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8th-9th centuries: the fall and rise of kings


The Church brought writing to England, as it brought it to Picts, in Scotland, and Franks in France.   Law codes were written, and grants or confirmations of land ownership - and the making of wills - seem slowly to have been made in writing as a record for future.   When did England become known as England?


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Rolling English fields today, perhaps little different from Anglo-Saxon times as a view of the countryside:



A 14th century portrait of Cnut King of England, Denmark, and Norway, showing him as the king of Christendom:



Sheep farming hardly changed at all until the 18th century; picture from the Luttrell Psalter, c 1320–40, British Library, London, England:



A 13th-century gatehouse in the château de Châteaubriant, eastern Brittany, France, dating from the 10th century. It connects the upper ward to the lower one.   Many such castles sprang up around Western Europe, in Germany, France, and Italy in the ninth- and tenth-centuries as central power broke down to be replaced by new local aristocracies, many of whom were little better than warlords.   Castles, offensive structures against local populations, were the foundations of feudalism.   This was not a problem in England and not much in Scotland, which were ruled by strong kings, and there were simply no castles of this sort in private hands - indeed, almost certainly no stone castles at all in England.   This all changed in 1066 with the arrival of William the Conqueror and his Normans and other followers:



The Pilgrim Fathers: Departure of a Puritan Family for New England, 1856, oil on Canvas, location: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia:



 Henry VIII in 1542, by Hans Holbein, Castle Howard, Yorkshire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England

Anglo-Saxons: map showing the Jutland peninsula, where the Jutes are believed to have originated; and Saxony to the south where the Angles and Saxons originated for their invasion of Britannia:



An Anglo-Saxon king with his Witan; Bodleian Library, Oxford, England, Laud Misc. 509:



As above: A 14th century portrait of Cnut the Great, showing him as the king of Christendom

Harthacnut, King of England (1040-42), second son of Cnut the Great by Emma, widow of Aethelred II, King of England, whom Cnut deprived of his throne: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harthacnut_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI.jpg


Parish church of St Nicholas, Ickford, Buckinghamshire: stained glass window depicting Saint Edward the Confessor: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Edward_the_Confessor_-_stained_glass.jpg


'Vote No Thanks', the slogan used in September 2014 by the opponents of Scottish independence.   The Unionists prevailed with a majority of 10:



Royal magnificence: Queen Elizabeth II:



The Anglo-Saxon tower and (on the left) the baptistry of St Peter's Church, Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, England:



West façade of Ely Cathedral from Palace Green, the former village green: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely,_Cambridgeshire

Cover of Anglo-Saxon Wills, a book by Dorothy Whitelock, who died in 2013, aged 96, still working in Oxford, England.   She was the doyen of Anglo-Saxon scholars.   Jeremy Black, now Professor of History at Exeter University, remembers her seminars in the 1970s when she spoke of her Anglo-Saxon characters as if they were her personal friends:



A 19th century print showing St Mary le Strand and the Strand front of Somerset House, until very recently the location of the Probate and Wills Office: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_le_Strand


Peasants working:



Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire, the focus of a good BBC documentary, written and presented by Michael Wood in 2010:



Terrain of Dartmoor, Devon:



Norman knights and archers at the Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hastings

Lanfranc of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury in an 18th century copy of an earlier MS painting.   At his feet is shown a tiny Berengar of Tours, a theologian who disagreed with Lanfranc about the substance of the Eucharist:



St Mary's parish church, Saffron Walden, north Essex:



King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England

As above:


The Pilgrim Fathers: Departure of a Puritan Family for New England, 1856, by Charles Westcope oil on Canvas, location: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia


Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro de Crescenzi, Musée Condé, Chantilly France:



Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c 1310, Queen Mary's Psalter, MS Royal 2. b. vii, fol 78v, British Library, London:



Charlemagne (left) and Pepin.   Pepin was Charlemagne's eldest son by Himiltrude, a noblewoman, whom the Emperor put aside to marry another woman.   Pepin, who was disabled, took part in a rebellion against his father, captured and sentenced to death.   Instead, his father had him tonsured and sent to a monastery at Prum, Germany, where he died in 811.  Tenth-century copy of a lost original from about 830:



Lothar I, Emperor of the Romans and King of Italy at various times, being crowned by his father Louis I, the Pious, in 817 and again by Pope Paschal in Rome in 823.   Lorraine, northern France, is named after him:



As above: Chateau de Chateaubriant

Charlemagne’s empire at his death in 814.   The dark shade of green are those provinces which the founder of Germany and France added during his long reign:



Rebellion: Murder of Cnut IV of Denmark at St Alban's Priory, Odense, Denmark, in 1086.    Monarchies in France, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia, were sapped of their strength by persistent internecine contests for power.   Although he was very pious, was canonized, and became patron saint of Denmark, he was a strong ruler.   His mistake was his unsuccessful invasion of England in the 1080s.  Painting by Christian  Albrecht von Benzon, 1843: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canute_IV_of_Denmark


The German Emperor, proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in 1871, William I; to use his Germanic style 'Kaiser Wilhelm I', the grandfather of the more famous Kaiser Wilhelm II, who led Europe into the Great (or First World) War in 1914.   Kaiser, like tsar (of All the Russias) were derivatives of the Latin 'Caesar', a title always borne by Roman emperors:



Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, a statue in Winchester, the Wessex capital:        



A late representation of medieval Dutch peasants enjoying themselves, by Jacob Jordaens.   There was no painting or portraiture in our period, the early medieval age, that was remotely realistic.   Where there were pictures, these were stylized, and scenes of the common people were very rare.   Pictures mostly appeared in priestly manuscripts where Christ, the Apostles, and angels were routinely displayed; or else kings, bishops, abbots, and noblemen who probably sponsored a chronicle and paid for their symbolical likenesses to appear.   Throughout this documentary, therefore, we have had to locate scenes, such as this painting by the 17th century artists Jacob Jordaens, to give an idea of what life might have been like eight or nine hundred years earlier.   There would have been no fashion styles, at any level of Western European society, that were radically different then from Germany to France to Italy to Britain - any more than today in the European Union where we all wear more or less the same looking clothes: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_Jordaens_-_Satyr_at_the_Peasant's_House_-_WGA12002.jpg


A modern rendering of the seventh- or possible eight-century hero Beowulf, whom we shall meet in a later Episode:




Episode transcript:


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 Anglia, 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 consequences 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?


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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