Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Mercia

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

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

1066 – The Mercian Perspective

 

In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit…

Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Aethelflaed’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, in Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia has become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there is a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Aethelflaed, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

220px-New_Minster_Charter_966_detail_Edgar

King Edgar depicted in the New Minster Charter

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig (Edwy.)

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion – his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’ – it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles – Alvar (Aelfhere), already earl of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the earl of Chester died – until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

“Earl Oslac (Northumbria) 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 (Mercia) and ealdorman Aethelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show – a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ – but his successors were not.

Edgar was succeeded by his famously ‘unready’ son – who infamously ordered many Danes massacred on St Brice’s day, 1002 – and so there followed a period of Danish rule, most notably by King Cnut (Canute). Long-held separatist and nationalist sentiments remained, and now, as Barlow puts it,

“The Danish rulers having no attachment to any of the kingdoms, widened the concept of England. Cnut’s plan of reserving no English province for his direct rule and his grant of Wessex to the ‘upstart’ Godwine had weakened the position of any successor who had not his ‘quasi imperial’ power.”

King Cnut

King Cnut

How did this situation contribute to the problems faced by Edward the Confessor in his final years?

The three leading earls were Leofric of Mercia, Siward of Northumbria, and Godwine. Of those three, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; he was the son of Leofwine, ealdorman of the Hwicce – whom readers of my novels will know to be the core Mercian tribe. Their centre was Deerhurst and the church there was very important to the Mercians – and he gave, according to Barlow, “loyal and disinterested service.” Siward, meanwhile, with lands bordering Scotland, probably looked more north than south.

The rise of the House of Godwine was phenomenal. Moving from thegn to king in three generations, it proved the theory of upward social mobility which, in fact, most people found impossible to attain, and which might have been denied in this case also had it not been for the reign of Cnut.

I have some university notes in which I quote one of my lecturers: “1066 lasted a whole year.” I followed it with an exclamation mark, but I know what was intended by this seemingly obvious remark. 1066 was not just a battle near Hastings; events took a turn for the dramatic in January when Edward the Confessor died, and culminated with William’s coronation on Christmas Day. But there were more people involved than just Harold and Edward, and the turmoil had really begun as far back as 1051.

Godwin’s meteoric career is for another blog, possibly by a different author, one who knows him better. Suffice to say that such was his influence, he managed to prosper despite his father’s humble origins and the dark stain hanging over him, that of the murder of Edward the Confessor’s brother Alfred, in 1036.

Yet the meteor appeared to crash-land in 1051.

Eustace of Boulogne arrived at Dover to visit his former brother-in-law (Edward) and Godwine was at the wedding feast of his son Tostig and Judith. There was a violent brawl involving the people of Dover and the visitors from Boulogne. Godwin was ordered to punish the people of Dover and he refused. The result of this stand-off was the exile of Godwin and his family, and Leofric of Mercia’s reward for supporting the king was that his son, Aelfgar, was granted Harold Godwineson’s earldom of East Anglia.

The Witan

The Witan

However the northern earls thought Edward went too far by subsequently giving preference to foreigners, thereby tightening his links with Normandy. Thus, in 1052, when Godwin came back, Leofric and Siward remained neutral. London declared for Godwine. His terms were not extortionate and so the neutrality of the northern earls seemed justified, and would explain why Aelfgar, according to Barlow, ‘quietly surrendered’ the East Anglian earldom back to Harold.

But Godwine’s death in 1053 shifted the balance of power and the Mercian house became stronger. Harold succeeded his father in Wessex, but this meant that Aelfgar got East Anglia back. The Mercian family was now spread right across the midlands.

Then in 1055 Siward of Northumbria died, and his second son, Waltheof, was bypassed for Tostig Godwinson. As Richard Fletcher puts it, “There was no love lost between the house of Leofric and the house of Godwin” and Tostig’s was a surprise appointment; it was the first time a southerner had held the post and he was, in Fletcher’s words, “A complete stranger.” Now, Mercia was in the middle of a Godwinson sandwich, with Harold below and Tostig above. They needed to look in a different direction for allies. Aelfgar looked westward, allied with Gruffudd of Wales, and was briefly banished before being reinstated.

Two years later, In 1057, Leofric died. Aelfgar went to Mercia and Harold’s brother Gyrth went to East Anglia. Now the Godwin family was in Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Mercia was isolated.

Hardly surprising then that in 1057, Gruffudd married Aelfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, and in
1058 Aelfgar was outlawed again for ‘obscure reasons’. He came back with the support of Gruffudd. Kari Maund suggested that the alliance must have begun before 1055 and that’s WHY he was ousted. Perhaps Aelfgar had not so ‘quietly’ surrendered in 1052 after all. Richard Humble suggested that Harold was somehow responsible for Aelfgar’s exile and was behind his second banishment, too.

In around 1062/3 Aelfgar disappears from the record. He was succeeded by his son, Edwin, and it would seem that Harold took advantage of this and engineered the death of Gruffudd.

By October 1065, the Northumbrians had had enough of Tostig and his southern ways and attempts to impose high taxes, and they rebelled, electing Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar, in his place. After the Northumbrian rebellion Morcar was very quick to get there – as if he’d been ready and waiting. As Fletcher puts it: “Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwin.”

The joint northern, Mercian (and Welsh) forces marched south. Whilst Harold attempted to mediate, Edward demanded war. Harold would not fight the rebels to restore Tostig. Edward submitted, Tostig was outlawed, and Edward seems to have gone into a decline, from which he never recovered. Tostig never forgave Harold.

As I sat down to write my story for 1066 Turned Upside Down, it occurred to me that this, then, was the internal situation in 1066:  a  build-up of resentment between noble houses, and a brother with a grudge. Harold had worries long before William landed…

Available 1st August 2016

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Further reading:
King Edgar and the Danelaw – Niels Lund, Med. Scand. 9
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 – Frank Barlow
The Welsh Kings – Kari Maund
Bloodfeud – Richard Fletcher
The Fall of Saxon England – Richard Humble
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – Ed. N Garmonsway