Tag Archives: Mercia

Raising up the enemies of Mercia

The St Andrews Sarcophagus is one of the more splendid pieces of artwork left to us from Pictish Scotland. Some might say the most splendid; I would always hold out for Sueno’s Stone, myself, simply because a twenty-foot high cross slab with a three-line battle cartoon full of decapitated corpses and ravens is hard to top, in several senses, but even I would have to admit that the Sarcophagus is a bit better executed. More importantly for many, it draws on a huge range of iconography, Biblical, Insular (let’s not use the word ‘Celtic’ here), Oriental and Classical, and thus helps show that the Picts, or at least the late Picts, were in no way cut off from the wider cultural currents of Christian Europe, but could play with and use them as well as any other people of the period.1

Current state of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The Sarcophagus as currently displayed, and as pictured on the website Undiscovered Scotland, from which here linked

What the thing actually is, as it survives to us, is the front, three corners and one-and-a-bit sides of a box shrine or tomb, about one-and-a half metres across the front, which is the long side. The front shows a royal hunt, with various odd hybrid beasties lurking in a tree past which the hunters ride, and elsewhere David killing the lion, and the sides and corners are heavily decorated with interlace and animal and vegetal motives. It’s done in extremely high relief, so that you can see the other side of some of the hunters’ heads, and it’s generally quite special.2 Most and perhaps all of the surviving bits were discovered buried in St Andrews Cathedral churchyard in 1833, perhaps in use as a cist.3 We don’t know what the back was like, if there was one and it didn’t originally just sit against a wall, and we don’t know what the lid was like: a flat slab and a pitched roof have both been suggested on the basis of parallels elsewhere. Most people have concluded, given its quality and its connection with St Andrews, which long ago was called Kilrymont, ‘church on the king’s hill’, that it once contained a royal entombment, and the art-historical dating and later medieval traditions have made King Unuist map Uurguist, or in Gaelic, Oengus mac Fergus, second of that name, who ruled the Picts more or less from 820-834, the most commonly-suggested candidate, though the first of that name, circa 729-761, remains in the frame too (as do presumably the kings between them, albeit with less support in tradition).4

Front panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The front panel, during dismantlement in 19965

What, however, has all this to do with Mercia, you may be wondering, and fair enough. The answer lies in that phrase “parallels elsewhere”, because the Mercian kings of the mid- to late-eighth century seem to have put quite a lot of store by impressive entombments. The interesting thing is that these were not necessarily of the kings themselves, though there was a Mercian royal mausoleum at Repton that the Vikings took over in 873, still sadly not fully published.6 Instead or as well, they often seem to have set up burial cults around their enemies, moving them into Mercian border territory to do so. The classic example of this is St Oswald, King of Northumbria whom King Penda of Mercia killed in 642, whose body was moved in the reign of King Æthelred of Mercia, who had married his niece, to Bardney in Lindsey.7 That was presumably a peace-making move; rather less so was King Offa’s burial of King Æthelberht of East Anglia, whom he had just executed for disloyalty, at Hereford on the Welsh border. This was presumably meant to prevent any royal cult growing up around the dead king back in East Anglia, in which respect it failed, but Hereford seem also to have been quite glad to have him.8

St Alkmund's Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund's Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museum

St Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire, now in Derby Museums, whose website has a more enlightened reuse policy that just requires me to point out to you that the image is copyright to Derby Museums

This all takes on a sharper relevance to St Andrews when this item is considered, this being what’s left of what you can see was a substantial, full-length ornamental sarcophagus from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire. (There is a fantastic photo of its discovery on the church’s site here, looted since goodness knows how long.) In some ways this is not what we have at St Andrews—it is single piece, not built out of parts, and its carving is much less ambitious—but in other ways it is, because of the identity of St Alkmund.9 This is believed to be King Ealhmund of Northumbria, who lost his struggle for the throne in some of Northumbria’s darker days (darkly alluded to in Alcuin’s letters, indeed) and retreated to Mercia as an exile, where however the forces of his rival Eardwulf found him and killed him in the year 800. The coffin fits with this date, and since it was obviously made for display there seems little a priori reason to doubt that it was meant to house the saint of the church, this royal sort-of-martyr, in which case presumably we see here King Cœnwulf of Mercia doing something slightly different with royal entombment, attacking the current royal family in Northumbria by celebrating as a saint the rival they’d murdered.10

Ninth-century ornamental panel from Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

Ninth-century ornamental panel from SS Mary & Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. Photo by Walwyn, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0), taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/overton_cat/4017050229/ with thanks

It would maybe be possible to attribute a high-minded sense of right that just happened to be politically convenient to Cœnwulf of Mercia at this point were it not for what Steven Plunkett, who specialises in Mercian art history, thinks probably happened to Eardwulf, Ealhmund’s rival. What we know happened to Eardwulf is that he was exiled himself in 806. Plunkett therefore brings the Mercian church of Breedon-on-the-Hill into the argument at this point, and indeed has already done so in the relevant chapter because of it too having some unusually high-relief sculpture showing a royal hunt and some Classicising figures that all bear very strong comparisons to the St Andrews material, though he fights shy of actually proposing a connection in either direction.11 Here, however, the question is of Breedon’s dedication, which is to SS Mary and Hardulf. Hardulf? This saint is apparently unknown elsewhere. Surely it could not be… Eardwulf? Plunkett suggests that it could, which leaves me boggling somewhat at Cœnwulf’s mindset, if we assume that he was once again involved with this high-status centre.12 Did he decide he had been wrong about Ealhmund? Was he trying to pacify Northumbria? Is it that a king was a king and worth culting as something special whatever one’s relations with him in life? Or did he just decide that what was worth doing once was worth doing twice and carry on with cynical lack of regard to his earlier position on the Northumbrian crown? We will, of course, never know, but as so often, I wish we did. Are there any other cases of both sides of a violent contest being celebrated as holy men by the same agency? Over to you if so, I can’t think of any!


1. A point made throughout Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1997), which I was reading when I wrote this post in September 2013; the wider contention that Pictland was not some cut-off neverwhere is also the basic case to prove for many of the writers in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Europe: the proceedings of a day conference held on 20 February 1993, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1994).

2. Detailed description in Isabel Henderson, “Descriptive Catalogue of the Surviving Parts of the Monument” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 19-35; followed up with much more analysis in Henderson, “Primus inter Pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture”, ibid., pp. 97-167.

3. Sally M. Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display”, ibid. pp. 36-62 at pp. 36-41.

4. Ibid. pp. 42-45; Dauvit Broun, “Pictish Kings 761-839: integration with Dál Riata or separate development?”, ibid. pp. 71-83; Charles Thomas, “Form and Function”, ibid. pp. 84-96. Henderson, “Primus inter pares“, makes a spirited case for Unuist map Uurguist I on the basis of a range of fairly closely-dated art-historical comparisons. On him, see Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125 but also online here, and Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex‘ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill & Martha Worthington (edd.), Æthelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42.

5. I have found it surprisingly hard to locate images of the Sarcophagus licensed for reproduction, not something I anticipated when I set up to do this post and now, of course, have no time to fix by writing people for permission etc. So, this is from Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, plate 5, with some slight colourisation added by me which I think technically but probably not defensibly makes it a new work, but which in any case I shall replace with my own or some licensed picture of the front as soon as I’m able. I’m pretty sure that having free 600×480-pixel pictures on the web will not hit your postcard sales that much, guys…

6. Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, “Repton and the Vikings” in Antiquity 66 (London 1992), pp. 36-51, is about as good as it gets for publication.

7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III.11 (an old translation online here should you not have access to one of the newer ones); Steven J. Plunkett, “The Mercian Perspective” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 202-226 at p. 206.

8. Morn 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. 260-273, is the fullest discussion; cf. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 224-225.

9. There is basic go-to stuff on this that I haven’t yet read, I must confess, among it C. A. Ralegh Radford, “The church of Saint Alkmund, Derby” in Derbyshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 96 (Derby 1976), pp. 26-61 and Alan Thacker, “Kings, saints and monasteries in pre-Viking Age Mercia” in Midland History Vol. 10 (Birmingham 1985), pp. 1-25; here I run instead from Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 222-223.

10. David W. Rollason, “The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1983), pp. 1-22 ; Capper, “Contesting Loyalties”, pp. 362-363.

11. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, p. 223 & 215-220, esp. p. 220:
“The carvings [at Breedon, Peterborough and elsewhere] are evidence for the systematic endowment of primary Mercian sites by an elite patron employing a master-craftsman…. The St Andrews Sarcophagus is in no way a product of this atelier, but embodies a comparable initiative, in a context where there is stylistic evidence for cultural exchange between the two regions.”

I do find this frustrating as it suggests a relationship and then argues that the cultural context is probably pretty general across northern Britain. In that case this sort of stuff might be expected to turn up anywhere yet plainly has not. One wants there to be a connection and Plunkett is too cautious to hypothesise one, yet sets out all the material that makes it seem necessary.

12. It has to be admitted that that isn’t strictly necessary. Not least, we don’t know when or how Eardwulf died; it might have been rather later, and Plunkett justly notes the general crisis of the Mercian realm in 825 when such readjustments of politics might have been useful. (On what we know about that see Capper, “Contested Loyalties”, pp. 416-428.) I still wonder, though, as below, what this meant for the cult of Ealhmund.

Seminar CLX: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, III

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

Returning to a thread after our short diversion to Lotharingia, the next paper I went to in my massive backlog of such reports was the third of John Blair’s Ford Lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, this one entitled: “Why was Burton Built on Trent? Landscape Organisation and Economy in the Mercian Age?” and occurring on 1st February 2013. Here John was propounding a really quite simple theory that has big implications. Starting by setting out the assumption that other kingdoms would have imitated the practices that had made Mercia successful during the period when it more or less dominated Anglo-Saxon England, he reminded us of his last week’s proposition that at this time the functions of central places were decentralised across wider zones and then asked, more or less, what then is to be read from the place-name ‘Burton’, burh-tun, more or less ‘fortress settlement’? What do these places in fact have to do with fortresses and what would that mean?

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air. Note the cropmark near the pylon! Probably modern, but if not, could it be the ‘Wall’? No, OK. For more such conjectures, read on!

The scale of John’s project made him uniquely able to try and answer this; as he put it, by now he had “gone for pretty much every Burton there is”. And there are a lot! And John’s contention was that they mostly, perhaps almost all given the incomplete state of our knowledge, stand upland from and within sight of an Anglo-Saxon burh, and should be seen as supporting settlements, watch-places or similar. The best example, because actually documented, is Bourton-on-the-Water (unrelatedly, the town I have been to with the highest concentration of teashops—there is a part of the High Street where you can stand and see seven, knowing that two more lie just round a corner—and a really quite good motor museum, but I digress), which King Offa gave to his thegn Dudda in 779, and which is is explicitly said to be “portio ruriculi illius attinens urbi qui nominatur Sulmones burg”, ‘the rural portion belonging to the town named Salmonsbury’, but John had many others, as well as regional variations (Boltons, in Northumbria, relating to Bothals, Kingstons in Wessex, Newtons relating to Roman sites that could be described as “ealde geworce”, ‘old earthworks’).1 The biggest of all, subject of his title, is actually only one of five on the Trent, but relates most probably to Tutbury, an old Iron Age fort facing the Peak District and close to the Mercian royal centre of Repton and Breedon. Littleborough, anciently a Roman site (and in Anglo-Saxon times known as Tiowulfesceaster, ‘Theowulf’s [Roman] fort’) boasts two Burtons and two Strettons (Straet-tun, ‘settlement of the [Roman] road’), spread out on either side of it, and Burcot in Oxfordshire seems to link Badbury and Lechlade, being equidistant between them.

View of hilltops from Burcot, Oxfordshire

View from Burcot towards I-know-not-what hilltop, but maybe one of the right ones. Now we are dealing in sites that are below the burhs, not above them, but then this is a -cot, not a -tun

By this stage, while the number of examples was hard to dismiss, the idea of a system was getting harder to hold on to. John had found many many different ways to relate Burtons to burhs, but I began to wonder whether the choice of which one they related to was always clear, especially since some of the burhs in question were so much older than others, Roman or even Iron Age sites to which names of equally unclear date were being related. One, Black Burton near Bampton, has at least been dug, and produced exactly what John would have wished, Middle Saxon buildings and Ipswich Ware pottery pinning its activity reasonably to the late eighth and early ninth centuries and I expect he will have more, but as ever the work of Mary Chester-Kadwell leaves me bothered about making these links by pure geographic association.2 What if there were just enough burhs in the landscape that when you put a new settlement down there was one nearby it could be defined by? Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. But particular concentrations of Burton-names are still suggestive: John saw a line of them in the Peak District more or less delimiting it, a different pattern of burhweord multiple estates down the Welsh border and a row along the edge of the semi-independent enclave of Hastings with which Offa had trouble.3 (One such site, Bishopstone, relating to the burh at Lewes, has also been dug and showed an eighth-century hall with an associated church over-writing an old minster that Offa seems to have repossessed.) Even if not all of this matches up as neatly as John was arguing it does, quite a lot of it could still be some kind of deliberate organisation.

View of hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire

An obvious-looking candidate, the hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, now topped by a modern ‘Topograph’ but who knows what lies beneath, inside those rampart-like ridges? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways this ought not to be a surprise: we do after all accept that the Mercian kings could enforce, to a reasonable degree, obligations of military construction on their subjects, and even if John were not right about centres being decentralised in this period, a fortress network still needs links and watchposts, something which I very much observe in the similar roll-out of a network in Catalonia.4 Something like this system should have existed, and it may be that John has in fact demonstrated it. There is a space for factual realism here that lies somewhere between my wish for a clearer pattern and a readiness to accommodate all possible variations; after all, the landscape itself is very various, and incorporating legacy elements like Roman and Iron Age fortresses would obviously make sense, both in terms of investment cost and the likely defensibility of their locations. Nonetheless, I suspect I will not be the only one who will want the publication of this theory before them before they can shrug off their modern discomfort over accepting a system so authentically ready to be unsystematic, at which point such a publication may indeed do us a power of good in terms of helping us think in Anglo-Saxon terms, not our own…


1. The 779 grant is printed in W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885-1899), 3 vols, no. 230, and indexed in the Electronic Sawyer here as Sawyer 114. Anything else in this post which is not linked or footnoted to a source is coming out of my notes, and will therefore presumably be found in John’s publication of these lectures.

2. M. Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

3. The defeat of the Hæstingas by Offa in 771 is recorded only in Simeon of Durham’s Historia Regum, trans. Joseph Stevenson in his The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Church Historians of England III.2 (London 1855), online here.

4. It remains a pleasure to invoke 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 A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but we should also add Stephen Bassett, “Divide and Rule? The Military Infrastructure of Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mercia” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 53-85, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2007.00198.x.

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850″. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. 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). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

Lady Cynethryth at home

OK, that was three heavy posts, time for something lighter. This time without naming the student, since the bits I’m actually quoting are all mine, I had a tutorial some months back in which we were looking at the Mercian Supremacy, when the kings of Mercia were top dogs in England as no doubt you know, and we spoke of King Offa’s queen Cynethryth, who has the unusual distinction of being the only queen consort in English history, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly the only Anglo-Saxon one, to have coinage struck in her name. She also turns up in Offa’s charters, and was generally recognised as a presence in a way few other queens of the period were. Whether that tells us anything about her, however, as opposed to how much she was important to Offa’s claim to the throne, is more of a debate, and getting at her actual rôle in the kingdom is very hard indeed.1 So, one of the pupils tried pitching her as a kind of Lady MacBeth character, the driving force behind the throne. There’s some material to do this with, if one wanted, with Alcuin (him again) telling a half-story in one letter of a throne acquired and held by spilling copious blood, but I’d never before envisaged Cynethryth standing behind Offa goading him on in the way that Shakespeare’s MacBeth, who is really Holinshed’s MacBeth and not really a historical MacBeth, was driven by Gruach.2 And before I could do anything my mind had gone somewhere entirely otherwise with the idea, snippets of home life in the Mercian court which owe more to Barrie Took than the Bard:

Offa                 : Mek room there lass, I want some breakfast before I sit in judgement.
Cynethryth: Well you haven’t seen this letter from Archbishop Jænberht! I ask you! Who does he think he is, dreadful little man! You’ll have to do something about him.
Offa                  moans: Not Jænberht again. What do you want me to do, ‘e’s the Archbishop, I can’t just mek me own now can I?
Cynethyrth Nonsense, of course you can. In any case it won’t do. We shall holiday in Kent this year, Offa.
Offa                 : Can’t we ‘ave just one spring without a war?
Cynethryth: It won’t do.
Offa                  sighs and gets up.
Cynethryth: And where are you off to, exactly?
Offa                 : Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to get me hair done…

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Yes, OK, not very likely, but seriously that hair demands some explanation. The real question, I suppose, is whether this counts as Oxbridge-quality teaching or not, a question to which I don’t intend to solicit answers. Back to seminar reports next, featuring indeed he of n. 2 below, the one who’s still alive that is, and no coins at all for once!


1. This is kind of a general problem with studying powerful women in the early Middle Ages; they are all unusual. The best place to start is probably with Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: the king’s wife in the early Middle Ages (London 1983), repr. in Women, Power and Politics (Leicester 1998), but if you wanted Cynethryth specifically a different piece by Pauline Stafford would be more useful, her “Political Women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Studies in the Early History of Europe (Leicester 2001), repr. in Continuum studies in medieval history (London 2005), pp. 35-49.

2. Alcuin’s letter, to the Mercian Ealdorman Osbert, is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae no. 122, and translated in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), no. 46 and Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 202. Meanwhile, if you didn’t know either of the facts that the real King Macbethad of Alba had a relatively long and mostly secure time on the throne (1040-1057) and that he might even have been the first King of ‘Scots’ to have ruled from the north coast to the border with England, you should probably get hold of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), where pp. 225-271 will set it all out for you. If you knew the first bit, but the second has you piqued and you want all the detail, then Alex has written it up in “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, though it is also briefly covered in the book, and I’m not sure he’d necessarily choose to present the conclusions in quite the way I just did.

“All the gold I could eat”: Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings

Cheek piece, fittings and zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire Hoard

Cheek piece, fittings and zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire Hoard

As mentioned previously, fabulous things have been coming out of the English soil just lately, the 1500+ gold and silver items that is being called the Staffordshire hoard and reckoned a more important find than the Sutton Hoo boat burial, and two things have been written about them that you may not have spotted yet. First off, one of my two favourite Mercia pundits to drink with, Alex Burghart, has managed to get some wise word on the subject into the Times Literary Supplement as you can see here. I don’t entirely agree with Alex’s reading, however, and in fact as Cliopatria’s official early medievalist I had already supposed I ought to try there to piece together some more of the story behind the deposition of these marvellous objects. So I had a go in this post and it occasioned debate. In either case, you may like to go and see…

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.