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.