Why should political unity have been a Church goal, actually?

Obverse of penny of King Edgar

Obverse of penny of King Edgar

I’m aware that medieval posts proper have been few and far between around here just lately, and again I can only say, I’m afraid that this is because I’m busy with big things not small things. However, I have been working my way through my boss’s copy of a recent conference volume, Edgar, King of the English 959-975, ed. Donald Scragg (London 2008), which he has kindly lent me and which therefore jumps the to-read pile so that I can give it back soon. I’ll do a full post about the book when I reach the end of it but till then there’s something I’d like to canvass opinions about.

The idea keeps coming up that Edgar’s apparent imperium of Britain, as epitomised for many by the episode at Chester in 973, after his maybe-second coronation at Bath that year, when six Celtic kings rowed him across the River Dee, is a later fiction or at least an enhancement of a less imperial presentation of the time. It seems to be accepted by all commentators, but especially two,1 that this is a natural thing for the Benedictine reform movement to promote, because they were generally in favour of single monarchical rule of the whole island. So, Frederick Biggs argues that not just the reformers but Bede before them elide uncomfortably over the frequent joint kingships seen in early Anglo-Saxon history, of which he argues Edgar and his brother Eadwig, ruling 955-959, was probably the last. Why? And Julia Crick takes apart the unusual usage of the term ‘Albion’ in many of Edgar’s charters and places it in a reformist context as well.

King Edgar prostrate before Christ, as depicted in the New Minster of Winchester's foundation charter

King Edgar prostrate before Christ, as depicted in the New Minster of Winchester's foundation charter

I may be missing something obvious here, but, why should the reforming Church be pro-monarchy? The usual argument seems to be that God is a single ruler therefore that was the order the Church would wish to see in the world, celestial and worldly hierarchies matched. To me this fails on two levels: firstly because if it were so you, as reform churchman, would then want your king under the pope or an emperor. If you’re willing to defend any less of a political unit than Christendom as a viable independent polity, then you’re not really arguing for analogy with Heaven, surely. Secondly, it jars with so much contemporary ideology, including the reform one that eventually got worked out through the Investiture Controversy, that proper worldly rule is carried out by a king but advised by his bishops, who ultimately hold sanction over him. We see this with Hincmar of Reims, with Jonas of Orléans and probably some of the Fleury guys so influential on the English reform too, though I don’t know that for sure. This proto-Gelasian power-sharing between Church and King is quite unlike the cæsaropapism of which Edgar has been accused by, for example, Eric John.2

Then there’s the power argument. A Church which is a single structure represents a better chance of coming to ultimate power at the top of it, you might argue; a big pond is essential to being a successful big fish. More prosaically, the more lands your king rules the more bishoprics, abbacies or chapels there are for him to hand out. But those churches are always in the power of someone: it doesn’t seem a natural thing to me that one’s odds of promotion are better hanging around Winchester with a lot of other clerics than, for example, hanging around one of the other royal courts of the British Isles of the time hoping to make good from another king. Maybe there are lots of them too and we just have the winners’ writings…

I suppose the third argument is that if you really believe that reform is essential, you can effect this most easily if everywhere is under the power of one ruler that you can influence. But does that really lead you to be uncomfortable with the idea that rule at other times might not have been monarchical and all-British? And what’s Bede’s excuse? He’s quite clear that long periods exist in English history with no overall ruler, and indeed brushed over the preeminence of Æthelbald of Mercia in his own times quite carefully. This isn’t really a point of view they can really have hoped to disappear merely through writing nice things about Edgar at Chester as the Danes threatened. I just don’t buy it. At the very least this is an unchecked assumption about Dunstan’s and Æthelwold’s world-views that I’d like to see based on something more substantial. Perhaps that argument is elsewhere in the book…


1. Frederick M. Biggs, “Edgar’s Path to the Throne” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English 959-975: new approaches (London 2008), pp. 124-139, and Julia Crick, “Edgar, Albion and Insular Dominion”, ibid. pp. 158-170.

2. David Parsons (ed.), Tenth-Century Studies: essays in commemoration of the millennium of the Council of Winchester and Regularis Concordiae (London 1975); Eric John, “Orbis Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon Kings” in idem, Orbis Britanniae and other Studies (Leicester 1966), pp. 1-63. For the Investiture Controversy see Uta-Renate Blumenthal, Der Investiturstreit (Stuttgart 1982), rev. and transl. as The Investiture Crisis, Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1988, repr. 1995).

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14 responses to “Why should political unity have been a Church goal, actually?

  1. Allow me to channel my inner Californian here. Dude, great question! And doesn’t it bump up against something I know you’ve thought about elsewhere — the question of why the (West) Franks even down through Aquitaine, Provence, Gascony, etc. continued to want a king during the 10th century, even if it’s clear that he didn’t do too much down there?

    I don’t have a clear answer but I do think, however, that you’re reading ideology a bit too rigidly. The heavenly and earthly order should indeed mirror one another but areas/ kingdoms could be microcosms of the whole. Good order in Mercia/ Francia/ etc. could mirror the heavenly order and that’d be OK. Further, I think it’s a mistake to read late 10th-century Cluniac (or reform) ideology as necessarily related to late 11th-century reform ideology. To take Fleury, Abbo’s ideas are much different from Hugh’s.

    Granted, this is all about Francia and Englands a different animal…

  2. Here’s a quick idea — maybe it’s not that it’s a desire for monarchy per se, but that it’s easier to please and work with one king, and if you’re in with the winning king, it also puts you at the top? After all, the Church is structured to have lots of bishops and high-level clerics, but it didn’t prevent them as individuals from making power grabs. I know there are lots of reasons we can’t really compare — a continent and 230-ish years, just to start — but the first thing that popped into my head when I read this was Boniface. Followed by Prinz, Schlesinger, and McKitterick.

    That is, how much of it is “*a* guy at the top” vs. “*my* guy at the top”?

  3. I think you all are thinking too politically and not theologically enough. Just as there is one Pope, there should be one king, as there was one David. Bede describes the great benefits to a church in the conversion age when working with a great king. The greater the king, the greater his generousity and sponsorship (like Oswald), the greater the peace is possible (like Edwin’s peaceful kingdom where a woman and babe can travel unmolested).

    Look at the way Bede writes of Oswald — “It is not to be wondered at that the prayers of this king WHO IS NOW RULING WITH THE LORD should prevail, for while he was ruling over his temporal kingdom, he was always accustomed to work and pray most diligently for the kingdom which is eternal. (HE III.12). In his last miracle in the Sussex plague, Oswald is seen as a intercessor for ALL the people of Britain, even though they considered him a foreign king: “King Oswald, who once ruled over this people [Sussex] and who prayed to the Lord for them as if of his own race though strangers” (HE IV.14).

  4. Michelle — I don’t know that the two are mutually exclusive. As you point out, the greater the king, the greater his sponsorship. It was very important to pick the right sponsor … far better, for example, to choose the Arnulfings than the Agilolfinger…

  5. I’ve been doing a *lot* of thinking about this and perhaps enough thinking and such that I should bring it all together in a blog post of my own and see what you folks think.

    While I agree with ADM, I have to say that I think Michelle’s leanings are in the right direction. Churchmen after all think theologically as much as politically, and while not exclusive, most secular leaders don’t necessarily think theologically, or theo-politically if you will.

    Except in England….Edgar is the descendant of Alfred, and Alfred and his line in the tenth century have all been up to their eye teeth involved in the church and in leading the church of England. Edgar no less: depending on the source, the reform of Winchester is Aetholwold’s doing, Aethelwold’s with the help of Edgar who sent troops, Edgar’s through the agency of Aethelwold (i. e. Edgar’s idea and muscle, Aethelwold acting as his agent).

    I think there’s more to it…going back to sacral kingship Christianized and it was after all an Anglo-Saxon who first addressed Charlemagne as “David” with all the theo-political ramifications of that, and it’s an Englishman (well, ok, *I* think he was an Englishman), the so-called Norman Anonymous who post-1066 writes about the king’s rights and king as head of church etc.

    So there’s obviously a long-standing idea in England that resurfaces with ol’ Henry Acht that the English church is run by the king with a very closely associated group of bishops.

    Perhaps I should work this up a bit more for a blog post.

  6. Then there is the Northumbrian coins… with the four legged creature on the back. The creature is usually assumed to be a lion, correct? The lion of Judea… with the king as David. Of course the Northumbrians aren’t the only ones to think of David as the role model for their king. Didn’t the St. Andrews Sarcophagus (probably for Oengus I) depict David?

    I think you also want to think about the role of the church in developing the very concepts of kingship among the Anglo-Saxons. Its no coincidence that kingship evolves the most during the seventh century, the century of conversion. We know for example that Aethelberht’s laws, as written law, were encouraged and influenced by Augustine of Canterbury.

  7. On a purely practical level, if you want to see why bishops would have preferred a unified kingdom to a divided one, look at Francia post 840. If you have rival kings and fighting between them, who loses out? The church, whether by pillaging or by having to send its contingents off to fight. Even when there is theoretically peace, if you are in St Denis and you have land in Louis the German’s kingdom, how do you get it defended, and what do you do if Louis gets hacked off with Charles the Bald and decides to pressure him via designs on your land? And if you have a archdiocese that covers more than one kingdom, like Hincmar’s in Rheims, you have even worse problems.

    As for the ideology of kingship, it’s not only about the unity of the church and the unity of the kingdom going together. It’s also about the link between being a Christian king and a victorious king. If a king is truly Christian he ought to be defeating his enemies, and breaking the teeth of the ungodly and other Old Testament things. And if he’s not being victorious, then maybe he’s not truly Christian after all, but a sinner who must repent of what is going on in his kingdom. (Or in other words, if things are going right, the king should listen to his bishop. If things are going wrong, the king should…listen to his bishop).

  8. To throw another idea into the mix, what if it is also to do with ‘stability’, that core monastic ideal?

  9. Hullo, I’m back and thankyou all for having such a lively and civilised discussion while I’ve been elsewhere. There’s a lot of food for thought here, and I guess perhaps my initial question was a bit naïf; the political reasons why one might want a single king make sense on Realpolitikal levels as well as theological ones, although I think I’m most persuaded by the arguments about peace. Michelle’s citations of Bede on this are especially interesting because of him being one of the authors in Bigg’s argument, and that quote about Oswald shows him negotiating this same question I think. (And yes, Michelle, the beasts are usually thought to be lions, but some of them are most of the way towards wolves which are also seen in types that mix up their features with dragons and zoomorphs generally. But mostly, lions… As discussed nothing is certain with sceattas.)

    All the same, firstly, we are looking, aren’t we, at a situation where political geography is constraining ecclesiological thought, and I find those interesting because there is, for example, a historiography in Catalonia that assumes that the Church there, under Frankish supervision from across the Pyrenees, would have been all about seceding to be its own province as soon as possible, whereas actually this doesn’t seem to have been the case because that political unit didn’t really exist. Likewise when we’re talking about the making of England and a `natural’ rule over all Britain, whose agenda are we using, the ninth century’s or the nineteenth’s? Why not smaller or indeed larger units? Why aren’t these ambitious people at the Imperial court trying to persuade him to assert control over England? Or, why aren’t they being bigger fish in smaller ponds? Why Edgar’s level? Is it just because he’s interested in the Church? At which rate, what are the priorities setting the agenda, the Church’s or his?

    Also, do we really think that such preoccupations then affect the way people write about the past that didn’t fit this lofty ideal? Does Bede really wipe out joint kingships in the messy past because of his belief in a single gens anglorum, even though such a thing is far from being achieved in his day? I’m still not sure I buy it…

  10. Sorry to revive a somwhat older debate, but I’ve only just started following your blog (which I must say I find very engaging) and happened upon this older post. I thought I should add that Simon Keynes’s article in the book strongly argues against the idea that the Dee rowing (or at least submission) is a later invention, and here I find myself agreeing with him. (Perhaps you had yet to read his piece at the time of the post, or equally, as – like most of Simon’s work – it’s about 50 pages long, you may simply have forgotten the few sentences he dedicates to the event.)

    Otherwise the main grounds for reformers to elaborate Edgar’s tradition would be first of all the idealised concepts of unitas regni/imperiii, unitas ecclesiae, which of course we also see amongst reform circles under Louis the Pious. The other, more pragmatic reason, as Magistra points out, is to emphasise his role as a successful ruler, which can only enhance the large numbers of privileges these churches have from him (and rapidly following his death begin to forge under his name).

    On the other hand, I think your uncertainty re: Bede is well warranted. Because of Patrick Wormald’s impressive scholarly output (not to mention excellent prose style), we now tend to assume the importance of Bede to the formation of concepts of ‘Englishness’ (for lack of a better word). Yet the evidence on the ground for this is startlingly slim, and I know that George Molyneaux, a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has some convincing forthcoming work which undermines much of this ediface.

  11. Hullo, Levi, no problem with revisiting the old stuff, and thankyou for the kind words. Simon’s words on the rowing at Chester must really be very few – I can’t see them. The section “The events of 973″, pp. 48-51, doesn’t mention the rowing at all and a reskim of the rest of the article doesn’t throw anything up to my eyes either. Perhaps you can cite in more detail?

    As to the rest, I perhaps needed to make my point more clearly, in fact I certainly did as I had to try and make it again in the previous comment! Unitas regni imperii is indeed a powerful concept, but how could one justify snapping it so tightly round Britain, rather than wider Christendom, especially when there is actually an Emperor endorsed by the head of the united ecclesia at the time? Why doesn’t such a theory lead to papal or Holy Roman Imperial submission? This was my point: a theological basis for this drive to unity surely tends towards a single united Christendom, not a separately united Britain. The pragmatism makes more sense, but its justification must have been hard to theorise.

    I think it’s not just Patrick Wormald but also James Campbell who are responsible for the ‘Bede created England’ idea, but I wouldn’t trash it entirely. I think the HEGA genuinely is an attempt to cast the whole of the Anglo-Saxon history in the British Isles into a single theological story, and you know, we see what he did there; but the Letter to Egbert as well as sideways remarks in the HEGA show that he was well aware that in a political sphere that kind of unity was invisibly far off. I think what he did do, without meaning to, is create a concept of `English’ (not Englishness, just the ethnic identity without elaboration of its characteristics) that Alfred could then pick up and run with, and that’s why the idea has such historiographical roots, because Alfred planted it, watered it with his own sweat and tears and occasionally the blood of his enemies, and then it’s been healthily pruned and regrown every thirty years for most of the last couple of centuries…

  12. Well unfortunately I only have a pre-publication version of his article to hand, and need to update my own references to it, but assuming Simon didn’t cut this section out (I must admit it’s possible he did), then in that section, just about a page before ‘The aftermath of King Edgar’s death’, I have him saying: ‘Modern post-colonial interpretation has reinvented the ceremony at Chester as a “peace summit”, or a conference of the “Great Powers”, casting Edgar as little more than a genial host or chairman. It might be different if the draftsmen of Edgar’s charters had chosen, like some of their predecessors, to include sub-kings in the witness-lists, and thus have given a better sense of the background in the 960s; for it is difficult indeed to see in the events of 973 very much less than the ceremonial reaffirmation and public celebration of Edgar’s rule throughout Britain.’

    I take the point about why I should be applied to Britain being potentially problematic (although Bede certainly think in terms of an ‘English Church’ stretching across Britain at times). I would personally see in the case of Edgar the concept being more tied to the English chuch, and more specifically monasticism, which we know from the Regularis concordia Edgar did think of as a single entity. So I guess from that standpoint I’d largely agree that Edgar’s reforming need not a priori have anything imperial about it.

    As for Alfred, Bede, and English identity, I think there are a few difficulties which are ofte quickly glossed-over. It’s rather difficult, first of all, to suggest that Bede created a concept of ‘English’, especially when Ine independently and earlier refers to his own people as ‘English/Angles’ in a lawcode issued as ‘King of the West Saxons’, suggesting a pre-existing Wirgefühl. We know little of what was going on at the time, and certainly Bede puts a nice vaneer on it, but we really know very little about the existing concepts Bede was playing with.

    However, what I find more problematic, is the link between Bede and Alfred. If Malcolm Godden is right, and people who know more about Old English that I do tell me he at least has some very good arguments, it may well be that Alfred never wrote any of the ‘Alfredian’ works, and that indeed not all can be even associated with his court or to the years of his reign. However, even accepting the arguments for his authorship, we have no evidence that he read Bede (the OE Bede can certainly not be tied to his set of translations, and Molyneaux’s work has shown that its translator if anything removes many of the idealogically charged references and sections of Bede, showing scant interest in the concept of Angelcynn). Perhaps I’m being a bit over-reactionary, and I certainly wouldn’t deny that between Alfred and, say, Edgar very important ideological developments took place, but I do not see that any of them need be tied to any knowledge whatsoever of Bede. I’m simply not sure that Bede came to mind when – or perhaps I should say if – Alfred thought of what it meant to be ‘English’; probably much more important would be linguistic criteria, i.e. the English are those who are not Welsh and not Scandinavian. It’s very neat and tidy to say that Enlgand evolved from long roots going back to Bede, but there’s a very real danger of teleology.

    Anyway… I could go on, but I’ve already written too much (and too little of the PhD), so I’ll leave it at that!

  13. The Alfredian stuff I had no idea about, and that looks very interesting: I’m still going on the Keynes and Lapidge Penguin, this not having been my research area for a long long time. So I stand corrected there, or at least, ready to hear the arguments. The Keynes quote survives as you give it, but all that says to me is that there were probably kings around at many of Edgar’s courts, which I’m fine with—but it doesn’t bear on the historicity of the rowing boat and the crossing of the Dee, does it? Anyway: you have Ph. D. and I’m working on a job application, perhaps we should stem this procrastinatory rivulet for a short while :-)

  14. Pingback: Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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