Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: King Edgar

Military Service in Tenth-Century England

Aethelred II (Unready)

In a previous post, I looked at duties and obligations in tenth-century England and this time I’m concentrating on military service.

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 [1] those three things were fixed military service, the restoration of bridges, and of fortresses. A grant by Aethelred II [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 Aelfric the Homilist divided Anglo-Saxon society into three orders: those who fight, those who labour, and those who pray. This would 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.

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 gelect fyrd. The distinction between the select fyrd and the great fyrd 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 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.”

Site of the Battle of Maldon – Ken Eckert *

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 Aethelred II granted Aethelwig 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 Aelfwold 969 EHD (English historical Documents) 113 p519
[2] Grant by King Aethelred to his thegn Aethelwig 992-995 EHD 117 p525
[3] Origins of English Feudalism 61 p145 “The Rights and Ranks of People”
[4] For more on this, see Defining ‘Nobility’ in Late 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 the previous article on duties and responsibilities – link at top of post

[11] The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century – N Hooper

Further General Reading:
The Foundation of England – HPR Finberg
The Beginnings of English Society – D Whitelock
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
From Roman Britain to Norman England – PH Sawyer

(Above illustrations – public domain unless otherwise accredited)

*https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Keneckert&action=edit&redlink=1

This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog Site 22nd July, 2016

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 of a deliberative and consultative nature.

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 commands that:

Earl Oslac and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry 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 Aelfhere and ealdorman Aethelwine, 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 Aethelred II adopted the policy of appointing reeves instead of ealdormen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1002 Ealdorman Leofsige slew Aelfric, the king’s high-reeve. The grant of Aethelred’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, Aethelred 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. Aethelred 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]

Aethelred 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.

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 suggests 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.

A charter of Aethelred II

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’.

[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 Aethelred 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

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog 16th July 2016

 

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

On the Trail of Dunmail

The pass of Dunmail Raise connects Grasmere and Thirlmere, and it’s said that the cairn on the roadside there is the burial place of Dunmail, last king of the Cumbrians, killed in battle in 945. It recently occurred to me, that having a history degree, and being the author of two novels set in the 10thc, I ought to know about said battle. And yet I didn’t.

I set off to find out about Dunmail, and his father, Owain the Giant.

The Giant’s Grave

First stop – the Giant’s Grave at St Andrew’s Church in Penrith, purportedly the final resting place of Owain. I was hoping to find some literature about the grave, but a lovely young couple was getting married when I arrived, and I reached my first ‘dead-end’ on the trail. So I moved off in search of Tarn Wadling, on the High Hesket to Armathwaite road. Legend has it that, nearby, Owain the Giant cast a spell on King Arthur. There was bound to be a clue here, surely? Well, after asking several people and being attacked by a swarm of horse-flies, I eventually found Tarn Wadling Wood, but of the tarn itself, long-since drained, there was no visible trace.

Inside Tarn Wadling Wood

Then it was on to the famous Dunmail Raise. That cairn looks suspiciously modern, to me, but never mind. I decided to test out another bit of the legend, which is that two of the slain Dunmail’s warriors carried his crown to Grisedale Tarn and threw it in the water, running to escape the approaching army. Hmm. Have you tried running up to Grisedale Tarn? (Admittedly, I’m no fell runner, nor am I a seasoned medieval warrior!) I will say that the capricious Cumbrian weather provided me with a mystical moment; it was a misty, mizzly morning and by the time I’d climbed up to where the landscape flattens out a little, I could only see about 20ft ahead. I’d no idea how close I was to the water, until the clag suddenly lifted and the tarn appeared, right in front of me. Unfortunately, though there was a sudden beam of sunlight, no hand rose out of the water brandishing Dunmail’s crown.

The ‘clag’ lifts

So it was now a question of hitting the books and historical sources. Let’s deal with Owain first: what we do know is that he was King Owen of Strathclyde from c.925-37 and was present at Eamont Bridge when the Scots agreed to stop supporting the Vikings against the English kings of Wessex. He broke that treaty in 934, and again at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. There’s no further mention of him so it’s possible, even likely, that he perished in that battle.

Sometimes he’s called King of Strathclyde, sometimes King of the Cumbrians. Debate continues as to whether those two names were completely interchangeable. But if there’s a distinction to be drawn, it might prove useful later in this search.

Next on the book trail was Dunmail, and I started by looking in Gamble’s Lake District Place-Names. “Dunmail Raise: here, according to tradition, is the grave of Dunmail, one of the last kings of Strathclyde, allegedly killed in battle against Edmund, King of the Saxons in 945. In fact, Dunmail survived the battle and died in Rome 30 years later.” (My italics).

Well, I remembered this chap, from my second novel, which features a scene in which King Edgar is rowed along the River Dee at Chester in 973 and paid homage by 6-8 kings. One of them, Donald (Dyfnwal), took his leave to abdicate and go on pilgrimage to Rome. I’ll come back to that later …

So, where did these ‘rumours’ start? Roger of Wendover, writing in the 13thc, says: (AD 946) “King Edmund … ravaged the whole of Cumberland, and put out the eyes of the two sons of Dunmail, king of that province.”

Richard Oram, a specialist on Scottish medieval history says, “Certainly, Dyfnwal (Dunmail) is reported to have travelled to Rome, where he became a priest and died in 975. The background to his resignation in 973 may have been the killing in 971 of Cullen, king of the Scots, by Rhydderch, son of King Dyfnwal.”

Something didn’t quite add up. Let’s go back to that ship on the Dee and try to find out who was on it.

You’ll remember I mentioned that there were 6-8 kings; nobody can be sure of the number, nor who was there. The historian Sir Frank Stenton identified, among others,
Malcolm of Strathclyde (975-97) and Dufnal (Dyfnwal/Dunmail), his father, and Roger of Wendover names Malcolm of the Cumbrians, but no Dyfnwal/Dunmail. John of Worcester, writing in the 12thc, named Malcolm ‘rex Cumbrorum’ and “five others” – among them, Dufnal.

So, even though not all the sources say that Dufnal/Dunmail was there, they all agree that Malcolm, his son, was. So, if Dunmail’s sons were blinded to stop them claiming the throne, how come one of them managed to kill Cullen in a revenge attack, and the other ended up being recognised as a king?

I’d come to the end of the trail; Dunmail was not killed in any battle, nor were his sons blinded. He retired to go on pilgrimage and died 30 years after the supposed battle commemorated at Dunmail Raise. The legend had no basis whatsoever.

Near the top of the rise

Still, I wanted to check one more source, a book mentioned by one of the other authors as having some information which might be relevant. It was Phythian-Adam’s Land of the Cumbrians.

In it I found: “Dunmail/Dyfnwal/Donald – possibly the son of Owain, and the king of the Cumbrians who escorted Saint Catroe in c.941 … dispossessed in 945 of Cumberland by Edmund who blinded two of his sons in order to destroy their claims to the throne … Described variously as both king of the Britons and king of Strathclyde in 975 when he died on pilgrimage, he rowed Edgar on the Dee in 973 as a king on the same occasion as his son Malcolm was described specifically as King of the Cumbrians.”

Well, that seemed to confirm everything I’d managed to discover. But, who was Saint Catroe? If I could find him, then I could perhaps find a direct reference to Dunmail in 941, just four years before he was supposedly killed in battle and his crown thrown into the tarn.

I found the link. Saint Catroe was persuaded by visions to go on pilgrimage and was escorted part of the way by his cousin, Dunmail/Donald, son of Áed. What? Not the son of Owen/Owain?

I found the answer in my Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: two entries, one atop the other:

Donald, son of Áed, (king c. 540-3) is Dunmail, Catroe’s kinsman, whose sons were blinded.
Donald, Owen’s son, (king c. 962-975) whose son Rhydderch slayed Cullen, went to Rome, having abdicated in favour of his other son, Malcolm.

So there were, in fact, two Dunmails. And that is where we should leave it. Because, it just might mean that our Dunmail did not, after all, die on pilgrimage, but sleeps in his cairn, ready one day to rise up again …

The cairn at Dunmail Raise

All photographs taken by and are the property of the author

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Cumbria Magazine and subsequently on the EHFA Blog on 16th May 2016

For a look ‘behind the scenes’ read my Blog Post

King Edgar, his earls, and the birth of politics in England

In AD937 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. Upon his death the throne passed very quickly to his two brothers and then, in 955, to his young nephew, Edwy (Eadwig) who reigned for only four years and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar “the peaceable”.

King Edgar – detail from New Minster Charter

Athelstan’s 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. And 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 Edwy at 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 – he recalled the exiled Bishop Dunstan (Who’d been banished by Edwy after he caught Edwy in bed with his wife, and her mother!) and he supported Dunstan and Bishop Aethelwold in their campaign for monastic reform.

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 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 – 15thc (nothing remains of the original building)

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, Aelfhere, 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.

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 sons – one begotten through a nefarious relationship with a woman who had been promised to the Church and was on the brink of taking holy orders, the other to his queen, the powerful but fragile Aelfthryth.

The factions divided, with the Church and the East Anglians supporting the firstborn son, Edward, while Aelfhere of Mercia supported the queen, citing her son as having 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.

“Aelfthryth looks on as Edward is stabbed” Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

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 Aethelred. He was young, he was badly-counselled, (as Christopher Brooke puts it, “Dissidence and half-suppressed revolt … in Aethelred’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 Aethelred was to live long enough to see all their hard work unravel, in spectacular fashion.

(All illustrations public domain/Wiki Commons)
Select bibliography:
Papers: An Outing on the Dee (Mediaeval Scandinavia 14) & Princeps Merciorum gentis: the family career and connections of Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia (Anglo-Saxon England 10) by Ann Williams
Athelstan ‘Half King’ and his family – Cyril Hart (Cambridge Journals)
The Saxon and Norman Kings – Christopher Brooke
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – ed Garmonsway

This article first appeared on EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors on Sunday, Feb 28th 2016