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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

English Kingdoms of the 8th Century

The subject of this lecture is royal power in the last century before the appearance of the Vikings in England.

The eighth century on the continent was the era of Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, and Charlemagne -- the Frankish leaders who established the power of the Carolingian dynasty, forged an alliance with the papacy, and built a Frankish empire and a theocratic kingship.

Offa of Mercia  (the dominant English kingdom of the time, ruled 757-796) was the one western king that Charlemagne called "brother." Aethelbald (another Mercian king, ruled 716-757) and Offa did not have kingdoms anywhere near the size of their Carolingian neighbors, but in their sphere they temporarily provided a greater English unity than had obtained before.

In the eighth century, we see a de facto division of the English kingdoms -- a division that will recur in one form or another through the Middle Ages. That division is between North and South, Northumbria on one hand and Southumbria on the other (divided by the river Humber). The two halves are not comparable in all ways.

Northumbria by this time was a reasonably well unified kingdom.

Southumbria was never the name of a kingdom at all; rather, Southumbria was the more fertile Lowland Zone of Britain under another name. There were several kingdoms there at any given time. In the eighth century, however, it would be effectively dominated by the Mercian kings.

The two halves of England were also ecclesiastically distinct. The south was the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury, the northern bishops depended on York, which had evolved into the second archbishopric of England.

In the late 7th century and the early 8th, we have more information about kings and their power than we have had before. There is not as much as we would like, particularly for Mercia itself. Something may have been written, but many churches and documents were destroyed in the Viking era, and the history of Mercia may have gone with them.  So the lecture will have more general considerations and few telling anecdotes than it might.

We'll begin with the effect of Christianization on English kingship. It enhanced the position of the king, there can be little doubt. The church gave the king the role of protector of the church, a role it had been finetuning since the conversion of Constantine.  Oswald of Northumbria, who restored the true faith after apostate kings had thrown off Christianity was regarded by Bede as a saint.   The field where he planted his cross became the site of miracles, as did Oswald's tomb, after he was killed in a later battle.

Not every king could aspire to sainthood, but they all received an ideological boost from Christian theories of worthy kingship. How deeply the king's self-image could be affected is shown by the curious phenomenon of kings retiring into monasteries at the end of their lives. Several English monarchs gave up their thrones and went to Rome so they could die there as monks and be buried near the tomb of St. Peter.  It appears that some eighth century monarchs were deeply receptive of the sense of Christian duty that bishops and monks were trying to instill in them.

Christianity did not merely change the ideology of kingship. It changed the content of royal power and affected the methods by which it was exercised.

  • First, the church was a source of patronage. Kings had influence over the appointment of their bishops, and if they chose them wisely, bishops could serve as valuable deputies. Kings had close links to a number of monasteries they or their predecessors had founded, and these too were potential power bases.
  • Second, the church was normally a supporter of royal power and stable government out of practical as well as ideological reasons.
  • A third factor was the introduction of writing and recordkeeping as tools of government. This was barely beginning in the eighth century. Charters, which recorded the transfer of land in a permanent, detailed form, were increasingly important -- but charters in this period were not official documents issued by the government, but were drawn up by the churches and monasteries that recieved the lands for their archives. Written law was introduced to England almost as soon as Augustine landed. Writing was not yet an important part of royal government, but the seeds of future developments had been planted.

Let's look how royal power was exercised by three important  Mercian kings, Aethelbald (716-757) and Offa (757- 796), with some reference to Offa's second successor Cenwulf (796-821).

These men exercised overlordship over Southumbria and, just as important, over the church in southern England, with some ups and downs, for over a century. They seem to be stronger kings than any we have seen to date. Offa  went so far as to dispense with separate kings in Kent, Sussex, Hwicce (which is near Worcester), Lindsey and East Anglia. Tributary subkings were replaced by ealdormen, the official ancestors of both earls and sheriffs. These men were deputies who oversaw a territory called a shire, supervising the collection of taxes and defending the king's prerogatives when necessary. In some cases the new ealdorman may have been the same person as the old subking. But although he remained an important person, he had suffered a demotion. In most cases the demotion was permanent. East Anglia regained its independence, but the other dynasties were gone for good.

To a neighbor like Charlemagne, Offa looked like the only real king in southern England.

The Mercian kings were remarkable too for fighting the Welsh actively and successfully. This was a major enterprise, because the Welsh were no pushovers -- they gave as good as they got for quite some time, and forced Offa to build a huge fortified frontier between Mercia and Wales.

Political superiority was reflected in the way the Mercian kings treated the church. They ruled or dominated the entire ecclesiastic province of the archbishops of Canterbury, and thus exercised a great influence on how it was run. In the days of Aethelbald, Mercian candidates were elected archbishop, even though Kent still retained some independence at the time. Aethelbald was also able to act as the president of a church council of the province of Canterbury in 746/7. Previously, the bishops had run their own meetings independently of monarchs. Was Aethelbald's active role applauded or resented by the churchmen? Probably both.

Aethelbald, like many other medieval kings, sometimes regretted the pious generosity of his predecessors in giving away royal lands and rights. Aethelbald found it necessary to insist, around 749, that whatever grants had been made in the past, all lands had to contribute men to the army and labor towards the building and maintenance of bridges and fortresses.

Offa's position was stronger than Aethelbald's, and so he took an even more prominent part in the running of the church. He (and his successor Cenwulf, too) routinely presided over councils of the southern English bishops. One of his great triumphs was his presidency of a council in 786 where papal legates were present. On this occasion, Offa got to play the role that Charlemagne was playing on the continent -- pious king as protector, even head, of a "national" church, a role backed by the acquiescence of St. Peter's representatives on the spot.

The special religious role claimed by Offa was asserted the next year, when Offa had his son anointed king by bishops, in imitation of Saul and David in the Old Testament, and more directly, in imitation of recent Frankish kings. The pope himself had anointed Charlemagne's sons a few years earlier, thus giving ecclesiastical and divine approval for the power of Charlemagne's dynasty. Offa hoped, in vain it turned out, to smooth his son's way to the throne in this way.

To return to Offa's position in the church. Offa could be very high handed in getting his way. At one point, he decided his control of the church would be more secure if Lichfield, a bishopric central to his own territory, was elevated to the rank of archbishopric, and given many of Canterbury's subordinate bishops.  The archbishopric of Lichfield was dismantled on Offa's death, but the Cenwulf inherited the essence of Offa's power over the church. When the archbishop of Canterbury in his time tried to take over monasteries connected to the royal family, Cenwulf had him suspended from his position for six years.

At least in Southumbria, Offa and Cenwulf had gained the kind of ecclesiastical predominance that their brother monarch Charlemagne had on the continent. Offa and Charlemagne are roughly comparable in other ways as well. Offa was a king capable of conceiving of and carrying out major projects. Offa's huge fortified Welsh frontier, known as Offa's Dyke, is an impressive piece of engineering and a demonstration of royal control of resources. Originally it was 150 miles long, and made up of a ditch 6 feet deep backed by a rampart 25 feet high. It was not fortified and so would not have stopped a determined army. But a barrier this size would have been quite effective in containing Welsh raiding and thus in stabilizing the frontier.

The existence of the dyke cannot be explained without granting Offa the ability to conscript tens of thousands of workers in an organized fashion.

Offa and Charlemagne are both notable for their interest in regulating and exploiting trade. Perhaps this is just the beginning of documentation, and not interest, but since both men were more powerful than their predecessors, we can say that their interest had more practical consequences. Neither king seems to have doubted that they could enforce their decisions on their own merchants.

This period also saw, both in England and the Continent, the first practical, royally sponsored currency since Roman times. In England it was a silver coin called, eventually, the penny. Offa's kingdom seems to have produced millions of pennies. Each penny was worth a substantial amount, but not so much as to make its daily use difficult, which was the problem with many earlier gold coins. The gold coins were medals, or jewelry, or even propaganda pieces demonstrating royal wealth. The silver pennies were useful money, and their existence both reflected increased trade and promoted it.  The number of coins indicates a richer, commercially more active society, closely watched and systematically exploited by the king.

Offa was the first king to call himself "King of the English," and "King of the English homeland," in other words, King of England. Cenwulf used the even more impressive title of emperor.

But their power, like that of Charlemagne's dynasty, was less stable than it looked. Murder and civil strife were an almost constant part of English royal politics. The English rule was that a king must have royal blood, but there was no rule that said he had to be the closest male relative of his predecessor. Lots of people had royal blood, or could make a claim to it, and many did. Rivalries and dissatisfactions within the aristocracy, a moment's weakness in the then-ruling family, could lead to quick revolutions in power.

In the early ninth century this type of instability led to the loss of Mercian supremacy in the south. Indeed, in 829, Mercia was temporarily conquered by the King of Wessex -- if you can believe the records preserved by the West Saxons. By that time, the country was on the verge of a greater political revolution yet. In 829, Viking raids had been hitting England for a generation. They were yet small ones, but the big ones were just over the horizon. The coming of the Vikings to England is our next subject.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.