Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords, or the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingship

"Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!" Monty Python

I picked up The Saxon And Norman Kings by Christopher Brooke about a decade ago in a second hand book shop in London and I remember reading it on the trip or soon after. I enjoyed it a lot then, as it's an interesting book and well written. That's also what made me read it again for my Dark Ages project.

It starts out, not with biographies, but an overview of how kings were selected, what they did, the origin of kingship etc. Only then it turns to the more conventional chronological narrative up to the ascension of Henry II and the establishment of the Angevin monarchy.

Central in this book is the matter of succession. The question was not as formalised as in the later monarchies, and elements of inheritance or royal blood, election and designatio by the incumbent monarch all played a part. Historians have disagreed about which element here was the most important. As time went by, Brooke holds, the royal bloodline became ever more important and even though the suggestion of election is always there, it is not likely that it played a big role.

Except of course in a few very controversial cases. The choices for Harold Godwinson in 1066 and Mathilda in 1135 clearly turn in a different direction with the backing of the most important barons in the land. But Brooke would argue that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In all the rules seem to have allowed for a certain lattitude. While not all kings could claim all three elements of legitimacy, one or two could be enough when backed with force.

The book also shows the close links between the Anglo-Saxon kings and the church, which did a lot for legitimacy and their historical record. Great sponsors of the church are still better documented and better received than those that looked upon the church as a necessary evil or useful tool rather than a holy institution in its own right.

Obviously, this book was written without a lot of the archeological evidence available today and its far from complete. Nevertheless, it gives a good introduction to the age from an interesting viewpoint.

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