Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England

I am sorry about the sporadic nature of posting here in recent months. There was Leeds, and either side of that I had house guests, and through all of this I’ve been processing new charter information, which inevitably takes daily time or it doesn’t get done and which, shall we say, starts more projects than it finishes. These things are now all winding down and I hope to spend August determinedly clearing backlogs, among which the posts I have been intending here, lo these many months. This must, I think, require some fairly tough decisions about what seminars to cover, but one that I don’t want to miss is the one that was already next up, when George Molyneaux spoke to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 23rd January with the title, “The formation of the English kingdom in the tenth century”.

The point at which one can sensibly talk about a single English kingdom in the Middle Ages has been a long debate, and actually quite a lot of that debate has been led from Oxford. Names like James Campbell and Patrick Wormald come up, who were in post here when they published the things on this subject which have been influential, or Michael Wood, who started here before going on to greater things, and Sarah Foot, who was not here when she took her place in this historiography, now is.1 One might expect the next step in the debate to be taken elsewhere, therefore, but in actual fact George, one of the scary Prize Fellows at All Souls College, has led the charge from the inside. In the previous stage of the debate King Alfred tended to loom large; George’s first published step into this started the process of diminishing the responsibility of Alfred’s court (itself another Oxford pursuit) and now he is in the process of turning his doctoral thesis into a book which may even finish the job.2 This paper was, I think, more or less a pitch for that book, and it made it sound extremely necessary; I shall try and do the same.3

Sketch-map of England and its parts in the 10th century by George Molyneaux

The hand(out) of George: sketch-map of England and its parts in the tenth century, with added information

I had a very slight advantage over some of the audience for this paper, in as much as George kindly lectures on a course I convene here so I’d already heard some of what he might say. So, what’s the argument? Well, an elevator pitch of it would be fairly simple: it is that the really big work of setting up and structuring a kingdom of the English should be placed in the later tenth century and not before; before that is only a military unity, periodically fractured by a resurgent Viking York or whatever cause it may be, but by 1000 one has structures like shires (only apparent north of the Thames in the last third of the tenth century or so), hundreds (on sites that had often had a focal role from much longer ago but now doing something new, as George qualified in questions), and the courts at both of those levels, fortified towns (as opposed to just fortresses that would later become towns), mints (with a number of new mints set up by King Edgar (959-975), who then got all active mints striking the same sort of coin at once) and many other things. George stressed that he didn’t want to make Edgar into a new Alfred here, not least because for some of this King Edmund (939-946) may also have to bear some blame and presumably there’s also room to rehabilitate Eadred (946-955) and Eadwig (955-959) at least a little bit too, but the opportunity given Edgar by the temporary cessation of Viking attacks must have counted for a great deal, it seems to me; Eadred deserves more recognition than he gets for defeating every, considerable, military threat that arrived but it can’t have left him a lot of time for civil reform.


Obverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R Reverse of silver penny of King Edgar of the Stamford mint, 973x5, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

A silver penny of the Stamford mint from after Edgar's 973 coinage reform, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.364-R

What George ended up pitching here, by means of a comparison of how he saw royal government before and how he saw it after his identified change, was a shift of emphasis from extensive to intensive government, from a peripatetic court with an essentially military and seigneurial dominion to one that commanded through law and through a devolved and consistent structure of administration, as far as local variation would admit anyway. He put this down to an end to the possibilities of expansion now that all the Viking kingdoms were conquered, to the reform ideology of the period pressuring the king to take control for the good of his people and his own salvation, and to the economic growth that was going on everywhere at the time and the intensification of lordship that it fuels, the first argument not unlike that put forward by Timothy Reuter for the Carolingian Empire of course and the last one that readers here will likely recognise though George was getting it from Rosamond Faith, not from anyone I tend to cite.4

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar's laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

First page of the lawcode IV Edgar, King Edgar’s laws issued at Wihtberodestan, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 265, p. 216

The result – if George is right about this – was that for the first time the kingdom and the realm of the English were relatively close to being the same thing, as opposed to a people with many kings. It also made England different from its neighbours in a way that was hard to undo: to be under the rule of the English king was a different kind of experience of power, involving a more regimented access to judgement, to markets, to warranty, to protection and (I’m sure John Blair would have added) to the sacred than one found outside its borders, which one might now therefore have been able to define. In England, royalty ruled not just by charisma and self-presentation, but now also by routine. And this, you see, is one of the reasons why the tenth century is where it’s at. It will not be long, I suppose, before the full version of this story as George sees it is available, and I think it’s going to be necessary reading not just for Anglo-Saxonists but for anyone who believes similarly in the importance of the tenth century or wants to know how one goes about forming a state in the early Middle Ages. Because you see, by the end of it that is what we’re talking about and just making that clearer will not be the least of this work’s impact.5

I asked one of my wooliest questions ever after this paper, because at that time I had hundreds on the brain and was still unable to get away from the antiquity of many of the sites where hundred courts were held. By the time I’d stumbled the words out, it all seemed rather obvious and yet it’s not, perhaps, often enough stated: quite a lot of what underlies these processes must, it seems to me, be men (and even women) in power seeing the possibility of turning existing structures to their agenda and converting them into part of the government. I kind of hate this argument because it rings of Foucault, but when you have kings apparently giving the hundred moots, whatever they did beforehand, new jobs and new jurisdictions and limits probably but often on the old sites, or Alfred (yes, I will keep him in this at least this little bit) using the Viking threat to put areas of his kingdoms under obligations to build fortresses and do military service that had maybe before only run in detail in Mercia, I think that these changes have to be seen this way.6 The coinage system must be another thing that can be fitted into that template; Offa of Mercia and indeed Alfred were obviously able, at a push, to call in the whole coinage or at least decree that an old one would cease to be acceptable; Æthelred the Unready, whatever his failings, could do this frequently. (I’m sure George will cover this last in the book, indeed.)

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

Visible remains of the burh wall at Wallingford, from Wikimedia Commons

In each of these cases, a structure or process that had been occasional or reserved for emergencies wound up serving a new, governmental purpose and becoming a routine operation. I don’t mean to say that Edmund and Edgar and their advisors didn’t think of anything new, not at all, but that the things they carried out were in part dictated by the possibilities of what already existed. If I’m right about this – sorry – there are two important implications, one of which is that those who managed to lay down the precursors should be credited with assisting the later creation of that state we’re talking about, but the other of which is that encroachments on liberty by government can be sincerely meant to be one-off but still open up possibilities for successors who don’t see the constraints so clearly. I’ve been worried about this ever since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in England, and the Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act only made those worries worse. It seems unlikely, from here, that people in tenth-century England saw the institution of regular shire and hundred courts as a nosey and potentially dangerous intervention by tyrannical higher-ups that removed their personal liberties, though the attempts of the Anglo-Saxon kings to restrict trade to places where royal reeves could witness it probably seemed more like that sort of thing despite the obviously sensible purpose of limiting the possibility for disputes. And, then as now, if there was opposition, it certainly wasn’t unified, coherent or resourced enough to resist these changes. All the same, there are two ways to see the building of an England in this period, quite apart from the debate over whether it happened thus and then, and I find that contemporary politics make it harder to see the positive side that was perhaps more apparent to those who remembered the Second World War firsthand.7 It may be a thousand years ago and more that George is writing about, but the reasons people may care are very current. It’s not actually necessary, to drive those arguments, that the picture we have of the formation of England be correct, but I take some comfort anyway in thinking that with George’s work we’re a step closer to being correct about it all the same.


1. James Campbell, “Was it Infancy in England? Some questions of comparison” in Michael Jones & Malcolm Vale (edd.), England and Her Neighbours, 1066-1453. Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais (London 1989), pp. 1-17; Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a Maximum View” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1995), pp. 39-65, both repr. in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 179-199 & 1-30 resp., and several other chapters of that volume; Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24; Michael Wood, In Search of England (London 1999), pp. 91-106; Sarah Foot, “The making of Angelcynn: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78; cf. Susan Reynolds, “What do we mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’?” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 24 (Chicago 1985), pp. 395–414 and Pauline Stafford, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, identity and the making of England” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 28-50.

2. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323; see also Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23 and cf. Janet Bately, “Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited”, ibid. 78 (2009), pp. 189–215.

3. Part of me wishes also for the book that Chris Lewis might write on this, as has been recorded here before, but perhaps the existence of George’s will provoke him!

4. Rosamond Faith, The English peasantry and the growth of lordship (London 1997).

5. Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies” ibid. pp. 550-555.

6. What I know about legislation around the hundred, I confess, I get principally from Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 39. On military service, see Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but to see this in action (or not!) see Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91 (ed.); for more recent assessment, David Hill & Alexander Rumble (edd.), The Defence of Wessex: the Burghal Hidage and Anglo-Saxon Fortifications (Manchester 1996).

7. For sharp comparanda for this kind of assessment, see Catherine Hills, Origins of the English (London 2003), pp. 21-39.

9 responses to “Seminar CXV: making a state in tenth-century England

  1. I find your point about using old sites of power for new purposes pretty compelling. I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of space/place in our focus on institutions, people, and paperwork. But, I have (this very afternoon!) been reading R.R. Davies’ ‘The First English Empire’ whilst trying to fill myself in on the background to Edward I’s ‘imperialist’ projects, so I do have the appropriation of national mythology (and the places it attaches itself to) on the brain. On your last, rather chilling, point: I think that as historians, we do have a political responsibility to keep talking about the way these things worked in the past, in order to make people question whether this is what we *really* want to do in the present. Once laws are in place, it gets very hard to retrospectively put limits on them (spoken as someone who lives in a land of kneejerk law-making and ill-considered consequences).

    • That last, it should be obvious really, shouldn’t it? But in case it wasn’t, thankfully The Onion has made it so

      Space seems to be a big concern among medievalists at the minute, not least the noble Gesta of course which causes me to say the next bit only with great caution: I’m not sure some of them have thought very hard about how space is different from place, landscape or routes. Perhaps it is the superset of all these, but I think these are all different things to about where a phenomenon occurred.

  2. David Hillman

    I think the strength of James Campbell’s book on the early English state is in showing how it is precosiously well organised at the local level (and he would be happy with the thought of this still being true if two or more Englands, maybe one called Scotland, had developed). A nice book since he always shows you the evidence for his hypotheses, and never vaguely, though he does seem to keep changing his mind about the causes of the strength of the deep rooted Anglo-Saxon state ( a portion of Carolingia persisting after Francia itself fell apart, or a la Engels from the germanic mark, or from ancient British roots, or whatever). The strength of state institutions in so far as they benefit as well as oppress the mass of the people does not equate with how big a land mass it dominates.

    • I think the strength of James Campbell’s book on the early English state is in showing how it is precosiously well organised at the local level

      I agree with you that it’s an excellent book, and I don’t mean to imply it’s now out of date so much as now only one side of a developing debate, but I have to use your remark to pick up on its teleology. Why is England’s development precocious? Compared to what? In terms of local organisation, there’s not much going on here that couldn’t be found in Burgundy or frontier Castile, surely, and rather less than in any area of Europe where cities persisted…

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