A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A man of no mean ambition, by 927 King Æthelstan found himself walking on untrodden ground, the ruler of much of what we would consider modern England. His grandfather, Alfred, had beaten back the vikings and united much of southern England (primarily Kent and Wessex) under his crown. Æthelstan’s father and aunt, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia, picked up where Alfred left off, further taking the fight to the viking invaders and settlers. These two brought East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw under the control of Mercia and Wessex, though upon Æthelflæd’s death Edward also absorbed Mercia into the widening Wessex hegemony. Æthelstan thus inherited the kingship of more territory than had ever before been held under a single Anglo-Saxon ruler (despite some apparent hiccups in doing so). And now, come the death of the Viking King of York, Sihtric, in 927, Æthelstan seized control of Northumbria and Viking York.

10th c. ASE
10th c. Anglo-Saxon England, with Æthelstan’s regions of direct territorial control in 927 comprising Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, Sussex and Kent. Throughout his reign he would also claim hegemony over Cornwall and Devon, Wales, Cumbria, Strathclyde and the Kingdom of Scots. Map from Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England. 

You can find most of that narrative in our previous articles, but there it is in an un-nuanced nut-shell so you don’t have to go back and read them all right now (but I encourage you to do so later, spoil yourself). In this article I am picking up the narrative of Æthelstan’s reign from his annexation of the North and considering how he undertook regional governance, the first of the Wessex kings to hold hegemony in York and Northumbria.  In so doing, I intend for us to pick our way through one of Æthelstan’s charters, known as S 407. This charter gifts lands at a place called Amounderness (which can be located in the above map) to the church of St Peter, York. We have previously examined one of Æthelstan’s charters (S 436), in that case gifting lands to Malmesbury, but that was a clear forgery. This, however, is the genuine deal.

Dated 7 June 934, this charter was granted to the church in York at an interesting political juncture. Just because Æthelstan held hegemony over most of Britain, it didn’t mean everybody else had to like it. Scotland was a particular problem. Constantine II, King of Scots, had (reputedly) granted asylum to the viking Yorkish heir, Guthrith, in 927, and though he and Æthelstan had subsequently established a treaty, it seems Constantine may have been stirring up trouble in 934. Indeed, it is well known from across our sources that Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934 and, though precise details are sparse, Æthelstan forced the King of Scots was to submit to his overlordship. But don’t worry, Constantine would be back in a big way in 937, a tale for a different day. What is of interest to us here is that S 407 was witnessed in Nottingham, almost certainly in the midst of Æthelstan’s northern campaign, June being in the middle of the traditional campaigning season. Thus, it was with northern affairs on his mind that Æthelstan granted a swathe of northern borderlands to a trusted advisor in the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan (not to be confused with the later Wulfstan of Sermo Lupi fame). Undoubtedly in doing so Æthelstan hoped for both stability, loyalty, and a healthy buffer from rebellious territories. Clearly Æthelstan didn’t know Wulfstan quite as well as he thought. But more on that later. Let’s have at this charter.

As with the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon charters, we begin with the protocol, a declaration that invokes God, details the spiritual concerns that have led the king to this act, and gives evidence of the king’s own piety. These are notably formulaic and tend to be stylised to the taste of either the king or the scribe – in Æthelstan’s case it is a little of both. The charters of his reign that date between 928 and 935 tend to be written by a scribe known as Æthelstan A, this is one of the last charters written by that scribe and is characteristic of his delight in a bit of drama and a dab of poetics.

(1) The mischievous vicissitudes of this fickle world, not to be loved for the milky white of lilies but to be hated for the bitter poison of lamentable corruption, tear apart its stinking sons in the vale of tears, ravening with the venomous fangs of the flesh.

I won’t continue. It is identical to the opening of S 436 which I previously discussed. It recommends the qualities of our forger in that case – he has done his research and knows how to open an Æthelstan charter! Indeed, at least three other charters open with these identical lines (in Latin – varied modern translations can be found), and it seems to be a formula specific to charters of the year 935. Let’s move forward to the meat of S 407.

(2)…I, Æthelstan, king of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain, assign willingly in fear of God to Almighty God and the blessed Apostle Peter, at his church in the city of York, at the time when I constituted Wulfstan its archbishop, a certain portion of land of no small size, in the place which the inhabitants call Amounderness; that the bishop may [hold] it without the yoke of hateful servitude, with meadows, pastures, woods, streams, and all the conveniences duly belonging to it, for as long as he may use the breathable air with his nostrils and the visible world with the glance of his eyes, and may leave it to sacred heirs after him, ever to his church in eternal inheritance.

Full credit to the late, great Dorothy Whitelock for her translation of some, frankly, impenetrable Latin on the part of Æthelstan A, but that could have benefitted from a full-stop (period)!

The mention of Wulfstan is important here, as is the implication that he was Æthelstan’s man, raised to prominence by the Anglo-Saxon king. This is interesting as, throughout his tenure as the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan’s loyalty to the Anglo-Saxon kings often wavered. Upon Æthelstan’s death in 939, York quickly returned to Danish rule and, foremost among the northern forces who opposed the new Anglo-Saxon King, Edmund, was Wulfstan.  Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also recounts Wulfstan’s disloyalty to Edmund’s successor, Eadred, apparently proving false to his oath of loyalty in 947. Eadred later imprisoned Wulfstan in 952, after which the kingship of Northumbria and York remained with the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex with relatively little ongoing dispute.  Yet for all this political posturing, his apparently disloyalty to the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, and despite his evident support for Scandinavian rule of Northumbria, there is little indication of that Wulfstan raised any opposition to Æthelstan’s rule. From his appointment in 931 until 936 Wulfstan appeared regularly as a witness to royal charters, with his absence in the last three years of Æthelstan’s kingship the only evidence that may support a rejection of Anglo-Saxon rule.  But what this means can only be conjectured. Æthelstan’s presence in York cannot be verified at any time after 937; had Æthelstan decided to empower Wulfstan as a proxy for the king in the north, or had Wulfstan declined to travel south in order to oversee the ecclesiastical administration of Northumbria, his absence from royal diplomas may simply have been a matter of logistics.  Certainly, there is nothing to support any involvement of Wulfstan with the anti-Æthelstan coalition that fought the king at Brunanburh in 937, nor is there any evidence he supported a Danish claimant to the throne during Æthelstan’s lifetime. Essentially, it seems pretty unlikely he was ostracised from the Anglo-Saxon court between 936 and 939.  Though Wulfstan’s role in the push for Northumbrian independence after Æthelstan’s is demonstrable, disloyalty to Æthelstan himself is not. It seems far more likely that Wulfstan simply aligned his loyalty with whoever granted him the greatest autonomy and authority to operate in the north and, as evidence by Æthelstan’s gift of the land at Amounderness, Wulfstan was a beneficiary of the Anglo-Saxon king’s policies.

The subsequent clauses of the charter are standard stuff, declaring curses upon any who would seek to alienate the land from Wulfstan and his successors. Entertaining as it declares any such person will burn with Judas the committer of impious treacheries, and a desire for them to exist after the trumpet of the archangel is clanging the call and bodies are leaving the foul graveyards … in eternal confusion in the devouring flames of blazing torments in punishment without end.

Fun times. But not especially noteworthy – such declarations are a standard and formulaic element of charters, seeking to protect ecclesiastical land-holdings from the incursions of secular lords by appealing to their fear and piety. So let’s jump to the end of the charter where we find out the bounds of the lands granted by S 407.

(6) … First from the sea up along the Cocker to the source of that river, from that source straight up another spring which is called Saxon Dunshop, thus down the riverlet to the Hodder, in the same direction to the Ribble and thus along that river through the middle of the channel back to the sea.

It is actually rather confusing and a little vague, using as it does rivers as its only points of reference and, between many of the rivers noted, there are significant gaps. Yet even at our most conservative guess, this is a huge grant of land, something like six-hundred square kilometres – there is in fact an argument for it being the largest Anglo-Saxon land grant evidenced in our extant sources. What we do know without doubt though, is that Amounderness was a territory that lay on the west coast, immediately north of Æthelstan’s Mercian lands, and had been under the hegemony of Viking York.

Amounderness
Approximate bounds of the Amounderness grant on a modern map (the area is significantly larger that that normally attributed to the ‘Amounderness hundred’).

Viking control of York and its surrounding territories over the previous century had facilitated movement and trade between Scandinavia, the disparate Scandinavian colonies of Northern England, and the Norse settlements in Dublin and its surrounds. Known as the York-Dublin axis, viking control of this strip of territory between the Kingdom of Scots and Anglo-Saxon England was integral to the ongoing economic and military strength of the Scandinavian presence throughout the Isles. As such, Æthelstan’s conquest of Northumbria and York was not simply a matter of reclaiming the historic borders of Anglo-Saxon control, but was important to the security of those regions of England already under the Wessex hegemony. Æthelstan’s military and social strategies display a recognition that the rule of the predominantly Scandinavian city was the key to Anglo-Saxon dominance of the north.

Granting the region of Amounderness to the church of St. Peter in York was a subtle political move in which both the location of the land, and the involvement of Wulfstan were integral. Sharing a border with Mercia and boasting a shoreline facing Ireland, Anglo-Saxon control of the region both created a buffer between the Anglo-Saxon heartlands and potentially rebellious northern polities, and broke the Dublin-York axis of Scandinavian movement.  Notably however, in granting the land to Wulfstan that he may hold it without the yoke of hateful servitude, Æthelstan did not directly challenge the traditional hegemony of York, despite claiming the kingship of the city. Moreover, Æthelstan’s declaration in the charter that I constituted Wulfstan [York’s] archbishop indicates that this strategic land was not only being freed from the factionalism of secular rule but placed into the hands of one of Æthelstan’s trusted advisors. We’ve already noted that Wulfstan’s treachery was characteristic of his later career – he was (so far as we can tell) an Æthelstan loyalist.

Both the appointment of the archbishop and the grant of Amounderness were strategies of political intent. The church cannot be regarded as separate from the secular power structures of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, and Wulfstan was being setup with genuine political power on par with, or even surpassing, his secular peers. Which is not to say Æthelstan ignored his secular lords; he did not retain control of York and its surrounds for over a decade by arbitrarily reassigning lands and, in areas of the Danelaw not under the hegemony of York, Æthelstan was known to empower the existing Danish aristocracy as representatives of his government. However, effective control of ecclesiastical power was clearly a key element in the king’s strategies of social assimilation, of which Æthelstan’s appointment of Wulfstan to the bishopric of York is indicative. Despite a willingness to work with regional aristocracy, it is clear that Æthelstan saw the church as an alternate power-base to the lordship of local land-holders. In the case of the grant to St Peter’s, the removal of Amounderness from provincial secular control was strategically important to reconstituting the Kingdom of York as an English polity. Theoretically, the church was an encompassing, inter-cultural polity that was nominally loyal to the king while remaining aloof from Anglo-Scandinavian tensions in the north.  The grant represents the broader strategy of assimilation: Æthelstan was controlling the institutions of York, appointing his own men to positions of power and extending that power through the former Danish territories.  Yet, by maintaining the traditional power structures and territorial jurisdictions of York, Æthelstan maintained a veneer of local authority that allowed him to continue his program to align the north with his other English territories.

And I will leave it there, hoping you enjoyed a walkthrough of this charter and some speculation as to Æthelstan’s political strategies in the North. I have a forthcoming article in the Melbourne Historical Journal that deals with Æthelstan and the North in far greater depth. Keep an eye out for it.

Both of us are quite busy at the moment, so it will likely be a month between articles again, and lord only knows what that will be on! All requests considered…

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: 15th c. effigy of Æthelstan at Malmesbury Abbey – photo by Geography Photos. Mine are rubbish, because they stacked the spare chairs around him the day I visited. Go figure.
  2. The Electronic Sawyer– Online catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters
  3. Matthew Firth, “Integration, Assimilation, Annexation: Æthelstan and the Anglo-Saxon Hegemony in York,” Melbourne Historical Journal 45(2017), [forthcoming].
  4. Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
  5. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  6. Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.
  7. A. Woodman (ed.), Charters of Northern Houses(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

See our bibliographies on the Æthelstan and Chronicle Editions

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8 thoughts on “A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York”

    1. There seems to be an innordinate number of place names associated with the church in the north west – Eccles, Eccleston (ecclesiastical), Bispham (bishop), Croston, Kirkby etc etc – seems more than a coincidence…;)

      Like

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