Before the Normans – the formation of a kingdom to conquer

submap900.jpgThere is an argument to be made that historians shouldn’t talk about the Anglo Saxon period as though it was one “lump” of political cohesiveness given that the number of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms evolved throughout the period.

Basically there were initially seven kingdoms in England – Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.  There was also Wales with its own kingdoms.  Cumbria was initially part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.  Sometimes it was in Scottish hands, sometimes English – depending on the power and the politics of the period. Then there was Dumnonia – which we know as Devon and Cornwall. In 838 the men of Cornwall allied themselves with the Vikings against the kingdom of Wessex and lost.  By the end of the ninth century it is apparent that King Alfred held estates in the region.  Gradually the boundaries were pushed back to the River Tamar and the area we know as Cornwall today before it also became part of the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons.  Historians debate how the independent kingdom may have become a sub-kingdom before being coalesced.

So, in terms of Saxon kingdoms start off by thinking of seven for the seventh century and  the so called Heptarchy of kingdoms listed above.  These were first identified in the twelfth century by Henry of Huntingdon when he wrote his history.  The seven kingdoms rapidly dwindled to five – Wessex, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia and Northumbria. Kent also becomes less independent over time. By 829 the Kingdom of Wessex was dominant and the royal family of Wessex held the hereditary right to rule – the Witan, or council, could choose from anyone who could prove their bloodline.

The Vikings also need to be added into the mix. By 900 AD (Anno Domini) or CE (Common Era), depending on your preference, there’s a line demarcating the boundary between Saxon rule and Danelaw which runs at an approximate diagonal from Chester to Kent.

cnut.pngBy the beginning of the tenth century there was something that looked more like a country as we might recognise it today with regions and a more centralised administration – regions being governed by powerful families.  Even so it was only at the start of the eleventh century with the Danes in charge that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle refers to “all the kingdom of the English.”  Or put another way King Cnut was able to dominate all the factions and make them do what he wanted. Even Cnut stuck to the geographical boundaries of the four dominant earldoms of England as the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle explains.

 

A.D. 1017. This year King Knute took to the whole government of England, and divided it into four parts: Wessex for himself, East-Anglia for Thurkyll, Mercia for Edric, Northumbria for Eric. This year also was Alderman Edric slain at London, and Norman, son of Alderman Leofwin, and Ethelward, son of Ethelmar the Great, and Britric, son of Elfege of Devonshire. King Knute also banished Edwy etheling, whom he afterwards ordered to be slain, and Edwy, king of the churls; and before the calends of August the king gave an order to fetch him the widow of the other king, Ethelred, the daughter of Richard, to wife.

thumb.phpThe chronicle repeats the information that Cnut was the king of all England in 1035 when he died at Shaftesbury (he was buried in Winchester.)  He is pictured below giving Winchester Abbey a large gold cross along with his wife Emma of Normandy who had previously been married to Aethelred the Unready.

King-Cnut-stowe_ms_944_f006r.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on Cnut open a new window https://www.bl.uk/people/cnut

 

 

 

 

Dr Nicole Marafioti, review of Formation of the English kingdom in the 10th century, (review no. 1890)
DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1890
Date accessed: 2 May, 2019

 

Danegeld and heregeld

King-Cnut-stowe_ms_944_f006r.jpgIn 1066 the total population of England was somewhere between 2 and 2.5 million.  North and East of the A5 – or Watling Street- a good chunk of the population was of Scandinavian (largely Danish) descent being in the Danelaw part of the country.  Localhistories.org state that the population was much smaller than it had been in Roman times given that they identify a figure twice that of Anglo-Saxon England. 90% of the Anglo-Saxon population  in 1066 were involved in agriculture.

We know that England was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe at the time – in part we know this because of the collection of Danegeld during the period when Ethelred the Unready was king. In 1018 the Saxons gave King Cnut £82,000 which is a staggering sum of money.  In total the Vikings netted something in the region of £137,000 between 991 and 1012.  Clearly things were going from bad to worse for the Saxons.

Essentially following the second wave of Viking incursions from 1012 onwards Ethelred paid the Vikings money to go away – not understanding that they were freelancers and that once word spread that the Anglo-Saxons were handing out cash that more Vikings would turn up to benefit from the bonanza.  In later years Danegeld became heregeld or Army Tax.  Somewhat ironically we know that one of Ethelred’s mercenaries was the very nordic Thorkell the Tall who signed up in 1014 for £21,000.

Since 90% of the population were required to work the land it stands to reason that the heregeld was not to pay for new weapons or to pay homegrown soldiers but to pay a largely mercenary force to send the Vikings on their way.  This was not an entirely successful policy on the Saxons part as the Danes led by Cnut occupied England between 1016 and 1042.   They continued to levy the tax. Cnut died in 1035 and was succeeded by his sons Harthacnut and then Harold Harefoot.

Notwithstanding the change in rulers from Saxons to Vikings to Saxons and then Normans, heregeld continued to be collected until 1162 with a slight interruption during the reign of Edward the Confessor who discontinued its payment in 1051.  It was noted by Florence of Worcester as paying for a vessel and eighty warriors.

It is not surprising that the value of a penny in terms of its weight declined until Edward the Confessor placed a halt, albeit a temporary one, on the tax.  Every village was required to pay.  Bartering and exchange of good was not an option.  Thus the mint had to produce more coins and didn’t have sufficient metal of the job.

Rather uncharmingly, heregeld was the first nationally collected tax in Europe.  It also demonstrated that Ethelred was capable of levying a tax because he had the necessary bureaucracy in place to do so.  It was during this time for instance that the office of sheriff first appears in the written record.  Unsurprisingly the Normans kept the system in tact.  We know that Norman sheriffs usually paid a fee in order to acquire the job – these so called “farms” demonstrate that not only was the sheriff an important administrative official representing the monarch but that it was a highly lucrative job.  The person who was sheriff could control the other local magnates because it was his job to collect the heregeld and could thus dominate his locality as well as pocketing part of the taxes that he collected.

One of the problems of the taxation during Saxon times was that smallholders often found it difficult to pay the tax so during this period the make up of Saxon hierarchy changed so that there were fewer free holders and more villeins.

The image at the beginning of this post comes from the British Library

 

Lambert, Tom. Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England.

Lawson, M.K. The collection of Danegeld and Heregeld in the reigns of Aethelred II and Cnut  The English Historical Review, Volume XCIX, Issue CCCXCIII, 1 October 1984, Pages 721–738, https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/XCIX.CCCXCIII.721

The Battle of Maldon (991)

ethelred the unreadyThe Battle of Maldon took place on the 10thAugust 991 at the mouth of the River Blackwater near Maldon in Essex. The heroic poem about the battle was written shortly after.

Essentially, according to the poem, an army of Vikings  largely from Norway led by Olaf tried to land in Maldon having made a series of unpleasant visits along the Essex and Kent coast beforehand.   Olaf’s raid on Folkestone is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, at Maldon they met with resistance in the form of  Earl Brithnoth (or Brythnoth) and his men.

 

Olaf, who was camped at Northey Island, rather than fight initially asked for money to go away – the so-called Danegeld.  Brithnoth recognised that paying Vikings to go away was simply asking for another bunch to arrive so refused saying, according to the poem that the only tribute his men were prepared to offer were their spears.  According to the poem there was a pause whilst the tide came in but as it ebbed the Vikings crossed the river and battle was joined.  The poem makes it plain that the Vikings could not have crossed from the island where they were camped had Brithnoth not allowed them to do so.  This could be translated as hubris or equally the realisation that the Saxon militia was sizeable enough to take on the Vikings and that a victory was required in order for inland raids to stop.

Initially things went well for the Saxons but then Brithnoth was killed by a spear – the poem says that it was poisoned.  Most of the men of Essex fled at that point apart from Brithnoth’s loyal house carls who stood over Brithnoth’s body and fought to the death.  Although Brithnoth was killed the fight was so fierce that the Vikings withdrew and did not sack Maldon.  We don’t actually know the poem ended because it was destroyed in a fire in 1731 and there is only a translation remaining.

vikings in boats

Historically speaking Brithnoth’s Saxon militia may have been as many as 4000 strong.  The fyrd as the Saxon militia was called was summoned after the Vikings raided Ipswich.   The battle was composed of the Saxons making a shield wall which the Vikings attacked first with spears and then in the second phase with hand to hand fighting.

 

Of course the reason why the Battle of Maldon is remembered is not because it was unusual.  Afterall this was Ethelred the Unready’s period of rule.   He had become king at a young age after the murder of his brother  Edward the Martyr and he would be replaced in 1016 by Swein Forkbeard. Ethelred is pictured on a coin at the start of this post.  It was not a restful time to live in England.  Maldon is remembered because of the 325 line poem.

 

Brythnoth was not a young man at the time of his death.  The poem describes him as having white hair.  He was a patron of Ely Abbey and that was where he was buried.  Interestingly his wife is supposed to have given the abbey a tapestry celebrating his many heroic deeds – similar possibly to the style of the Bayeaux tapestry.  One of the reasons he may have been such a keen supporter of Ely was that when he and his men were busy repelling assorted Scandinavians he was refused shelter and food by Ramsey Abbey whereas at Ely he was welcomed with open arms.  When he left he gave the abbey a number of manors including Thriplow and  Fulbourn.  In 2006 a statue of Brithnoth was erected in Maldon.

 

In brief, Ethelred who was only twenty-four in 991 was not so wise as Brithnoth.  He paid Danegeld to the Vikings not understanding that they were not a nation but individual bands of warriors and would be attracted to free loot like wasps to a picnic.  Then, just to make matters worse Ethelred ordered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002 which successfully alienated those Norse families settled in England and  not murdered by Ethelred’s men not to mention irritating their extended families over seas.  I have posted about Ethelred and the massacre in a longer post about Edward the Confessor

 

https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/battle-of-maldon/

‘Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey and cathedral priory of Ely’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 199-210. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp199-210 [accessed 10 August 2018].