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.

The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald


[I didn’t intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

Heavenfield Round-up 7: June Links

I’m not sure where June went. I wish I had been more productive, but luckily some of my fellow bloggers have been  much busier.

Bamburgh Research Project has been out in the field for most of June. Various updates have been posted on their blog.

Curt Emanuel, the Medieval History Geek, has posts on late antique panegyrics and mixed feelings on studying human tragedies.

Guy Halsall, the Historian on the Edge, has posted a recent conference paper Feud, Vengeance, Politics and History in Early Medieval Europe.

Kristina Killgrove of Powered by Osteons has put her presentation from the Moving Romans conference in Holland on her blog: Etched in Bone: Uncovering information about immigrants to Rome.

Magistra et Mater writes about why medievalists write cultural history.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth Century Europe wrote on medieval gender studies and Vandals and archaeology.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus wrote about the Aberlady Cross and Medieval Archaeology goes online. At Heart of the Kingdom, Tim provides some background for a short story on a queen of Strathclyde.

Diane McIlmoyle of Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about the 9th century Kingmoor Ring.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval finds reason to call fundamentalists medieval, dragging poor Nessie and St Columba into the fray.

Andy Gaunt of Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest has posts on the Sherwood Forest Nature Reserve and Bothamsall Castle.

Clas Merdin has a series of posts this month on the foundation legends of London as New Troy, London as Mallory’s Winchester, and the London Stone. A little background for the coming Olympics in London in July.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words has been scouting her sites for her novel around Oakley and interpreting what a note about an Anglo-Saxon tent means.

Sally Wilde has posts on her research on the importance of male heirs, early Welsh research, on landscape research.

Here at Heavenfield, I have posts on secondary sources for the Britons and a review of Disney/Pixar’s Brave. also reviewed my Kalamazoo talk Famine and Pestilence in the Irish Sea Region, 500-800 AD.  On Contagions, I also have a post on plague at the siege of Caffa in 1346 that is reported to have started the Black Death in Europe.

King Ina’s Food Rents and the Tribal Hidage

I’ve been reading Kathy Pearson’s “Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet”, which is just full of interesting information. Assessing the livestock available in early medieval northern Europe, Pearson quotes  from King Ine’s law code on hide (land) rents. From every 10 hides of land, King Ine demanded “2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens”.  A wether is a male castrated goat (I had to look it up). That is a lot of goats. Makes me wonder if  a wether couldn’t have referred to castrated male sheep as well. At first I had to wonder what the king would do with all these livestock, especially if the male goats/sheep, and poultry were substituted for cows. He can only eat so much and host so many feasts. It’s true that some of these livestock will be redistributed within the kingdom, including to monasteries and standing armies.

The Tribal Hidage from Henry Spelman, ‘Glossarium archiaologicum’, p. 292 (via Wikipedia)

Trying to put this into perspective. one of the only contexts we have is the tribal hidage, listed to the right, that dates to about the same century as King Ine who ruled from 688-726. Its function has been argued over for at least a century. Is is a tax sheet, a tribute list, a military roster, or an even more general use? Most scholars seem to believe that its written from the point of view of Mercia (though there isn’t consensus on this either). Regardless it is an assessment of the English lands south of the River Humber.

Some believe that the Wessex assessment is either exaggerated or punitive. At 100,000 hides King Ine would have been collecting 20,000 cows a year (or 100,000 wethers, 100,000 geese, and 200,000 hens!). Ok, so lets assume that the Wessex assessment does not reflect reality.

Lets consider this rental fee applied to a smaller area like Lindsey (Lindes-ferona), assessed at 7000 hides  it would owe 1400 cows. Even with redistribution including to monasteries, that is a lot of cows to cope with and come up with from watery Lindsey. With these kinds of numbers, it’s not too hard to see where the hides came for manuscripts. It’s also hard to imagine the industry needed to butcher and process this many animals for meat, leather, bones and sinews, and what would he do with the birds? Of course, the king can export some of the leather and some of the livestock may have been paid to a greater king than himself. Some may have been sold back to the people for other goods. He still has to cope with a lot of meat.

How would this rental fee have been applied. Did it only apply to estates of more than 10 hides? In that case, smaller land holders would be exempt, or charged lesser fees per hide. These also were not all of the rental fee. Pearson notes that King Ina also demanded one cheese per hide (of unmentioned size) and collected butter as a form of rent has well. Cheese and to a lesser extent butter would have been important nutrients and long-term storage for dairy products.  Most European rentals were also included eggs, but as these are perishable and delicate, it seems likely that these were paid to the most local officials or monasteries. Pearson notes that cheese and eggs are written about as though they were a primary means of currency for the peasants rather than a regular food stuff. As a side note, cheese and eggs would probably have been women’s products and the types of goods that women would barter for household needs or services.

Pearson suggests that these high rental demands may have allowed the king to store foodstuffs away for times of famine. While this is true for some things like cheese and some crops, I’m not sure that livestock would have been much of a bulwark against famine. The cost of maintaining this much livestock would have been a considerable expense.  In times of famine, fodder for cattle would have also been lean. It might have been some insurance for the elites and monasteries who could maintain as much livestock as their estates could hold. I just really can’t see the king sending beef out to hungry peasants. How early medieval communities would have survived famines is still an open question, still food for thought.

Reference: Kathy Pearson (1997) “Nutrition and the Early Medieval Diet” Speculum, 72, 1-32.

Confirming Queen Eadgyth

Six months ago I wrote about the discovery of the remains of Queen Eadgyth of Germany, half-sister of King Æthelstan of England and grand-daughter of Alfred the Great in Magdeburg Cathedral. Eadgyth was the first wife of Otto I of Saxony, later after her death he became the first German Holy Roman Emperor. Through her children, Eadgyth was an ancestor of many European royal families. Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has written an upbeat biography of her life, claiming that she was the Princess Diana of her time.

Eadgyth and Otto

It had been thought that Eadgyth’s remains had been lost in the renovations of Magdeburg Cathedral, that the late medieval sarcophagus was empty, but much to their surprise, when it was opened earlier this year a bone box was found inside. It had an inscription saying that it held the rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth found in the second restoration of her tomb in 1510.

When I wrote earlier tests on the bones were still pending. Last week the test results were announced. The tests turned out to be more of challenge than I think they expected. The video below has parts of the archaeologists discussion of their findings.

They failed to get usable DNA and the radiocarbon dating of the bones predicts an age 200 years too old. This seems ominous but they assure us that the early date is because she ate so much fish! James Barrett explains here why a high marine diet alters radiocarbon dating; basically, the ratio of C14 to C12 is different in marine and terrestrial environments. Alone this would be quite a problem but there are other isotope tests that can predict the ratio of marine to terrestrial sources in the diet. We’ll have to wait, perhaps years, for a proper archaeological report to see the data. The failure to get viable DNA is puzzling considering that they should have been protected in a coffin in the cathedral since her death even if they had been reburied up to five times.  They believe that they have identified textiles dating to each reburial.

With these standard tests failing, they next turned to strontium isotope analysis from her teeth.  Mike Pitts discusses how isotopes are used to reveal personal histories here. Strontium and oxygen isotopes show that the remains came from a woman who grew up in southern England. In her early years she moved frequently but after about age 10 she says in one area around Winchester. This fits the predicted movements of Eadgyth. In her very early childhood she would have moved with Edward the Elder’s royal court, specifically her mother, around southern England. After her mother’s divorce, her mother and probably Eadgyth are sent to a convent.

Several news pieces refer to Eadgyth being “banished” from the royal courts as a youth. I think they are looking at this the wrong way around. It seems likely to me that girls remained with their mothers until marriage. It would be better to say that her mother got to keep her daughter(s) with her in the convent than to say that the girls were banished. It seems likely that many young noble women would have been sent to monasteries as teenagers to keep them ‘safe’ until their marriages were arranged. They would have probably got most of their education then also. Its fairly likely that they were not the only noble girls in their convent. It is even possible that Eadgyth and her sister would have been sent to a convent even if Edward hadn’t divorced their mother.

The skeleton supports the identification of a 30 to 40 year old woman. Eadgyth was age 36 when she died in 946. The only other insight the bones revealed is wear on the femur that suggests a lot of horseback riding. This is generally viewed as being supportive of an aristocratic lifestyle. For all of their advantages, life was short in the 10th century. Eadgyth was only 36 when she died, but she lived longer than both her recorded children. Her son Liudolf died of fever at 27 and his sister died four years before him (and probably 5 years or more younger). Both her children, Liudolf (930– 957) and Liutgarde (d. 953), were buried at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Mainz.


” Tests confirm that bone are from medieval queen” Medieval News. 17 June 2010

Bones confirmed as those of Saxon Princess Eadgyth, My Science, 16 June 2010.

Ellie, Long-lost bones belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth Heritage Key, June 17, 2010

Michael Wood (BBC) The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess. The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

Mike Pitts (editor of British Archaeology) How the study of our teeth is revealing our history, The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

James Barrett, The Fish Eaters of Orkney. Orkney Archaeological Trust. Papers and Pictures in Honour of Daphne Home Lorimer MBE, Feb. 2004.

Hello Eadgyth! (previous Heavenfield post)

Saxon Gloucestershire

The discovery of a new Anglo-Saxon site in Gloucestershire was reported in the Medieval News today. It is basically one good size hall (11 meters or 36 feet long) with a couple ditches, a pit with Anglo-Saxon pottery, and two skeletons that may be Anglo-Saxon. The article suggests that the site dates to the 6th to 8th century and expresses surprise that Anglo-Saxons were found there that early. The implication is that this came from Cotswold Archaeology but they are not actually quoted dating it.

So why the surprise? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that three British kings were defeated at the battle of Derham in 577 and that the English then took the cities of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. So this is 6th century, and they date the site to 6th to 8th century; 223 years of that is after the battle of Derham. Now according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the British put up a good fight for many more years, but clearly the English would have been moving into the area from the 6th century. Besides in these border areas it is likely that there were Anglo-Saxons living under British kings and certainly Britons living under Anglo-Saxon kings.

Still, its a good find and its nice the school kids are getting to learn from the site. Hopefully as they continue to excavate they will find more.

Hello Eadgyth!

Eadgyth and Otto I. . Statue from Magdeburg Cathedral. Photo from Medieval News.

Earlier this week an Anglo-Saxon princess, Eadgyth, made a splash in the news. Her grave and body had been found in a German Cathedral. As the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Æthelstan, first recognized king of the English, she has got the interest of historians and archaeologists in England. Being of interest only for her links to them – rather than for herself – is a feeling Eadgyth would have been all too familiar. Its pretty well known that Æthelstan sent 19 year old  Eadgyth and another sister Algiva/Adiva to 17 year old Otto (912-973), son of King Henry of Germany, and told him to take his pick, the other being married off to some Alpine prince whose name has never been recorded. King Henry probably got to arrange that marriage as another perk. Nice guys all around, huh?

Eadgyth married Otto in 929 when she was about 19. He (or perhaps really his father King Henry) gave her the city of Magdeburg as a wedding gift. I’ve read elsewhere that it was dowry, but husbands don’t give dowry. She gave birth to their son Liudolf in 930 and then a daughter Liutgarde. Otto became King of Germany and Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936. She was Queen of Germany for ten years before her death at age 36 on 26 January 946. She was buried in convent in Madeburg, where she was probably a patron. She was recently discovered in a stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral. After her death, Otto continued his conquests until he became Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Otto lived nearly another 30 years and remarried, but he still returned to Magdeburg where he was also buried.  Eadgyth was moved and reburied in stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral in 151o.

Tests are being done to confirm that these remains are Eadgyth’s because they were found in a lead coffin inside the stone sarcophagus with the inscription “The rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus, after the second renovation of this monument in 1510.” The bones wrapped in white silk appear to be of a woman in her thirties. Isotope analysis will be able to identify where the woman spent her childhood. Presumably they will also do radiocarbon dating and it would be nice if they did a facial reconstruction. Assuming the skull is intact and they have access to it, they should be able to make an accurate model of it and do a facial reconstruction with that without damaging the remains.

Eadgyth gains special attention from English historians (and Anglophiles) because she is believed to have promoted the veneration of St Oswald, King of Northumbria in Saxony and Germany. Why did she have a special attraction to St Oswald? The women of the house of Wessex had a special attraction to King Oswald because his wife was the daughter of King Cynegisl of Wessex, later recorded as Cyneburg. Eadgyth’s half-brother Æthelstan may have been a fosterling in the court of their aunt Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, when she rescued St Oswald’s relics from Viking-occupied Bardney in the year before Eadgyth’s birth. Æthelflaed moved the relics to their new minister at Gloucester, later renamed St Oswald’s Priory. This priory was to be the primary church for the Mercian royal family and their burial place. Lady Æthelflaed also established veneration of St Oswald at Chester alongside St Wereburg (Thacker,1995), a daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and great niece of St Æthelthryth of Ely. It is interesting that Lady Æthelflaed translated Wereburg’s relics to Chester but not the relics of St Æthelthryth of Ely, especially given that Wereburg was Abbess of Ely. Yet, Wereburg was a daughter of Mercia where the other abbesses of Ely did not have a connection to Mercia or Wessex.  Chester and Gloucester were the two primary cities of Mercia under Lady Æthelflaed with eastern Mercia either ruled by Vikings or in the frontier zone.

Through this marriage, Oswald becomes kinsman and uncle of the Wessex royal family. When Æthelstan sent his sisters to Germany to marry Otto, Eadgyth was described as being of of the “blessed line of King Oswald” (nata de stirpe beata Oswaldi regis) (Thacker, 1995). A bit of an exaggeration that she was a descendant at least by our understanding of kinship and descent. How a culture views kinship is dynamic, not a static thing. In the Gesta Ottonis, written under the orders of Otto’s niece Abbess Gerberga by Hrotsvitha of Gandrersheim in c. 965, Eadgyth’s lineage is held to be greater than her half-brother Æthelstan in part because of her kinship with St Oswald. Otto’s marriage to this Anglo-Saxon princess helped solidify his rule over Saxony (O’Riain-Radel, 1995). It is possible that Eadgyth came to Otto bearing relics, possibly of St Maurice, the leader of the Theban legion, to whom the Cathedral of Madeburg is dedicated. As we know that Æthelstan had received relics of St Maurice, O’Riain-Radel hypothesizes that she brought some of these relics with her to Saxony and were established in the Cathedral where they were both eventually buried. St Maurice, like Oswald, was another soldier saint and perhaps attractive to warrior kings like Æthelstan and Otto. We also know that manuscripts were gifted in both directions between Æthelstan and Otto, including gospel books but perhaps also hagiography. It seems likely that written legends would have accompanied Eadgyth on any saints Wessex wanted to promote in Germany. These would have been valuable to Otto and his father King Henry as information on a holy (Anglo-)Saxon king could have been used to help them get established in Saxony. Yet, the fact that Oswald was a foreign king meant he would not have had local kinsmen to challenge their rights in Saxony.

As the romance of Oswald developed around the marriage of Oswald to Cyneburgh, he would have become all the more attractive to other Wessex girls.  From the German point of view, a Wessex princess like Eadgyth could have easily been portrayed as being like Cyneburgh, the Wessex princess that became St Oswald’s wife. There is little evidence of Oswald’s romance within England (and few English medievalists today are aware of it) but it flourished in Germany where these Wessex girls sponsored his veneration. The only trace of the romance in England is the raven and ring iconography found in some Oswald artwork, but most of this artwork is quite late and often lacks the ring (so it could represent the raven in Reginald’s Life of Oswald that had nothing to do with romance). Editions of the German romances are listed in the reference section below; Kalinke being the most complete analysis.


Alan Thacker, (1995) “Membra Disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult”. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Dagmar O’Riain-Radel (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: the Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult” Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Medieval News. (20 Jan 2010) Remains of Eadgyth, Anglo-Saxon Queen, discovered in German Cathedral. (actually Anglo-Saxon Queen of Germany)

Additional references for St Oswald on the continent:

Marianne  Kalinke    (2005)  St. Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphoses, with an Edition and Translation of the ‘Osvalds saga’ and ‘Van sunte Oswaldo deme konninghe’. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Annemiek Jansen. (1995) The Development of the St Oswald Legends on the Continent. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

Peter Clemoes. (1983) The Cult of St Oswald on the Continent. Jarrow Lecture 1983.

EP Baker. (1949) St Oswald and his church at Zug. Archaeologia 93: 103-123.

EP Baker (1951) The Cult of St Oswald in Northern Italy. Archaeologia 94: 167-194.