At the edge of the world – Episode 8: 8th-9th centuries: the fall and rise of kings


Last time, we left off by noting that the
people of the southern part of Britain may have had a common language by the end of the
ninth century. Now we shall prepare the ground to be covered in coming centuries on land-ownership
and law. Bede begins his History with the phrase, ‘Britain,
formerly known as Albion…’ and in this opening paragraph speaks of the English, which sounds
like an ethnic description. He is writing almost three centuries after the arrival of
Hengest and Horsa, so we might speculate that the incomers – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – were
already seen collectively as English by educated men. By Bede’s time, they may even have seen themselves
as English. But the name �England� comes much later in writing, according to George
Beach, of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo. Professor Beach finds the Latin word, ‘Anglia’
– meaning England – in the writings of the historian, Aethelweard of Wessex, in the late
tenth century, quoting this sentence: ‘Britannia is now called Anglia, taking the name of the
victors’ – who had become the ‘Angli.’ Aethelweard’s use of the adverb ‘now’ – in ‘is now called’
– suggests that the kingdom had been called Anglia or ‘Enga-land’ by people only pretty
recently. There are other occasional references of this
sort. The later Saxon kings – descendants of King
Alfred the Great – never referred to themselves in their charters or on their coins by this
territorial title, but by a variety of other titles which we shall meet. The first king
to use Enga-land routinely in his charters and letters was Cnut, the Danish ruler of
England from 1016. In his Law Code of 1018, he is styled ‘king of all England,’ possibly
not mere pomp, but the assertion of political reality, that Viking-Danes and English had
finally united. The title might also have been an expression
of Cnut’s hope that the races had made peace under his rule. He himself had married the
widow of the last Anglo-Saxon ruler, King Aethelred II. This woman Emma would see two
of her sons, Harthacnut, by Cnut, and Edward the Confessor, by Aethelred II, crowned kings
of England. It was William the Conqueror’s reign that
ended any doubt about national nomenclature. And the name England was routinely applied
to the whole of Great Britain after the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, and stuck until
the Second World War for most people in the Anglo-Saxon world, except the Welsh and Scots,
naturally enough. Indeed, living in England and thinking of
themselves as British seems to me to be less felt by the English in the last ten years
than hitherto, perhaps the result of greater Scottish and Welsh self-expression since devolution
of those nations in 1999. One style that has hardly changed is that Elizabeth II, like
all her predecessors since William the Conqueror, is routinely spoken of as the Queen of England,
though she is, in fact, queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been no kingdom of England (or Scotland)
for more than three hundred years – since the Act of Union, which established the kingdom
of Great Britain. There was one final language in Anglo-Saxon
times, the written ‘book language’. It had been Latin, but by the 10th century, it was
also English and would have crucial implications for landownership. ‘Bookland’ was land given by a king to a follower
or a religious foundation and written down. The written grant was known by Bede’s time,
and may have worked as charters did later – a copy being given to the grantee and another
kept for the king’s records: evidence of ownership. Possibly, important charters were sent in
copy to the leading religious houses in the area of the grant, so that these centres of
mostly literate people had a record of the king’s acts. Documents are sparse, but important noblemen
may have copied this practice. It was the beginning of the hereditary ownership of land
in England and, since land was becoming hereditary, Wills also became important. Dorothy Whitelock prints the Will of Ealdoman
Alfred in her English Historical Documents, in which he leaves bookland to his wife Waerburh
and their son Aethelwold, subject to the consent of King Alfred and his counsellors. The bequest was confirmed, sometime between
871 and 888, and here we have an early example of what has long been called – and is still
called – Probate: State sanction for the transmission of property to an heir. The Church soon became intimately involved
in this legal procedure for good reason. Abbeys and cathedrals were ubiquitous. Clergy were
literate and some gradually acquired legal skills for this development in secular affairs.
The Church was also very often a beneficiary in a Will, a bequest being made by a testator
out of religious conviction, or in hope of smoothing his or her path in the Afterlife.
In that age of profound belief in Christianity, it would be a mistake, I think, to attribute
such bequests to cynicism, a re-insurance policy. The few Anglo-Saxon Wills that survive
are of mainly great estates, and it is only long after our period – in the 14th and 15th
centuries – that we have much knowledge of the Wills of ordinary folk.
Michael Woods, in his revealing BBC documentary of a Leicestershire village – shown in 2010
– finds examples of some bequests of tupence, or thrupence to the parish church in the late
Middle Ages. There is no reason to suppose that the better-off
Saxon peasant did not also make similar small allowances for the work of God. The Church took control of Probate in the
Anglo-Saxon period for what may have been a largely a free people. This changed radically
after the arrival of the Normans in 1066, and the institutionalization of feudalism,
as it were, when the English were to a greater or lesser extent not such a free people. Wills were hardly needed any longer for any
but the most important people in society because many folk now held from a superior lord. This
tendency is discernible in the last decades of the Old English monarchy, in Wessex and
western Mercia – less so in the Danish or Viking areas of East Angla, Lincolnshire,
north Midlands, and Yorkshire. We shall look at this complex issue when we
get to the 11th century From the arrival of the Normans, legal documents,
like wills, also reverted to the Latin of early bookland, and English as the language
of the Law was terminated. There may have been an element of retribution,
even a sense of superiority bred of conquest, in this move, but more likely, the Normans
simply did not speak English, and nor did the continental priests with whom King William
would soon fill most English bishoprics and large abbeys. Nothing is permanent in human existence, of
course, and the private ownership of land grew throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, in
the Domesday entry for Walden, Essex – the modern town of Saffron Walden – there are
actually more ‘freemen’ in 1086 than in 1066. By 1500, the Feudal System – in itself, an
18th century term that would have had no resonance among the Normans – the Feudal System had
collapsed. The changed circumstances were reflected in
1535 by King Henry VIII’s Statute of Wills which formalized the heritable transmission
of property. The ending of Roman Catholicism as the national religion in King Henry’s reign
did not end the Church’s Prerogative Probate Courts, and the Established Church continued
to manage Probate until 1856, when the State took over by Act of Parliament. Some viewers will scold me for ‘going off
the point’ with this thread-bare sketch. But most people watching me won’t know much of
this important matter, so I must be indulged. Wherever Anglo-Saxons have gone as explorers
or conquerors since the 17th century, they have taken with them the idea of the ‘property-owning
democracy’ – for themselves at any rate. The free man with his portion of private land
seems hard-wired into these descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, and the ownership of land
was not confined to the great men of the day, and their supporters. If there was ever such
a thing as the Feudal System, it was already being modified when Domesday was compiled
in 1086. Serfdom in England – and hardly at all in
Scotland and Ireland – was certainly dead by 1500, in the sense of owing service to
the lord of the manor, and some historians trace its end to between about 1348 and 1381
– the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt. That said there persisted forms of feudal
tenures until their abolition in England on 1 January 1926 (mostly copyhold), and in Scotland
until November 2004. Vestigial feudal rights had become more akin to restrictive covenants,
that many of us know as freeholders and leaseholders. Subjection to a feudal elite was also increasingly
commonplace from the early 10th century in France, Germany, and Spain, but serfdom had
to be abolished by law in those countries. It did not, as in Britain, simply atrophy
over time. Serfdom was not abolished in France until
1789, nor in Germany and Spain until the 19th century. As the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire
of Charlemagne broke down in the ninth century, great feudatories began to establish virtually
independent domains, or fiefdoms, encompassing whole regions of France, Germany, and Italy. Their captains or knights received and carved
out mini-fiefdoms of their own. Fortresses sprang up to enforce and to extend their interests.
Churches, monasteries, and abbeys, lesser noblemen, or just men on the make were detached
by the successor states from central authority. The kingdom of France emerged, but was a pale
shadow of what it was to become, or had been under King Pippin and the Emperor Charlemagne.
Emphemeral kingdoms appeared and disappeared – Burgundy, Arles, Lotharingia, Italy. Such
law as there was became arbitrary, dependent on the good will, or otherwise, of some local
potentate in his impregnable stone castle, manned by trained troops, some of whom might
be mercenaries. Theoretically, the king of France or the German
emperor remained the feudal overlord, but in practice, they were often weaker than one
of their vassals – a duke or a count of a royal province. These men filled a void left by the disintegration
of imperial authority, which had fundamental implications for the islands At the Edge of
the World, as we shall see. And, as ever, when we speak of imperial authority,
we should not mistake it for the kind of authority enjoyed by the ancient emperors of Rome, or
the much later kings in Europe. The Carolingian empire of Charlemagne was
an agglomeration of conquests, many of them recent. The first Emperor of the West since
the fifth century wrote law and gave orders in writing. But Charlemagne’s and his father
Pippin’s real power lay in their ability to field an army of the loyal, then to march
on a disobedient province and crush its ruler. Word of lessons of that sort spread, and are
likely to have kept many a warlord in his place. On Charlemagne’s death, in 814, and
the division of the empire among his sons and later his grandsons, it is no surprise
that ambitious men rose to fill the vacuum left by the royal family’s infighting. A result of the disorder on the continent
in the tenth century obliged the conquering kings of Wessex to formulate a foreign policy
– the first in English history. The breakdown of imperial rule also led to what is known
as the Peace of God movement, an attempt, initially, by brave churchmen and some people
to curb the petty power of their feudal oppressors. It would gather great momentum, as we shall
report, and impinge on Britain. The fall of Charlemagne�s empire would have
the greatest conequences for the country we know as Germany. It would remain divided into
300 states, some as small as imperial villages, the play-thing of rival German princes, the
Church, French, Spanish, Austrian – and even Swedish – kings until the 19th century. German belligerence in the 20th century may,
to a degree, be accounted for by this, The country was only united as the German Empire
with its own kaiser – in 1871. As noted, the home-spun English monarchy of
Wessex went from strength to strength in the tenth century as the Carolingian empire collapsed. We shall leave the reasons for this until
we reach the reign of King Alfred the Great and his successors. But to revert to the original purpose of this
episode, land held freely by churls, or peasants, was often burdened with obligations to a king,
which a king may have granted to one of his followers or to the Church. The holder of such land was free to sell it
on, including the burdens, and move away. Law codes existed that sought to define such
duties, as these were also defined for higher members of society. The peasant freeholder
also had the hundred court which might have defended him against an unscrupulous overlord.
He even had the king’s court. We shall investigate landholding, the courts
available, and – perhaps most important – the sworn jury – in later episodes. In the next Episode: who were the barbarians
who lived in the Island at the Edge of the World?

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