Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England. A Comparison of Oswald and Edmund as Royal Saints

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

19 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England

3. The Author: Ælfric of Eynsham

4. The Genre
4.1 The Importance of Saints
4.2 Saints’ Lives – a Typical Christian Genre
4.3 Oswald of Northumbria
4.4 Edmund the Martyr
4.5 A Comparison of vita and passio

5. Linguistic Analysis
5.1 The Sources
5.2 Overall Structures of the Texts
5.3 Syntactic Structure
5.4 Style and Alliterative Elements
5.5 Comparison of the Description of the Murders Oswald and Edmund

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix

1. Introduction

The basic form of society in Anglo-Saxon England was a kingdom. Over the centuries the movement was away from many small units to larger kingdoms controlling greater populations. The first kings were pagan and when Christianity became established the Christian kings kept many of the characteristics of their pagan forebears. The Christian kings continued to be primarily military leaders.

A cult of martyrs arose in Anglo-Saxon England which included Christian kings who had died either in battle or in defence of Christianity. Other royal saints followed a different path to sainthood by leading exemplary Christian lives.

Many saints’ lives composed in Latin circulated in Anglo-Saxon England but it was the monk and author Ælfric of Eynsham who translated a collection of saints’ lives into Old English. In particular this paper will deal with the lives of St Edmund and St Oswald. After a brief introduction to the lives of these two saints an analysis of the two concepts of vita and passio follows. Then the general and syntactic linguistic structure of both texts is examined. Finally a comparison of the deaths of St Oswald and St Edmund illustrates the difference in approach of these writings.

2. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England

Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England seems to have been widespread by the end of the sixth century. Myths survive which depict the founders of some of the kingdoms as defeating British rulers in battle in the late fifth and sixth centuries. By the eighth century Anglo-Saxon rulers showed a desire to connect with the Germanic heroes of the early fourth and fifth centuries, but this is unlikely to be solid fact (Lapidge 1999: 271). Unfortunately not many written sources are available for the “Lost Centuries” from 400 to 600. Therefore not much is known about the establishment of kingdoms at that time. So according to Yorke: “[n]ot only are the birth pangs of kingship among the Anglo-Saxons lost to us, but it is also difficult to say exactly what the position of king meant to an early Anglo-Saxon.” (Yorke 2003).

Anglo-Saxon kings used their claimed descent from pagan gods to back up their power through divine authority and to establish their family as the only legitimate lineage for future kings. Two strands of kingships can be made out: rulership exercising political and religious functions and military leadership. The position of kings at this time was based ultimately on their ability as war leaders and accounts of these kings relate their victories in battle over British kings. Entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give insight into aggressiveness of the kingdoms in relation both to territorial competitiveness and collection of tribute and booty (Yorke 2003).

Within the society the loyalty between a lord and his retainers was crucial and this basic principle did not change with Christianization. A clear impression of how a royal court at that time functioned is given by the poem Beowulf.

A king lives surrounded by noble warriors, who feast with him, sleep in his hall by night, fight for him and are ready, or anyway hoped to be ready, to die for him. Their number and royalty are crucial to royal power (Campbell 1982: 54)

The poem stresses how the relationship between king and warband was reciprocal. The king provided upkeep for his warriors and rewarded them with gifts and in return the followers fought loyally in battle (Yorke 2003: 17). Despite pressure from their followers to be granted land, kings managed to preserve the principle that they kept inalienable rights over land which encompassed the right to military service (Lapidge 1999: 271).

Kingdoms at this time were continuously trying to enlarge their area of control. They have been referred to as a heptarchy consisting of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex but this is an oversimplification. “For example, we hear of kings of Wight, of the West Midland kingdoms of the Hwicce and the Magonsaete, and of Lindsey. There were probably others of whom we know nothing” (Campbell 1982: 53). Due to intermarriage and competition kingdoms amalgamated leading to only four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms remaining at the beginning of the ninth century: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex (Lapidge 1999: 271). In addition, by the end of the sixth century the most powerful kings had consolidated their power to the point where they were able to claim overlordship over the rest, their power extending over most of the Anglo-Saxon lands. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls these kings bretwaldas or rulers over Britain (Campbell 1982: 53).

Archaeological evidence shows that the most important concern for the leaders of the early pagan kingdoms was war, shown by the burial at Sutton Hoo of not only everyday weapons but ceremonial war gear (Yorke 2003: 16). By 600 royal authority had extended from his immediate followers to other subjects of his kingdom. The earliest surviving lawcode is that of Æthelbert of Kent and shows the king as responsible for the maintenance of law and order. This legislation covered all ranks of society from nobles to slaves. The king set and enforced the payments which a transgressor was liable to pay to the victim of his action. This system was important to prevent an accident resulting in a bloodfeud. This aspect of law enforcement was of benefit to the king as he received a percentage of fines (Yorke 2003: 18).

The authority of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings was based on Germanic traditions but there were other influences from the contemporary Germanic world, most importantly from Francia. Especially in Kent, food, drink and dress of the nobility were modelled on Frankish taste (Yorke 2033: 18).

Bede in his Ecclesiastical History gives little sense of how Anglo-Saxon England built on its Romano-British background. Only recently has it come to be appreciated that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were organized on the basis of Roman and sub-Roman principles (Yorke 2003: 19).

There is good reason to suppose that here [Bernicia], and in other areas of the north the system of local organization and government was one not so much created by the Anglo-Saxons as taken over by them from the Britons (Campbell 1982: 58).

Most of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England were of Romano-British origin and the Anglo-Saxon kings used the trappings of the Roman past. Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People how Edwin of Northumbria was preceded by banners and the type of standard which the Romans call a tufa and the English call a thuf.

The adoption of Christianity by all the Anglo-Saxon royal houses during the seventh century helped the development of kingship. Kings found Christianity attractive because of the role it gave them as Christ’s representative. Kings were the most important benefactors of the religious houses within their kingdoms. Christianity brought new concepts such as Roman land law, literacy and classical learning to the Anglo-Saxons (Lapidge 1999: 271).

3. The Author: Ælfric of Eynsham

In the medieval period the perception of authorship differed considerably from today’s view. The idea of an author as an independent artist is a product of the Renaissance. In contrast to most manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the authorship of the Life of Saints is known.

Ælfric of Eynsham was born in c. 955 and died in c. 1010. Not much is known about his family background. He received his education in the monastic school of Winchester under Bishop Æthelwold. After becoming a monk and priest he was sent as a teacher in around 987 to the newly founded abbey of Cerne Abbas. Most of the works that have come down to us are believed to have been composed there. In 1005 he became the first abbot of the refounded abbey Eynsham, where he also died some five years later (Lapidge 1999: 8).

He was one of the most learned scholars of his time, and was widely read in his own time. Today, he is best known for his prose works written in the Old English vernacular, the most important of which are the Sermones Catholici, two series of 40 homilies on the Gospels, Lives of Saints, Excerptions de Are Grammatica (a grammar of Latin), a translation of Genesis into Old English, and some letters (Lapidge 1999: 8).

His elegantly-written vernacular prose works were widely read in his own time. “Ælfric was, within his limitations, a formidable and important writer. He is the father, the inventor, of the rich tradition of plainly stated, undecorated, but vigorous and powerful English prose” (Campbell 1982: 203).

4. The Genre

4.1 The Importance of Saints

Almost since the establishment of the Christian church saints have been venerated. To become a saint a man or woman must stand out on account of outstanding moral conduct. This often occurred in connection with religious persecution and a violent death. On Christianity becoming the official state religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, a new aspect of the veneration of saints emerged. Not only was the saint commemorated, but veneration of their relics became common. Ælfric describes the reliquary cult at St Lawrence’s tomb in Rome in the Life of St Edmund (II. 303-8).

The cult of saints and their relics spread as Christianity conquered Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries. The saints role was as mediator between people and God.

The focus of people’s attention in an Anglo-Saxon church, therefore, was the shrine of the saint who could intercede with God on behalf of the petitioning sufferer or sinner. We should not imagine that the saints were conceived abstractly as disembodied spirits. Theirs was a physical and palpable presence; that is to say, that saint was physically present in each shrine insofar as that shrine contained a relic of his/ her body – a bone, a fingernail, a lock of hair, whatever. A contact with the saint’s miraculous power could be established by touching that relic (Lapidge 1999: 243).


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Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England. A Comparison of Oswald and Edmund as Royal Saints
University of Münster  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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Anglo Saxon, Kings, Oswald, Edmund, Saint, Saints, Royal
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Harry Altmann (Author), 2013, Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England. A Comparison of Oswald and Edmund as Royal Saints, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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