” III Aethelred 11
[6] Because of the Scandinavian influence in the north, the ealdormen in Northumbria were termed ‘Eorl’
[7] EHD 117 page 525
[8] EHD 50 page 419
[9] EHD 52 – A Compilation on Status
[10] EHD 102 page 501
[11] II Cnut 20.1 “Many an over-bearing man will, if he can and may, defend his man which ever way it seems to him that he can defend him more easily … but we will not allow that abuse.”
[12] II&III Edgar 1.1.
[13] II Cnut 31.1.
[14] II Cnut 45.3.
[15] III Aethelred 4. & 6.2.
[16] II Cnut 64.

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog on April 26th, 2016