Seminary XII: Earls of Mercia (but no naked horsewomen)

Customised version of Lady Godiva’s ride through Coventry

The IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar for the 21st of November actually took place in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, which turned out to be just as well as we’d have overflowed the normal room. This was mainly because, as one of ‘the locals’ was speaking, several of his pupils joined us, but it was certainly an interesting paper. It was, in point of fact, Dr Stephen Baxter of King’s College London come to tell us about his new book, The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (and ignore what that link says, it is published, I’ve seen a copy). His paper was thus of the same title, and dealt with the family of Leofwine (and therefore Leofric and therefore Lady Godiva, who only got a mention to say that she wouldn’t get a mention, but as with the Beowulf entry, we like the search terms anyway). I won’t try and do what he did and summarise the book; I’d wind up summarising his summary and it would do little good, but there were two or three quite particular points that I thought were worth dragging aside in the style of a hunting-hound dragging a bone away from the feasting table and gnawing at.

The first of these was his insistence, on what seemed to be a sound basis, that the lands that were held by the various earls or ealdorman of Anglo-Saxon England were largely granted to them by the king, and remained sufficiently under royal control that they could easily be revoked when as frequently happened earls were moved around or removed from office. His best example was of Earl Eadwine, when he’s appointed to Northumbria after the exile of Tostig; Stephen pointed out that he has land in many parts of the earldom, despite the family having no useful background there at all and him hardly having time to buy very much; this, he argued, must be coming from the king. This is a bit of a maximum government idea really, and although no-one studying the high Middle Ages would think this odd for a king to be able to do, to anyone used to the early Middle Ages on the Continent it seems almost impossible. This is the era of the supposed feudal transformation! If you’ve got a castle you’re independent! If you’re miles away from the king, tough luck to him! and so on. But here, if Stephen’s right and these aren’t just family holdings that intermingle so much as to be dangerous, which seems less and less likely the more you realise how quickly earldoms are flipped from family to family in Edward the Confessor’s reign, the royal officials who actually keep these estates running and producing care enough about the king that they don’t, for example, take it for their own castle, form a pact with the local lord to respect his claims before anyone else’s in exchange for protection and so on. Despite the numerous advantages there must be of being a lord’s man in this troubled period, and despite all the work Robin Fleming’s done elucidating the nature and number of the people who did make choices like that, in these areas it’s still a better deal being the king’s local man. Well, we really need to know more about how the kings managed that and where it came from. If more work along those lines comes from reaction to Stephen’s book much good will have come of it. One initial reflection of mine is that this would be one reason exactly to keep the earldoms flying round places, to stop anyone getting a toe-hold. If you can hand them enough revenue to work with anyway, you don’t lose too much by not letting them wear into the job, maybe…

He also made something of the idea that the lords, denied local anchorage through their lay lordship, made some attempts to fix themselves in local power structures through the patronage of the Church. The Church would remember for longer, and also could revoke its benefices less easily… He had some very good examples of what it might cost a cathedral or monastery to have a ‘patron’ of this sort, in terms of grants in trust to their ‘great friend’ whom they could not ignore. This sort of tactic obviously had to be confined to core areas, though, and it seems to me that this implies some better basis in those areas to start with. At this point, of course, I need to read the book before pontificating :-)

Alan Thacker however also wanted to know what made these ealdormanly families worthy of the rank, but as Stephen pointed out, entirely new earls are made, and function, so it keeps coming back to the maximum state again. Just leaves me champing at the bit and wanting to know how, how, how, and why not elsewhere.

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6 responses to “Seminary XII: Earls of Mercia (but no naked horsewomen)

  1. The most convincing argument I’ve so far heard on why England has a maximal state and no-one else has is Chris Wickham (in his Tim Reuter lecture on comparative history). He thinks that conquests, as it were, press the reset button. They give power back to the centre, because kings suddenly have lots of land for patronage, stopping the tendency to fragmentation and localisation that normally happens. With three conquests of England in the ninth to the elevent century, that seems quite a plausible argument to me. So if only Charles the Bald hadn’t been so successful fighting the Vikings :-) there might have been a centralised France.

  2. Well, I was arguing similar things for states where the Normans got to set things up fresh these last few weeks, so I think I have to agree with that. I wonder if I subconsciously absorbed that from Chris at some point. I should check that article out in more detail. Can you provide a cite for the masses?

  3. Chris’ paper is:

    Chris Wickham, ‘Problems in doing comparative history’, Reuter Lecture, 2004. (Southampton: University of Southampton, Centre for Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 2005)

    Southampton University sent me a free copy and I think there are some free copies floating around still (if you know medievalists at Southampton). Otherwise, I suspect the Centre will sell it to you.

  4. Many thanks, I’ll see what I can magic.

  5. Reminds me of Bede’s famous complaint to Bishop Egbert that so much land was being given to found fake/lax family monasteries that the king would have no land left to give to his warriors and then the country would be unprotected. Bede’s prediction was followed by an 8th century when weak kings where nearly constantly being deposed and then come the Vikings…

  6. Pingback: Domesday TV with Stephen Baxter « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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