Monday, June 13, 2016

The Function of Kings in Anglo-Saxon England

Not an accurate depiction of lordly living.



As I mentioned in my previous post concerning social organization in Anglo-Saxon England, the idea of kings as we know them today, all powerful rulers who hand down edicts across an empire, did not exist. Kings during this period were closer along the lines of tribal leaders who ruled a larger than usual amount of subjects and land.  So now, I want to briefly outline the basic idea and evolution of Anglo-Saxon kings. 

                Germani tribesmen' customs stressed loyalty to their lords. Sometimes they were led by a hereditary king, though this was usually not the case. Germani warriors were often led into battle by elected chiefs. Since oath keeping and vows of vengeance were heavily interrelated, this meant—or we can assume as much anyways—that those most likely to be elected were honored warriors who regularly maintained oaths of allegiance as well as vengeance.

                By the seventh century, however, this tribal system was largely on the social periphery. Kingdoms as we loosely would know them today began to emerge and with them kings who held sway over administered districts (Blair 13, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction). Even then, however, there were dozens of kings, each battling one another for influence and power.

                Nevertheless, though, what we see during this period (the early 600s) is the gradual emergence of power-relations; specifically, of states coming out of the flux. Part of this flux meant a constantly shifting wielding of power. The famed historian Bede, for instance, recounts the existence of so-called ‘over-kings’ whose positions, though usually short lived, marshaled much of the Anglo-Saxon people under a single rule (14). But it is with these over-kings that the conception of kings as we know them today emerge, as territorial kings merely controlled a limited territory often without anything in the way of civil society.

                It would not be until the 9th and 10th centuries, when the House of Wessex rose to unite much of England, that anything like a cultural identity could be seen. It was only during this time where much in the way of anything could be undertaken on the part of kings; now directing large amounts of land and required to balance matters both military and civil (such as partitioning with the Normans and monastic reform as well as generating a means of legal settlement and tax collecting). All though the House of Wessex would ultimately fall in the second Norman invasion, the groundwork that it laid for an English identity would preserve for over a thousand years, as subsequent generations inherited and tweaked the various civil and military structures bequeathed to them by their forefathers. Part of this, of course, would be the creation of an Absolute Monarchy, and the various bits of discord that such a regime would ultimately have on civil matters. But, as with all structures, it had its roots in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Works Cited
Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2000. Print.