Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 26-34.

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3 responses to “Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

  1. It reminds me of the three British kings who fell when Wessex took Gloucester, Bath and the other city. Were they kings by their own claim or is that how Wessex interpreted them? No where else that I know of do you have so many British kings in such a small area (or working together).

    • This is true, and it makes an odd conquest to the West Saxon victories in the Chilterns in the 570s (on which a post coming soon), where towns, not kings, were the losers. I suspect that the men in charge of all of these places would probably have answered to præfectus… but possibly to several other things too, and maybe rhi or similar was one of them!

  2. Pingback: Seminar CXLV: more Anglo-Saxon feud and punishment | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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