Filling the Gaps: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Tim and I have been chatting about Strathclyde for longer than either of us would probably care to admit (even before his name was on the cover of any books!). So I was thrilled to tuck in with his latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age in the days running up to Christmas. I have to say my study of Strathclyde (or Alt Clut as Tim would remind me) is pretty much covered in The Men of the NorthI’ve pretty much stuck to the Age of Bede more or less, before moving on to the plague. So finally I was ready for Tim to update me on all the Viking Age goings on in my favorite part of the island, and he did not disappoint.

Tim draws the origins of the Viking era kingdom of Strathclyde from the rubble of the siege of Alt Clut by the Vikings in 870. The vulnerability of the old stronghold had been shown by the sustained siege and sacking. They moved down into the Valley of the Clyde, or Strathclyde, at Govan. While ‘Strathclyde’ begins with this shift, there was strong continuity between ‘Strathclyde’ and the kings of Alt Clut whose kingdom name, if it was ever other than the king of Alt Clut, has not survived. I know Tim has been very active in building up the conservation and visitor experience at Old Govan. It is possible to go to Old Govan be close to the centers of power for the old kingdom, unlike any other British kingdom I can think of.

Tim deftly reconstructs the political context for Strathclyde’s foundation at Govan in the ninth century. The kings of Govan were able to maintain their independence through Viking raids, and delicate relations with the newly melded Picto-Scottish kingdom of Alba, English neighbors at Bamburgh and the ambitions of Wessex.  While they sometimes had to accept the hegemony of their larger neighbors, they avoided outside direct rule. It’s intriguing how important the king of the Cumbrians / Strathclyde were to the kings of Wessex (at least on charters). Perhaps it was their ability to join forces with Alba to both increase the threat from Alba and open a much larger frontier for the English to defend against both Alba and the Vikings.  I really enjoyed Tim’s take on the influence of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians.

I’ve heard a lot of about the battle of Brunanburgh over the years but always from the sidelines. Tim did a good job of explaining the battle and its context. It was good to see his conflict zone analysis in action again. A lot of ink/electrons have been spilt over the location of the battle but Tim makes is clear that there is no clear placename winner. He argues for Lancashire location-based on his conflict zone analysis. While I don’t know the details of all the arguments for locations, I do believe that placename possibilities can’t be the primary evidence. It has to make sense in the entire context of battle and the combatants. To me, the most surprising aspect of Brunanburgh is that it didn’t change anything! It was apparently a very costly battle for everyone, so therefore it had to be built up in heroic verse to satisfy the folks back home, but it maintained the political status quo. Within a just a few years, the combatants were at war again.

Over the rest of the tenth century, the Cumbrians remained active in whole island politics and regional skirmishes with resulting border shifts. Tim does a good job of finding sources that reconstruct the borders and properties of late Strathclyde. By this point, intermarriage must have become common. The names of northern princes often reflected neighboring naming traditions or languages, like Gospatrick of Bamburgh and Mael Coluim of Strathclyde. It is possible that these names had become so common in the region that they don’t necessarily reflect a foreign mother, but if they have become common among the common people, then that speaks to regional mingling. Tim argues strongly and convincingly that the rulers of Strathclyde retained their independence right up to their annexation into Alba under Mael Coluim (d. 1093). Thus, Strathclyde retained their independence through the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

I’m left in the end with two impressions. First, that adding the history of Strathclyde into the mix plugs some significant gaps in the history of period. The major kingdoms tend to dominate narratives of the pre-Norman period with the assumption that lesser kingdoms and rulers fell into line or were unimportant. This study argues strongly against this trend and reminds us how much later royal power is projected back onto earlier periods. Tim’s book adds to Caitlin Green’s recent book of the British kingdom Lindsey in illustrating how adding the history of the Britons adds much flesh to the bones of early medieval history. Now we need similar studies on the kingdoms of Elmet, Powys and Dumnonia at least. Second, I’m struck by how circumscribed and negotiated Anglo-Saxon power was. Hegemony is nice and all, but it has real limits.

Although the relationship between Strathclyde and the English is highlighted in the title, relations with Alba and the Vikings are as important. The beginning and ending of Strathclyde are both indirectly tied to the Norsemen. Then again the Norsemen seem to have altered the trajectory of most kingdoms in the Isles, if not all of northern Europe. Strathclyde’s relationship with Alba was more nuanced. Although they were not the proving ground for Scottish princes as has often been argued, they had a long history of alliance, conflict and intermarriage tying these kingdoms together. All things considered, annexation of most of the kingdom into Alba was the best outcome for Strathclyde even if they lost their southern territory to the English county of Cumberland.

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