Anglo-Saxons: The Making of England
When did England become England? Was Alfred really the great ruler of all the English - or was it just a question of clever Wessex PR? Patrick Wormald investigates the myths and realities of unification in Anglo-Saxon England.
In 1991, the British Museum staged an exhibition entitled 'The Making of England'. It was of course a superb show, and must have taught its countless visitors an immense amount about the culture of the early Christian English. But one thing about it was inept: its title. The period covered was from the coming of St Augustine in 597 to the death of Alfred in 899. Many very important things happened in these centuries. The 'Making of England' was not among them. There was no single kingdom of the English even at the end of the period. There had been a progressive reduction in the number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between the sixth and ninth centuries, leaving only four by 865. Of these, only one, Alfred's Wessex, survived the attentions of the Vikings. But this was a kingdom of the West Saxons, not of 'the English' as a whole.
There is evidence that Alfred came to see himself in some sense as a king of all Englishmen. There is almost no evidence that Englishmen beyond Wessex and perhaps the West Midlands would have agreed with him. The Northumbrians, East Anglians and at least some Mercians came to terms with the Vikings. Alfred's successors in due course took control of these areas. But it is an illusion that there was anything pre-ordained about that. Their campaign is usually called the 'Reconquest of the Danelaw'. It was in fact a conquest of lands never ruled by West Saxon kings before.
If 'England' was visibly not 'made' in the time implied by the British Museum's title, when did this happen? And if its 'making' was not foreordained, by what means'? It is difficult, above all of course for Englishmen in their unshaken confidence that their history has the divine imprimatur, not to take England's existence for granted. It is also quite wrong. England's makers deserve more credit.
Most views of the Making of England tend to place it either too early or too late. A constant leitmotif of Sir Frank Stenton's great book Anglo-Saxon England, is that Anglo-Saxon history in the seventh and eighth centuries forms 'steps' towards an 'ultimate unity ... of all England'. Unification is treated as if ninth-century England, like nineteenth-century Italy or Germany, were patiently awaiting the experience – it may be relevant that Stenton was born just ten years after 1870.
The central element in this approach to early Anglo-Saxon politics is the 'imperium' (empire) over all 'English' peoples south of the Humber which Bede ascribes in his Ecclesiastical History (ii 5) to seven kings before 671. To these seven, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Alfred's time attaches not only an eighth name but also a vernacular word, 'Bretwalda', ('Britain-ruler') or 'Brytenwalda' (almost certainly the right form: 'Bretwalda' may be a 'ghost' word, born of a scribal slip).
The evidence just about suffices to establish that the early Anglo-Saxons had a notion, however vague or otherwise unwarranted, of hegemonial rule over Britain. Bede's words are echoed by a charter of 736, in which the Mercian king Æthelbald, is entitled both 'king of all provinces called by the general name South-English' and 'king of Britain'. The Irish Abbot Adomnan of lona, whose Life of Columba was finished a quarter of a century before Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731), says that Oswald of Northumbria, who is in Bede's list, was 'ordained emperor of Britain' after defeating the 'king of the Britons' in 634. But this does not justify talk of a 'Bretwalda-ship', or make the imperium an office with generally recognised prerogatives.
Analogy with Adomnan's homeland is instructive. The ancient Irish laws supply an extremely detailed and elaborate scheme of regnal hierarchy, from the petty kingship of the tribe to kings of overkings. A notable absentee from the hierarchy is the 'high-king of Ireland', also called 'king of Tara' after the hill in county Meath that combines an extraordinary pre-historic complex with a view on a clear day (if they ever happen in Ireland) of hills in all the island's quarters, Ulster, Leinster. Munster and Connacht.
Despite this, Adomnan and the annals of his lona abbey claimed the title 'king of Ireland' for powerful kings of the Ui Neill dynasty from which he and Columba both came. An ancient and now irretrievable tradition from Irish prehistory was manipulated to suit early historic ambitions. On such a basis, much about English overlordship falls into place. Temporary military leadership over a set of local rulers is a well-attested early Germanic arrangement: Bede describes it among the continental Saxons of his own day. We can well imagine that unusually successful exponents of that leadership in the long struggle with the Britons for the island's lowlands might be hailed by their followers as 'Britain-ruler'. The title could then be adapted to fit the aspirations of later kings and their supporters.
This is actually more or less what Stenton said:
'Bretwalda' is not a formal style ... its origin should he sought in the hall of some early king ... whose victories entitled him ... to be regarded as lord of Britain.
But Stenton implicitly distinguished this flummery from the imperium of the (as he thought) soberly realistic Bede. Against the logic of Æthelbald's charter, where 'king of ... provinces generally .known as South-English' need have no more a literal meaning than 'king of Britain', he insisted that the former was a 'confederacy of southern English peoples', whose overlord 'was dealing with his subject kings very much as he dealt with [his] hereditary nobility'.
Yet, for all his lofty idealism, Bede's was not a detached portrait of political realities. He was exposed to the perspectives of his informants. Bede owed much of what he knew and thought about the English church that was his subject to that church's Canterbury founders. Probably, therefore, he reflected their interest in the unity of 'the English'. His original account of the imperium is in a block of material dealing with events in Kent, Æthelbald of Mercia is not among his 'magnificent seven'; but his summarising chapter (v 22) contains, as an item in a set of episcopal successions probably derived from Canterbury, the news that the provinces south of the Humber were now subject to Æthelbald.
It was at exactly this time that a Mercian, Tatwine, became Archbishop of Canterbury. It was also a Mercian, Nothelm, who brought Bede the bulk of his Kentish information. Four years later in 735 Nothelm himself became archbishop, and within a year held a synod that adjudicated in the Bishop of Worcester's favour. Æhelbald's charter was written, almost certainly at Worcester, in that year. A Southumbrian imperium equated a Mercian king's sphere of authority with the metropolitan province of the see of Canterbury: just what one would expect Mercian archbishops to favour. Nothelm could have given Bede an impression, blending Kentish traditions with Mercian ambitions, to which Bede went on to give a wider currency.
This is a guess; but one with the virtue of moving leadership of the southern English in Bede's time from the arena of power structures to that of political debate. The point is crucial: if early Anglo-Saxon rulers acquiesced in overlordship by one of their number in any institutionalised framework, this was a real foretaste of unification. But if Brytenwalda belonged to the language of political 'hype', the possibilities stayed open. It has been said by a distinguished modern medievalist that 'the long-term trend ... for the amalgamation of small units into more powerful blocks ... reached its logical conclusion ... with the establishment ... of a single consolidated kingdom of England'. That conclusion is not logical. Granted the pattern of reduction from twelve smaller kingdoms in 59'? to four larger ones in 865, they grew less and less digestible, like most foodstuffs, as they grew larger and older. The main political theme of the pre-Viking phase of Anglo-Saxon history was, as a number of excellent recent surveys have stressed, the formation of sizeable kingdoms showing every sign that they had come to stay. But for the Vikings, they might have generated the sort of rivalry that left the struggle for kingship 'of Ireland' far from resolved by the time of the fateful English intervention in 1169. For all the power exerted by Mercian and other kings, the Thames, Fenland and Humber frontiers might eventually have become as familiar as that of Tweed and Solway.
The second fallacy insists that the 'kingdom of the English' that uncontroversially existed in 1066 was a fissile structure given much-needed coherence by the vigour (often specifically 'feudal' vigour) of the Norman regime The view is epitomised in Professor J.R. Strayer's classic essay, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. He found the Carolingian and early English kingdoms 'premature' states because, though they were geographically consistent and equipped with adequate machinery, 'interests and loyalties were primarily local, [and] royal officials ... tended to become leaders of autonomous local communities'. 'Twelfth-century England, left to its own devices, might have been as divided as eleventh-century France'; but conquest removed the ruling-class that was moving in a fragmentary direction.
It is easy to see that the arrival of an alien elite created a new coherence in the kingdom's ruling strata, one based paradoxically on its vulnerability as a perceptibly intrusive body. But those who see consolidatory effects in 1066 need to contemplate the odds against this being the outcome. One does not have to believe that the feudal bond was an intrinsic cause of disorder to be aware that its eleventh-century French homeland was anything but a brochure for its state-building potential. The principalities with the best record of stability (like Normandy) owed this not, it is now recognised, to the feudal ties of their nobility, but to the survival of Carolingian institutions of government, such as flourished yet more vigorously in England itself. Besides, it was with the name and historical destiny of the state they had seized that this alien élite came to identify.
Within half a century of the Conquest, an anonymous legal expert who was certainly brought up to speak French, not English, had launched the formidable project of rendering the whole available heritage of Anglo-Saxon legislation into Latin. By the mid-twelfth century, the history being written was that of 'the English'. It was written not only in Latin by half-Englishmen like William of Malmesbury, but also in French verse, for known Norman patrons, by Geoffrey Gaimar. The persistence of a specifically English identity has more than merely totemic significance. After all, the political assumptions involved could not have been maintained by the old ruling-class alone. That ruling-class was the conquest's most spectacular casualty: Like the language which was the other great survivor of the 1066 trauma, it must have become widespread in society at large, or there would have been nobody to uphold its existence. No testimonial to the reality of the English state in 1066 could be more eloquent than its ability to impose its personality on its conquerors.
There is no denying that an English kingdom had come into being with remarkable, one might almost think implausible, speed. The lands up to the Humber were overrun by Alfred's son, Edward the Elder and daughter Æthelfleda, in eight years after 911. In 927 his grandson, Æthelstan seized Northumbria, and was the first to take the formal style 'rex Anglorum'. Ten years later, Æthelstan won the battle of Brunanburh against a mighty coalition of Scots, Strathclyde Britons and Hiberno-Norse under the great- grandson of the Viking who had first created the Danelaw: an encounter later viewed by the English as the climax of their struggle for mastery of Britain. That was not quite the end of the story. Æthelstan's brothers, Edmund I and Eadred, still had to defend their position against their Viking rivals in the 940s and 950s. But in 973, Edgar (son of Edmund I) could be given a coronation at Bath which had unmistakable imperial overtones: Bath's hot springs evoked those at Charlemagne's own imperial capital of Aachen. At much the same time, he could legislate for a 'nation (of) Englishmen, Danes and Britons'. Three generations after a humiliated Alfred had eluded Viking capture in the Somerset marshes, the dreams of a Brytenwalda had materialised as political fact.
Three points about this precocious kingdom are fairly clear. The first is that pre-Viking loyalties lived on as regional consciousness. In each of the dynastic crises of 924, 955, 975 and 1035, the Mercians can be seen to support a different claimant to the throne from the West Saxons. But their candidate was always another prince from the established royal house, not a Mercian. Such episodes are better interpreted as factional struggles for the rewards that a winning candidate's backers could expect than as manifestations of provincial disaffection.
Until Eadred's victory over Eric Bloodaxe of Norway in 954, part of the Northumbrian establishment at least showed a preference for Viking over West Saxon rule. From then on, Northumbria always needed careful handling; for forgetting that, Harold's brother, Earl Tostig, was expelled by a brutal rebellion in 1065. Yet by that time, the Northumbrians too sought not independence but a more amenable earl – and not one of themselves but the brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia. Arguably, there was a tacit recognition of the North's distinct identity by southern governments until well into the early modern era, the results of ignoring it being as violent in the sixteenth century as in 1065.
In Wessex, Mercia and the Danelaw (the northern and eastern counties), local allegiance found expression in what were perceived as distinct systems of law. All the same, the man who did more than anyone to preserve provincial customs in writing was Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (1002-23). He was also the author of Cnut's great code for the whole realm, where Danelaw idiosyncracies found scant recognition, Mercian almost none. Despite the likelihood that insensitivity to northern custom was among Tostig's tyrannies, it was a promise of the laws of Cnut, with its slight regard for Northumbrian particularities, that assuaged the 1065 rebellion.
What needs appreciation is that political manoeuvring by regional aristocracies was one of the absolute constants of pre-modern politics anywhere in Europe; and legal systems likewise tended to be those of provincial parts rather than kingdoms as wholes. Such diversities had the utmost encouragement in the nascent kingdom of England from the simple fact that they so clearly mirrored older political sentiments. East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Kent had been just what even Bavariz or Benevento or Burgundy (since the early-sixth century) had not been: well-established independent kingdoms. Regional tendencies ought to have been stronger here than elsewhere. All the evidence is that they were weaker. And for this there was good political reason. Recent (computer-enhanced) analysis of Domesday evidence has shown that the estates not just of the king and greater earls, but also of eighteen other landowners straddled the main regions of the kingdom, while a dozen more holdings crossed county boundaries. The pre-1066 ruling-class had as much to lose from a divided kingdom as the king.
The second undeniable fact about England on the eve of 1066 is the ascendancy of Earl Godwine of Wessex, whose daughter was Edward the Confessor's queen, and whose son was to be his short-lived successor. The best proof that England was not a 'kingdom divided against itself' is what is usually seen as its other main flaw: that one earl was in a position to bid successfully for the crown. A computerised Domesday has now revealed the entrenched power of the house of Godwine as never before. To take only the most telling point: there were thirteen shires south of the Mersey and Tees where the Mercian comital dynasty as represented by the brothers Edwin and Morcar had no significant interests. Only in Derbyshire and 'Warwickshire was this true of Godwine's family. Its wealth, quite simply, eclipsed the king's.
No one was in any position to resist Harold's coup of January 1066. But this means that Godwine and his sons were much more the masters of their kingdom's resources than were the counts of Paris on the eve of Hugh Capet's promotion to the French crown in 987 half a dozen other 'princes' were as strong as the Capetians, which is why it took them two centuries to assert the full panoply of their power. In fact, the lesson of Earl Harold's ascent to the throne is the same as that taught by the conquest that so promptly followed: it did not cause the disintegration one might have expected. Edwin and Morcar were not on the field of Hastings, but one of the few important figures beyond the royal house known to have been there was their uncle Leofric, Abbot of Peterborough, Burton, Coventry and Crowland: the houses most strongly linked with their family tradition. The evidence as yet gives no grounds for supposing that Harold and his heirs would face the same recalcitrance as greeted Capetian calls to arms for a century and a half.
The third, and perhaps the most distinctive, feature of the Old English kingdom is the discrepancy between its political volatility and its structural solidity. Only twice between 899 and 1066 did the throne pass without a struggle from one king to the next. Accessions therefore tended to be followed by widespread replacement of courtiers and officials. Political clearance like this could even happen in the course of reigns: as three times in the increasingly ill-starred reign of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). The crisis of 1051.-52, when Earl Godwine raised a rebellion against Edward the Confessor which resulted in exile for the Godwines and should have cost Godwine's family its power, was anything but exceptional. What was exceptional, and another sign of his unparalleled position, was Godwine's ability to come back from disgrace. A string of over eighty recorded forfeitures from Alfred to the Confessor testifies to the late Saxon kings' normal success in disposing of their opponents. Apart from Northumbria, they are distributed as widely as there is evidence available, from Devon to Lincolnshire and from Shropshire to Kent. At least twenty involved the confiscation of ten hides or more, that is of twice the minimum qualification for gentry status.
The reason kings could proceed so vigorously against the locally powerful nearly everywhere in their realm is precisely that political crisis was never accompanied by institutional disruption. The tenth and eleventh centuries are rightly regard- ed as the formative period in the structures of English government that would endure until almost modern times. Instead of falling victim to the power-struggle, as the apparatus of Frankish rule had done, these structures supplied the fruits of patronage that the Old English establishment competed for. In this light, it may be possible to understand the 1066 paradox of substantial continuity in machinery, but massive discontinuity of operating personnel. The English were used to upheaval at the top, to doing new men's bidding. By the time they found out that this was not an ordinary upheaval, it was too late. Early England illustrates the rule that it is the well-run kingdoms that are most easily conquered.
Arguments intended to prove weakness in the early English kingdom thus have a way of turning into arguments for its strength. It was not found wanting in the trials that might have been expected to bring it down. In a comparison with the dying Carolingian empire, it is the contrasts, not the similarities, that impress. But the case can be made more positively and succinctly than this. The capacity to put down the mighty from their seats is habitually seen as a mark of Tudor 'recovery'. England's first kings also had a habit of getting their own way. Governments that lacked the equipment to compel acquiescence (which probably means any before the late-eighteenth century) could attack leading citizens only if their legitimacy had passive consent from the socially powerful. The consensus underpinning pre-Conquest royal power is revealed by the very ubiquity of the name and notion of Englishness. Whether we look at its major legal monument, the code of Cnut 'king of all England' and legislating according to 'English law'; or at the nearest we can get to a private letter by an ordinary Anglo-Saxon to another – where 'brother Edward' was adjured not to 'abandon the English practices which your fathers followed', and 'despise your race ...' by adopting the Danish hairstyle; wherever we look, we find no one who thought in other political terms than membership of the people of the 'English', and subjection to its single king.
As politicians remind us whenever they justify themselves with an appeal to a (normally misconceived) past, political consensus resides ultimately in a sense of shared history. The history of the English was given its founding charter by Bede. It was a history of' 'the English, the 'gens Anglorum', that he wrote. He was following the lead of their 'apostle', Pope Gregory the Great, who never called them anything else, and of the church his disciples founded at Canterbury. 'English' was, as he might have put it, the baptismal name of all Germanic barbarians who had invaded Britain. Their history as he told it was of how God had allowed a pagan people to take possession of a beautiful island out of anger at the way its previous inhabitants had ignored His law; and of how He then introduced these newcomers to the blessing of Romano-Christian civilisation so wantonly abused by the Britons. In other words, Bede saw in their story a retelling of that of the people of Israel. For his understanding of events Bede already had a warrant in the way that Gildas, a sixth-century Briton ('their historian', as Bede revealingly called him), had stridently warned his countrymen of the consequences of their sinfulness. The all-too-clear implication of Bede's account was that, if Englishmen sinned like the Britons, they would go the same way.
Allegiance in the early Middle Ages was often founded in a sense of the threat posed by outsiders to shared Christian values. For the Anglo-Saxons, the model had a more lasting relevance than for even the Franks faced with Islam. In the Vikings, a pagan people crossing the North Sea, they saw an appalling mirror-image of their own experience, one that con- fronted them, by the very token of their one-time success, with a prospect of annihilation. Whether or not Vikings really posed any such threat is beside the point. Alfred had only to remind the 'English people' (his repeated term) 'what punishments had come upon us' at Viking hands for the message to get home to anyone tempted to seek a specifically Northumbrian, Mercian or East Anglian accommodation with them. He could go on to construct a law-code where the customs of West Saxons, and of Mercians and Kentings too, were prefaced by a long translation of the law given by God to Moses. Loyalty to God's law as interpreted and enforced by self-styled ‘kings of the English' was to be the condition of the survival of all 'Englishmen' in future.
An English state, then, came into being in the tenth and eleventh centuries because it made historical., hence political, sense. England was not made as a fact in the period covered by the British Museum exhibition, but it had been born as an idea. Its ultimate makers would achieve a more permanent creation than any continental counterpart because they did not have to invent their own ideological justification. Unlike the image of a .revived Christian Roman Empire, in which Franks and Germans vested their hegemonies, they could appeal to the compulsive notion. of a single, special., people of God. One of the best comments on their achievement is the very fact that it is so rarely given its due.
To find foreshadowing of later unity against the whole drift of the early Anglo-Saxon evidence is to indulge the historian’s habitual recourse to (he long-term trend as the solution of the otherwise sensational. To deny that anything worthy of the name of state had formed as early as 1066 is not just to shun the perils of anachronism, or to voice an understandable reaction to those seeking to exclude change in the name of a thousand year of tradition. It also yields to a les.' laudable instinct that something thought the acme of modernity could not have been realised as much as a millennium ago. Nonetheless, the difficulty of believing what the evidence says is no excuse for rejecting it. On the contrary, it is when known facts run counter to professional expectations that they should receive most attention.
Given the previous history of the Anglo-Saxons and that of- their neighbours, what stands out is not any abiding provincial loyalty but an English-consciousness robust enough to survive the extinction of the class that had created it at the hands of men from a fundamentally different political culture. To say this may or may not justify blowing an English trumpet. Fear of blowing an English trumpet does not justify the refusal to face one of history’s most remarkable facts.
Patrick Wormald is Lecturer in History at Christ Church, Oxford, and editor of Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society (Blackwell, 1983).
- F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford History of England, 3rd edn., 1971)
- English Historical Documents, Vol. I (to 1042), ed. D. Whitelock (London, 2nd edn, 1979) and Vol II, ed. D.C. Douglas (London, 2nd edn, 1980) are indispensable repositories of evidence and all the texts quoted in this article may be found there.
- S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989)
- B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1990)
- D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London, 1991)
- P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest (London, 1989)
- R. Fleming, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge, 1991)
- P. Clarke, The English Nobility under Edward the Confessor (Oxford, 1994)
- J. Gillingham, 'The Beginnings of English Imperialism', Journal of Historical Sociology 5 (1992)
- J.R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, 1970)
- J. Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843-1180 (Oxford, 1985)
- D. Bates, Normandy before 1066 (London, 1982)
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