Tag Archives: Edward the Confessor

Seminar CCLII: the Westminster insider

Given that I am on strike, you may be wondering where the promised blogging that usually happens here during the UK university sector’s repeated and lengthening industrial action is. Ha! Little do you know that I have spent the last two days crafting 8,000 words of prose on the UK higher education situation, which was originally intended to be three posts here and is probably actually eight. I’m still undecided as to whether to write it all up for here, or to try and fling it somewhere else as an op-ed, or of course both, short version elsewhere and full version with footnotes here. It could still happen! But meanwhile I thought you might like something more academic, while still political, to chew on, and that takes me back to just before the Ankara trip just mentioned, to early November 2018, when for reasons I would not have forecast a few months before, I was in the Houses of Parliament.

George Frederick Watts, Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes, Westminster, Parliamentary Art Collection

George Frederick Watts, ‘Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes’, 1846, Westminster, Parliamentary Art Collection

The reasons for this are Aristotelian in complexity of causation. The material cause was of course that I had gone there, through quite the myriad of security checks and into the room (whose name I have sadly forgotten) where the above painting hangs. The formal cause was Professor Simon Keynes, who was delivering a lecture there, and the final cause was that lecture, entitled, “Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey – and the Cult of King Alfred the Great”. But the efficient cause was the unpredictable element, it being the election to Parliament some months earlier of Alex Burghart, sometime research worker and still-frequent commentator on matters early medieval because of having done a Ph.D. on Mercia back in the day. Once inside the House, while clearly also busy with quite a range of other things, which have led to him becoming the country’s Minister for Skills, no less, he seems to have lost no time in arranging what was supposed to be a series of lectures on the history of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, for which there is apparently a small endowment. (The lectures have continued, but thanks to the pandemic, a bit discontinuously.) And so he decided to start with the founder of the building, and that’s what Simon was there to do.

Charter of King Æthelred II of England for Abingdon Abbey

A charter of King Æthelred II the Unready for Abingdon Abbey, signed by Wulfsige Abbot of Westminster, London, British Library, MS Cotton Augustus II 38 recto

Westminster Abbey was founded by King Edward the Confessor, or so the regular version goes. But as Simon’s painstaking (but not painful) exposition of the documentary evidence went to show, while not everything that has been written giving the place a greater antiquity can be trusted, there is a clear reference to the abbey already in a 993 document of Edward’s predecessor-bar-three, Æthelred the Unready, which you see above, and possibly even an older one from 986. There is also a burial of circa 1000 in a reused Roman sarcophagus that was recovered when the Houses of Parliament were built, and in questions Alex pointed out that according to Edward’s charters the abbey apparently held most of the old trading settlement as endowment, which Tim Tatton-Brown pointed out meant that it must have postdated the establishment of the new port so could not be much earlier than Æthelred anyway. Edward’s contribution was presumably therefore a rebuild and reestablishment on new rules, which can be seen in the architecture and his own charters, as well as in the Bayeux Tapestry (see below); the association with Edward is not in doubt, only exactly what its nature was. However, as Simon concluded, while Edward is much commemorated in Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, which in the 1840s replaced the old Westminster Palace after a disastrous fire, commemorate him very little; there is just one statue. Instead, when they go back before the Conquest they tend to commemorate Alfred the Great, as above. Victorian England wanted heroic fighters, not peaceful saints, in their legislature’s decoration!

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Edward the Confessor's corpse being carried to rest in Westminster Abbey

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Edward the Confessor’s corpse being carried to rest in Westminster Abbey, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, by then that was not surprising. To get to the lecture, once through the security, the select but quite large party had had all to pass through the Royal Gallery in Westminster Hall, which is hung with quite amazing frescoes of great moments in British history, as selected by that same Victorian agenda. These involve, as you might expect, quite a lot of conquering, some missionary conversions (including of the English themselves, but then later other peoples around the British Empire) and many victorious battles. The wider architecture of Westminster Hall is also quite amazing. I have borrowed the below picture from a travel blog that has many more, and it gives you the idea but believe me, you want to see the rest too, so do click through.

The octagonal Central Gallery in the Houses of Parliament

The octagonal Central Gallery in the Houses of Parliament, where the Commons and Lords meet

It was amazing to see it all, though much of it is open to the public at the right times, so it’s not as much of a privilege as I might make it seem. (Drinks afterwards in the Pugin Room and talking to Michael Wood for the first time in a decade or so, that was a privilege, I will admit that.) But it does also make me reflect. This is the working space of the people who decide the fate and direction of the country, and with them affect those of others. Given that’s their daily commute (for those that go into the House daily, I suppose) and the site of what in other places would be the water-cooler or kitchen conversations, I couldn’t but remember how separated from the real world three years teaching in an Oxford college made me, and wonder what working in Westminster’s actual buildings does for the sense of normal human life enjoyed by our legislators. I don’t see how one could maintain humility without a struggle. The jeering you see on Parliamentary TV presumably hasn’t that much to do with this environment – I imagine its architects were hoping for more ennobling effects than that – but the environment can’t make anything seem more, rather than less, real. There’s probably a serious role for these lectures just by way of establishing that we do have means and tools for deciding what reality is, or at least was!


Underneath and atop Oxford Castle, and a query about Dover

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Last year after Leeds I embarked on a short tour of the country with two visiting academics, which netted me a number of medieval tourism photos. I’ve been meaning to stick some of these on the blog since then, alas, … Continue reading

Fleming’s Normans (and her Danes and her English)

Once finished with ‘pope month’ on the course, we had ‘Normans fortnight’, and I used the opportunity to read Robin Fleming’s Kings and Lords in Conquest England, which I’d wanted to do for, er, well more or less since I first read any of her work as an undergraduate I think, so quite a long time, in none of which time had it ever been quite relevant enough.1 But now I have.

The manuscript of Great Domesday

The manuscript of Great Domesday

In some ways I guess this doesn’t read as innovative as it did when it came out, or at least as the author pitches it, but that would be because she’d blazed the trail of using Domesday Book for really big-scale social history of England and a lot of other people also started doing it once she’d shown them how it could be done. I was very conscious while making notes that there has been an awful lot of work since she wrote, but hadn’t been that much on relevant subjects before: a great deal of what’s in her footnotes was thirty or forty years old even then. Anyway, the elevator pitch of it would be: using Domesday over many areas, we can see that the patterns of lay land-holding were hugely changed between 1066 and 1086, and that only a small part of this can be seen as continuity from an Anglo-Saxon landholder to a new Norman one. Small estates were clumped together by means fair and foul, but big ones were broken up and the result was a much more divided and controllable nobility for William I in 1086 than Edward the Confessor had in 1066, when Harold and his brothers actually held more land than the king, a pattern set up by Cnut’s consolidation of the nobility. That process is discussed in the first part of the book, and one of the things that makes this so interesting is the long comparison 1016 to 1086, albeit mainly studied through the 1086 telescope of Domesday.2 It’s at that end where the real argument lies, and figures like this really knock the difference home:

Proportions of land held by Edward the Confessor and his earls as per Fleming

Proportions of land held by William the Conqueror and his barons, 1086, as per Fleming

The timing of all this is also crucial: she sees a turning point around 1075, when the last English landholders to whom a new Norman landholder can be allowed to succeed are dying out. From there on land has to be acquired by other means, although that was never the only one. This means that a lot of estates had probably assumed the form that Domesday shows them in only very recently in 1086, and that we can fit the acquisition of land into a slow change that also appears in William’s domestic and ecclesiastical politics of initial accommodation hardening into subjection. This is all anchored with masses of detail, I mean masses. She never uses two or three examples when six exist, and this is effective. It sacrifices something on accessibility: the language of English land tenure is somewhat unusual and if you don’t already know what soke is or what berewicks are you will need a dictionary because there’s no help coming here, and no glossary either which might have been a kind gesture. But the upshot of it is all to convince, with the sort of mass of data that only Domesday scholars can really marshal for this period.3

Shires in which the different English magnate families dominated in 1066Spread of landholding of William the Conqueror's baronage by family 1086, as per Fleming

Three things only bug me about the arguments here, and these are three carps in a whole pool of beautiful goldfish, if you see what I mean. You know by now that this is my way of showing I really read the thing, to try and argue with details, right? So. The first thing is, a point she makes several times but which is easily lost sight of, that we are dealing here only with lay land, which is between a third and two-thirds of all land in England perhaps. So although if you’re studying the lay aristocracy we have indeed got 100% of their known assets under consideration, if you were interested in the peasantry then we’re looking at rather less. The second thing is another that she admits but I don’t think she really allows the reader time to see how it might affect the argument: Domesday does not record Anglo-Saxon subtenancies in as much detail as it does Anglo-Norman ones, so the fact that tempus regis willelmi land tenure appears to be split between many people and tempus regis eadwardi rather fewer may not all be the fact that Harold of Wessex and brothers and Leofric of Mercia had most of the country sewn up between them, undeniable though that probably is, but partly that we are not seeing the people over who they were lords. That said, it could be argued against that since Domesday is mainly interested in tenants-in-chief, this doesn’t really affect the upper level and might even militate towards better representation of Anglo-Saxon tenancies whose nature didn’t match the categories that Domesday‘s surveyors were working with. So maybe that doesn’t matter.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

The question that really seemed uncovered to me is one that I kept asking, especially during the penultimate chapter which tries to document how much of the new lords’ landholdings were simply stolen or extorted. This is a really interesting chapter, and contains fascinating hints of collusion. What happens, I wanted to ask, having had this conversation with Matthew Innes several times in the past,4 when land changes hands? Do we really envisage the people who had owned it packing up their bags and leaving? Was England, or indeed Europe always full of migrants of purchase like this? Well, sometimes perhaps, especially in my area where they sometimes come to the frontier and start a new life, but more often surely they stay put, they just don’t own the land any more. What is happening with some of these cases is surely primarily a change of revenue flow; someone new gets to take the renders and the people working the land stay the same. A lot of the people we’re dealing with here likely weren’t working the land before, of course, and they may now have to. But all the same I think there is not only a great difference between physically expelling people from their lands and simply taking possession, in terms of title, tax and rights, of it while they stay in place with lessened status. I also think that envisaging the latter rather than the former makes it a lot easier to imagine how this whole process could be carried out without the whole of England essentially becoming wasteland and all the English fugitives.

1. Robin Fleming, Kings and Lords in Conquest England, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 15 (Cambridge 1991).

2. In this I think she, as with very many other people in fact, owes a lot to the similar perspective of Pauline Stafford, Unification and Conquest: a political and social history of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries (London 1978) and I don’t know if this is one of those I-internalised-it-so-good-I-forgot-it-wasn’t-mine things I described the other day but I find it very weird that that book isn’t cited or in this one’s bibliography.

3. It ought to be noted, however, that Fleming’s figures above differ quite a lot from the results that Mark Lawson got doing the same sums, or at least attempting to: see his “Edward the Confessor’s England” in James Campbell, Patrick Wormald & Eric John (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (Harmondsworth 1982), pp. 226-227 at p. 226.

4. You can find Matthew discussing the like in his “Land, Freedom and the Making of the Early Medieval West” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 16 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 39-73.