Tag Archives: churches

Games of thrones

While researching the book, I was frequently reminded of analogies between the political dealings of tenth-century Britain and those depicted in the television series Game of Thrones. Being a fan of the series, it was perhaps inevitable that it would spring to mind whenever I came across historical references to dynastic marriages, temporary treaties and oaths of fealty. At times, the webs of alliance and allegiance in the 900s seem just as fluid as those involving the royal families of fictional Westeros – and with similar levels of intrigue.

A number of tenth-century treaties directly involved the kings of Strathclyde, who were as adept as any Lannister or Tyrell in the cut-and-thrust of political negotiation. Strathclyde’s geographical position gave it a shared border with several other realms and this meant that its kings were seen as useful allies. They could also be dangerous foes, and had few qualms about switching sides if it suited them to do so. Like their contemporaries in other lands, they might swiftly abandon a treaty when it no longer gave them an advantage, even at the risk of breaking a sworn oath.

I’ve highlighted three treaties in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, weighing the significance of each and examining the sources that record them. All three were hosted by Anglo-Saxon (English) rulers of the West Saxon royal house, the family to which Alfred the Great belonged, but the other attendees came from far and wide. From the northern Celtic lands came the kings of Strathclyde and Alba, representing the North Britons and Scots respectively. From the old realm of Northumbria came the Viking rulers of York and the still-English lords of Bamburgh. From the West came various Welsh kings and, from across the Irish Sea, the kings of Viking Dublin. Other key figures also turned up from time to time.

The three treaties are discussed more fully in the book but here I’ll simply list them in chronological order, with venue and participants named (where known). Names in italics mean an identification is uncertain.

Bakewell Anglo-Saxon Cross

Shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross at Bakewell Parish Church in the Peak District.

Year: 920
Venue: Bakewell
Hosted by: Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
In attendance: Constantin, king of Alba; Ragnall, king of York; Ealdred and Uhtred, lords of Bamburgh; Owain, king of Strathclyde.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Edward as ruler of all Britain south of the Mersey and Humber estuaries.
Source: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘A’)

* * *

Mayburgh Henge Cumbria

Standing stone in the prehistoric henge of Mayburgh, a possible venue for the royal meeting near the River Eamont in 927.

Year: 927
Venue: River Eamont (near Penrith)
Hosted by: Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder
In attendance: Hywel, king of the West Welsh; Constantin, king of Alba; Owain, king of Strathclyde; Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Athelstan as the most powerful king in Britain; mutual agreement to refuse offers of alliance from Vikings.
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); William of Malmesbury’s ‘History of the English Kings’

* * *

Chester Anglo-Saxon Cross

St John the Baptist Church, Chester: head and part of the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon Cross.

Year: 973
Venue: Chester
Hosted by: Edgar, nephew of Athelstan
In attendance: Cináed, king of Alba; Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde; Maccus, son of Harald, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith, brother of Maccus; Iago, king of Gwynedd; Hywel, Iago’s nephew; Iudicael, count of Rennes in Brittany.
Purpose (probable): non-aggression pact to prevent future hostilities
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); John of Worcester’s Chronicle

* * * * * * *

The Meeting at Chester

King Edgar 973

From the twelfth-century chronicle of John of Worcester, under the year 973:
Edgar the Peaceable, king of the English, was blessed and crowned with the utmost honour and glory, and anointed in the thirtieth year of his age by the saintly bishops Dunstan and Oswald, and by the other bishops of England, in the city of Bath, in the first indiction, at Pentecost on the 11th of May. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Wales with a large fleet and came to the city of Chester. He was met, as he had commanded, by eight tributary kings, namely Cináed, king of the Scots, Máel Coluim, king of the Cumbrians, Maccus, king of many islands, and five others: Dufnal, Siferth, Hywal, Iago and Iudicael, who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar on a certain day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles he sailed from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles, as he entered the gates, that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.

Máel Coluim, here described as ‘king of the Cumbrians’, was a king of Strathclyde. His death in 997 was noted in the Irish annals. The king named ‘Dufnal’ who also attended Edgar’s royal gathering is usually identified as Máel Coluim’s father Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde, who died in 975 while on pilgrimage to Rome.

Maccus ‘king of many islands’ is probably the Viking warlord Maccus Haraldsson, a significant player in the Irish Sea region at this time. Siferth is unknown but Hywel and Iago (and possibly Iudicael) came from Wales.

The idea that Edgar received oaths of allegiance at the meeting might be English propaganda. Many modern historians think that the event was more likely to have been a gathering of equals rather than a display of one king’s superiority. Issues of mutual concern were no doubt discussed, with disputes being settled by pledges of peace. I examine this topic more closely in Chapter Seven of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

The illustration at the top of this blogpost was produced by James Doyle in 1864. A depiction of the same event can be seen in a stained glass window at the present-day church of St John the Baptist, which stands beside the River Dee on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

King Edgar 973

St John the Baptist Chester

St John the Baptist, Chester: columns of the Norman period.

Lowther hogbacks

On one of my research trips for the book I visited Lowther Church in Cumbria to see the Viking Age sculpture, which includes hogback gravestones similar to the ones at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith.

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with shaft of Anglo-Saxon cross)

 

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with fragment of another)

Parts of the present church were built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It sits on high ground above the River Lowther and probably occupies the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Lowther Church

In Chapter Six of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I consider a possible tenth-century reference to this monastery as a frontier settlement between the ‘Cumbrians’ (Britons) and the Scandinavian rulers of Northumbria.