Glasses on Guthlac’s Monks?

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6  'the Guthlac roll'

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6; ‘the Guthlac roll’

I was looking at the Guthlac roll in the British Library online and I noticed something rather odd. Have you noticed it? The two outer figures are wearing glasses! According to the British Library page for the roll, its dates to c. 1175-1225 and is believed to be prototypes for stained glass windows. This seems a bit early for glasses. The guy on the right has particularly modern looking specs. Come to think of it, the one on the left in addition to the glasses has a rather flamboyant feather in his hat. What do you all think? Are these objects c. 12th century or has someone added these to the roll?

Heavenfield Round-up 5: Signs of Power and Piety

The find of the week was the grave of a medieval abbot of Furness Abbey in Cumbria. Past Horizons has the best write up of the discovery at the abbey, which is just southwest of the Lake District. They have also had good features on reinterpreting the mass grave of Vikings found in Oxford, and possible remnants of the first Anglo-Saxon church at York.

Antiquarian’s Attic also has featured the finds at Furness abbey, and the purchase of the St Cuthbert Gospel by the British Library.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design here.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus reviews People of Early Scotland, and on his blog Heart of the Kingdom looks at the hogbacks of Govan and Penrith.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian Folklore and History brings us a picture of Cumbria’s oldest cat from St Cuthbert’s church, Penrith.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe reviews James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (and hits the nail right on the head),  his digital work, on Alex Woolf’s vision of early medieval Scotland, and writes about Anglo-Saxon moneyers (or lack of them) and coin distribution.

Curt Emanual, the Medieval History Geek, takes up the defense of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus this week.

Magistra et Mater writes about the complicated history of Justinian’s code and its use in later Italy.

Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca writes about her vision of York and its church during King Edwin’s time.

Historian Sally Wilde has a new blog to write about her crime novel project on the murder of Hereric, father of St Hild. She has several posts up in the last week.

Clas Merdin has posts on Arthur’s Stone and on the Oxford mass Viking grave.

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a Blog and he also hath a new post up.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus posts about his plans for his Arthurian project.

Viqueen of Norse and Viking Ramblings writes about a fieldtrip to the Isle of Man to study runes.

Bamburgh Research Project blog has a new video up of excavations in the west ward of the castle and a post on Bamburgh village.

From the Professor Awesome’s Unlocked Wordhoard: The Battle of Maldon

Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links

Cross of the Trumpington 'princess', c. 650-680

The news of the last week or so has certainly been the announcement of the discovery of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon “Trumpington Princess” and the blogs have been all over it. Here is a mini round-up of the coverage:

  • I think I may have been the first blog on the story (based on the earliest news reports) here :-)
  • Antiquarian’s Attic was also fast off the block with her story.
  • Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca has a post on Hild and the princess.
  • Past Horizons has a nice, complete post on the discovery.
  • Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives writes about nuns and princesses with a different focus on the finds at Trumpington.
  • Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie writes about Anglo-Saxon bed burials.

I also posted a presentation I did a couple years ago on St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary.

Tim Clarkson wrote about Govan and the kings of Strathcldye on his new blog Heart of the Kingdom. Tim writes about his visit to the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre in Cumbria and its stonework on his blog Senchus.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words explores the early medieval history of Workington in Cumbria.

Gold plaque, Bamburgh. Found summer 2011.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about Loki the Trickster and the Norse who brought him to  Cumbria.

Bamburgh Research Project updates us on the analysis of their gold fragment from last year’s excavation. The photo of Dr Whitfield with the fragment really puts its size in perspective.

I don’t usually cover pre-Roman Celtic society but there have been a couple interesting posts in the last few weeks. Past Horizons has a post on the virtual reconstruction of the Celtic village of the Remi in pre-Roman Gaul. Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie examines the diet and health of the Britons of Dorset during the late Iron Age and early Roman periods.

Moving on from Roman Britain, we have the Arthurian bloggers. Clas Merdin has an interesting post discussing the legends behind the standing stones named after the Sons of Arthur. Yes, its only in the post-Geoffrey world of Romance that Arthur is childless. Clas Merdin also has a second post teasing out the 40 tasks of Culhwch in the oldest Arthurian tale, How Culhwch won Olwen.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus continues his series exploring Arthurian lore with part IV on Arthur the Giant or Giant Slayer, part V on Arthur the Soldier, and part VI on the three types of Arthur in British lore – the giant, the superhero, and the soldier. Mak had an explosion of posts taking this series up to part 12! Just keep following the next post from the above links.

This time we have a little Beowulf to counterbalance Arthur. Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak asks if Grendel can speak, how does he curse their weapons? I didn’t know there was a ‘current monster theory’… I learn something new all the time. In a second post, he muses some on the size and shape of the dragon in Beowulf.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of the Tenth Century has returned to his blog with a review of the Treasures of Heaven exhibit at the British Museum, and on an unfortunately misnamed boundary tree, and a couple more seminars written up.

Guy Halsall of Historian on the Edge writes about the historical assumptions expressed in a 19th century painting of Late Antiquity.

Andy Gaunt of the Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest writes about Queen Joan’s tenure as the keeper of Sherwood and about a case of trespass and pig rustling from Bestwood Park in 1440.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval brings us Cake month to replace pi day.

Whew! and that’s it for this round-up.

7th century English ‘Princess’ Grave Revealed

Multiple news sites (Independent, NewsObserver, ) are reporting that the remains of a seventh century ‘princess’ has been found in a field near Cambridge. The approximately 16 year old woman was found laying on a bed with iron fittings; the fittings are all that remain of the bed. She was buried fully dressed with an iron knife, belt buckle, and a chained purse with glass beads, and most fabulously a 3 cm wide garnet pectoral cross around her neck. Unlike other recently found garnet jewelry and fittings, this cross is solid gold. The grave has been dated to c. 650 to 680, although carbon dates are not available yet.

Apparently the University of Cambridge released the photos popping up online in the stories linked above, so I’ll collect them here. Strangely, I can’t find anything on the University of Cambridge’s website yet.  The picture to the right strikes me, seeing the cross still around her neck. There are many objects visible in the cutting of the grave shown below. So far the only description that I have seen is that they are iron fittings.

English teenager found near Cambridge. Photo: University of Cambridge.

According to the Independent there were two other female graves found nearby and a third of indeterminate gender. No grave goods were mentioned for the others. David Keys’ (The Independent) conjecture that this was a convent and that they all died of plague seems a bit of a stretch. I certainly would like to see them all tested for plague, but I think the nunnery is pretty unlikely. This is not a monastic grave with the funeral bed and burial with a knife.

I also don’t particularly see this grave as a mixed religious tradition. There is nothing particularly pagan about the grave. There is no sign of grave offerings; bowls of food or signs of pagan rites. Burial on a funeral bed is not necessarily more elaborate or expensive than a stone or lead coffin. Secular elites who were not buried in church yards may not have been buried as sparingly as monastic burials. Several rich graves have been found in the last five years that were Christian, like the Essex prince, but still buried with some goods and a bed in particular. Unlike the Essex ‘prince’ this grave is not fitted out for the afterlife with tools and favorite objects. If the objects are limited to apparel, objects worn on the body, this seems normal to me. She appears to have been dressed as she might for  a special occasion like a feast.  Christians today may choose special clothes (a suit or military uniform) and sometimes still leave goods in coffins, like leaving on wedding bands, military insignia, rosaries, or putting special pillows in the coffin. We know that high status clergy like Cuthbert were buried clothed and with jewelry. What do you think about the mixed nature of this grave?

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

View more PowerPoint from hefenfelth

(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.

Baldhildis Ring

Bathild ring, found Norfolk, East Anglia.

Over at Got Medieval Carl provides a link the to the famous Baldhild ring on the feast of St Balthild this month. This is the first time I’ve had a good look at the famous ‘erotic’ ring found in Norfolk, East Anglia. If you click on the picture it will take you to the museum website where you can zoom and see the reverse. Supposedly this ring shows Bathild and the king “having sex”. Hmmm… takes some imagination even with the zoom. This ring is less than a centimeter in diameter, so the impression it would have left would have been quite small. For all we know they are holding hands (or were intended to be holding hands). This would make much more sense. This scene could represent a wedding especially with the cross over them.

For the obverse, it only says Baldhildis. I’m not sure why it is assumed that this is a queen’s ring. Click on the photo to the left and you can zoom in on the photo. The museum comments on the long straight nose but really it looks to me like they struck the long arm of the cross down over the face.

At only 1 cm in diameter, the detail can’t be great because its just too small, about half the diameter of a dime. ( A dime is 1.79 cm.) They were carving this without the use of a magnifying glass. Its a amazing they got this much detail on a tiny disk with half the diameter of a dime and only 4mm deep. High magnification photography makes it look deceptively primitive and deeply carved until you realize how small the entire object is. It looks like the bodies and heads were made with a square ended metal spike and all three heads with a rounded ended spike. These heads are only 2-3 mm in size for the couple and only a little bigger for the obverse. It would have taken a great deal of skill to get them to look this good and ingraving two sides doubly hard.

I don’t see why this couldn’t be the ring of a noble woman from that time or later. Given how few names we have for English queens and even fewer noblewomen, it could be for a woman other than Frankish Queen Balthild. Given that Queen Balthild was an East Anglian slave, presumably former royalty sold after her family was defeated, it is possible that Baldhild/Balthild was a common name among local royal women. The scene of the couple may not have been as rare as we assume given that there are no names or other identifiers, and no crown or royal sign. If it was a rarity it would have been because of the skill required to produce it.

As for how it was used, this is a pretty tiny seal ring.  First if they are holding hands under a cross (possibly representing a wedding) it could have been used on messages sent to anyone. Second, given the small size of the seal, both sides could have been used on the same seal, side-by-side. Using both sides would still produce a fairly small wax seal to hold a heavy parchment roll.

The Grandfather Effect

As I worked on this month’s lost kingdom, my mind wondered on to the grandfather effect. There is this trend for the dynastic founder to be the grandfather of the first great king. This is not to say that the grandfather wasn’t an important king in his own time, but he could have easily become an intruder in the status quo which returns as soon as he falls. The real success of a king is whether or not he can pass the kingdom peacefully on to his heir. Perhaps most importantly the grandfather defines the nobles of the great king — his brothers and first cousins — and his potential heirs. Sons are not always the heir of a great king; it may be his brother or cousin, but the dynasty endures and his sons or grandsons depending on the local system are eligible heirs of his successor, if they don’t directly succeed.

In time the grandfather becomes a figure of legend and must be puffed up to make him a suitable founder for the great dynasty built primarily by the grandson. So we hear in the Historia Brittonum particularly that Ida of Bernicia once ruled the left side of Britain (ie also Deira) or that Octha of Kent was the son of Hengest who was the first in Britain. Bede tells us that Wuffa was the founder of Raedwald’s dynasty and although some have contended that Anna and his brothers were unlikely first cousins of Raedwald, all sources claim Anna was the great grandson of Wuffa. There is no confusion as there is among the genealogical sources for Cynegils of Wessex; his pedigree is a mess. The sources can’t even agree on Cynegils father. As usual Mercia is an exception. It is clear that Penda was the effective founder of Mercia but Icel is considered the founder (but where is the source?). Icel can’t be explained by later kings needing to be traced to a common ancester since all the later kings trace thier descent to Penda’s father Pybba. (Does anyone know where the Icel is first named as a dynastic founder? I have a feeling that it may be an early Anglo-Saxonist!)

Here is a partial list of the dynastic founders and their more impressive grandsons:

Ida grandfather of Æthelfrith — Idling dynasty (Bede V.24, HB)

Oeric Oisc grandfather of Eormanric father of Ætelberht of Kent – Oiscing dynasty (Bede II.5)

Wuffa grandfather of Raedwald of East Anglia – Wuffing dynasty (Bede II.15, HB)

Cunedda grandfather of Cadwallon Long arm father of Maelgwn Gwynedd  – dynasty of Cunedda (Historia Brittonum)

Charles Martel grandfather of Charlemagne — Carolingians

Well, two dynasties have great grandsons as who we recognize as the first great king, though we don’t know much about their fathers. Cadwallon Long Arm is credited with uniting the core of Gwynedd, probably securing all of Angelsey and oddly removing all the Irish. The Irish in 5th century Wales are a fascinating topic but one for a later day. Maelgwn appears to be the first to dominate his neighbors and create ‘greater Gwynedd’ much of which was later annexed, not unlike Æthelfrith being the first to create a proto-Northumbria. Yet, there are hints that his father Cadwallon Long Arm was an important king. The other great grandson is Æthelberht of Kent, but we should recall that his father Eormenric was probably the first Kentish king of note (stripping out the Hengest legend) who married a Frankish princess. If Æthelberht came to the throne later than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims (as some historians believe), then his father may have have built a far greater kingdom. Indeed we have no idea how Æthelberht gained his extended hegemony given that no where is he credited with military success. It is quite possible that Eormanric was able to pass an extended hegemony to his son, perhaps with Frankish help. The only battle Æthelberht is mentioned in on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one in which Ceawlin and the men of Wessex drove Æthelberht into Kent and killed two ealdormen in 568. Most historians now believe that Æthelbert came to power after 568 (30 years before Augustine arrives). If this is a misplaced entry for a real battle, then it shows Æthelberht loosing to Wessex. I have always had the feeling that Æthelberht is parlaying hegemony won by someone else and bolstered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Canterbury’s support of Kent’s hegemony is probably a direct result of his father Eormanric’s connections to the Franks in the previous generation and connections that continued with his son Eadbald, who married the daughter of a Mayor of the Palace. To take it one step further, Eormanric has a name that is common among the nobles of the Franks, so one wonders if the royal dynasty of Kent were not Frankish colonists.

I got a bit off topic here but my main point is that the declared founder is most often the figure that unites the heirs of a first major king who sets nobility for a century or so. In the time of the ‘founder’ no unbiased observer probably expected him to be the founder of a great dynasty, as much as they may have hoped.