Dark Age Warfare


655 Battle of Winwaed: Penda of Mercia was defeated by Oswiu of Northumbria. Although the battle was said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. Significantly, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Battle was a high-risk strategy. It brought matters to a decision and could save the country from the horrors of rampaging armies. On the other hand, if one lost a battle one risked losing everything, including, of course, one’s life. No quarter was given to high-status prisoners in the Dark Ages. Even kings were summarily knocked on the head. A sensible commander therefore did everything possible to avoid battle unless he was confident of winning. Battles tended to happen when two forces were more or less equally matched, or thought they were, or when the commander had run out of other options. The Dark Ages have plenty of examples of desperate measures taken to avoid battle with a superior force. King Oswy of Northumbria offered to buy off his enemy King Penda in 655. A few years before, his rival King Oswin of Deira had disbanded his army and sent them home rather than face Oswy in battle.

Once battle had become inevitable, Dark Age commanders would choose their ground carefully. When Penda refused to be bought off in 655, Oswy reduced the odds by deploying in a strong position on high ground, forcing Penda’s forces to advance through a flooded river valley. A striking number of Dark Age battles were fought by fords in rivers. Perhaps the river not only secured at least one flank but enabled the army to be supplied by boats. At Brunanburh one flank of Athelstan’s army was secured by a stream and the other by a wood. Finding a short line with secure flanks enabled a smaller army to negate the enemy’s superior numbers and create several lines of defence. Another consideration was to have somewhere to retreat if things went badly. For example, at Dyrham in 577 the British commanders probably fought in front of their hillfort, retreating behind its stout walls as they were pressed back. Not that, in this case, it did them much good.

Dark Age battle tactics are difficult to reconstruct for want of evidence. The only detailed account of a real battle is Maldon, where tactical considerations went no further than standing firm. The commander ‘bade his men make a war-hedge (wihagen) with their shields and hold it fast against the foe’. Like a hedge, the line would be long, straight and thin, and bristling with thorns – a thicket of spears. The more usual name for Maldon’s war-hedge was the shield-wall (bordweall). The line would stand to receive a charge behind overlapping shields with spearpoints projecting. The advancing enemy would see a line of wood and metal, eyes glinting between helmet and shield, and the only flesh on display being the lower legs. Breaking through this human wall would be akin to breaching the walls of a fort, and one source did indeed compare the Battle of Hastings with a siege.

Since everyone, whether Saxon, Briton or Viking, adopted shield-wall tactics in battle, the challenge was how to break through. If the commander had chosen his ground well, it would be impossible to outflank him. Sometimes, perhaps, the opposing shield-walls simply advanced towards one another and fought it out. However there is evidence that Roman tactics were familiar to Dark Age commanders through tracts such as that of Vegetius, written down in the early fifth century. As a means of breaking through, Vegetius recommended the wedge, a tactic particularly favoured by the Vikings who compared it with a charging boar and called it svinfylking or ‘swine-array’. Well-trained troops would mass in front of the shield-wall in wedge formation some ten lines deep. The wedge would then charge forward, keeping formation in order to penetrate the line with great force at a narrow point. Once the wall was broken more men would flood in and the enemy would be outflanked or even attacked from behind.

The correct way to prevent this, according to Vegetius, was to ‘swallow the charge’ by receiving it in a curved formation known as the forceps. It was easier to do this in a dense formation, but of course required training and a cool commander. Both the wedge and its countermeasures depended on firmness under fire and on fighting together as a well-drilled unit. How well drilled, in fact, were Dark Age armies? No drill manuals have come down to us. On the other hand, re-enactment experience suggests that formations can be taught basic proficiency in spear-and-shield warfare very quickly. Mastery of the basic moves – open order, forming ranks, advancing from column to line and turning about (in which the shield is passed over your head) – can be learnt in a day. In terms of basic drill, levied men could be turned into soldiers in a short time. To create a soldier who would stand firm in battle was another matter. There are many instances of a Dark Age army disintegrating under pressure. Morale depended on strong leadership and a sense of comradeship. Other requirements were personal fitness, which was probably high among the yeoman class, and courage. Re-enactments have confirmed another contemporary aspect of fighting – that, as the shield-walls lock together, it helps to shout! As anyone who attends football matches or has marched in large, noisy demonstrations will know, you lose your individuality in a pack, especially when you yell with the rest.

How did Dark Age armies find one another? Although hard evidence is scarce, it seems that armies of the period were highly mobile. King Harold famously marched from London to York in twelve days at some seventeen miles per day. This implies two things: that at least the flying columns of the force were mounted and that the roads and bridges were kept in good repair. From the striking correlation of Dark Age battle sites with Roman roads and major ancient tracks like the Ridgeway, it is evident that Dark Age armies made good use of roads. Perhaps this explains how kings like Oswald and Ecgfrith could campaign far from home without maps or a compass. They simply followed the roads. They also used scouts and presumably enlisted local people as guides, though recorded instances are hard to find from this period.

Shire armies seem to have been mustered at traditional outdoor assemblies or moots, such as Swanborough Tump in Wiltshire during Alfred’s Ashdown campaign or at Egbert’s Stone somewhere on or near the border of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire at the start of Alfred’s victorious campaign of 878. The shire reeves were responsible for ensuring that the men arrived on time and properly equipped. National service lasted for sixty days and, as the levies showed time and again, not a day longer. On more than one occasion, Alfred’s commanders had to let the Danes escape because the shire levies insisted on their rights and went home. This alone might explain why Dark Age commanders often seemed anxious to get the fighting over and done with.

To maintain speed the army marched as light as possible. Heavy war gear was carried in the rear in carts or by packhorses. Towns were expected to supply the army with food and other necessities as it marched. Bede confirms this with his story of the man who escaped death at the Battle of the Trent by pretending to be a civilian ferrying food supplies to the army. We are in the dark about living conditions on the march, but it seems that armies did bring tents with them. In Egiil’s Saga, Athelstan used his city of tents to confuse the enemy about his battle deployment. The saga might be fiction, but it would make no sense to its listeners had not tents been a normal part of army life.

We know little about battle formations in the Dark Ages. Large armies were evidently divided into sub-units, serving under different lords. From the ninth century, the shire levies were led in battle by their respective reeves, as at Ringmere in 1010 when the men of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia fought in separate divisions. Men of the top social class, royalty or ealdormen, fought among their hearth-troops who were expected to defend their lord to the death. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Maldon probably acted in the way expected of Dark Age commanders by putting himself in a prominent position in the centre of the line where his banner would be visible to the rest of his force.

Victory or defeat in a Dark Age battle depended on moral as well as physical strength. The professional Dark Age warrior, hearth trooper or mercenary, married late, if at all. The prime of his manhood was spent in the service of his lord, and he spent his leisure in the company of men, hunting, hawking and drinking. He lived on the cusp between the fiction of the sagas and praise poetry and the hard facts of military life: the former informed him of the way he was expected to behave, the latter of how heroic ideals worked out in practice. He repaid the mead he drank and the gifts he received by absolute loyalty and devoted service. One is bound to wonder: did the Dark Age warrior fear death in battle? It has been suggested that he was a fatalist: what will be, will be, and better to die gloriously than to live dishonourably. To fall in battle was considered an honourable death. Some warriors, especially the Welsh, thought that to die in bed was a disgrace. The trouble is that we do not know these people very well except through the doubtlessly idealized form of poetry. Although they might have been expected to conform to a heroic stereotype, the Battle of Maldon shows us that there were good and bad apples in every barrel. Some did indeed live and die according to their oaths. Others, it is clear, did not.




Visigoths and Ostrogoths fight each other on the Catalaunian fields.


Ostrogoths Siege of Rome AD 537

A barbarian people whose name means “Goths of the rising sun,” or “Goths glorified by the rising sun,” or simply “East Goths,” the Ostrogoths played an important role in the history of the later Roman Empire. Identified as early as the first century by Roman writers, the Ostrogoths were at first part of a larger population of Goths that included the Visigoths. During the third century, the larger Gothic population came into contact, often violent, with the Roman Empire. Defeated by the empire, with which they then cultivated better relations, the Goths divided into eastern and western groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and their subsequent histories diverged. For the Ostrogoths, as well as the Visigoths, history in the fourth and fifth centuries was shaped by the movements of the Huns and the rise and fall of the great Hunnish empire of Attila. In the fifth century, a reconstituted Ostrogothic tribe formed into a powerful group led by kings. The most famous and important of these kings, Theodoric the Great, participated in political life in the Eastern Roman Empire and created a successor kingdom in Italy in the late fifth and early sixth century. Despite the qualities of Theodoric and the strength of his kingdom, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy did not long survive the death of Theodoric. In the 530s, the great emperor Justinian sought to conquer the Western Empire, which had fallen under barbarian control in 476. For some twenty years, Justinian’s soldiers and generals fought Ostrogothic armies before finally defeating them, destroying Theodoric’s creation, and essentially eliminating the Ostrogoths as a people and a force in history.

Ancient accounts record that Gothic history began in 1490 b.c., when a Gothic king led his people in three boats from Scandinavia to the mouth of the Vistula River. Eventually the Goths moved to the area between the Don and Danube Rivers, before being forced out in the mid-third century a.d. by the Huns. The traditional accounts of the origins of the Goths by ancient historians like Jordanes, however, are not generally accepted. The origins of the Goths are no longer traced to Scandinavia but rather to Poland, where archeological discoveries place a sophisticated, but nonliterate, culture. It was from there that the Goths moved, after which move they made contact with the Roman Empire. In the third century the Goths had repeated clashes with the empire, winning some and putting the empire, already in serious straits, into even greater jeopardy. Roman emperors gradually turned the tide and nearly destroyed the Goths. In the wake of these defeats, however, tradition holds that a great king emerged, Ostrogotha, in circa 290, who founded the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Although it is unlikely that Ostrogotha existed, it is at that point that the division of the Goths into two groups occurred.

In the fourth century the two groups, the Tervingi, or Visigoths, and Greuthingi, or Ostrogoths, had more or less come to terms with the empire. By the 370s, however, the relationship between the various Gothic groups and the empire changed as they faced the threat of the Huns. Prior to the arrival of the Huns, King Ermanaric, a member of the Amal clan, had created a substantial kingdom in eastern Europe. He led the struggle against the Huns but was defeated by them, and in 375 he sacrificed himself to the gods in the hopes of saving his people from the Huns. His successor and some of the Goths continued the struggle against the Huns for another year before they were conquered and absorbed by them. From the end of the fourth to the middle of the fifth century, the Greuthingi/Ostrogoths remained part of the Hunnish empire and fought in the armies of the greatest Hun, Attila.

After the death of Attila, however, the fortune and composition of the Ostrogoths underwent a change. Most scholars believe that the Ostrogoths of this period are unrelated to earlier groups identified as Ostrogoths. Whatever the relationship is, in the mid-fifth century under the king Valamir, an Amal, the Ostrogoths emerged from domination by the Huns. Valamir exploited the confused situation in the empire of the Huns after Attila’s death in 453 and the defeat of Attila’s successor at the Battle of Nedao in 454. Although Valamir and his Goths most likely fought with the Huns against other subject peoples, the Ostrogoths emerged as an independent people because of the collapse of the Huns not long after the battle. Valamir then faced other rivals and endured further attacks by the Huns before their ultimate demise; he died in battle against the Gepids in 468/469.

Valamir was succeeded by his brother Thiudimer, who moved his followers into Roman territory, where they became foederati (federated allies) of the empire and came into contact with another group led by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter. The two groups struggled against each other for preeminence and for preference before the emperor. The empire itself, however, underwent important changes during this period. In the 470s a new emperor, Zeno, came to power in Constantinople, and the emperor in Italy was deposed and the imperial line ended by the barbarian Odovacar in 476. These changes among the Ostrogoths and within the empire had an important bearing on the future of the Ostrogothic people.

In 473 Thiudimer died and was succeeded by his son Theodoric the Amal, or later known as the Great, who had been named successor in 471. Prior to his nomination, Theodoric had spent ten years in Constantinople as a hostage of the emperor. During that period Theodoric learned a great deal about the empire and its customs and culture, even though it appears that he did not learn to write. Upon assuming power, he found himself in competition with the other Theodoric, whose followers had revolted against the emperor in 471 and again in 474. The later revolt was part of a palace coup against the new emperor, Zeno, who turned to the Amal for support. In order to ensure that neither group of Ostrogoths or their leaders became too powerful, Zeno also began to negotiate with Theodoric settled a treaty with Theodoric Strabo in 479. The hostilities between the two Theodorics were settled for a time, too, as the two closed ranks against the emperor. In 481, Strabo attacked Constantinople but failed to take it or depose the emperor. Shortly thereafter he was killed when his horse reared and threw him onto a rack of spears. Theodoric the Amal was the beneficiary of his occasional ally and rival’s death. Although Strabo was succeeded by Rechitach, his followers gradually joined with Theodoric the Amal, who had Rechitach murdered in 484.

Theodoric the Amal, or the Great, to give him his more familiar name, was able to create a great Ostrogothic power that quickly threatened the power of Emperor Zeno. The Ostrogothic king continued the struggle with Zeno, which was resolved for a time in 483, with the emperor making great concessions to the king. Indeed, Theodoric was made a Roman citizen, given the title of patrician, and awarded a consulship for the next year. The Ostrogoths were given a grant of land within the empire. But it occurred to Zeno that he could not trust the rising power of Theodoric, and he replaced him as consul, an event followed by renewed hostilities between the Ostrogoths and the empire. Theodoric’s revolt in 485 put further pressure on Zeno, who responded by offering Theodoric the opportunity to lead the assault on Odovacar, the barbarian king in Italy since 476. This assignment, which Theodoric himself had first suggested in 479, was beneficial to both king and emperor and one that Theodoric quickly accepted.

In 488–489 Theodoric led his Ostrogoths, probably numbering some 100,000 people, against Odovacar in Italy. The struggle between the two leaders lasted until 493; it was a hard fought war, with Theodoric winning the battles but unable to take his rival’s capital of Ravenna. Indeed, after losing two battles Odovacar established himself in the capital, from which he ventured out to meet Theodoric on the field of battle. Odovacar’s hand was strengthened by one of his generals, who joined Theodoric but then rejoined Odovacar, slaying the Gothic warriors who were with him. As a result Odovacar was able to take the offensive, but only for a short while, until Theodoric was reinforced by a Visigothic army. In the early 490s Theodoric gradually took control of Italy and forced Odovacar to come to terms. On February 25, 493, the two leaders agreed to terms that were to be celebrated at a great banquet. Theodoric apparently agreed to share power with his rival, but at the banquet he killed Odovacar, and Theodoric’s followers killed the followers of Odovacar in a bloody massacre that ended the war and brought control of Italy to Theodoric.

After his victory, Theodoric was hailed king of Italy, but at first he had to refuse the title in favor of patrician of Italy. The new emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518) refused to recognize the title of king, with its implications of Theodoric’s independence, reminding him that he held power at the discretion of the emperor. Ultimately, however, Theodoric was recognized as king in Constantinople and ruled Italy until his death in 526. His reign was highly beneficial for Italy, and his relationship with the native Roman population was generally good, despite his Arianism and the Romans’ Catholicism. He preserved much of the traditional Roman administration, as had Odovacar, and cooperated with the Senate. He ensured the food supply to Italy and patronized Boethius and Cassiodorus as part of a cultural revival. He was also an active builder throughout Italy, erecting public monuments and churches as well as his famous palace and mausoleum in Ravenna. His activities were not limited to Italy, however, but included an ambitious foreign policy that saw him establish hegemony over the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Spain. In competition with Clovis in northern Europe, Theodosius was able to limit the Merovingian king’s expansion into southern Gaul. Although in name only a king, Theodoric, as contemporaries admitted, ruled as effectively as any emperor.

Theodoric’s later years and the years following his death were marked by increasing turmoil, leading to the eventual fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This situation was due in part to changes in the Eastern Empire, as well as to mistakes on his own part. In 518 a new emperor, Justin, assumed the throne and brought an end to a period of doctrinal uncertainty in the empire. He was a Catholic Christian who promoted traditional orthodox teaching, and in 523 he prohibited Arianism in the empire. The support for orthodox teaching and stability in doctrine restored the Italian population’s faith in imperial leadership. Moreover, Theodoric was further challenged in matters of religion by the success of the Catholic Clovis against the Visigoths. His concerns were heightened by an alleged plot involving a number of senators, including his advisor Boethius. He ordered Boethius executed and at the same time imprisoned the pope, who had just returned from an embassy to Constantinople. These actions strained relations with his Roman subjects and darkened an otherwise enlightened reign.

Theodoric’s situation was worsened by his lack of a male heir, and just prior to his death he encouraged his followers to accept his widowed daughter, Amalswintha, as regent for his grandson Athalaric. At first Theodoric’s wishes were accepted, but gradually the Ostrogothic nobility turned against Amalswintha. Although she was praised for her intelligence and courage, the nobility were divided over her guidance of Athalaric and her pro-Roman foreign policy. When Athalaric reached his majority in 533, a number of nobles sought to persuade him to turn on his mother. The rebellion was nearly successful. Amalswintha requested a ship from Emperor Justinian to take her to Constantinople, but ultimately stayed and triumphed over her rivals. She married a cousin, Theodohad, in 534 to stabilize the throne, but her husband failed to remain loyal to her, and Athalaric died that same year. Her arrest and murder, which was inspired, according to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, by Justinian’s wife Theodora out of jealousy, provided the emperor with the pretext for his invasion of Italy.

Justinian’s invasion of Italy, led at first by Belisarius and later Narses, opened the final chapter of the history of the Ostrogoths. The Gothic Wars, which lasted from 534 to 552, were devastating for both Italy and the Ostrogoths. The opening phase of the war saw rapid victories and much success for the invading armies, in part because of the weakness of Theodohad. Belisarius reached Rome in 536, and Theodohad was deposed in favor of Witigis. The rise of Witigis and the arrival of a second Byzantine general, Narses, slowed imperial progress. When Narses was recalled, Belisarius went on the offensive again and may have forced Witigis to take desperate measures, which possibly included Belisarius’s acceptance of the imperial title. Although this remains uncertain, Belisarius was recalled in 540 and took the Ostrogothic king with him. In 541, Witigis was replaced as king by Totila.

Under Totila’s leadership, the Ostrogoths fought back successfully and prolonged the war for another eleven years. Totila was able to win back territory in Italy from Byzantine armies and forced the return of Belisarius in 544. In 545 Totila began a siege of Rome; he occupied it in 546, laying waste to the city in the process. Control of the city swung back and forth between the two sides for the rest of the war, which Belisarius was unable to conclude, despite putting great pressure on his rival, because of inadequate supplies and soldiers. Belisarius was recalled in 548, at his own request, and replaced by Narses two years later. Narses demanded sufficient resources to bring the war to a swift conclusion and got them. In 552 Narses won the Battle of Busta Gallorum, at which Totila was killed and organized Gothic resistance was ended. Although Totila had a successor as king and pockets of Ostrogoths resisted until 562, the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy was crushed by the Byzantine invasion. The Ostrogoths ceased to be an independent people, and the last of the Ostrogoths were probably absorbed by the Lombards during their invasion of Italy in 568.


Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Burns, Thomas. The Ostrogoths: Kingship and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

—. A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarians and Romans a. d. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theodoric in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Procopius. History of the Wars. Trans H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969-1993.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

—. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.


With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the latter fifth century A.D. the rule of empire vanished in northern Europe, and with it for a time an integrated market economy in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia. The absence of the legions to provide security in the countryside against brigands and invaders at first led to ever greater disruption of farmland, while massive fortifications, not the courage of soldiers in open battle, were seen as the more reliable defense of the cities. The lack of central taxation meant that aqueducts, terraces, bridges, and irrigation canals were not properly maintained and often abandoned, leading not merely to the loss of potable water in the cities but also to a decline in agricultural productivity as valleys silted up and terraced land eroded.

The erosion of central imperial government and the collapse of urban culture also meant an end to large standing armies. Italy, Spain, Gaul, and Britain, in the absence of authority from Rome, were convulsed by a series of invasions and migrations by Vandals, Goths, Lombards, Huns, Franks, and Germans. Yet the victorious newcomers by the sixth and seventh centuries were no longer nomadic, but often had settled permanently in Roman territory, gradually converted to Christianity, learned some Latin, and carved out petty kingdoms guided loosely by the old Roman bureaucratic and legal tradition. If the new armies of western Europe were tiny and fragmented in comparison to Rome and often ensconced in fortified castles and towns, they nonetheless continued to rely on levies of heavy infantrymen fighting in columns, not tribal swarming, when it became necessary to engage in decisive battles.

The final collapse of Rome also brought a population decline in western Europe; and economic activity was lethargic for much of the so-called Dark Ages between 500 and 800. Christianity began to encroach on public and private lands, requiring enormous acreages to support monasteries, churches, and nunneries, whose clergy in the strict economic sense were not especially productive. If the estates of the old Roman patricians were sometimes unwisely expropriated for horse raising by the aristocracy of Franks and Lombards, then similarly the church also used the harvests from scarce and precious farmland to support a vast bureaucracy and an ambitious building program. By the end of the fifth century A.D., no single kingdom from Lombard Italy to Visigoth Spain could muster an army the size of the Roman force that had been annihilated at Cannae seven hundred years earlier.

Yet the fall of Rome often spread, rather than destroyed outright, classical civilization, as the fragments of empire slowly recovered and kept alive the cultural core of the old West. Writing continued. Even literature and scientific investigation were never completely lost. Latin remained the universal script of government, religion, and law from Italy to the North Sea. The Dark Ages (the term originally referred to the dearth of written knowledge that survived about the era) were characterized not so much by the chaos of an empire fallen as by the new diffusion of much of classical culture—language, architecture, military practices, religion, and economic expertise—into northern Europe, especially Germany, France, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

Islam had spread in the south and east by the creation of an entirely new theocratic state; in contrast, the remnants of classical culture, fused with Christianity, advanced throughout western and northern Europe due to the collapse of the Roman Empire. “Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction,” Henry Pirenne pointed out in regard to the supposed end of Roman civilization in northern Europe during the fifth century A.D., “no new principles made their appearance either in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean” (Mohammed and Charlemagne, 284).

The sixth and seventh centuries actually saw improvements. Throughout the latter decades of the Roman Empire, there had been a gradual displacement of agrarians, concentrations of huge amounts of wealth, and constant class strife in the cities. The continuance of classical culture in ancient Gaul in the sixth through eight centuries, even under radically different and troubled material conditions, often meant that local government was more responsive to rural problems than had been Rome in its last two centuries. Under the Merovingians and Carolingians there nowhere reappeared the vast numbers of slaves that had characterized Roman civilization (by the fourth century A.D. in certain parts of the empire nearly a quarter of the population had been servile). Though Roman wealth and nationhood were gone for a time from the West, the deadly military tradition of classical antiquity was nevertheless kept alive. Most of the great military discoveries in both weaponry and tactics to come in the next millennium would originate in Europe—the continuing dividends of the Western approach to the dissemination of empirical data, the scientific method, and free inquiry.

“Greek fire” emerged at Byzantium somewhere around 675. Although the exact ingredients and their ratios of mixture remain unknown to this day, the torrent of flame that was shot out of Byzantine galleys was apparently a potent fusion of naphtha, sulfur, petroleum, and quicklime that could not be extinguished by water—a nearly unquenchable toxic spume that could incinerate enemy ships in seconds. Equally ingenious as the chemistry of Greek fire was its method of delivery, which involved a keen knowledge of pumps, pressurization, and mechanical engineering. A sealed container was heated from below with fuel and bellows and injected with forced air from a pump. Then the compressed mixture was forced out another outlet into a long bronze tube. The jellied mass was ignited at the end of the barrel, resulting in a sea of continuous flame spurting out from this ancient flamethrower. Ships with such fiery contraptions allowed the small Byzantine navy mastery of the eastern Mediterranean and saved Constantinople itself on occasion—none more dramatic than Leo III’s incineration of the Islamic armada of the caliph Sulaymān in 717 in waters surrounding the capital.

Controversy surrounds the exact origins of the stirrup—it may have been originally of Asian design—but by A.D. 1000 most Western cavalrymen were employing new saddles equipped with stirrups, even if they learned of their use via the Arabs, who had copied the original designs either from the Byzantines or by trading with the Orient in the early seventh century. Under the western European kingdoms, the stirrup was envisioned not merely as an aid to horse mastery but as integral to the emergence of a new lance-bearing knight, who could for the first time absorb the shock of spearing a fixed target on the gallop without being thrown from his mount. While such lancers could never break true infantry, small corps could easily ride down isolated groups of foot soldiers during both attack and retreat. The stirrup meant not that western European militaries were dominated by heavy lancers, but that their mostly infantry armies, at key moments in the battle—when gaps appeared in enemy lines or during the rout—could send out small corps of deadly horsemen to slaughter with impunity light infantrymen and poorly organized foot soldiers.

The crossbow—in use throughout Europe by 850—was a smaller-sized derivative of the classical “belly-bow,” through substitution of a handheld crank for large torsion cables and sprockets. Scholars cite the crossbow’s deficiencies in comparison with either the later English long-bow or the Eastern composite bow, both of which had greater range and rates of fire. The crossbow, however, required far less training to use than either, did not tire the archer to the same degree as hand-pulled bows, and its smaller all-metal bolts had greater penetrating power at short ranges. Crossbow bolts alone were able to slice through the heavy chain mail of the knight, and meant that a relatively poor man without much training could kill both an aristocratic horseman and his armored mount in seconds for the cost of a tiny metal projectile. Consequently, the church often issued edicts against its use—a doomed prospect of technological repression with no heritage in the West—and finally retreated to the position that crossbows should be outlawed in all intramural wars between Christians.

Siege engines underwent constant improvement. After 1180, vast catapults were powered by counterbalances rather than torsion alone. Such trebuchets often had ten-ton counterweights and could throw stones of three hundred pounds well over one hundred yards, exceeding the delivery weight of the old Roman traction catapults fivefold, while maintaining nearly the same range. In turn, fortifications were built entirely of stone and to heights unimagined by classical engineers, replete with intricate towers, crenellations, and interior keeps. It was not merely that European castles and walls were larger and stouter than those in Africa and the Near East, they were more numerous as well, due to improvements in the cutting, transportation, and lifting of stone. Plate armor, common by 1250, was also a European specialty, ensuring that most European knights and infantrymen were far better protected than their Islamic opponents. When gunpowder was introduced from the Chinese in the fourteenth century, Europe alone was able to craft dependable and heavy cannon—Constantinople fell in 1453 through the efforts of Western-fabricated artillery—and handheld matchlock weapons in any great number. So, too, fully rigged, multisailed ships were common in European waters by 1430, and were superior to any vessels in either the Ottoman or the Chinese navies.

Key to this continuing Western ability to craft good weapons, along with fluid and innovative tactical doctrine, was the embrace of published military research, which married theory with field experience to offer pragmatic advice to commanders in the field. The late Roman handbooks of Frontinus, and to a greater extent Vegetius, were copied even throughout the Dark Ages and became a bible of sorts to many western European warlords. Rabanus Maurus, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, published an annotated De re militari specifically to improve Frankish warfare. For the next four hundred years, adaptations and translations of Vegetius appeared throughout Europe by Alfonso X (1252–84), Bono Gimaboni (1250), and Jean de Meung (1284).

European siegecraft itself was unmatched, precisely because it followed in the past tradition of classical poliorkētika (the arts of “polis enclosing”). Manuals such as the Mappae Clavicula instructed besiegers in the use of engines and incendiary devices. The emperors Maurice (Ars militaris) and Leo VI (Tactica) outlined Byzantine infantry and naval tactics in preparing manuals for their generals and admirals to keep the Mediterranean Sea and its harbors free from Arab fleets. In contrast, Islamic writing on war was rarely abstract or theoretical—or even practical—but more holistic and philosophical, and largely concerned itself with the proper rules and conduct of the jihad.

Among the early Franks this need to write about war and to publish manuals about its practice were in direct emulation of Roman and Greek thinkers. Military practice did not operate in a vacuum, but was closely connected to the presence of an educated elite familiar with classical ideas of military organization and weaponry. Under the Carolingians, a systematic approach was undertaken to the preservation of classical manuscripts, along with efforts to assure education in the Greco-Roman tradition:

Though defined by religion, Europe was also a community of scholars who read and wrote the same Latin language and who rescued a great part of the legacy of antiquity from irretrievable loss. In the ninth and tenth centuries, schoolmasters devised a new curriculum of studies based in part on the classics that they had rediscovered. In doing so they laid the foundations of educational practices for centuries. (P. Riché, The Carolingians, 361)

In addition, the historiographic tradition of Greece and Rome continued in the Christian East and West, especially the Hellenic and Roman propensities of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus to see history largely as the story of war and politics. Thus, Gregory of Tours (534–94, History of the Franks), Procopius (born ca. 500, History of the Wars of Justinian), Isidore of Seville (History of the Goths, written 624), and Venerable Bede (672–735, Ecclesiastical History of England ) all provided anthropological detail about various tribes as part of larger exegeses of intercultural conquests and defeats. The works of hundreds of other lesser-known chroniclers and compilers circulated throughout Europe, the sheer number of titles unmatched by anything published elsewhere.

There were numerous early Islamic historians, many of whom were candid and remarkably critical, but few saw history as really existing before the era of the Prophet (thus the maxim “Islam cancels all that was before it”). And the parameters of inquiry were limited by the Koran, whose literary and historical primacy tolerated no competition from mere mortals. Contrary to classical historiography—there seems to be little evidence of any early Arabic translation of the major Greek historians— lapses in morality, not tactical blunders or structural flaws, were cited as reasons for Islamic defeats. After Poitiers, Arab chroniclers, as would be true of Ottoman observers in the aftermath of Lepanto, attributed the Muslim slaughter to their own wickedness and impiety that had brought on the wrath of Allah.

The horse-drawn, iron-tipped plow first emerged in Europe, allowing farmland to be broken up more quickly and deeply than with the old wooden blades drawn by oxen. The ability to farm more efficiently gave Westerners greater food and opportunity than their counterparts to the south and east. By the end of the twelfth century, windmills, which were unlike anything in the Near East or Asia, appeared in England and northern Europe. With a rotating horizontal axis and a system of gears, such machines could mill wheat at rates unimagined either in classical antiquity or the contemporary non-West. Improved water wheels—more than 5,000 in eleventh-century England alone—were used not only to grind grain but to manufacture paper, cloth, and metal. The result was that Western armies were able to campaign farther from home—both because they could take greater amounts of supplies with them and because farmers could go on campaigns for longer periods. Historians often remark on the unruliness of Crusader armies, constant bickering in command, horrendous camp conditions, and the occasional imbecility of their tactics, forgetting that the transportation and supply of thousands of soldiers to the other side of the Mediterranean was a feat of logistical genius unmatched by Islamic armies of the day.

Science and technology alone did not save the smaller and more fragmented western European armies from their adversaries. The classical traditions of infantry organization and landed musters were kept alive as well. Military command and discipline followed Roman tradition, and so naturally nomenclature remained Greek and Latin. Byzantine emperors, in the manner of Macedonian lords, addressed their soldiers as systratiōtai— “comrades-in-arms.” Generals, as in classical Greece, remained stratēgoiand soldiers stratiōtai, while in the West free soldiers were milites, both pedites (foot soldiers) and equites (knights). Citizens continued to be recruited under legal and published codes of conduct—the so-called “capitularies”—with explicit rights and responsibilities.

Charles Martel’s army was not as disciplined or as large as a Roman consular army, but the manner in which its heavily armed spearmen and swordsmen were mustered, attacked on foot, and kept in rank was consistent with the classical tradition. Campaigns required the approval of assemblies, and rulers were subject to audit after battle.

By the end of the eighth century two seemingly insurmountable obstacles that had once weakened the old Roman imperial levies of the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.—the failure of Roman citizens to serve in their own armies, and the religious strictures against civic militarism and wars of conquest by the early Christian church—were beginning to erode. Augustine had composed his City of God after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410 to associate divine punishment with the sins of Romans. Even earlier, a few Christian emperors, like Gratian, had dismantled public statues and commemoration of military victory as somehow antithetical to Christ’s message of peace and forgiveness. Yet by early medieval times the earlier pacifism of the Roman church fathers like Tertullian (Ad martyres, De corona militis), Origen (Exhortatio ad martyrium, De Principiis), and Lactantius (De mortibus persecutorum) was often ignored, as the creed of the Old Testament and its idea of wars against the unbelievers regained primacy over the message of the Gospels. Thomas Aquinas, for example, could outline the conditions of “just” Christian wars, in which the cause of the conflict could make war a moral Christian enterprise. Christianity would never exhibit the martial fervor of Islam, but during the Dark Ages it more or less curbed its early pacifist pretenses and its distance from the affairs of worldly politicians. The military of Joshua and Samson, not the loving remonstrations of Jesus, was invoked to keep Islam at bay.

Franks, Lombards, Goths, and Vandals may have been tribal, and their armies were poorly organized; yet such “barbarians” nevertheless shared a general idea that as freemen of their community they were obligated to fight—and free to profit from the booty of their enemies. In that sense of civic militarism, they were more reminiscent of the old classical armies of a republican past than had been the hired imperial legionaries on Rome’s defensive frontier:

The massive reliance on citizen-soldiers in the West lowered the demands on the central government for expenditures to support the military. . . . Indeed, the flexibility of the West in building on developments that took place during the later Roman Empire resulted in immense military strengths, which, for example, proved their worth in the success for two centuries of the crusader states against overwhelming odds. (B. Bachrach, “Early Medieval Europe,” in K. Raaflaub and N. Rosenstein, eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, 294)

The legions had crumbled not because of organizational weaknesses, technological backwardness, or even problems of command and discipline, but because of the dearth of free citizens who were willing to fight for their own freedom and the values of their civilization. Such spirited warriors the barbarians had, and when they absorbed the blueprint of Roman militarism, a number of effective local Western armies arose—as the Muslims learned at Poitiers.

Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718


umayyads 750ad



Date: August 717–15 August 718.

Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul.

Forces Engaged:

Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian.

Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama.


Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious attempt to overpower the Byzantine Empire led to another seven centuries of Christian power in southeastern Europe.

Historical Setting

Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. In doing so, he occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries had controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. The Sea of Marmara is flanked northeast and southwest by the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two narrow straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. Unless one goes completely around the Black Sea, the passage from Europe into Asia Minor is across one of those straits. Therefore, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been an extremely strategic possession for both land and naval warfare, as well as overland and maritime trade. As Rome faded and Constantinople rose in power, it became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam in Arabia in the seventh century. Claiming his divinely inspired teachings, the Koran, to be the successor to the Bible and the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, he spread his faith by both proselytization and warfare. By coincidence (or divine intervention) Muhammad arrived on the scene just as the two Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He was therefore able to acquire massive territorial gains hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persians and Byzantines suffered major losses of real estate as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

Muhammad the Prophet had a public career of ten years (622–632), then died without publicly naming a successor. His close associate Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him but ruled only two years; upon his death Omar reigned as caliph (“deputy”), the religious and political head of Islam. For ten years Omar oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. It spread further still under the caliphate of Othman (644–656), ultimately stretching west to the Atlantic shore of North Africa as well as east to Armenia and Afghanistan. After he was assassinated Islam split into two major factions: the followers of Muhammad’s nephew Ali became the Shi’ites, while the supporters of the Syrian governor Muawiya started the Sunni faction. Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Muawiya’s goal was the downfall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, for reportedly whoever was involved in capture of the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. Intermittently between 674 and 678 Muslim forces attempted to capture the city, by both land and sea, but the double walls protecting it proved too formidable. Muawiya settled for a peace treaty with the Byzantine emperor, which provided for an annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople. For the next thirty years Muslim armies carried the faith as far as Spain and India, but the lure of Constantinople, the key to Europe, always beckoned. Caliph Walid (705–715) organized the forces necessary to seize the city, but died before the project began. Thus, his successor Suleiman sent men and ships to the Byzantine capital in 717.

The Byzantine Empire had suffered through a series of mediocre emperors since the last assault. Anastasius was now emperor. He came to the throne in 713 and was in the market for able soldiers to defend his realm. In his army served a general named Conon, better known as Leo the Isaurian. (He was probably from Syria rather than the Anatolian province of Isauria [modern Konia], however.) He had been a soldier since 705 and in 716 took command of the theme (district) of Anatolia. He harried the approaching Muslim army as it marched out of Syria toward Constantinople, then took the throne from Anastasius in March 717. Crowned Leo III, he immediately set about laying in as many provisions as he could for the siege he knew was coming, a daunting task for a city of perhaps half a million people. He also oversaw the repair and strengthening of the city’s two walls and the placement of weaponry to repel attacks from land or sea.

The Siege

Caliph Suleiman named Muslama as commander of his army, reportedly 80,000 men marching through Anatolia toward Constantinople. His plan was to invest the city from the western, landward side while a huge fleet blocked any supplies from reaching the city. That fleet numbered some 1,800 ships carrying a further 80,000 men under the command of a general named Suleiman, not to be confused with the caliph. The Muslim fleet was divided into two divisions: one to blockade the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) and keep any relief from coming to Constantinople from the Mediterranean, and one to hold the Bosphorus to the north, keeping out any relief from Black Sea ports. Muslama crossed the Hellespont in July 717, then divided his forces. He took command of the main body that began the siege, while sending a detachment to Adrianople to keep an eye on the Bulgars, who had been pillaging through southeastern Europe and had attacked Constantinople in 712.

Immediately upon his arrival Muslama threw an attack against the walls, but it was easily beaten back. That convinced him against undertaking a frontal assault, so he began digging trenches to prevent any breakout from the city. Most of the fighting, therefore, took place on the water. Admiral Suleiman left part of his navy at the Dardanelles, as ordered, but led the remainder northward to take up station on the Hellespont. As they approached Constantinople, however, the leading ships were caught in a swift and unfamiliar current that began to tangle them. Seizing his opportunity, Leo quickly lowered the chain that protected the Golden Horn (the upper harbor of the city) and dashed out into the Muslim fleet before they could form into line of battle. Using Greek fire, his ships quickly destroyed or captured a large number of vessels while the rest retreated. Suleiman feared sailing past the city now, for another such battle could destroy the rest of his fleet. Thus, the northern avenue for aid for a time was kept open.

The Muslim effort was off to a poor start, and soon bad news came from Damascus. Caliph Suleiman had died of a stomach ailment (probably from overeating) and Omar II, not known for his military acumen, had replaced him. For the next several months little happened except for bad luck. The winter of 717–718 was much colder than usual and snow lay on the ground for more than three months. For an army born and raised in Arabia and Egypt this was disconcerting at best, deadly at worst. Delays in the delivery of supplies from Egypt, coupled with the bad weather, meant the deaths of thousands of besieging soldiers.

The Muslims hoped to take the initiative in the spring of 718 with the arrival of a new fleet from Egypt bringing 50,000 reinforcements. The 400 ships of the fleet from Egypt slipped past the Byzantine fleet in the Golden Horn at night, thus avoiding a naval battle, and anchored at the Hellespont. That cut off the flow of supplies and would eventually have spelled the city’s doom, but Leo’s navy again saved the day. He was aided by the desertion of large numbers of crew members from the new Egyptian fleet, sailors who were Coptic Christians and had been pressed into Muslim service. Learning of the enemy fleet’s disposition, Leo launched a surprise attack in June that caught them completely unawares. The Greek fire (an unknown mixture of materials with many of the characteristics of napalm) once again caused both destruction and terror; the Christian crews deserted wholesale to the welcoming Byzantine forces. The northern blockading fleet was destroyed and Leo followed up his victory with an attack on Muslim forces on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, opposite the capital. That attack was so unexpected that Muslim soldiers and sailors were slaughtered by the thousands.

Leo at this point proved himself to be a diplomat as well as a general. He sent envoys to the Bulgars, who persuaded their King Tervel to attack the Muslim army from the west. In July Tervel’s soldiers drove back the Muslim holding force at Adrianople and attacked Muslama’s forces in the rear, defeating them and inflicting some 22,000 casualties. This new threat was reinforced by the rumor that a Frankish army was marching across Europe to assist their fellow Christians. The Muslims had not yet fought the Franks, but had heard tales of formidable military power. Caliph Omar decided it was time to bring the siege to a close. On 15 August 718 Muslama led the army away from Constantinople.


The defeat at Constantinople was the first disastrous loss the armies of Islam had suffered. There had been occasional defeats, but never a catastrophe such as this. Of the 210,000 Muslim soldiers and sailors who took part, it is reported that only 30,000 actually saw their homeland again. Of the more than 2,000 ships reported to have been involved, only five supposedly made it home.

Had Muslama’s armies captured the city, the route into eastern Europe would have been virtually unguarded. Little organized resistance could have been mounted against hordes of Muslim troops until they reached central Europe. Constantinople, the seat of political, religious, and economic power in the Christian East, probably would have become Islam’s capital as it did in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city in 1453. The Eastern Orthodox Church may have disappeared, with untold consequences in eastern Europe and Russia, although such did not happen in 1453. Sea power would have been completely in Muslim hands, for no European population at the time owned a significant navy. None would until the Vikings a century later. Even with the Frankish victory at Tours in France fifteen years afterward, Islam could well have become the dominant European, and therefore world, religion.

The Byzantine victory insulated Europe from Islam, but also from other outside influences. Hellenistic knowledge and culture survived and in many ways flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Europe entered the Dark Ages. Militarily Europe was strong, but cultural progress was at a crawl. Not until the Crusades and the resulting revival of trade with the East was the old knowledge rediscovered, and the Renaissance was the result. It is interesting to speculate what Europe may have been like had Constantinople fallen seven centuries before it did.

References: J. F. C. Fuller, Military History of the Western World, vol. 1 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954); Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 (London: Methuen, 1898); Warren T. Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, 284–1081 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).




Danelaw encompassed the areas of northeast England where Danish customs had a strong political and cultural influence throughout much of the early Middle Ages. The area included Yorkshire (southern Northumbria), East Anglia, and the Five Boroughs, named for its main centers of settlement: Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby. All these territories bore influence of Scandinavian culture from Viking invaders in the late-ninth century, who then became settlers and who drove the political leadership of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into retreat to the south and west.

In c. 865 an army of between 500 and 1,000 Vikings arrived in England and began a systematic attack on the island. Their leaders were three brothers, Ivar the Boneless, Ubbi, and Halfdan, who had allegedly come to avenge the death of their father, Ragnar. They secured horses in East Anglia and proceeded to York, finding that infighting among local Anglo-Saxon leaders made conquest easy in Northumbria. The invaders next attacked west into Mercia and by 869 defeated East Anglia. The following year Halfdan attacked the kingdom of Wessex, seizing Reading and fighting nine pitched battles against Wessex. The Anglo-Saxons won only one battle, and the onslaught devastated the ranks of their nobility. Despite their unequivocal success, when Wessex offered a treaty the Vikings readily agreed and refocused their efforts north toward the kingdom of Mercia.

Throughout the 870s the Danish army continued to conquer territory in England, dividing and redividing the lands they acquired. They split Mercia with a puppet Anglo-Saxon king, Ceowulf, who held the territory on their behalf from 874 to 877 while they completed their conquests. However by 876 Halfdan and his men had occupied and divided Northumbria, settled into farming, and started a permanent settlement. In effect, the Danes had politically removed Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derby, and Leicestershire from the rest of England. Historians believe that the Danish settlement proceeded in two waves and probably did not displace the English people living in the area. The first wave of Danish settlers came as invaders, increasing in number over time. The second wave came as emigrants from Denmark, who settled in the areas protected by the military forces of the first wave, and who subsequently pushed colonization into new areas.

Early in the winter of 878 a Viking leader named Guthrum launched an attack on the kingdom of Wessex, catching it almost completely off guard and forcing its king, Alfred the Great (r. 871–899), to retreat to the island of Athelney. The Vikings proceeded to conquer the lands of Wessex, while Alfred gathered support and built reinforcements in the southwest, preparing for a counterattack. Later in the year Alfred defeated the Danes at Eddington and drove them back to Chippenham. Eventually Alfred and Guthrum settled their differences and established a treaty for what would become the Danelaw, the main boundary for the division between English England and Anglo-Danish England. The area became a kind of “Denmark overseas,” which Danes organized and administered and which was different from the rest of England in ethnicity, culture, law, language, and social custom. Although the formal division lasted only about fi ve years, through the 11th century Danish law and customs prevailed in this area and the rulers continued to recognize the special and separate nature of Danish England.

The term Danelaw first appears in the time of Canute (1016–35) to distinguish the area’s different legal system, but it is incorrect to categorize Danelaw as a homogeneous territory. The differences in custom, law, and political allegiance varied with the density of the Norse population, but the area’s internal divisions never trumped its separateness from English England. The Scandinavian language permeated the area, as is most commonly observed in the frequent place names ending in by or thorp. Cultural differences also appear in land tenure. Rather than dividing their land into units known as hundreds used to administer the English shires, Yorkshire and the Five Boroughs settlers divided their land into units known as wapantakes. The term, never used in Scandinavia, is related to “weapon taking,” the Viking custom of brandishing one’s weapon to show approval of council decisions and is unique to the Danelaw. Likewise, they divided agricultural land into ploughlands, rather than using the Anglo- Saxon unit known as hide.

The Danelaw’s legal codes also showed a great deal of Scandinavian influence, not only in terminology but in concepts that differed from those of Anglo-Saxon England. For example, in the Danelaw, wergild fines related to a man’s rank, rather the rank of his lord, and the laws punished violations against the king’s peace more severely than in English territories. Courts and legal assemblies reflected Scandinavian roots as well. To investigate crimes, 12 thegns in each wapentake formed a jury of presentment, and the opinion of the majority prevailed in making its decision. They ultimately settled the fate of the accused by ordeal, as in Anglo-Saxon areas, but the notion of a jury of locals charged with investigating a crime was not an Anglo-Saxon concept.

Historians note the positive influence of the Scandinavian culture on the island, from the intensification of agriculture that made Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk among the most prosperous shires of the period and the political success of King Canute to the regular commerce that emerged in the North Sea. Although the formal boundary of the Danelaw lasted only a few years, the impact of the Danes on England’s culture, economy, and political system remained strong throughout the Middle Ages.

Further reading: Hart, Cyril. The Danelaw. London: Hambledon Press, 1992; Hollister, C. Warren. The Making of England, 55 b.c. to 1399. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1983; Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984; Loyn, H. R. The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England, 500–1087. London: Edward Arnold, 1984; Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Theodoric the Great (c. 451 or 453/454–526)

Theodoric entering Rome.

Theoderic’s empire at the height of its power in 523, with territory marked in pink ruled directly by Theoderic and stippled areas under his hegemony.

One of the greatest of the barbarian kings and the greatest of the Gothic kings, Theodoric the Great, or the Amal as he was originally known, reigned over the Ostrogoths from 471 to 526 and ruled an independent Gothic kingdom in Italy from 493 to 526. He assumed power in Italy by defeating a rival barbarian king, Odovacar, and Theodoric’s reign was generally recognized for its effectiveness and tolerance. He skillfully managed the relations between his people and the native Roman population and also maintained good relations with the emperors in Constantinople. Theodoric was able to keep the peace in Italy between Ostrogoths and Romans despite important differences in religion—Theodoric and his people were Arian Christians and the native Italians were Catholic Christians. He preserved the best aspects of the administrations of Odovacar and the Romans and worked well with the Senate and Roman nobles. He was an active builder, promoted culture, and patronized the great scholars Boethius and Cassiodorus. His reign, however, was marred in its later years by increasing tension between Goths and Romans, as Catholic Christianity found important new leaders. The situation was worsened by Theodoric’s execution of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, leading Roman senators. Despite the difficulties of his later years, complicated further by the lack of a male heir, Theodoric was one of the greatest kings to rule in the years after the fall of the Western Empire.

The early life of Theodoric is important for his later years, though modern knowledge of it is marked with confusion. One particularly vexing problem about his early years is the date of his birth, which is traditionally given as 456. According to the tradition, Theodoric was born on the day that his family learned the news that his uncle Valamir had been attacked by and had defeated a large band of Huns. But this date is unlikely because it would make Theodoric quite young—indeed, perhaps too young—when he was sent to Constantinople as a hostage and still quite young when he later took control of the kingdom. More recent scholarship has suggested dates of birth as early as 451, which would correspond to the victory of the Ostrogoths and their Roman allies over the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, a date that would make Theodoric a more mature, and politically useful, boy when he was sent to Constantinople. Whatever his exact date of birth, he was born to the royal Amal family and was sent as a hostage in 459/460 as surety for a treaty between the Ostrogoths and Eastern Empire. While at the imperial court, Theodoric learned a great deal and had experiences that shaped his later life. He became aware of rivalries among the Gothic people, and most likely came to fear and hate rival Ostrogothic families who gained preferment at the imperial court. He also witnessed the sophisticated governmental practices of the empire, which he used when he became king of the Ostrogoths and then later ruler in Italy. He also gained a solid, if unspectacular, education, most likely learning to do arithmetic and to read and write.

Theodoric was released from his service as a hostage in the late 460s, after which, in about 469, he returned to his homeland, received control of a subkingdom, and began his ascent to power among the Ostrogoths. Already in 470 he launched campaigns, sometimes in the name of the empire, against his political rivals or to expand his territory. His success in 470 revealed his ambition; the campaign probably took place without his father’s permission, and marked, for Theodoric, the start of his independent authority. In the 470s he became an increasingly powerful and important figure in the military and political life of the Eastern Empire. His main Gothic rival, Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter, rose in the imperial ranks in the 470s and took a prominent part in a revolt against Emperor Zeno. Having fled from the capital in 475, Zeno was able to return thanks to the support from Theodoric of the Amal clan and strike against Strabo, who quickly fell from grace, though he remained a powerful rival to both Theodoric and Zeno. Theodoric the Amal received numerous honors from Zeno and was made commander of East Roman troops. Theodoric’s people were made foederati (federated allies) of the empire and were given an annual subsidy from the emperor. Despite these achievements, Theodoric still faced a challenge from Strabo, who sometimes was supported by Zeno for fear of an over mighty Theodoric the Amal. Strabo’s sudden death in 481 freed his rival’s hand. Theodoric was now sole king of the Ostrogoths and a dangerous friend of the empire.

The 470s and early 480s saw important changes in the life of Theodoric and the Roman Empire. Theodoric had become one of the most powerful figures in the Eastern Empire. In 482–483 Theodoric waged a terrible offensive in the empire to force Zeno to come to terms, which the emperor did. Theodoric was rewarded with a consulship for 484, but his term in office was cut short by Zeno’s fears that the Ostrogoth had turned against him. Despite his own strength, Theodoric knew that he was no match for the full power of the empire, and events in the Western Empire offered both Theodoric and Zeno a solution to their problematic relationship. In 476 the last of the Western Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, and his general, Orestes, were defeated by the German general Odovacar. After defeating his rivals, Odovacar executed Orestes and deposed Romulus and sent him into internal exile. Odovacar also declared the end of the imperial line in Italy and, although recognizing the sovereignty of the emperor in Constantinople, ruled as an independent king in Italy. In 488, following another revolt by Theodoric, Zeno requested that the Ostrogoth invade Italy and restore it to imperial control.

Theodoric’s march to Italy was not unimpeded, as other barbarian peoples struggled against him, but he reached Italy by the summer of 489. His rival Odovacar was waiting for him with his army. Theodoric won two victories against Odovacar in August and September of 489. He also welcomed Tufa, one of Odovacar’s leading generals, and it seemed that Theodoric would quickly triumph over his enemy. But Odovacar was able to secure himself behind the walls and swamps of Ravenna, and Tufa rejoined Odovacar shortly after leaving, taking with him the Ostrogothic soldiers he commanded on the way to Ravenna. Odovacar then took the offensive and forced Theodoric to withdraw to the city of Pavia. Theodoric, however, managed to break the siege and defeat Odovacar once again, on August 11, 490, with the aid of a large number of Visigoths. Odovacar returned to Ravenna, where Theodoric besieged him. But Ravenna could not be taken, and Theodoric was forced to negotiate with Odovacar. Agreement was reached on February, 493, and Theodoric entered Ravenna on March 5. Apparently he had agreed to share power with Odovacar. On March 15, he welcomed Odovacar at a great banquet, at which Theodoric himself killed Odovacar. The murder of Odovacar was followed by the massacre of his family and supporters. Theodoric had eliminated his rival and then proceeded to take control of Italy.

Theodoric’s position remained uncertain for some time, in part because of his desire to be recognized as the ruler in Italy by the emperor in Constantinople. He was anxious to be recognized in the capital of the empire because he portrayed his kingdom as the legitimate successor of the Roman Empire in Italy. He did this for a number of reasons. He certainly had some sentimental attachment to all things Roman as a result of his time as a hostage in Constantinople. He also recognized the importance of being “Roman.” That identity meant civilization and defined relations with the nobility in Italy, as well as with the church, a very powerful force. It was also a means to secure support for his kingdom from the population of Italy, the birthplace of the Roman Empire. He could also use it in his relations with Constantinople, as an instrument to remind the emperor that any violation of the peace between them was a violation of the empire and an offense against God.

Theodoric’s status was resolved gradually over the first two decades of his rule in Italy, and in two stages, in 497/498 and in 508, the Ostrogoth gained recognition from the emperor for his independent status as king in Italy. His rule in Italy, from 497 until his death in 526, was a time of peace and prosperity for the peninsula. Moreover, his kingdom became the center of the greatest power in western Europe, as Theodoric established his authority not only over Italy but also over other parts of the old Western Empire. His closest rival, the Merovingian king Clovis, managed some success against Theodoric in southwestern France, but he never really attempted to unseat Theodoric, to whom he was related by marriage. (His sister, Audofleda, married Theodoric and bore the daughter Amalaswintha.) Indeed, marriage alliances constituted one of the tools Theodoric used to enhance his power in the old Western Empire. Another instrument in the extension of his power, of course, was his great ability as a general. His defense of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and subsequent acquisition of the kingdom in 511 revealed his talents as a military leader, as did his campaigns for and against the emperor and against Odovacar.

Although king of Visigothic Spain, Theodoric is best known for his rule of Italy. As the independent ruler of Italy, Theodoric presided over a cultural and economic revival in the peninsula. He worked effectively with the Roman nobility, who enjoyed the peace brought by Theodoric and managed to revive the productivity of their estates. Theodoric’s equitable distribution of land, which did not overly burden the Roman population of Italy, also stimulated an economic revival. He not only worked well with the nobles but respected and honored the Senate, and in many ways preserved Roman imperial governmental practices. Despite his Arianism, Theodoric remained on good terms with the pope and Catholic church in Italy. Indeed, at one point he was invited to resolve a disputed papal election, and his good relations with the church were critical to his acceptance as the ruler in Italy. He also supported the traditions of Roman law and education in his kingdom. He helped maintain the infrastructure in Italy, restoring many roads and public buildings. He was also a great builder in his own right, most notably of the magnificent mausoleum that still stands in Ravenna today. Finally, Theodoric was a patron of arts and letters. His personal secretary was the prominent Christian writer Cassiodorus, and Theodoric also had close relations with the great intellectual and author, Boethius.

Despite his long and prosperous reign, Theodoric’s end was not a happy one, and his great kingdom did not long survive his death. Several events conspired to bring Theodoric’s reign to an unfortunate end. His failure to have a male heir made the establishment of a dynasty difficult and caused tensions among the Ostrogoths, which worsened other internal problems. It also undermined his foreign policy and the extension of his power over Spain. Furthermore, his good relations with the church came to an end for two reasons. The election of a new pope, John I (523–526), ended Theodoric’s good relations with the papacy, in part because of John’s hostility toward Arianism. His relations with the church also worsened because the tensions that existed within the church, between its eastern and western halves, were eased, as the new emperor, Justin (518–527), outlawed Arianism and supported Catholic orthodoxy. Theodoric’s Arianism was made to appear even more at odds with the Catholic population by the conversion of Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty to Catholic Christianity. Finally, his good relations with the Senate and Roman nobility were poisoned by an alleged conspiracy of senators in 522. Boethius’s defense of his fellow senators implicated him in the plot in the eyes of Theodoric, and as a result, Boethius fell from favor and was executed in 524.

Theodoric died in August of 526. According to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Theodoric died of typhoid brought on by remorse for the deaths of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, who was also implicated in the plot against Theodoric. Procopius notes that Theodoric was served fish for dinner one evening and saw in it the face of Symmachus. Theodoric fled to his room frightened by the vision, and then called for a doctor, to whom he disclosed his great dismay over the execution of Symmachus and Boethius.

Theodoric was succeeded by his grandson, Athalaric, whose mother, Amalaswintha, served as a regent during the first part of her son’s reign. The problems of Theodoric’s last years continued to plague his successor and Amalaswintha. Dissension among the Goths led to her death and the eventual invasion and destruction of the Gothic kingdom by Justinian. A brilliant, tolerant, and effective ruler in many ways, Theodoric could not provide for a lasting settlement in the kingdom he created.


Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Burns, Thomas. A History of the Ostrogoths. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.

Cassiodorus. The Variae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. Trans. S. J. B. Barnish. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Hodgkin, Thomas. Theodoric the Goth: the Barbarian Champion of Civilization. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1983.

Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Trans. Charles C. Mierow. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theodoric in Italy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Procopius. Procopius, with an English Translation by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450–751. London: Longman, 1994.

Wessex and her first Christian kings

Two Saxon warriors – realistic portrayal of the sort of warrior farmers who entered the former Roman province of Britannia in numbers, in the fifth century AD.

“Saxon warriors, southern England, 6th century CE”, Angus McBride

It is obvious that the sequence pagan England–Augustine of Canterbury–Christian England is hardly an approximation to the reality of seventh-century history, even to the events as we know them. But it is easy to forget how unsteady the early decades were. In Kent Queen Bertha had been celebrating mass for the best part of a generation in her chapel at court before her husband followed suit; and when he died their son relapsed to paganism for a time. A similar relapse befell Essex on the death of its king Sæberht, at about the same time. To judge from the grave furniture at Sutton Hoo, Rædwald of East Anglia was planning to keep his options open at his death in the 620s and the Christian cause was to suffer a serious setback in the Northumbrian kingdoms within its first ten years.

But this was the world of the warrior code and of ring-giving lords: for the fighting men on all sides, Christian or pagan, British or Saxon, the struggle was as important as the outcome. The year that Oswald of Northumbria stood sponsor at his baptism, Cynegils of Wessex led a victorious campaign into the recently Christian kingdom of Essex (according to Bede, the East Saxons had relapsed into paganism and this was their punishment).

When Cynegils died in 643, Wessex once again found itself under pagan rule as his son Cenwalh flirted briefly in alliance with Penda of Mercia, taking the pagan king’s sister as his queen and then, for reasons best known to himself, separating from the queen; her furious brother drove him from his throne. Cenwalh found exile with the East Angles where he reconverted to Christianity. When he recovered Wessex in 648 he founded the minster of St Peter’s, Winchester, and, with the installation of the Frankish churchman Agilbert, seemed to have secured the new faith in Wessex.

Cenwalh (d. 672) continued to ply the royal trade of war leader. Success in the 650s against the Christian British/Welsh near Bradford on Avon and the annexation of areas of what is now Wiltshire and Somerset, was followed (661) by humiliation at the hands of Mercia as its new, now Christian, king drove a triumphant campaign south to occupy the Isle of Wight. The West Saxon dynast seemed in eclipse. His widow Seaxburgha, the only queen regnant of the Anglo-Saxon period, held the centre until her own death in the early 670s. In the next decade the throne was seized by a pagan warrior claiming descent from the royal house, despite his apparently Celtic name of Cædwalla. In three ruthless years (685–8) he conquered the kingdoms of Kent, where he installed his brother Mull, later burnt alive in a general uprising, and Sussex, recently converted by the exiled bishop Wilfrid of York. He, it seems directed Cædwalla to Christianity; he certainly received large estates in the Isle of Wight, which the king also conquered. Cædwalla’s origins are obscure, his military success indisputable. It guaranteed him the spoils of war and the kind of fame as lord and ring-giver that in turn guaranteed followers. Like Guthlac, Cædwalla adopted the life of faith. He had lived as a pagan warlord but his return to the new religion confirmed it in Wessex beyond further question. In 688 he abdicated the throne he had seized and went, a pilgrim, to Rome; one of the first of the many English kings to do this. There he accepted baptism and, ten days later, died.

Weapons – the honoured tools of war

Thanks to the archaeologist, the early medieval king-warlord and his war band of companions or gesiths stand before us as men of extreme wealth and extravagant display; ostentatious on the battlefield and in the pomp of death. The largest pieces of equipment, helmet and shield, are at the same time the most majestic emblems. (Though even here makers might attempt to cut corners. King Æthelstan’s Grately code (c. 930) warned shield-makers not to use sheepskin, in place of true leather.) Made of wood and covered with tan-toughened leather, the heavy round shield, up to three feet (91 cm) in diameter, mounted with a central boss to deflect blows or be used as a bludgeon at need, could be a weapon of offence as well as defence. It was also a platform for display. Relief ornaments, in copper with applied silver-sheet embellishments, are exquisitely worked in animal forms – birds of prey, for example, or reptilian bodies – reminiscent in shape of the creatures that inhabit the scrolls and tendrils of the monks’ illuminated manuscripts, and mounted seemingly at random for maximum decorative effect, but almost certainly in arrangements that conveyed symbolic meanings to the initiated.

For the fighting man himself the sword was surely the most valued tool of his trade in practical, but also in almost mystical, terms. The Beowulf poet writes of a sword treasured from the days of the giants, the envy of warriors, that only the hero himself could wield. As in the samurai culture of Japan, such high-status swords might pass through many hands, possibly as a gift from lord to gesith, possibly from father to son, certainly at the highest social level. They might be embellished, sometimes by successive owners, with gold fittings or other rich ornaments.

The sword-smith was highly rated in this warrior world: a craftsman of the highest calibre and respected social status. In the law code of Æthelberht of Kent the killing of the king’s smith commands special compensation. As in many African traditions, the ironworker as such was held to be under divine patronage and, like the Roman god Vulcan, the legendary Weland the Smith of the Anglo-Saxons was lame. But whereas Vulcan was born so, Weland, it was believed, had been crippled deliberately by a king to prevent his escape from the royal smithy.

In the early centuries, the finest swords were produced by ‘pattern welding’. The process, as depicted by Kevin Leahy, begins by twisting strips of iron of the required length and then hammering them into flat ribbons. Four such ‘ribbons’ are next fire-welded onto an iron core and hammered out so that the twist marks, flattened into oblique lines, may create a chevron or ‘herringbone’ pattern. A strip of steel is next welded to either side of the core unit to provide the cutting edges. These are now ground and the whole polished to bring out the chevron effect – the blade’s badge of fighting quality and inherent value. By the mid-ninth century, though, furnace improvements and refinements of the smith’s technique made possible the production of quality blades without the need for pattern welding.

Weapons of all kinds, such as spears, light throwing axes or short single-edged dagger-swords (seaxes), which according to one tradition gave the Saxons their name, and, less frequently, swords, are excavated as grave goods and it seems reasonable to assume that the bones with which they are found are those of a warrior whose social status and fighting specialisms can be deduced from their presence. But, by an extensive analysis of some 1,660 male burials in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, concentrating on sword-bearers, Heinrich Härke of Reading University concluded that this does not necessarily follow. For example, some ‘weapon burials’ were those of children aged as young as twelve months, and some of men too severely disabled ever to have seen action. Then there were skeletons presenting combat wounds but not accompanied by weapons of any kind.

Such facts and others have long persuaded scholars that weapon burials had a largely symbolic meaning. But Dr Härke has proposed a further hypothesis. Analysis shows that those adult males buried with weapons tended to be up to two inches taller than those without – more or less the height difference revealed, by other studies, as that between the Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British populations. Härke has argued that the [taller] immigrant Germanic [community] ‘used weapons in the burial rite . . . perhaps . . . to demonstrate that they were ruling [the land] by force; a material culture version of the conquest myth’.16 But it could be that these opulent inhumations, which would have had to be highly public events to make such an aggressive demonstration, were, rather, exclusive family memorials to kinship solidarity. The ceremony attending the baby boy buried with the family sword ‘that any warrior would envy and only a hero could wield in battle’ would, surely, have been one of howling private grief, not of ethnic triumphalism.

Eighth-century Wessex: the first West Saxon law code and the first shires

It was the view of Bishop Stubbs, the great nineteenth-century scholar of medieval studies in England, that when the House of Commons appears it is largely as an assembly of representatives of other, older assemblies. (He was writing at a time when the House of Commons was of some consequence.) He traced this in part back to the shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England. Nearly all were in place by the year 1000 and some, as Professor Campbell has pointed out, were much older: ‘At least three were former kingdoms. Such a shire as Hampshire is much older, as a unit of government and authority, than is France.’

The eighth century opened promisingly for the kingdom of Wessex. The name was coming into general use for the territory stretching from the lands of the Gewisse people, around the upper Thames, southwards to the coastal lordship established by the semi-legendary Cerdic two centuries earlier. It is not clear how or by whom the two regions were united, but the ruling dynasty held to the title of the Cerdingas. With King Ine (688–726) the historic heartland kingdom of the later Anglo-Saxon period secured its own core territories. The men of Kent were forced to pay compensation for the killing of Mull; Surrey was effectively a frontier province (bordering on Essex); while Sussex, it seems, was generally a biddable ally helping Ine in a campaign against the British king Geraint of Dumnonia.

The reign of Ine remains important for his law code, the first by a Wessex king, which survives as an attachment to the code of Alfred and holds the first references to the shire court presided over by a royal agent or scirman (‘shireman’). It seems that the core West Saxon shires of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, though based on existing administrative subdivisions, may have been established under this king. By a wide margin the Western world’s oldest organs of local government still functioning, the West Saxon shires were already, in the classic English manner, of different type. The first two take their names from royal residences (vills) at [South] Hampton and Wilton. Dorset and Somerset, on the other hand, were named for the local folk, the settlers (sæte), in the vicinity of the forts of Dorchester and Somerton. Ine’s laws are concerned that a malefactor might escape his lord’s control by getting into a neighbouring shire. Apparently ‘crossing the county line’ has been an option for fugitives from justice for well over a millennium.

The shire with its subdivisions, such as the hundreds, was headed by a royal appointee originally in Wessex known as an ‘ealdorman’, though the term in general came to denote an official of higher status; by the year 1000 most of England had been divided under successive rulers into shires, each with its royal official known as the scir gerefa (the ‘reeve’), an administrative officer of the shire (certain Canadian municipalities still have an official known as ‘reeve’). The modern English sheriff has limited, often ceremonial functions. In the US his equivalent, inherited from the colonial period, remains an important local law enforcement officer. Familiar to all aficionados of the Western film, at the time of the western frontier the sheriff was empowered to recruit a ‘posse’ of the county’s citizenry to help him at need. Like the man, the term derives from medieval England, from the (post-Conquest) Latin posse comitatus, the ‘force of the county’. In some US states the posse may still be deployed as a citizen police force, to patrol shopping malls, for instance.

It is also under Ine that the term ‘ealdorman’first appears in West Saxon documents, the first West Saxon coins were minted and the king first began to interest himself in commerce. In fact, it appears that King Ine, whose laws on the regulation and protection of foreign merchants encouraged the commercial development of Wessex, probably stimulated the kingdom’s economy by the carefully planned development of the port of Hamwic, adjacent to the royal vill of Hampton. Population was resettled from the surrounding countryside; gravel and other building materials were shipped on site at the king’s expense; and a new port was ready to join the international Channel–North Sea network of centres, given the generic name of ‘emporium’ (plural ‘emporia’) by historians of the period.

In the 710s Boniface of Crediton, then a monk at Nursling, en route for his mission to Germany, twice went by road to Lundenwic (London) to make the sea crossing from there. As a Wessex man he may have considered himself to be still on home territory. In the early 700s the law code of King Ine mentions the East Saxon Eorcenwold, bishop of London, as ‘our bishop’, which suggests that the West Saxon king considered he had a controlling interest in the place. Twenty years before that, a reference in the Kentish law code refers to the ‘king’s hall’ and the king’s wic gerefa (‘wic reeve’) – presumably the hall within the Roman city area and the reeve based in the wic (or trading area) to watch over the king’s interests in the emporium’s trade. Given its place on the Thames and at the convergence of many frontiers, and its status as an international emporium, we can assume that all adjacent authorities wanted their fingers in the honeypot and that London’s merchant magnates knew how to restrict access.

Boniface had already made his mark when King Ine and his church councillors chose him to head a deputation to Canterbury. Churchmen had been among the advisers, both lay and clerical, the king had consulted when drawing up his legal code, which, among other things, legislated to enforce both infant baptism and the payment of tithes, levies due to the church. During his reign the kingdom, up to that time a single church province, was divided between two new bishoprics, Winchester and Sherborne, where the devout and scholarly Aldhelm, apparently of the royal kin, was installed. In Alfred’s day it was believed that Ine built the first monastery in the vicinity of the numinous site of Glastonbury Tor and he certainly was a patron to the abbey of Malmesbury where Aldhelm, who had long been a student at Theodore’s Canterbury school, was abbot from the 680s. On the western edge of Anglo-Saxon settlement and conquest, the abbey had a sizeable number of Britons among its dependent population. As Della Hooke explains in The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (p. 40)

Although large numbers of Anglo-Saxon immigrants followed the initial raids . . . [or wars, we might say, such as that of Ine and his Sussex ally against Dumnonia] and settled across England . . . the bulk of the population, especially in the west, must surely have remained Romano-British stock.

The original name of the minster of Malmesbury was Maildubhi Urbs the ‘city’ of Maildubh, in Old English Maeldubh’s burh, and tradition holds that it originated around the hermitage of an Irish monk of that name. Irish monks may also have had a presence at Glastonbury. Certainly non-Roman Christianity was strong in the region. About 700 we find Aldhelm, writing to King Geraint of Dumnonia, spelling out the Roman way of calculating the date for Easter and urging that his British clergy adopt it. The approach to the West Country ‘Celtic’ Christians seems to have had some success. Bede claimed that the British already within the West Saxon borders were convinced of the Roman way. Apparently, however, the British across the Severn, the Welsh, refused to eat with ‘the Roman party’ and imposed a penance of forty days on priests who had anything at all to do with the Romans.

One of the pillars of Anglo-Saxon spirituality in Wessex was to be the new foundation at Wimborne, inaugurated with King Ine’s sister Cuthburg as its first abbess. Married for a time to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685–705) and later a nun at Barking in Essex, she lived a career typical of the kind of networking that was possible for women between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy. Dynastic rivalry was also part of the royal scene and, though Ine fended off his rivals, such family feuding would return sporadically to disrupt later reigns. Like his predecessor, Ine abdicated to make the pilgrimage to Rome, where he would die. Men said it was he who founded the Schola Saxonum, the English quarter near St Peter’s. In a reign of some forty years he had maintained the prestige and standing of Wessex and opened up the field of royal government beyond the activities of warlord and conqueror.

The Chronicle tell us that Ine was followed peacefully by a kinsman who ruled from 726 to 740. A family member named Cuthred, in turn, succeeded him. There is evidently drama behind the brief entries for these decades. We learn that in 733 Æthelbald, king of Mercia, captured the West Saxon royal vill of Somerton and that in this year the sun looked like ‘a black shield’. Seven years later, Cuthred took the war to Æthelbald. Three years after this the two men were allies against the Welsh. For a time Cuthred was endangered by domestic rivals and no doubt he faced other threats not recorded in the Chronicle’s terse chronology. In fact, between the seventh and the ninth centuries, the rule in Wessex rarely seems to have passed from father to son; perhaps the succession should be rather understood as an almost institutionalized pattern of challenge and counter-challenge among families of the establishment who laid claim to descent from Cerdic. In the year 752 Cuthred went against Æthelbald once more and this time ‘put him to flight’. Four years later, Cuthred died.

There followed twelve months of conspiracy and murder among the ruling establishment, in which the new King Sigeberht was driven from his throne by his successor Cynewulf. Forced to flee, an outlaw, into the forest of the Weald, he was assassinated by a herdsman – on Cynewulf’s orders, it was supposed. The next thirty years belong to Cynewulf who, we are told by the Chronicle, could trace his paternal ancestry in direct line back to Cerdic, and who fought many ‘great battles’ against the Britons. For all that, one of the longer, and it would seem more successful, reigns in English history receives little attention from the Chronicle bar the mention that it ended with the king’s murder by Cyneheard, the brother of Sigeberht, whose own death Cynewulf too had contrived some thirty years previously. Cyneheard too was killed and the succession was secured by Beohrtric, another direct descendant of Cerdic. He may well have owed his throne to Offa of Mercia; he married his daughter. Beohrtric was opposed by Ecgberht, connected with the West Saxon and Kentish royal lines, and grandfather ‘to be’ of Alfred the Great. Although Wessex won a momentary independence, Ecgberht was driven from ‘the land of the English’ i.e. England by Beohrtric who was assisted by Offa, and Ecghberht was forced to live at the court of Charles the Great, king of the Franks, for several years.

No doubt the overbearing Mercian looked upon Wessex as at best a client kingdom, at worst a subject province. According to King Alfred, who recounted the tradition to his biographer, Asser, many years later, Eadburh’s malevolent period as royal consort explained why the wife of a West Saxon king was never consecrated queen. A true daughter of her father, she ruled the court circle by tyranny and intrigue, but had to flee the country when a plot misfired and she almost poisoned her husband. Whether any of this was true (was she following instructions?) or whether we are dealing here with a simple case of misogynistic gossip, the kings of Wessex did not, after her time, honour their wives with the title of queen and held their ceremonial ‘crown wearings’ in solitary state. It was a change from earlier times. In the seventh century the West Saxons had been briefly ruled by a queen regnant and as late as the 740s a king’s wife was witnessing charters as ‘regina’ (‘queen’).

Beohrtric’s reign (786–802) witnessed an event of terrible omen for the English. ‘In these days’, records the Chronicle, ‘came the first three ships of Northmen’ – it seems they may have been from the region around Hardanger Fjord in western Norway. One report has them landing at Portland. The king’s gerefa rode out to meet them because he did not know what they were, although, presumably they were not traders, since otherwise they would have been heading for Hamwic. Maybe they had steered a wrong course. It was the reeve’s duty to have newcomers report themselves to the king’s town. They killed him.

It was a portent of things to come. Ecgberht, the next king of Wessex (802–39), who was king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex from 825, and was awarded the title of ‘bretwalda’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as eighth in line of the wielders of the imperium named by Bede, would spend the last years of his reign combating recurring incursions of such ‘northmen’ or ‘Vikings’

Edgar pacificus

A contemporary portrayal of King Edgar in the New Minster Charter.

The events of 1006 were typical of the calamity that befell England between 980 and 1016: a generation of escalating misery during which time Viking armies roamed practically unopposed across the rolling hills of southern England, looting and burning at will. A sense of the scale of the violence can be gauged simply by the number of conflicts recorded, particularly once the eleventh century got under way. Across England, there were (give or take) eighty-eight instances of armed violence recorded in the written record in the thirty-five years up to and including 1016; this compares with fifty-one conflict events recorded over the whole of the preceding eighty years. For the people of southern England, whose experience of Viking incursions had dissipated in the early tenth century, it would have felt as though a forgotten nightmare had dragged itself upright from the mire – a revenant horror, long thought staked and buried, stalking abroad once more.

There are, of course, some issues here about the trustworthiness of the written record – chroniclers sometimes had a vested interest in minimizing or exaggerating the travails of various monarchs – but it is evident that the quarter-century after Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954 had been noteworthy for its stability, its lack of dramatic incident. This seems, in large part, to have been down to the firm grip of one king – a man largely forgotten today, but with a good claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England: Edgar pacificus – Edgar the Peaceful. It is a name that conjures up images of quiet and contemplation, a just and gentle ruler whose benevolent rule would usher in the golden age of peace and plenty that twelfth-century chroniclers imagined he and his subjects had enjoyed. It was they, however, and not his peers, who conferred the epithet pacificus upon him: his contemporaries would take a rather different view.

King Eadred died in 955, one year after seeing his rule extended, formally and finally, to include Northumbria within the English kingdom. He was succeeded by his nephew Eadwig, Edmund’s son, but he died in 959 and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar. The most famous achievement of Edgar’s reign – and the one incident for which he is chiefly remembered – came towards the end of his life. In 973, he arrived at Chester with – according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – his entire naval force, there to meet with the other principal rulers of Britain. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the potentates who were present, but probably among them were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd and Maccus Haraldsson, whom William of Malmesbury called archipirata (‘arch-pirate’) and others referred to as plurimarum rex insularum (‘king of many islands’ – probably Man and the Hebrides). No doubt there were serious and practical issues to discuss – matters of borders and security and the safety of shipping and trade and so on. What Anglo-Norman historians saw fit to record happening there, however, was a most extraordinary spectacle: at least half a dozen of the most powerful men in the islands, cowed into submission by Edgar’s majestic presence (or, more likely, the menacing presence of his enormous war-fleet), rowing the English king in a barge down the River Dee. It was a very physical, and very public, demonstration of what it meant to be a ‘little kinglet’ in Edgar’s Britain.

It may be that the way this incident was reported in Anglo-Norman sources was deliberately intended to promote an anachronistic idea of English superiority – issues of insular power dynamics were very much alive in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, indeed, have never really gone away. But there is little doubt about who was at the top of the British political food chain in the 970s and, regardless of the details of what took place, it seems likely that the meeting was partly concerned with thrashing out issues of precedence, of putting lands, people and princes into their rightful places; for Edgar seems to have been a king who was obsessed with order. His laws reveal an administration that was determined to regulate and reform – creating nationwide standards of weights and measures and ensuring that coinage was made to uniform standards everywhere it was produced: gone were the idiosyncratic designs of the old Viking kings at York. Edgar’s coinage would look and weigh the same, whether it was minted there, or in Exeter, Chester, Canterbury, Lincoln or Norwich (or anywhere else that coins were made). He was also interested in bringing the whole of his realm into administrative harmony and ensuring that justice was both available and correctly applied. Wessex had long been organized by shires and hundreds, but everywhere else had had different (though perhaps similar) systems of organization. Edgar – perhaps drawing on precedents set by his immediate predecessors – formalized this system, creating new stipulations for the way that courts were held at the hundred (or wapentake in ‘Danish’ areas) and shire level, making attendance obligatory for the land-holding class.

What really cemented Edgar’s legacy, however, was the unprecedented period of peace and stability that England seems to have enjoyed until his death in 975. It was a peace that was achieved to a certain degree at the expense of others: repeated punitive raids into Welsh territory demonstrate that Edgar, despite his nickname, was no pacifist. (Indeed, pacificus can be translated as ‘Pacifier’, just as it can as ‘Peaceable’ or ‘Peaceful’.) It was also a peace paid for through unprecedented investment in the kingdom’s naval defences: during his reign the number of English warships, according to later accounts, reached an improbable 4,800, and it is likely that reforms to the manner in which ships and mariners were recruited and obliged to serve the king began during Edgar’s reign. It also seems likely that the king’s naval power was founded in part on paid fleets of Viking mercenaries. The swelling of English royal authority may have meant that, for some Viking war-bands plying the seas around Britain, the risks of plunder were becoming intolerably high, while at the same time the wealth that the English king commanded may have become an increasingly attractive source of patronage to those prepared to work for him.

All of these achievements added up to what most medieval writers felt constituted a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the Church and bullied and humiliated all the other (non-English) inhabitants of Britain – especially the Welsh. This was the sort of thing that was guaranteed to ensure a favourable write-up, and indeed his obituary in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is largely comprised of effusive praise. And yet, in the eyes of the chronicler – almost certainly Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (d. 1023) – all of his achievements were undermined by the ‘one misdeed […] he practised too widely’. King Edgar, Wulfstan disgustedly reveals, ‘loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country’.

This censure may have stemmed in part from the pragmatic and conciliatory approach that Edgar adopted. Large parts of his realm had been settled by people of Scandinavian origin for over a century, producing a mixed population whose tastes, trading connections and family ties were as intimately tangled with the wider North Sea world as they were with the populations of Winchester, London or Canterbury. Edgar understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognizing the distinctiveness of local laws and customs in those regions which had become – in Anglo-Saxon parlance – ‘Danish’. In his fourth major law code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The sudden shift from third to second person feels clumsy when written down, but read out loud at a Northumbrian wapentake or north Mercian thing-site, it may have had real dramatic force: that sudden turn to the camera, the steady eye contact that the pronouns imply, delivered a disarmingly direct and personal address from the king exclusively to his Danish subjects.

In some ways, this recognition of a separate and parallel legal tradition stands at odds with Edgar’s stated intention (in the same code) to create laws for ‘all the nation, whether Englishmen, Danes or Britons, in every province of my dominion’. But, seen more broadly, this limited concession (it does not seem to have overruled all the king’s other edicts relating to coinage and administration) can be understood as the product of a keen political intelligence, one that recognized that – in the long term – the cause of national unity was better served by establishing trust and mitigating grievance than by lumbering authoritarianism. The result was the real ‘Danelaw’, a practical solution intended to bring the most reluctant of his new subjects willingly inside his vision for a coherent and cohesive English state.

Attitudes towards strangers in Anglo-Saxon England had not always been kind, but xenophobia seems to have peaked in the late tenth century, perhaps buoyed by the rising sense of English identity that had been growing since the reign of Athelstan but conditioned over two centuries of Viking depredations of one sort or another. For his own part, the king seems to have been alive to any threat that such sentiments could pose to the peace of his realm (and his revenues). In 969, ‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet,’ apparently because the locals had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Hostility to foreign nationals on England’s estuarine outposts has a distressingly long history, but few have responded so robustly as Edgar. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’.

It was presumably this sort of thing that so offended Archbishop Wulfstan. In 975, however, he would doubtless have been relieved to discover that no longer would he have to endure the ‘foul foreign customs’ that Edgar had so perversely enjoyed. For in that year the king died. He was thirty-one years old. There followed a disputed succession and the short reign of Edgar’s son Edward, known as ‘the Martyr’ – the last of the long line of ‘Ed’ kings. When Edward died in March 978, he was replaced by his brother Æthelred. The new king was only a boy of twelve, but he came to the throne already in shadow, his people divided in their loyalties: Edward had died, not of natural causes like their father, but at the hands of men loyal to Æthelred, done to death at Corfe (Dorset). Whether the new king was himself complicit in the killing has generally been doubted by historians, but it can have done little to endear those people to him who had supported his brother’s claim. Even as stories of Edward’s (improbable) sanctity and martyrdom began to spread, so Æthelred’s reputation was stained – like Eric’s – with fratricide. Little that occurred over the following forty years would help to restore it.