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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 Did Anglo Saxon Kingship remain unstable and unsophisticated in the period up to c850?
The period 600-850 saw the waning of Northumbria and the rise of Mercia to dominate southern England. It saw increasingly complex methods of rule, charters, sub-kings, silver coinage, increased trade and impressive artwork. However the security and stability of kingship did not flourish as the kings' cultural sophistication did; rule in England remained governed by violence, feud and a necessity for near constant warfare to retain the retainers' loyalty. Whilst various kings in various kingdoms were able to establish some sort of hegemony and influence the land outside their direct control, these instances were fleeting and impossible to pass on to successor rulers, so that while in the period Anglo Saxon kingship did become more advanced, with more modern mechanisms of ruling, the stability of such rule never itself improved. There is very little evidence to suggest that seventh or eight century kingship was any different to earlier rule in terms of stability. As ever, any aetheling had a valid claim to kingship through his royal blood, and would usurp any king deemed to be weak or unsuccessful in maintaining the steady flow of victories and gift-giving needed to maintain an army. Furthermore, when rebellions or assassinations such as this were successful, the newly installed monarch would be no more stable than the old, owing to the feud, which would now exist between his family and the deposed. Whilst some kings, such as Ine, may have had "close royal control of the population"1, they could never keep this power over the heights of the aristocracy, leading to Campbell's assertion that "no king or kingdom could hope for long success"2. Constant victory in war is impossible, and thus the "indissoluble connection between success and gold-giving"3 was necessarily broken in every case, leading to threats against the kings. What is clear from the argument above is that if kings were pressured by the aethelings within their own court, then they were also in danger from the enemy without; rival kings would be compelled to attack their kingdoms, and some, the most powerful, had the inclination to support rival claimants to the throne, or in the case of Offa in Kent, to completely extinguish the royal line. If the kings themselves were unstable in their rule, then the office of kingship was more unstable still, on account of the Anglo Saxons' hazy rules on succession. Campbell writes that "not in any kingdom was there a settled system for succession"4 and points to the chaos that broke out in East Anglia after the demise of Raedwald, and to the three feuding royal families in Northumbria to prove his point. What is more, he points out that "no West Saxon ruler between 685 and 802 was more than distantly related to his predecessor"5, suggesting a dynastic instability typical of the country as a whole. If kingship in general has been shown unstable, some historians might argue that the bretwaldas or perhaps brytenwaldas were notable exceptions to this trend, that those with imperium were unchallenged and settled. This argument is largely flawed, however, since it is clear that no such office existed in any kind of defined sense, and was rather an arbitrary recognition of a king's influence being slightly greater than his 1
The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, p61 The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, p55 3 The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, p53 4 The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, p56 5 The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, p115 2
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