The Making of Kings

The Making of Kings

The Kingship

Kingship is not a natural or inevitable feature of any type of society.  Historical labels can be misleading, and some of the most deceptive labels surround the idea of kingship. A medieval king of England was a not constitutional monarch. The actions of kings and how they explained those actions reflect their goals and beliefs. The nobleman who acknowledged an Anglo-Saxon king did so for his own reasons. So a look at their actions and reasons should tell us how kings were made.

Oral history contains details of tradition going back centuries, sometimes hardly altered. It is a mix of old and new traditions, facts and fictions. It was meant to explain the present, not just describing the past. In the early Middle Ages the law of England was unwritten, and succession to the throne was arranged by custom and tradition. Custom can have a strong hold on its followers. For primitive peoples these things have a way of appearing definite and clear, but only to the people who live and assume them. It can appear to the outsider vague, indefinite, and even contradictory. Since the succession to the throne was always of vital importance, it was often the subject of discussion and debate by nobles and clerics, and this would further change the oral history.

Each succession was settled by the conventions and customs of the times, but not always peacefully.  Often a “strong man armed” gained the throne, and  he would feel bound to justify his action. From the way in which the king justified his ascension can be seen what rules he was pretending to have followed. If at all possible, he showed that he was related to his predecessor–that he had a hereditary claim. He argued that the people had accepted his rule in due form–that he had been ‘elected.’ He asserted that his predecessor named him as successor–had been designated by a reigning king. An understanding of the making of kings must include these three methods; inheritance, election and designation. Each of these were part of the process in the Middle Ages.

The word “king” is common to all known Germanic languages. When Goths and Vandals and Lombards emerged in history, they had strong, unified monarchies. There the kings frequently claimed to be derived from the best ancient stock, but election mattered more to them than heredity.  In England almost every king claimed to be of royal descent.

The most obvious generalization about kingship, that only one ruled at a time, had many exceptions. In the early days kings did not necessarily rule alone. While one king might be dominant, all the male members of a family could rule together. When Edwin of Northumbria invaded Wessex (before 630), he killed five West Saxon kings in one battle. In many cases the senior king had ultimate authority, but in some cases the kings were equal. As time passed “monarchy” in the literal sense, the rule of one man, steadily developed. King Egbert established the Anglo-Saxon monarchies so that it remained hereditary. Even then the kingdom was not passed strictly from eldest son to eldest son, but a king was succeeded by his eldest son or nearest male relative. At times a brother succeeded the throne although the old king had children, but usually when the children were very young. There are one or two instances when it was argued that a son “born in the purple” (while his father was king) had a superior right to one born beforehand.

It has been the practice in many societies for men to recite with pride the list of their ancestors. The royal genealogies of primitive peoples are rarely historical documents, though they can preserve elements of genuine tradition. Their purpose is to join the reigning king to the ancestor from whom the kingdom started, even from the god who gave the kings their authority. The early records of royal Saxon families are mainly genealogical, therefore there was a patrilineal element in royal succession. The genealogies inclined men to stick to the male line, to insist that a king should be the direct descendant of the ancestor who gave his name to the dynasty. In the early records of Wessex, it was emphasized that a king was of the line of Cerdic; and almost all the Anglo-Saxon genealogies go back to Woden, the chief god of the pagan Teutonic hierarchy.

The “election” seems to have been a purely formal process, but persuasion may have been used behind the scene. In the election of Anglo-Saxon kings there was no majority principle, no fixed body of electors, and usually one candidate. The “election,” or choosing, was an important part in their way of thinking. There was some difference of opinion but people did not choose whom they please, and every Anglo-Saxon claimed the right to resist a tyrannical king, the right to rebel.  The people did not choose the king, they simply acknowledged him, which would seem to be the true meaning. In many cases this word may hide discussion and arrangement; election actually described a formal process of acknowledgment and acclamation. Sometimes in the records it was God who elected. All kings felt themselves to be kings by God’s grace–and so by His choice, by His election.

The final act in the making of a king was the solemn confirmation by God’s blessing of the process which had gone before in the rites of anointing and coronation. Inheritance, designation, and election all have an oral history going back into early Germanic society. In the fifth and sixth centuries the ceremonies of Anglo-Saxon coronation were similar to the Germanic tradition of raising the king on a shield.

By the mid-seventh century anointing by the pope or bishop became a part of the coronation ceremony as a consecration. The concept of consecration of a king by anointing came from Biblical accounts of the coronation of David, who, though not being related to Saul, was his predecessor on the throne. It was the priests who anointed him, making him king. The crucial event in the ceremony of coronation  was the anointing. This was done with holy oil, which was also used in the ordination of priests and the consecration of bishops. Anointing the new king came to be regarded as having a sacramental character, as a kind of ordination..

Little is known of the ceremonies of coronation between Offa’s and Edgar’s time. In 975, at the age of 50 and at the height of his power, Edgar was solemnly anointed and crowned. There are records of the ceremony performed by St. Dunstan of Canterbury and St. Oswald of York at Bath. Many of the parts of this ceremony had been continued from a much earlier time. The same order was used down to the mid- or late-eleventh century; and many elements in it were still used in 1955. What was implicit in the words of the service itself was that the king is God’s elect, and therefore fit to be God’s anointed king.

Two bishops led the king  into the church while the choir sang a hymn. The king prostrated himself before the altar, laid aside the crown (which he already wore), and the bishops, would sing the “Te Deum.” They then raised the king, and the archbishop administered to him the coronation oath. Then the king swore: “The Church of God and all his Christian people shall keep true peace under our rule at all times; that I shall forbid thefts and every iniquity to every grade of man; that I shall ordain justice and mercy in all judgements, that the kindly and merciful God may grant to me and to you his mercy.”–and to this all present said “Amen.” After three prayers, came the solemn prayer calling down God’s blessing “on your servant (the king), whom we have chosen with suppliant devotion for royal authority over Angles and Saxons,” and asking God to grant him the faithfulness of Abraham, the gentleness of Moses, the fortitude of Joshua, the humility of David, the wisdom of Solomon, and to help to nourish, instruct, fortify and build up the church of his kingdom and all the people committed to him, ending with the anointing by archbishop in Christ’s name, and the anthem “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet,” which is still in use. In the midst of further prayers, the king was given a ring and sword, symbols of royal power; then he was crowned, and scepter and staff were placed in his hands; and a blessing pronounced over him. The king received the allegiance of his leading subjects, his royal position defined, and after further prayers the ceremonies were completed by a solemn mass.

The queens had not always been so respectfully treated. The West Saxons of the early ninth century  refused to allow the queen to sit beside the king, or to take the title queen; she was only the king’s wife. This was attributed to the misbehavior of Eadburh, a daughter of Offa king of Mercia, who was wife of Beorhtric and queen of Wessex. Whether the story is  true is quite uncertain; but it is likely enough that Offa’s daughter was remembered as the symbol of the subjection of Wessex to Mercia in Offa’s time, and queens were subjected to disfavor in Wessex for a time as a result.

Beorhtric reigned sixteen years (786-802) in Wessex and was a sub-king to Offa, whose daughter, Eadburh, he married. Wessex legend related that Eadburh was the instrument of her husband’s death; she hated a young retainer whom Beorhtric favored, and prepared poison for the thane in a cup, which the king, coming in by chance, took up and drank. She fled to France, and was sheltered for a time by Charlemagne, who gave her a nunnery as endowment. She lived such a scandalous life there that she was expelled, and died an outcast in the streets.

King Egbert’s wife, Redburga, was therefore only considered the king’s wife, and not given the title of queen, or the respect which came with that position in later times. The death of Beorhtric, and Eadburh’s infamy, would have greatly affected her standing with the people. This could be one of the reasons there is so little known about her. She probably received more respect and consideration because of her relationship to Charlemagne than she would otherwise have gotten as a queen. The events surrounding Beorhtric’s death were too recent for the general population to readily accept her, or anyone, as a queen.

For the most part women were respectfully treated in Anglo-Saxon England, but there was a difference  between queen-making and the status of women. It was possible for property to pass in the female line under Anglo-Saxon law, but not normal. It is possible that succession in the female line was more common than historical records suggest. But women were not of an equal footing with men, and queens could not demand the same authority as a king.

King Cenwulf of Mercia

King Egbert

King Aethelwulf

King Cynegils

King's Gate, St. Swithin's, Winchester

Offa leading his fyrd

Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References