The Anglo-Saxons: Hostages, Oaths, Treaties and Treachery I

Bargains made and broken involving the exchange of hostages and the swearing of oaths were such an important part of Anglo-Saxon warfare that scarcely an event was recorded without such an accompaniment. It is the glue that held the model of the political world together. By looking at the nature of such agreements it can be shown that the familiar tools used to cement agreements varied wildly in their effectiveness. The study of this one phenomenon alone can explain so much about Anglo-Saxon history.

There were a number of ways in which the leaders of early Medieval England could seek to cement an agreement or alliance. For Christian parties there was the baptismal sponsorship or god-parenting arrangement. Also, there was the marriage alliance, particularly effective if the leader in question had several available beautiful sisters at his disposal, as did King Athelstan at the beginning of his reign (924–39). Athelstan was also a master of the fostering ploy as well. He fostered Haakon of Norway as part of a peace agreement made by his father. But not everyone was blessed with the power and political tools of the mighty King Athelstan. For most leaders, the keeping of an enemy to an agreement was done with the sometimes gritty and risky method of the hostage exchange.

The Anglo-Saxon era is littered with a macabre history of the fate of hostages. It is a history that makes for unpalatable reading for modern minds. The making of a binding agreement with an enemy by exchanging hostages and swearing oaths might seem fairly watertight, but all too often one side or the other (frequently the pagan Danes) treated those who they had exchanged with little regard. And so it was with the swearing of oaths. Such oaths were only worth something if they were sworn on relics or holy items that actually meant something to the oath taker.

Hostage exchanges had long been used throughout Early Medieval Europe. The Old English word for a hostage was ‘gisl’. This word is similar to the Irish ‘giall’ and to the Welsh ‘gwystl’. A hostage could be of a noble background, kept at the court of his captors to ensure the good behaviour of his own master, the captors’ enemy. They could also be members of a fighting force whose leader had been coerced to come to terms with his enemy.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle first mentions a major use of hostages in the period covered here in an entry for 874 after the Danes had driven out King Burgred of Mercia (852–74). Here, the scribe says:

they [the Danes] granted the kingdom of Mercia to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish king’s thegn, and he swore them oaths and granted them hostages, that it should be ready for them whichever day they might want it, and he himself should be ready with all who would follow him, at the service of the raiding army.

Exactly who Ceolwulf’s hostages were is unknown, but it is likely they were valuable to him. These men may even have been chosen by the Danes themselves, who were holding all the cards at this time. Contemporary observers such as Asser saw this whole thing as a ‘wretched’ agreement, a comment that reveals the likely effectiveness of the arrangement.

The next mention of hostages is in 876. This time, with Alfred cornering his enemy at Wareham, the impetus was apparently with him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the king made peace with the Danes, possibly implying a cash payment (as the chronicler Æthelweard also implies), but that the Danes ‘granted him as hostages the most distinguished men who were next to the king in the raiding army, and they swore him oaths on the sacred ring, which earlier they would not do to any nation, that they would quickly go from his kingdom . . .’. Alfred had learned from his own dealings with the Danes and from what he had heard about similar arrangements in Francia. The Danes did not care much about keeping an oath sworn on Christian relics. This time they had sworn an oath on their own holy ring, possibly an arm ring of the type associated with Thor. But if Alfred thought this was enough to bind his enemies to their agreement, he was to be mistaken. The king had given his own hostages to the Danes in what was an exchange as opposed to a one-sided agreement. Asser tells us that during one night the Danes left Wareham and killed all their hostages, breaking the treaty and headed for Exeter. We can only guess what Alfred did with the men he had received as hostages on hearing this news.

Guthrum, the Danish leader in all these negotiations, made it to Exeter with his mounted army and sat there confident that he had played a master stroke and had got himself out of a tight corner at Wareham. Alfred’s men had not spotted his night exodus, and had played catch-up to no avail arriving at the gates of Exeter when the Danes were already safely ensconced. Guthrum was also expecting a fleet of 120 ships to arrive and aid his bid, but when these vessels left Poole Harbour, rounding the headland off Swanage, they all succumbed to a storm and were lost. Consequently, Guthrum was once again on the back foot with an English army at his door. And with this development we see yet another turn in the story of the hostage exchange.

The hostage ploy seems now to have favoured Alfred. It may seem surprising that there was an exchange as opposed to a one-sided Anglo-Saxon arrangement given what had happened to the English hostages at the hands of the Danes at Wareham, but conditions were not yet perfect for Alfred, he was just in the ascendancy. This time, the Danes granted him ‘as many hostages as he wished to have’, implying that the king was able to pick them. What followed this Exeter agreement, again sworn on oath, was the departure of the Danes from Wessex and their subsequent settlement of parts of Mercia which the puppet English King Ceolwulf had held open for them.

Clearly, hostage negotiations in the ninth century were a bloody and dangerous game. Each phase in a campaign seems to have involved an upping of the stakes for both sides. Alfred’s subsequent misfortunes in the wilderness of the Somerset marshes are well documented for the year 878. However, his famous victory against the Danes at Edington was so decisive that it led to a further development in the art of the hostage negotiation. A fortnight passed with the English camped outside of the Danish camp to which their army had fled after its defeat. Starving, cold and fearful, the Danes came to the English seeking surrender on terms more onerous than ever before. They would give hostages again, just as many as the king wanted, and this time they would demand none in return. No such arrangement had ever been made before. This was as close as a Viking army of the ninth century could get to abject defeat in a campaign. It was followed by the baptism of Guthrum (now to be given the English name Athelstan) at Aller and an additional ceremony at Wedmore some weeks later. Guthrum would rise from the baptismal waters as a Christian leader in a Christian land. The Danes would indeed leave Wessex, providing Alfred with breathing space to rebuild an expanded kingdom.

It happened again in 884–5 at Rochester, but this time the mention of hostages is different. A Viking force, which had been terrorising Francia for the opening years of the 880s, came from Boulogne to try its luck in Alfred’s new kingdom. It came expecting to wreck the place. They had brought many horses with them, fine mounts from Francia. But they had brought something else, too. Their army consisted of an unknown number of Frankish hostages. Alfred cut a dashing figure by 885. His army and fortification system were organised to cope with such an event as this new invasion. The garrison at Rochester proudly withstood. Alfred came to relieve the men of the town. The Vikings, as a result, fled back to Francia without either their horses or their hostages, two vital accessories of warfare. The fate of these hostages is unknown, but they are most likely to have been truly rescued by the king of the Anglo-Saxons. For those Danes who had chosen to stay in England after their defeat at the hands of Alfred, hostages were once again exchanged, perhaps in the old style. But also in the old style, these Vikings twice broke their agreement and sent raids into the wooded heartlands of southern England. Some things, it seemed, could not change.

The agreement between Alfred and Guthrum, who was now ruler of East Anglia, was bound by a treaty referred to as the Treaty of Wedmore. It effectively divided England into a Danish and an English-controlled half. From now, to the north of Watling Street which stretched from London to Chester, there would be a land that would be under Danish-inspired law, a land that ultimately became known as the Danelaw. Alfred and his family were left with the rump of English Mercia and Wessex from which to provide the platform for a re-conquest. The surviving copy of the document that outlines the treaty probably refers to the settlement arrived at between the two sides after a period between around 880–6 when the countryside to the north of London was very much up for grabs. Here again, after much bloodshed and double dealing, we have mention of hostages:

And we all agreed on the day when the oaths were sworn that no slaves or freemen might go over to the army without permission, any more than any of theirs to us. If, however, it happens that from necessity any one of them wishes to have traffic with us–or we with them–for cattle and for goods, it is to be permitted on this condition, that hostages shall be given as a pledge of peace and as evidence whereby it is known that no fraud is intended.

So, in this new Anglo-Danish world, hostages could be given as surety against fraudulent trading activity. We can only imagine how many people were dragged across Watling Street from one side to the other to provide confidence in a trading deal.

As Alfred progressed with his grand military and ecclesiastical reforms, the years went by with no recorded deals involving hostages. It was not until the return of the Vikings in 892 that the campaigns began again in earnest. A Viking army with its 250 ships came to Appledore, and new leader Hæsten’s 80 ships came to Milton Regis threatening to cut off a giant corner of the country from the English king. Moreover, although Guthrum was now dead, the Danish-led armies of East Anglia and Northumbria were full of confidence and prepared to help their cousins assault the king of the Anglo-Saxons once again. This is why Alfred needed yet another hostage arrangement.

Alfred managed to secure oaths from the Northumbrians and the East Anglian Danes not to attack him. He procured six ‘prime’ hostages from the East Anglian Danes, although we are not told how. We are informed, however, that the deal was not kept to, as it seems the English-based Danes kept helping their cousins in the south east of the country by aiding their raiding and foraging activities during this uneasy stand-off. The fate of the ‘prime’ six is not recorded.

The Appledore Danes, laden with booty from their periodic raids, soon attempted to push north to find a ford across the Thames with the intention of making it to Essex to join with other Viking ships there. It ended in disaster for them, with Alfred’s son the ætheling Edward (soon to be king himself) intercepting and defeating them at Farnham. Edward drove them across the Thames at a place where there was no ford. Soon they found refuge of sorts on a river island near Iver in Buckinghamshire known as Thorney. Edward began a protracted siege which came to an end when the English system of military rotation meant that that besieger’s supplies had run out and their time in the field was up. Unfortunately, this all happened before King Alfred was able to relieve his son. We are told, however, by the chronicler Æthelweard that the Danes who had been surrounded and starved at Thorney Island and whose leader was wounded did exchange hostages and agree to leave the kingdom. To Essex they went, to join up with Hæsten’s force which had now relocated to Benfleet.

Alfred, at some stage during this campaign decided to attempt to bring Hæsten to heel through the offer of baptism, with the king himself standing sponsor to one of the Viking’s sons and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians to the other. We know less about it than we do of the arrangements made with Guthrum. Hæsten’s base at Benfleet was eventually captured by the English in a siege that saw women and children, ships and money seized and brought to London. Also seized by the besieging Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, were Hæsten’s sons. The Dane had been out on a raid when all this happened. The young men were sent to Alfred’s court, probably in the hope they would prove to be very valuable bargaining chips. But Alfred sent them straight back to Hæsten delivering a message of extraordinary mercy for these times. Perhaps it is fair to say that Alfred knew he had his enemy defeated, but he seems not to have been able to hold his own godson as a hostage.

The Vikings’ subsequent movements to Buttington and Chester both ended in sieges which saw great suffering for the enemies of Alfred. At Buttington, Æthelweard tells us that ‘they [the Danes] did not refuse hostages, they promised to leave that region’. In 894 Æthelnoth, Alfred’s trusted ealdorman from Somerset, visited York in an ambassadorial capacity with a view to persuading the Northumbrian Danes to cease their pillaging of parts of Rutland held by the English under the Alfred and Guthrum treaty, but again we do not know how this deal was cemented. What we do know is that by the time the Danes had been outwitted by Alfred’s clever fortifications surrounding their ships at Hertford in 895, the Danes, under a new leader following Hæsten’s death, moved out to Bridgnorth from where they dispersed never to reform again.

The historic record falls quiet in respect of hostages towards the end of Alfred’s reign. When Edward took the throne after the death of his father in 899, there was a revolt against him from Æthelwold, the son of Alfred’s brother Æthelred I. This revolt, which is documented below, involved the pretender to power taking a nun against the king’s leave before stealing away from the watchful eyes of Edward’s army in a dash to Northumbria. It is not known if the nun was a hostage, had been kidnapped or was a willing participant. However, to take a nun from a nunnery without the bishop or king’s permission was a ‘criminal’ offence and clearly Æthelwold was using this as a way of defying Edward.

The next reference to hostages is only by inference. In 906 Edward is said to have ‘confirmed the peace’ at Tiddingford with the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes. No mention is made of an exchange, but from what we have observed already it is an agreement likely to have involved them. We can be more certain of the next mention, however. Edward, by 915 had succeeded in defeating the Danes and had embarked on his great re-conquest of the midlands. But in this year, a Viking force had come from Brittany led by Jarls Ohtor and Hroald (sic) and it headed up the Severn raiding as it went. The force went into Wales and took a bishop named Cameleac, Bishop in Archenfield, as hostage. Edward then paid 40 pounds to ransom him back, one of the few recorded arrangements of this kind. As the Vikings headed to Archenfield for richer pickings, they were met by the men of Hereford and Gloucester and nearby forts. The resulting battle saw Ohtor and Hroald defeated with Hroald perishing and Ohtor’s brother also being killed. The Vikings were subsequently driven to an ‘enclosure’ where they were besieged until they gave hostages in return for leaving the kingdom. It sounds as one sided as some of the later Alfredian agreements, but the reality was that the force hung around for some time on the Severn Estuary embarking on sporadic raids before eventually leaving for Ireland.

Edward’s sister, the famous Æthelflæd, sometimes called ‘the Lady of the Mercians’, had her part to play in the history of the hostage. It was she who in 916 sent a force to Brecon Mere in Wales to break down the fortification there and in doing so took the wife of the Welsh king of Brycheiniog ‘as one of thirty-four’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There would be many more organised strategic conquests of such citadels as Danish Derby and Leicester, the key boroughs of the Danelaw. Just before her death in 918, the chronicler tells us, Æthelflæd after taking Leicester had even got the leaders of Viking York to swear oaths that they would be at her disposal. They did not keep to this, of course, but the fact that the agreement happened at all is testimony to the increasing power being displayed by Æthelflæd and her brother Edward south of the Humber. As more Scandinavians poured into the northern parts of Britain, the Danish forces of yesteryear, now settled in England, began to see the sense in aligning themselves with the resurgent Anglo-Saxon monarchy in the south. In fact, before he died in 924 Edward the Elder had secured the allegiance of the Scots, a new Norse leader at York, the lords of Bamburgh, the king of the Strathclyde Britons and the Northumbrians of all cultures.

At Æthelflæd’s death an event took place that has received a number of interpretations. The Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in an entry for 919 records it thus: ‘Here also, the daughter of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas; she was called Ælfwynn.’ The most likely interpretation of this is that it was no simple hostage taking, but a political abduction. Edward the Elder, who had achieved so much in alliance with Ælfwynn’s mother (his own sister), could not afford for the spectre of Mercian independence to raise its head just when it looked like the Kingdom of the English was finally taking shape under his own leadership. In Ælfwynn many traditional-minded Mercian noblemen may have seen a standard bearer for that independence. So, the king spirited away his own niece to avoid this happening. The Kingdom of the English was growing in confidence.

King Athelstan’s (924–39) use of human resources was a far cry from the desperate hostage exchanges of the Alfredian campaigns. A kingdom of England was very much in the making now, and Athelstan’s negotiations were on an international level, binding his kingdom into the fortunes of, among others, the great Holy Roman Empire controlled by the Ottonian dynasty. In the sparse entries for Athelstan’s reign in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there are hints at hostages, however. In 934 for example, Athelstan’s combined campaigns by land and sea in Scotland resulted in the Scottish King Constantine having to give his own son as a hostage.

There is no mention of hostages in the years preceding Athelstan’s great Battle of Brunanburh of 937. During these years, an imperious Athelstan, able to draw an army from the length and breadth of his new kingdom did indeed hold imperial-style councils at places like Cirencester, calling in tribute from the Welsh kings which amounted to huge quantities of gold, silver, oxen, hounds and hawks. But the Scots and the Norse-Irish led a confederacy against Athelstan at Brunanburh, at a battle site that is still to be identified with certainty. Once again, even in their crushing defeat there is no mention of hostages from the lords of the north, just a mention of them fleeing the field for home.

It would seem that Athelstan’s victories might have paved the way for a Golden Age in Anglo-Saxon kingship, but this was yet to come. Olaf Guthfrithson, the enemy who had caused the great king so much trouble, swept back into the picture after Athelstan’s death on 939. A complex marriage alliance in the midlands with the daughter of a Danish jarl, and some military campaigning in the north, saw the Dane in the ascendancy again. It was Athelstan’s younger brother, King Edmund (939–46) who had to re-capture the five Danish boroughs of the midlands for the southern English crown. In 943 a new enemy, Olaf Sihtricson, had taken Tamworth from the English and had fled to Leicester. In time-honoured style, we are told this was the same year in which this Olaf received baptism with Edmund as his sponsor. But the records of the tenth century are more complicated than those of other eras. There are allusions to further submissions in York, for example, but we are not told how these arrangements were cemented.

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