Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Anglo-Saxons: government

Athelstan, arguably the first English king
presenting a book to St Cuthbert
The tenth century sees the beginning of England’s history as the longest-lasting state of medieval Europe. Anglo-Saxon government still had Germanic roots, and it was conducted in Old English, but there was also a marked Frankish influence originating in the court of Charlemagne at Aachen. 


Alfred had looked to the Bible for his highly moralized version model of kingship, but he was also clearly influenced by the ideology of the Carolingians. The first item in his legal code proscribes a collective oath of loyalty to the king, a practice taken from Francia.  His high view of monarchy was maintained by his successors, in particular Edgar. 

An important part of the monarch’s powers lay in his control of the currency. From 1036 onwards every three years all the coins circulating in the kingdom were recalled and reminted in order to allow the king to cream off some of the silver. 

The monarch also had direct control of a high proportion of the land of England and also rights of tribute from the estates, both lay and ecclesiastical. They controlled a higher proportion of their kingdoms than did the Frankish rulers, even Charlemagne, and therefore had extensive rights of patronage. 

Edward and Æthelflaed’s conquest of midland and eastern England was essentially a West Saxon conquest, involving the West Saxon aristocracy, the ealdormen (earls), as much as the kings.  Often an earl would head a group of shires, as when Wessex ealdormen were imposed on Mercia and East Anglia. In the mid tenth century, a period of young kings and short reigns, their influence grew, but they were seldom a threat to the kings as they saw their identity and political future as very much tied up with the House of Wessex. 

Below the earls were the landlords, the thegns, who held modest but viable estates of between five and ten hides of land.  (A hide was often around 120 acres and had to contribute a certain amount in tax to the king.)  They held land either outright, possibly as a gift from the king, or in lease from a church and were the inheritors of the ninth and tenth-century development in which larger units had been broken up into smaller blocks, centred round a village.  

Public assemblies

The public assembly was not a feature of Roman politics. It was a barbarian innovation and represented the principle that the ruler had a direct relationship with all his free people. The Anglo-Saxons had the 'gemot', or folk-moot, and the Scandinavians the 'thing'.   This went with an assumption of military obligation.  In the tenth century this type of arrangement disappeared from the Carolingian lands, but it was strong in England, where there was now a network of public assemblies. Their main purpose was to hear disputes in front of a large number of locally powerful people.  At a judicial assembly in Berkshire in 990 or 991, a bishops and an abbot presided as well as the 'shire reeve' (sheriff), by now the king’s direct representative in the locality, with the responsibility for collecting his revenues and executing his orders.  This type of arrangement had disappeared from the Carolingian lands, but it was now established in England, and set it off from its continental neighbours. 

The witan

The witan was the advisory council of the leading men of Church and State, which played a decisive role in the late Anglo-Saxon period. In the event of a disputed succession, it chose the king.  It has been seen as a remarkably successful body that frequently managed to achieve consensus and avoid armed conflict.  

The shires

The shire became the essential building block of the Anglo-Saxon state.  As a unit, it dates from at least the seventh century, when Wessex was divided into five shires: Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Hampshire. By the year 1000 there were thirty-two shires. By the mid-tenth century the shires were further divided into ‘hundreds’ (probably a Frankish import), so called because in theory they contained a hundred ‘hides’ or parcels of land each sufficient to maintain a family. Ideally, each hundred contained an important royal site, a minster church, a market place and a site where criminals could be put to death. 

The house of Wessex had established what the historian Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, Penguin, 2010, p. 463) has called 
‘the largest, strongest and most internally stable polity in Britain since the Romans left’. 

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