When I wrote the bulk of this post in September 2012, I had lately read an article I should have looked at long previously, by Charlotte Behr, called “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent”.1 It’s is a rather odd piece of writing: it’s thoroughly academic and erudite but it still reads somewhat as if the author had left notes in the margins of things they had meant to mention later and a scribal error had then incorporated them into the main text in the wrong places; it digresses a lot. I read it after a solid week of copy-editing the final version of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, so I itched to do a major hack job on this article, but this is not much good with something in print for twelve years already and it has made me think, so it’s obviously not bad. I just, would maybe have pushed it a bit further.
What Dr Behr argues is that even though Bede tells us the men of Kent (as opposed to the Kentish men) were Jutes from Jutland, Scandinavian material culture only shows up there with any strength from the mid-sixth century onwards, after we presume any migration to have happened. (Yes, I’m not sure about the assumed links there either, but let’s roll with it for now.) Even once visible, that Scandinavian signal is swamped in Frankish-style goods both imported and locally-made, but it is there. Furthermore, Dr Behr argues that: (a) it is especially to be identified in gold bracteates, which in Kent are almost entirely found in wealthy female graves (though this is not their usual Scandinavian context), (b) these bracteates are related in iconography (and occasionally even in runic text) to the cult of Woden, and (c) that that, as far as place-names can tell us, was confined to one small area of Kent which is also busy with major élite sites, the chief of which are the cemetery of Finglesham, where a ‘founder’ warrior grave became the focus for three centuries of interments, Eastry, where a later villa regalis (royal vill) is well-attested and burial also occurred from early on, and Woodnesborough (‘Woden’s barrow’), presumably the religious site, to which could be added the coastal site of Sandwich as the fourth part of a rather nice little royal development complex linked to Dover and Canterbury by Roman roads.2 Moreover, the bracteates found here and more thinly elsewhere in Kent are all of one specific type, with an identifiably single prototype, suggesting that they were locally-made on demand for a single group who were pushing themselves as Scandinavians in some respect or other.
Now there are bits of this that aren’t logically present in the article but need to be to connect these things up, I think. The conclusion seems perfectly plausible, it’s the sort of thing we’re encouraged to see as behind the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial as well, and it lines up with a lot of work going on at the time Dr Behr was writing that encouraged us to see southern Scandinavia as a kind of alternate locus of power and importance which gets its brief spotlight period in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.3 However, the bracteates aren’t die-linked, so there’s not a lot to say that those showing up outside this little core zone aren’t good imitations. That would also work in terms of showing it was an attractive way to represent oneself, I suppose. The fact that it’s almost always women is also interesting, too; should we imagine this ideology being something men can join in with by marriage? Have we then got a successful (and potentially actually Jutish, I feel it should be said, if that term means anything beyond `from Denmark’) warrior family having established themselves at Eastry and area, with their portus at Sandwich, then making links with other élites in sites like Dover and across the water in Francia too that got cemented by marriage, and shortly becoming the number one power in sixth-century Kent?
Dr Behr, perhaps because she was going into print in a respected journal and because she knows how to be careful better than I do (I have not met her), did not go so far in this piece. But this is only a blog, so I can, and I can go further, because it would all fit quite nicely. It marries up a lot of things that Anglo-Saxonists used to believe because the sources tell us them (warrior settlement by small numbers of migrants with ancestral connections overseas establishing themselves in new lands) with more realistic, socially-based work about control of luxury goods, manipulation of genealogy and expression of desired identity via material culture and burial etc. But if we also fit it into the time-frame then it helps explain a disjunction in what Bede tells us about the early Kentish kings. He repeats Gildas about the settlement of the Saxons in Kent, basically, that they arrived as mercenary warriors then rebelled and took over, but Bede puts names on them. Those names are interesting: the first two leaders are the legendary Hengest and a son or colleague Horsa (two names meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘mare’, always an unlikely occurrence), but the subsequent kings take their family name from a third generation in the person of one Oisc. How these three are related varies between the few sources, though all the genealogies ultimately go back to Woden.4 (Dr Behr covers all this, but she doesn’t, perhaps sensibly, go where I’m about to go with it. She does, however, point out what I’d never noticed, that the Kentish kings are the only ones whose Wodenic ancestry Bede also records.5) To this we can also add Ian Wood’s stress on the early kingdom’s Frankish connections; even if we don’t go so far as to claim that Kent was actually subject to Frankish overlordship, the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelberht, had a Frankish wife and a father with a Frankish name, and there is all this Frankish bling in the graves of Kent, as said.6
So, okay, a hypothetical way to reconcile all this: in the mid-fifth century a proto-kingship was built up in the Eastry-Finglesham complex identified by Dr Behr which was demonstratively (rather than demonstrably, though maybe that too) Scandinavian, and let’s say Jutish, even if I’m not really sure those two things should be assumed to be overlapping sets, and it rapidly acquired dominating links to other power centres like Dover. It may even have been the power that managed to grab Western Kent into the same hegemony. It stressed this Scandinavian identity because there was opposition that identified more clearly as Frankish, which is why we have Frankish kings reporting themselves as rulers of Britain in Procopius’s recollection (however good that may be). And by the end of the sixth century, that opposition won out in the form of King Æthelberht. But the combined kingdom’s identity remained Jutish at some level, not least maybe because Æthelberht himself seems to have wanted to avoid ties too close to the Franks anyway (else why not accept Christianity from them?) so perhaps liked to be able to get a grip on local feeling like this. (Was his father Irminric’s wife one of these women with bracteates on her dress, do you suppose?)
I like this because it would allow so many things to be true at once: it could accommodate a genuine migrant warrior group moving into a fragmented power vacuum in eastern Kent and a small family quickly becoming powerful by genius of location and resources and by skilful manipulation of a politically-useful identity for which one could hand out almost literal badges of membership and that other people apparently wanted to join. (I do wonder what the men in this group wore, but whatever it was apparently we haven’t found it as such.) It was such a good appeal to legend that by the time they were remembered in the eighth century Bede knew, or his informant knew, that the founder had been a legendary warrior and Hengest was the name they knew best for the time. And his story would then actually be relevant, explanatory and important! These pseudo-Hengests would have pulled together a small but wealthy kingdom in the space of a couple of generations, substantially just by having a good starting position and an obvious Frankish problem for which they could advertise themselves as the solution. (“No more tribute to the sons of the sea-monster! Choose Jutes for Woden!”7) And then one of the family that must have set up in Canterbury somewhen (and let’s call their founder Oisc) got in on the act and, as luck and skill with a blade and a retinue would have it, completely cleared the floor over most of the south of England, sending the political axis skidding backwards and forwards between Francia and Scandinavia until some well-timed missionaries arrived to offer a third way (unbeknownst to them) and the whole game changed scale. This is, of course, completely unprovable (though one could wish for DNA testing of the female skeletons with the bracteates) but it fits very much with how I have long tended to see the Anglo-Saxon settlement: not many people but a few clever and lucky ones in just the right place and at just the right time to make something that became history.
1. C. Behr, “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 25-52, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0254.00058.
2. Most of what i know about Finglesham comes from the short but good picture essay, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, “Finglesham: a cemetery in East Kent” in James Campbell, Eric John & Patrick Wormald (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982), pp. 24-25, but there is much fuller publication, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes & Guy Grainger, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Finglesham, Kent (Oxford 2006); on the other sites mentioned, see most recently Keith Parfitt, “Further Investigation of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eastry” in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 129 (Canterbury 2009), pp. 313-332; Parfitt, “Excavations at Ringlemere Farm, Woodnesborough, 2002- 2006″, ibid. Vol. 127 (2007), pp. 39-73; and Helen Clarke, Sandwich: the “completest medieval town in England”. A study of the town and port from its origins to 1600 (Oxford 2010), all of which citations, I should stress, I have pulled out of databases just now rather than actually read…
3. Best exemplified by several papers in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), in which many but not all of the contributors were in fact from Scandinavia; there was also John Hines, however, whose book The Scandinavian character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking period , British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 124 (Oxford 1984) is the starting point for this trend on my side of the North Sea. Hines’s contribution to the Sachsensymposium was, admittedly, not about Scandinavian power foci; as to what it was about, that would be a future post…
4. All this is best covered by none other than the late lamented Nicholas Brooks, in his “The Creation and Early Structure of the Early Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 55-74.
5. Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 28.
6. Ian Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Ålingsas 1987), put more lightly but also more easily obtainable in his “The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain” in Britannia Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 253-262.
7. I thought of that just because it jingles nicely but IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT the bracteate type used in this Kentish group is the one whose iconography is actually a monster, defeated and bound, presumably by Woden who is elsewhere depicted in such a combat (Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 37 with illustrations on p. 38)? Or can these things actually be anti-Merovingian campaign badges? OK: if I hadn’t gone too far before, I have now, it’s nice to be sure…