Rulers of late Anglo-Saxon England

How successful were the rulers of late Anglo-Saxon England in creating a genuinely united kingdom?

A genuinely united kingdom of England, Henry Royston Loyn argues, was generated by King Alfred (r.871-899) whose reign can accurately be seen "as a culmination of past trends and as a critical take-off point from which could grow the now powerful Christian kingdom of England.[1] And, it was perhaps Alfred's grandson, Eadred, who first ruled over a united kingdom of England. It is thus shown that this West Anglo-Saxon ruler implemented such significant methods of rule that it resulted in Britain uniting government and territories to a single sovereign. However, can this drastic transformation from the several houses of power occupying Britain owe their unification to the actions of one monarch? The unification of England for the duration of Anglo-Saxon rule could be argued as infallibly successful owing to minor Anglo-Saxon weaknesses and the transacting shifts of power can by no means viewed as simple. It is in circumstance and methods employed by monarchs of the late Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England whose domination in areas of politics, social structure, legitimisation of rule and economy, in addition to the West Saxon military prowess, that united the kingdoms entirely.

It is in military and economic strategy behind late Anglo-Saxon rule where sheer circumstance can be seen a significant factor in unifying the kingdoms. Alfred Smyth suggests "the unification of England was brought about by West Saxon military and strategic superiority, facilitated by eventual Danish weakness and by previous Scandinavian annihilation of all native English opposition.[2] This statement, in reference to the continuous Viking raids, outlines the strong assumption that regal authority of Wessex benefitted greatly by the weakening of firstly Northumbria, East Anglia and finally Mercia (who specifically lost all independent rule following the death of Aethelflaed in 911). With the kingdom of Wessex emerging as the stronger, a probable unification at this point in time can be clearly identified. There are distinct differences which put Wessex in a favourable situation in comparison to the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. East Anglia was weakened by its vulnerable coastline, being successfully taken by the Danes in 869 and Mercia whose political control was taken over by Wessex. It is these events that allowed for Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) to set up burhs/fortified towns, it is these towns that "from their almost entirely military beginnings the burhs implied some permanent administrative apparatus.[3] Using this structure as a defence mechanism, such method protected Alfred's kingdom from Viking conquest and resulted in the baptism of Guthrum, king of the invading Vikings, who later ruled in agreement with Alfred over East Anglia, west Mercia and Essex.[4] Despite this, the establishment of Danelaw and resistance to Viking raids cost England extortionate sums of money: it is estimated that between the years of 990-1014 two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of silver was paid to the Vikings. Although this shows that Alfred's successes were not in fact great, at least a stronghold of such vast expanse is achieved and the trend of unifying kingdoms is set.

In order for kingdoms to unify, the outstanding rulers to follow needed to demonstrate skill in achieving political unity through administrative measures which is probably one of the most important factors leading to a united and English kingdom. King Alfred was the first of the West Saxon kings to establish a legal code: a combination of laws imposed by predecessor, King Offa, in addition to adoption of fragments of Mercian and Kentish law. Strong leadership and regal consistency as such can be disputed. It was Ethelwulf who divided his kingdom and allowed young children to take the mantle of leadership, and King Edwy's entanglement in court factions that clearly show irregularity in the unification of Britain. In spite of this it can be noted that "Anglo-Saxon governmental technique was advanced for its age and bears favourable comparison with anything on the continent of Europe.[5] This degree of monarchical precedent was followed by many stronger rulers, for example, Aethelstan, who consolidated Alfred's England[6] and Edgar who "travelled around his country in winter and spring,[7] a clear demonstration of royal power at the face of society. It is evident therefore that despite minor glitches in Anglo-Saxon rule, these methods outlined the future for the four larger kingdoms of later England in place of the previous heptarchic states.

Of course the social and state-structure of these four large kingdoms (which were consolidated in the 850s) indicate strengths that "lead to the first unified kingship.[8] The high numbers of rural population, or 'gebur', consistently made no less than ninety percent of total persons in England, and even Europe. The significance of the gebur in uniting Anglo-Saxon England can easily be overlooked by many historians, however it was their submission to slavery (in many cases this made sense; for protection and ultimate survival) that allowed for the royally authorised nobility to essentially vitalise monarchical rule. In practice; it was the ealdormen that would administrate and rule over several shires and lead its personal forces in the field. Collectively with the bishops and archbishops, the ealdormen made up the witenagemot, or 'high witan', all of whom sworn by an oath of loyalty to the king, demonstrating strong foundations in the kingdoms' structure, which is especially important in context of uniting the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.[9] It is suggested that kings would increasingly rely on his "bishops and abbots...wealthy thegns with a strong territorial base in one or more shires, bound by special oaths of loyalty.[10] Despite close association here of thegn and church it is in the thegn that by a substantially lower degree of governing who served the king in providing the backbone to the royal army, where both successes and failures lead to a united kingdom.

There is no argument for the structural failure under Aethelred II's reign when Anglo-Saxon rule was suspended in submission to the Danes and King Cnut (r.1016-1035). It was Aethelred's failure in securing allegiance throughout the Anglo-Saxon line of subjects that resulted in his dispossession by Viking, Sweyn of Denmark, in 1013. Despite clear weakness, in review of entire Anglo-Saxon rule, the order implemented by kings to ealdormen and thegns resulted in a very functioning kingdom, especially given that Cnut continued precisely what preceding monarchs had done.[11] It is indicated in the Domesday Book of 1086 that reviews of every shire and estate allowed for monarchs to impose taxes on the peasantry at unprecedented levels never before seen in Medieval Europe.[12] The 'Tribal Hidage' also shows significant royal control of wealth dating as far back as the seventh century.[13] Such thorough sweeping throughout the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England clearly simplified acquisition of monies, greatly increasing the power and wealth of the most productive kingdoms; Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, where a dominative royal authority over the English peoples consistently shifted between rulers (barely indicating true unification). Within the later kingdoms, from Edgar's reign (959-975), rulers regulated a means of taxing known as renovatio monetae or 'bullion tax', the recall of outdated coins and restriction of circulation of the indicators that should picture the current monarch.[14] The implementation of the renovatio centralised power in the monarchy and rooted deep royal authority into provincial districts.[15] It is supported by James Campbell who argues "coins themselves were powerful messengers of royal authority.[16] One can see here the evidence of an integrated society and even a kingdom closing into unification.

It is in Anglo-Saxon coinage, most notable finds being at Sutton Hoo, and most recently, the Staffordshire Hoard, where we can clearly see moral image of importance in what would eventually strengthen one kingdom. King Aethelred II's coins have the side of his head bored on one side, and the hand of God on the other. This religious association indicates the close ties between Christianity and royal government in Anglo-Saxon England. One can look at how legitimisation of an Anglo-Saxon ruler; in tradition of the Carolingian empire; they alike were to be anointed in a coronation ceremony for sovereignty and divine rule of the plebs. Clearly the unifying strength of Christianity that "king, witan and Church cooperated closely in their attempts to create...an ordered Christian society[17] is no doubt an indication of a long-standing move that resulted in a spiritually united kingdom. In order to stress this point further, it has to be taken into account what has been described as the 'Benedictine monastic reform'[18] , the unifying of political rule over monasteries from 970 and the Regularis Concordia that formalised links between monarch and church. James Campbell outlines that "in a religious context the Angles, Saxons and Jutes all came to see themselves as 'English'.[19] This of course leads to the unquestionable display of relationship between the state and church, thus state, church and most importantly, monarch, are the aspects where a unified kingdom has undoubtedly followed.

It is undisputed that there were minor weaknesses with the late Anglo-Saxon rulers in creating a genuinely united kingdom. Problems included disloyal subjects of Aethelred II's reign, inconsistent administrating and the early dissolution of Essex, Sussex and Kent. However, Late Anglo-Saxon rulers were ultimately successful in creating a genuinely united kingdom because they strengthened rule by collecting taxes effectively, used these monies to stave off Danish conquest and established the rudiments of Anglo-Saxon law codes and Danelaw. The yield of the gebur enforced civilian loyalties and the early dissolution of Kent, Essex and Sussex concentrated power in the approaching total unification of the four kingdoms. With a final reference to Timothy Reuter, there is a clear consensus among learned historians that a united kingdom had been successfully created as a result of late Anglo-Saxon rule in the areas of politics, identity and governance: "the political concept of England and the English ethnic identity took shape around a successful West Saxon kingship in the ninth and tenth centuries,[20] The United Kingdom of England follows.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Campbell, J., Essays on Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986)

Campbell, J., The Anglo-Saxons (1982)

Domesday Book

Keynes, S., 'England c.900-1016' in ed T Reuter, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume III: c.900-c.1024 (Cambridge, 1999)

Levick, B and Nicholson, A., http://www.regia.org/history/history.htm (1991)

Levick, B., http://www.regia.org/history/Saxons1.htm (1990)

Livingstone, E. A., The Concise English Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 2000)

Loyn, H. R., The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England 500-1087 (California, 1984)

Reuter, T., 'The making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 1998)

Stafford, P., A Companion to the Early Middle Ages. Britain and Ireland c.500-c.1100 (Sussex, 2009)

Ed Stafford, P., Unification and Conquest. A political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (1989)

Ed Whitelock, D,. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (California, 1986) annals. 1010-1017, 1051-52, 1065-66

[1] H. R. Loyn, The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England 500-1087 (Stanford, 1984), p. XV

[2] T. Reuter, 'The Making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A. Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Prospectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 2002) p.61

[3] Ed J Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, (1982), p. 176

[4] B. Levick and A. Nicholson http://www.regia.org/history/history.htm (1991)

[5] P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest. A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, (1989) p. 99

[6] Ed J Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, (1982), p. 164

[7] P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest. A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, (1989) p. 99

[8] T. Reuter, 'The Making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A. Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Prospectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 2002) p.40

[9] B. Levick http://www.regia.org/history/Saxons1.htm (1990)

[10] P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest. A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, (1989) pp. 100-101

[11] T. Reuter, 'The Making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A. Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Prospectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 2002)

[12] Ed J. Campbell, Uniting the Kingdom?; the making of British history (London, 1995), p. 32

[13] P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest. A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, (1989) p. 31

[14] J Campbell, Essays on Anglo-Saxon History, (1986)

[15] T. Reuter, 'The Making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A. Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Prospectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 2002) p.61

[16] Ed J. Campbell, Uniting the Kingdom?; the making of British history (London, 1995), p. 41

[17] P. Stafford, Unification and Conquest. A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, (1989) p. 72

[18] Ed P. Stafford, A Companion to the Early Middle Ages, Britain and Ireland c. 500-c. 1100, (2009) p. 361

[19] A. Grant and Keith John Stringer, Uniting the Kingdom?; the making of British history (London, 1995), p. 41

[20] T. Reuter, 'The Making of England and Germany, 850-1050: points of comparison and difference' in ed A. Smyth, Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Prospectives in Medieval Europe (Hampshire, 2002)

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