Itinerant kings, royal estates and monasteries

The other day I was reading a news article on the movements of itinerant kings among their royal estates and more surprisingly royal farmsteads and it got me thinking. Basically what they were saying is that early medieval kings moved around their kingdom from one royal estate to another, and used these estates and farms to control their kingdom. This implies that kings were not relying on the hospitality / tribute of vassals to maintain themselves. While I’m sure they visited vassals and demanded some tribute, they were en route to their own estates presumably supplied by their own farmsteads. This would make early medieval kings less dependent on tribute to maintain themselves. This would also allow vassals to say in good keeping with the king by giving tribute in kind, not gold or livestock, but perhaps primarily service and loyalty with more of a token amount of tribute. This makes sense to me in a primarily barter economy with little coinage. The king grants them primarily rights to land and protection in return for primarily service and loyalty. In this system the king would indeed be the largest land owner through his scattered estates and supporting farmsteads. His retainers at those estates may have had some authority in the region to rule on his behalf perhaps as a reeve or similar official. The article noted that the royal estates are strategically placed near crossroads and presumably river crossings or ports.

So where would these early medieval kings have gotten their wealth? First, their own estates and farmsteads would produce goods for their own support and trade. They would have gotten some tribute that could be traded for gold or coins, enough to supply all the royal smiths creating jewelry and weapons. He would have got tribute from lesser kings, probably much heavier tribute than his own vassals. He would have also gotten wealth from loot taken on campaigns and perhaps most of all from the sale of slaves taken as prisoners of war or by judicial action. A little ransom probably came his way from elites taken in battle, like high level churchmen and royal family members. The sale of noble women (like Balthild) may have been particularly lucrative (as well as demoralizing to the conquered).  Lastly they may have gotten a cut from traders who wanted to do business in their kingdom, possibly given in cheap goods or good prices for what they wanted to trade.

This makes me think differently about land given for monasteries. I used to think that many monasteries were founded in areas without much development or wilderness or in ruins of previous forts or Roman sites. Granted some monastic founders, like Cedd at Lastingham, wanted wilderness or an island. We have always known that some were at strategic points, especially the earliest monasteries like Gateshead and Whitby that controlled a key river crossing and a port respectively.

Many of these monasteries are specifically said to be founded on former royal estates. King Oswiu’s grant of 12 monasteries in thanksgiving for his victory over Penda gives us some idea at the great, perhaps huge, number of royal estates owned by the earliest kings. Two slightly later monasteries that come to mind are Hexham and Wearmouth, who where both founded very close in time. So close I wonder if Wearmouth is not founded to show that Ecgfrith was pious like Æthelthryth. Anyway both are at strategic points, Hexham along the wall and including an important rally site for King Oswald (Heavenfield) and Wearmouth is obviously at a point to watch traffic on the River Wear. I’ve always wondered about the small size of Jarrow relative to Wearmouth but taking into account Ecgfrith’s development of the port there it was perhaps only part of Ecgfrith’s estate there. If Jarrow was indeed part of Ecgfrith’s estate his involvement in the design of the church there makes sense. If it was developing into an important port, and he still had an estate there, then Jarrow would have been almost part of a continuing royal estate.

On the practical side, the granting of existing royal estates and homesteads means that it wasn’t undeveloped land. There were probbably useful buidlings, fields and animals already on the estates. The larger estates like Hexham also probably had attached farmsteads that provided for the needs of the estate and then monastery. We know that Bishop Wilfrid was able to build one of the largest churches in Britain at Hexham, surely in part form his own wealth but probably fueled and later maintained from Hexham’s estates.

If Jarrow was practically part of a functional royal estate and port, it should make us look at Bede’s relationship with the kings of his time differently. Obviously they would have had a close relationship with King Ecgfrith for the land and rights given to them at the foundation. They would have had to come to terms with each successive king, especially King Aldfrith. Jarrow’s possession of great library fits well with a close association to the scholar king. This doesn’t mean that Bede necessarily approves of Aldfrith’s scholastic pursuits. He felt that each person should be true to their lot in life. He may have felt that Aldfrith was intruding in the church’s domain. Bede dates the reduction of the kingdom in every way to Aldfrith’s reign. Aldfrith was followed by his young son Osred who did not have a good reputation and would have made Bede see the misbehavior of kings. Perhaps Abbot Coelfrith’s retirement was directly tied to his unwillingness to deal with another king so close who came to the throne after the violent death of Osred.


23 thoughts on “Itinerant kings, royal estates and monasteries

  1. I read your comments with interest. It is known, certainly at the Wearmouth site, that there were people living there prior to the church and monastery being built. Excavations in the 1960s revealed pre 674 burials which, as there were a high percentage of women and infants, must have been a lay cemetary. Remains of a building, again pre 635, has also been found. All of which indicates there were people living on that site before Biscop built his church. It is my theory that there has been a settlement of people living there certainly before the Romans arrived. They would have been able to fish both in the river and in the sea, collect molluscs etc, as well as utilise the land in the area.

    As far as Ecgfith and Æthelthryth’s relationship and its connection to Wearmouth it is my theory that Ecgrith was desperate to impress Æthelthryth. She had famously refused any marital relations but Ecgfrith wanted an heir. I think bestowing the land was his way of trying to get her to act as a royal wife should and produce babies. Biscop’s arrival at court coincided with the final months of their marriage, before she fled to Ely, and I am in no doubt that, at least in part, Ecgrith granted him the land as a statement to Æthelthryth.

    1. I’m not sure how much we can trust Aethelthryth’s dates. She would appear to have left their marriage in 672, though Ecgfrith may not have given up on getting her back by 674 especially since she spent some time at Coldingham. I do wonder if Aethelthryth’s dates have been a little manipulated for symbolic reasons to give her 7 years as a nun. Her death in 679 could also be wrong since the main wave of the plague is more like 684, though it may have been in the south several years before creeping into Northumbria.

      1. I certainly think that even though she may have left Ecgfrith in 672 he was still trying to win her back and donating land for religious purposes must have seemed an ideal way. Even though St Peter’s was built in 674 I am of the opinion that the decision to grant the land to Biscop would have taken place the year before as it would have taken some time for the stonemasons etc to be organised and the building to begin.

        Æthelthryth would have been at Coldingham by then and when she realised Ecgfrith was not going to let her live the life she wanted, she made good her ‘escape’ to Ely. Ecgrith’s loss was our gain!

  2. I wrote an incorrect date. The buildings found were pre 674 not pre 635. Though they, of course, may very well have been pre 635 as well!

  3. starting with the monasteries: the key point was transport for the earliest sites – to be at Lindisfarne, Whitby, etc was to be able to travel by sea. Despite the risk of Vikings sacking the monastery – which they did whether on the east or west coasts – and the massacres they carried out, it was a dedicated place to which other monks would come to re-establish the monastery as needed.
    Tribute – the early Kings acquired wealth through [a] marriage – which brought lands, and gold/jewels with the bride; and [b] wars – a constant process of raiding, killing, kidnapping, and seizing the neighbouring property, which expanded their kingdom – but was also expensive. Their lands definitely produced income: whether in kind [corn, animals] or in service [knights committed to fight when the King demanded it]. There was not, for the early Kings, a great need for coinage – nothing to spend it on! weapons were made in-house; food was mainly produced by the lands under the King’s control, and their primary entertainment – hunting – provided fresh meat from the deer that they killed.
    Later Kings certainly travelled between houses; their loyal Lords sometimes beggared themselves to entertain them in their households – the necessity to move around the country was at least in part due to the need to leave a house after some weeks of occupation, so that it could be thoroughly cleaned [problems included food among the rushes on the floor, the washing etc of a large number of people, and the lack of lavatories..]
    The Kings’ farms would be overseen by a lesser controller, who accounted for the tithe, for the hours that people worked on their own land, and the hours that they worked for their Lord – the King would stay in a large house belonging to one of his courtiers, and with space for his household: it is unlikely they ever saw the farms.

  4. I think of shipping routes as the internet of the 7th C: to control potential rebels, you cut their access to the nodes/ports/bridges. (Goods and information often travel the same routes.)

    The king would have to visit his vills on a regular basis not only to give judgement to locals and pick up tribute, but to remind the reeve/steward that the vill belonged to the king. Otherwise we get that age-old problem of the major domo, the mayor of the palace, usurping the throne.

    1. The king would have been on the move most of the time visiting his property, giving judgments and grants, checking on the productivity of his estates, collecting some tribute, tolls from bridges and ports. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the estate that King Aldfrith died on was located near a mine. Obviously mines can generate a lot of wealth. Another reason to remain on the move is that few of his estates could support the full court and retinue for long. The king probably moved with quite a few people.

        1. Tolls may be a little far fetched. He could demand a portion of certain goods at the most important crossings.

          I imagine the most important function was to regulate who could cross at all and report movements of people to the king – trade routes for example or the movement of retinues.

        2. Not to disagree, as such, but it may be worth mentioning that Thomas Pickles has worked on this and reckoned the Anglo-Saxon royal household as being about 50 people, plus of course whatever nobles were travelling with, and their retinues also. So your figure might be about right, but quite a chunk of that would be the noble retinues, coming and going as the court moved from place to place. (I’m not quite sure where he’s got these figures from; when I saw him presenting about it he was downsizing Henry I’s court by two-thirds, and I couldn’t figure out the basis for that choice of arithmetic. I’m sure it differed from king to king, anyway, and with the importance of the comitatus

          1. Jonathan, thanks for that reminder (I love reading your roundups from Leeds). My guess is the answer is ‘it depends’. Which king, what year, the purpose of the travel. (E.g. I’m imagining Edwin moving early in his reign from Goodmanham to Sancton, vs. late in his reign on a kind of impress-the-locals tour to some client kingdom, complete with full complement of gesiths…or whatever the correct term would have been at that point. I’m assuming a huge variation.)

  5. Presumably, any monasteries with a scriptorum would have their own substantial herds of cattle, unless hides for vellum were obtained through other means. I’m sure I’ve read – but can’t source at the moment (a Heroic Age article?) – a required estimate of 100 hides for a gospel, and 500 for a bible. Does that sound plausible? If it is, then the demand for hides would have been constant and pressing.

    1. Monasteries would have had milk cows for nutrition as much as vellum. Places like Lindisfarne used milk as part of their primary diet. I’m sure a lot of vellum was made from sheep skin. Books as big as gospel books would have been rare. Whole bibles were virtually unheard of — Coelfrith’s bibles for Wearmouth, Jarrow and the pope were really extra-ordinary. Still cattle and sheep would be good for land that wasn’t very productive. I’ve frequently wondered what they would have done with all the meat. They might have got hides from smaller monasteries in trade too.

      1. I’m sorry, screwed up the HTML there; the quote should have been this:

        R. L. Bruce Mitford, The Art of the Codex Amiatinus, Jarrow Lecture 1967 calculated that an entire calf (not sheep) skin was used for each bifolium of 505 mm x 780 mm and thus that 515 skins were used for the entire volume.

        1. Don’t you think that lesser books- the more common products of the scribes — would have been on sheep skin?

          Yes, the gospel books and Coelfrith’s great bibles would have been on the best calf skin. Let’s say the average copy of Bede’s works (not the Historia) would have been on cheaper stuff and produced smaller books?

          1. Oh yes, sorry, that’s context; my commentator was replying like that because in my post I had misremembered the number as 500 sheep, that’s all. I agree that most parchment would not have been vellum and in fact I think we know this to be the case, the two are distinguishable by feel to an expert are they not?

  6. I’m just finishing reading John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, and the proximity of monasteries and minster churches (he doesn’t think one can differentiate between the two) to secular power centres is something he spends a bit of time on. He argues, at length with many examples (sometimes quite convolutedly argued), that there is basically no significant evidence to show that church foundations were done at sites of pre-existent royal importance, as opposed to attracting royal interest later once they were bringing in wealth and loyalty. I am broadly convinced by most of his cases but there is as you say this issue that many of these churches were founded on land that the king held. In other words, it’s all very well saying that the king had no use for disused Roman fortifications like Reculver or, you know, London, but he still apparently owned them; they were okay to give away and may have been symbolically suitable but they were still royal sites. So it may be quite complicated. This is something I’ve asked him about and which we’re hopefully going to be able to talk about at more length at some point.

  7. I think even up to Henry VIII the kings were moving around a lot. I read that Henry moved court up to 200 times in one year, though maybe he was a particularly restless fellow! I guess as “home comforts” developed, it became less desirable to travel so much.

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