The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingship

by Peter James Burch

Institution: University of Manchester
Year: 2016
Keywords: Anglo-Saxon; Kingship; Early Medieval; Late Antiquity; Kingdoms; Gildas; Bede; Ecclesiastical History; Tribal Hidage; Sutton Hoo; Yeavering; Rendlesham
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2078034
Full text PDF: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/escholar/uk-ac-man-scw:299293


The origins of kingship have typically been accepted as a natural or inevitable development by scholars. The purpose of this thesis is to question that assumption. This work will re-examine the origins of early Anglo-Saxon kingship through a coherent and systematic survey of the available and pertinent archaeological and historical sources, addressing them by type, by period and as their varying natures require.The thesis begins with the archaeological evidence. ‘Elite’ burials, such as Mound One, Sutton Hoo, will be ranked according to their probability of kingliness. This process will point to elite burial as being a regionally-specific, predominately-seventh-century, phenomenon of an ideologically-aware, sophisticated and established political institution. Consequently, elite burial cannot be seen as an indication of the origins of kingship, but can instead be interpreted as a development or experiment within kingship. Analysis of ‘elite’ settlements, such as Yeavering, and numismatic evidence, will lead to similar conclusions. Further, consideration of various other settlement types – former Roman military sites in Northern Britain, former Roman Towns, and enclosed settlements – will point to various potential origins of Anglo-Saxon kingship in the form of continuities with previous Roman, Romano-British or British power structures.The thesis will go on to consider the historical sources. Those of the fifth and sixth centuries, primarily Gildas’s De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, point to several factors of note. The cessation of formal imperial rule over Britain following c.410 effectively created a power vacuum. Various new sources of political power are observable attempting to fill this vacuum, one of which, ultimately, was kingship. Through analogy with contemporary British kingdoms, it is possible to suggest that this development of kingship in England may be placed in the early sixth, if not the fifth, centuries. This would make the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingship significantly earlier than typically thought. This kingship was characterised by the conduct of warfare, its dependence on personal relationships, and particularly by its varying degrees of status and differing manifestations of power covered by the term king.Further details will be added to this image through the narrative and documentary sources of the seventh and early eighth centuries. These predominately shed light on the subsequent development of kingship, particularly its growing association with Christianity. Indeed, the period around c.600 can be highlighted as one of notable change within Anglo-Saxon kingship. However, it is possible to point to the practice of food rents, tolls and the control of resources serving as an economic foundation for kingship, while legal intervention and claimed descent from gods also provide a potential basis of power. Several characteristics of seventh- and early-eighth-century kingship will also be highlighted as being relevant to its origins – the conduct of warfare and the exercise of over-kingship –… Advisors/Committee Members: HIGHAM, NICHOLAS NJ, Higham, Nicholas, Fouracre, Paul.