Feudalism in England

The Norman conquest of England introduced feudalism to these islands with several modifications, some apparently intended to improve on the system operating in Normandy, others as the result of the adoption of existing Saxon instruments of government. Of the 5,000 or so knights who formed the expeditionary force, only about half were Normans and the remainder were Frenchmen, Bretons, Aquitanians, and Flemings serving as mercenaries or seeking their fortunes. William’s own tenants refused to follow him as such, since feudal service was not obligatory outside the realm, and only the promise of conquered lands induced them to set out. As no prior feudal obligation to his own men existed, and as eventually all the important English landowners were dispossessed, William was able to make a fresh start and introduce a more or less uniform system over the whole country, and to modify such Continental customs as he found dangerous. Since the loyalty of his men was at first assured because their future depended on his holding his new kingdom successfully, he could impose on them any conditions he thought necessary. Private wars between his barons, limited in Normandy, were forbidden in England, and quarrels between them had to be brought to his courts. Private warfare was not successfully suppressed in France until the reign of St Louis (1226–70). William partitioned out the land to something under 200 great lords, many of them his tenants-in-chief in Normandy, in return for the services of a stipulated number of knights, often apparently in fives or multiples of five. The Church was granted land in return for the service of some 780 knights, allocated to abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries, and churches, exactly as if they were lay land-holders. The quotas were larger than the equivalent ones in Normandy and were entirely at the disposal of the king, unlike the custom of the Duchy, where only a fraction of the knights enfeofed on an estate was due to the duke and even fewer to the over-lord, the king of France. The Bayeux Inquest of 1133 shows that of the knights owing military service to the Bishop of Bayeux only one-sixth owed service to the duke and only one-twelfth to the king of France. Varying periods of service by half-armed knights, common in Normandy and elsewhere, were apparently unknown in England. The King himself kept the largest single group of estates in his own hands, and he placed his most trusted lieutenants in the key positions; his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, for example, at Dover, the main Channel port, and William fitz-Osbern at Hereford to guard the Welsh Marches.

The tenants-in-chief each received many manors scattered up and down the land. There seem to have been three reasons for this; firstly, because the country was only conquered piecemeal; secondly, because the only estates confiscated at first were those of Saxons who had fought at Hastings or been slow to submit, and it was only after the great revolt of 1069 that wholesale confiscation of Saxon lands took place; thirdly, because in some cases one Norman might be given the lands held by a single Saxon before the Conquest, and these might not necessarily have been all in one shire. Geoffrey Alselin held the entire lands of the thegn Toki, son of Outi, scattered all over the Danelaw. These lands were held by Geoffrey for the same dues paid by Toki to King Edward, as well as for military service. In a very few cases Saxon land-holders were allowed to buy back their land, in others they became sub-tenants under a Norman lord. In the case of some of the most important baronial castles the bulk of the estates of its lord were grouped round it to form a castellaria for its support, although other estates belonging to its lord might be scattered all over England. An example of this is the ‘honour’ of Henry de Ferrars for the maintenance of Tutbury Castle on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with 114 estates in Derbyshire and eight in Staffordshire, and lands more scattered and less numerous in twelve other shires. The fiefs of great continental barons were also scattered, though in this case by the accidents of their acquisition over a very long period rather than by any plan imposed by their sovereigns. The estate of a Norman was usually called his ‘fee’, that is, the land with which he was enfeofed, and if an important one held by a tenant-in-chief it was called his ‘honour.’ Although normally referred to as ‘Normans’ many of the new settlers of all ranks were French, Flemish, or Breton.

Apparently no system was laid down as to how the tenantsin- chief were to produce their servicium debitum. Some hired knights, when the king required them, from the many landless younger sons seeking their fortunes and hoping to win a knight’s fee of their own in return for services. Others kept knights permanently in their households to escort them from manor to manor in their travels between England and Normandy and to guard their castles. As the land settled down and the danger of an English rising receded, the necessity for keeping large numbers of household knights grew less, and the great majority of lords granted parts of their estates to lesser barons or to individual knights in return for their military service. Even as late as 1166, the Cartae Baronum shows some honours with insufficient enfeofed knights to complete their quotas, indicating that household knights or pure mercenaries must have been employed to make up the required numbers. Church magnates must have found it particularly irksome to have rough knights permanently quartered in their halls, but equally they were unwilling to lose control of land by enfeofment. Originally these grants of land were apparently not hereditary; the earliest three charters confirming enfeofment of this sort, all of the reign of William I, stipulate that the grant is for one life only, although one is to the son of the previous holder and this particular holding is known to have become hereditary in this family at a later date. By the reign of Henry I the knight’s fee normally descended to the heir without question.

The sub-vassal holding several knight’s fees in the honour of a great tenant-in-chief stood in a similar relation to his lord as the lord did to the king. He helped to administer the honour, filling the baron’s subordinate offices as steward, marshal, butler, or constable, as the great barons did at the royal court, advising in the honour-court, and leading his own servicium debitum to join that of his lord when summoned to do so. It was probably from this class, as well as from minor tenants-in-chief, that the officer known in the fourteenth century as the ‘banneret’ was originally drawn.

The annual period of military service for knights in France, Normandy, and northern Italy, recorded in many documents, was 40 days in peace or war. In England, however, only one document mentions the length of service for knights, and this is a grant made about 1140 by none other than the King’s Marshal, John fitz-Gilbert, of a fief in return for knight’s service for two months in time of war and 40 days in time of peace, and the wording suggests that this was customary. Since it is not normally stated, the period of service may have been so well known as not to need stating and this particular grant may therefore refer to an exceptional period. However, the period served by the pre-Conquest fyrd was certainly also two months, and if this was continued after the Conquest the period of service by knights could very well have been made to conform with it. Castle guard, another knightly service, at Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, is also recorded as being for two months. Later in the twelfth century the period was probably reduced to the 40 days customary elsewhere, as sergeants and infantry of the shire are both recorded as serving for this period by the end of the century. In France, but apparently not in England, the tenant of a fraction of a knight’s fee sometimes served for the same fraction of 40 days; the holder of half a fee would serve for 20 days.

In 1086, late in his reign, William 1 ordered an oath of personal fealty to himself to be taken at Salisbury, by, or on behalf of, all landholders of any account, regardless of who their overlord might be. He realised that the normal oath of fealty of a sub-vassal to his lord, which excluded his duty to the king, was insufficient to prevent the sub-vassal from following his lord if the latter revolted. It is unlikely that a knight of that period, still a fairly insignificant person socially, would have been considered of sufficient importance to be called to the oath taking, and probably only the larger sub-vassals were summoned.

This personal oath to the king was repeated on a number of later occasions, most important of which was the oath of 1166 when Henry II ordered a survey to be made of the state of the knighthood of the kingdom, so that all those knights who had not yet done homage to him might do so before a certain date. He asked his tenants-in-chief how many knights each had enfeofed on his estates at the time of the death of Henry I, how many were enfeofed at the time of writing, and how many more had to be provided to fulfil their servicium debitum. The answers to this survey were recorded in the Cartae Baronum. One result of this was an increased assessment of the quotas in 1168. In fact, in many cases many more knights had been enfeofed than were due. As early as 1135 the Bishop of Durham had enfeofed 64 knights although his servicium debitum was only ten; however, this may have been because of the need to defend the frontier from Scottish raids.

Alongside knight’s tenure was also tenure by sergeanty (insergentaria): tenure by some specified service less than knight’s service and very often rendered personally to the lord. It might be a purely civilian service such as keeping a hawk or hound for the king, providing the table-cloths for a specific animal feast, or providing the king with a meal of roast pork when he hunted in Wychwood; on the other hand it might be military service such as carrying the king’s banner on campaign in Wales, or leading the forces of the hundred in which the man lived. Some tenants in sergeanty did actually owe the service of a knight to the army but this was exceptional. The characteristic of the service is that it differs from sergeant to sergeant and, therefore, unlike knight’s service, must be fully described in any grant. Where the service was military it was normally for 40 days at the expense of the sergeant, although shorter periods are also recorded. One sergeant was to provide an infantryman for service in Wales supplied with a side of bacon; when this was eaten he was free to go home. Some sergeants had to provide horsemen, others footmen, and the supplying of bowmen and crossbowmen is also recorded. In 1213 John’s summons of the army to Dover included the servientes and implied that they were to serve mounted, but the sergeants of the French demesne recorded in the Prisia Servientum of 1202–3 were infantry. Sergeants from fairly early times were able to serve by proxy and by the thirteenth century they had very often commuted their service for a money payment.

The medieval chronicler frequently described the lower ranks of the army as sergeants (servientes) but this includes many more than the tenants in sergeanty. These would be present in the army without doubt; the military sergeants fulfilling their tenurial obligations, the others serving because of the personal obligation of all freemen to do so. The towns and ecclesiastical tenants of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem are described by John of Ibelin as owing the service of 5,025 sergeants in time of great need and within the realm. In some cases these may have been lightly armed horsemen and horsebowmen. William of Tyre, writing about 1170–80. refers to lightly armed horse.

As far as mounted sergeants are concerned, it is normally assumed that they were less well armed than the knights, and it is true that they are occasionally encountered on campaign carrying out reconnaissances, a traditional light cavalry role, and in later documents the service of two sergeants is frequently equated with that of one knight. Fees in sergeanty were occasionally changed to half a knight’s fee, and knight’s fees were sometimes commuted for the service of two sergeants. For instance, the muster rolls for the campaign in Wales in 1245 show that the services of two sergeants might be accepted in place of those of a knight. Nevertheless, chroniclers describe sergeants as taking part with the knights in cavalry actions, and they must therefore have been similarly equipped.

The servientes armorum (sergeants-at-arms) were raised, apparently by Philip Augustus, to act as a body-guard against the Assassins on the Third Crusade. They were later copied by most European kings and can normally be identified in medieval paintings by the maces they carry. Although originally a guard, their constant presence around the king meant that he inevitably used them as messengers to deliver his orders, and also to carry them out. At a time when few people could read, the royal arms on their mace was their means of identification and thus the weapon itself became the sign of their royal authority. By the fourteenth century the French royal sergeants’ maces were silver mounted and had the royal arms enamelled on them.

As well as these Norman innovations, William I also used Saxon institutions of government which were more highly developed than those on the Continent; the writ – the king’s formal letter of instructions – the shire- and hundred-courts, and the excellent Saxon coinage, as well as the annual tax, the Danegeld. Norman barons were given office as sheriffs, and until the revolt of 1069 many Englishmen were employed in high office; like Earl Morcar of Northumbria. The most important English institution William used was the prefeudal military organization, comprising the right to call upon the service of every freeman in time of war, the selective service by which those who stayed at home equipped and paid the man who served on their behalf, and the summons of the force by a writ to the sheriff. This force, later known as the shire levy, together with similar levies from the towns, augmented the feudal army and could be used against over-powerful tenants-in-chief even if they had called out their sub-vassals against the king.

Although William had forbidden his barons to fight each other, they were violent men unused to such restraint, and his own reign and those of his sons were disturbed by numerous baronial wars and revolts. Saxon thegns and freemen fought for the king alongside his loyal feudatories in the baronial revolts, such as that of Eustace of Boulogne in 1067 and of the Earls of Hereford and East Anglia in 1075. As early as 1068 Englishmen were fighting against the forces of Harold’s sons, and the commander of the forces of Somerset on that occasion was Eadnoth, who had been one of King Edward’s household officers. In the following year the men of London, Salisbury, and Winchester were employed in putting down a revolt in Somerset and Dorset. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis again and again describes Englishmen fighting for the king against rebels. The continuation of pre-Conquest military institutions is shown for instance by the Domesday Book, which in several places refers to military service owed by ordinary sub-tenants at the time of King Edward’s death and still owed at the time of the survey. There are a number of references to the duty of serving by land and sea which suggests a survival of the Saxon ship-fyrd obligation. The right to collect fyrdwite, the fine for failure to serve in the fyrd, is mentioned in post-Conquest documents. A number of small land-holders holding by sergeanty are recorded as doing so in return for leading the local forces or carrying the banner of their hundred. The large numbers of Englishmen summoned for service in 1094 were infantry and were almost certainly representatives of the select fyrd, since they each had 10 s. which the king took from them and which, it has been suggested, was their subsistence money mentioned in the Berkshire passage in Domesday. Englishmen, as distinct from Anglo-Normans, certainly served in France in the campaign of 1078 against Fulk of Anjou, when Ordericus speaks of ‘Normannos et Anglos’ and also records the name of one, Toki, son of Wigot of Wallingford, present at the siege of Gerberoi. The presence of men of the fyrd in France is explained by the early twelfth-century Leis Willelmi which lay down that freemen are obliged to serve beyond the seas. The disappearance of select service is unrecorded but the basis of fyrd service, the obligation of all freemen to serve the king in time of war, remained to be incorporated in the Assize of Arms of 1186. The development of the Anglo-Norman feudal army of later periods was greatly influenced by the incorporation of the Saxon military system.

Although a somewhat similar organization existed on the Continent, the arrière-ban, which could be summoned in time of war, William cannot have failed to have been impressed by the quality of the Saxon select fyrd at Hastings. In France the arrière-ban seems to have been called out only very occasionally, and, untrained and probably poorly armed, seems to have been of little use against cavalry. The king of France was forced to rely on the men of his own demesne lands and such vassals as remained loyal when a revolt broke out.

What evidence there is shows that the English continued to fight as infantrymen and, in fact, their methods influenced the Normans, since at Tinchebrai (1106) the Normans dismounted to fight, and at the Standard (1138) the north countrymen and the Norman knights stood shoulder to shoulder on foot, almost like Harold’s army at Hastings.

Feudalism in Germany

In Germany feudalism was established later than in France. The Norsemen only attacked the area of the lower Rhine, and the period of their raids was relatively short. The greater danger came from the Magyars and Slavs along the eastern borders. Although their raids influenced the development of serfdom and the growth of feudalism even before the reforms of Henry the Fowler (919–36), it was not until the civil wars of the reign of Henry IV (1056–1106), the baronial revolts of the twelfth century, and the weakening of the crown by the Investiture Contest that the power of the nobility was greatly strengthened and many of the freemen peasantry were depressed into servility. The traditional German war leader, the duke (Herzog), had survived from tribal times, and his power, together with that of the great church magnates, prevented complete chaos from breaking out, even under weak kings like Ludwig the Child (899–911) and Conrad I (911–18). Although Charlemagne had suppressed the original tribal dukes and replaced them by his own Frankish officials, by the time of Henry the Fowler they had once more become identified with the racial origins of their dukedoms, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Saxony. The tribal origin of the great dukedoms prevented feudalism becoming as rigid as it did, for instance, in France. The dukes recognized that they held their offices of the king but did not admit to holding their lands from him. Within their dukedoms they coined money, called assemblies, administered justice, and controlled the church, as in Merovingian times.

The nobility always included many who regarded their lands as being allods which they might divide up into fiefs as they liked, without asking leave of the king. These were at first called ‘sun fiefs’ (Sonnenlehen) since they were held free of any earthly overlord, and later ‘banner fiefs’ (Fahnlehen) because investiture was by the gift of a banner. At first only the duchies were of this rank, later margravates, and finally all princely fiefs were conferred in this way. Investiture by means of a banner is illustrated in the manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel of about 1360, as well as investiture by means of a glove, also referred to in the Chanson de Roland. The Sachsenspiegel also illustrates the act of doing homage both singly and in groups, and the subsequent oath on saintly relics (Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, M. 32).

French-style feudalism, the union of benefice or fief with vassalage and the adoption of the principle of commendation and homage, came later and was always more common in the lands nearest to France. The growth of feudalism was everywhere checked by the existence of the royal officials, dukes, counts, and hundred-men. Otto the Great (936–73) had incorporated into the military hierarchy the bishops and the abbots appointed by the Crown. The Concordat of Worms of 1122 confirmed this by making the princes of the Church princes of Germany with the Pope’s approval. The Church magnates were expected to serve in the army in person, and their forces were one of the mainstays of the king. The feudatories, as opposed to the dukes, were forbidden to wage private wars, and were not allowed to coin money. They had only simple jurisdiction within their lands. Under Otto 1 even the dukes were not immune from the king’s justice. The feudal anarchy prevailing in France was considered to be a scandal and the attempt of Henry II to introduce the ‘Peace of God’ was thought to be an unjust reflection on public law.

Fiefs did not become hereditary until the eleventh century, and although counties had become hereditary by the time of Henry II (1002–24) even the greatest duchies were not absolutely hereditary until the reign of Henry IV. Knights and knighthood were apparently unknown until the twelfth century. The first recorded instance of knighthood being conferred in the German lands is the knighting of the Hungarian king by Conrad III in 1146, possibly in imitation of French practice seen on the Second Crusade.

Very many freemen survived in Germany without dependance on any lord, vassals without fiefs were common until the eleventh century, and the Heerban, the levy of all freemen to defend the realm, survived as a fighting force much later than elsewhere. At Bouvines (1214) there were many Saxon freemen fighting on foot. These freemen (Frîgebur) who were particularly common in Saxony and Bavaria and rather less so in Swabia and Franconia, had the same wergild as a knight (Ritter), acted as jurors as in England, and formed the Heerban.

The main feature distinguishing German feudalism from that of other lands is the ministerialis, the unfree knight. Although in England and France vassals could be sold, given away, or bequeathed by the will of their overlords, they remained free in law, and noble; the ministeriales did not. They appear to have derived from a superior class of serf who rendered service rather than labour, and in Carolingian times they are found as managers and stewards of estates. Originally their service was essentially non-military, and in 789 Charlemagne ruled that a ministerialis who rendered genuine military service was by the very fact made free. As time went on they developed into court officials at both royal and noble courts, because their employment meant that land was not lost by enfeofment, and because of the unreliability of vassals. A serf had the habit of obedience, a free vassal had not. By the twelfth century when the class was fully formed, they are found regularly performing military duties, and their status had become hereditary in fact, if not in law. The Italian expeditions greatly increased the military use of ministeriales since the German feudatories were reluctant to serve so far from home. Among south German contingents sent on these campaigns the proportion of vassals decreased from 71 per cent in the period 1096–1146 to 3 per cent in 1191–1240. The balance were ministeriales. They made up the majority of the army of Conrad III on the Second Crusade. Their term of service is unknown but it may have been longer than that of knights, which was six weeks without pay with a further period of service on demand after an interval of six weeks.

Under Henry IV (1056–1106) almost all the court officials were ministeriales. They were cordially detested for their coarse manners, pride, and petty tyranny. In the twelfth century they began to receive knighthood and to assume titles like nobles from the lands granted to them, and by the end of the century the two classes, the free and unfree nobility, were virtually indistinguishable. In Italy they sometimes held great administrative offices, like Markward of Anweiler who was regent of Sicily and, at the time of his enfranchisement in 1197, was made Duke of Ravenna and Marquis of Ancona.

Society took much longer to stratify in Germany than it did, for instance, in France, partly because of the position of ministeriales bridging all ranks, and partly because of the large number of freemen peasants which prevented the growth of the contempt for the peasantry typical of France. Few of the smaller barons had any vassals, their place being taken by ministeriales, and those that did had rarely enfeofed them. The barons lived on their estates in unfortified manor houses made possible by the peaceful condition of the countryside. Castles were usually only held by royal officials and were often provisioned and garrisoned at the expense of the king. During the reign of Henry IV, on the other hand, many unlicensed castles were built by rebellious barons or self-seeking ministeriales. The long minority of this king and his subsequent quarrel with the Pope over investiture of bishops weakened the royal power, encouraged the centrifugal force of feudalism, and lost him the support of the church so laboriously built up, as a counterweight to the baronage, by Conrad II (1024–39). This king had done what he could to undermine the growing power of the great barons by recognizing the hereditary nature of fiefs held by sub-vassals in Germany and legalising it in Italy. This gained him the sympathy and support of the sub-vassals and weakened the grip on them of the tenants-in-chief, but at the same time encouraged the fragmentation of Germany.

In the late eleventh century Benzo of Alba suggested that Henry IV should replace feudal military service by a tax similar to scutage, and employ a mercenary army. The same suggestion was made after the battle of Bouvines in 1214 but mercenaries never seem to have played a major part in German armies until late in the Middle Ages. Instead, kings like Henry V (1106–25) and Frederick 1 of Hohenstaufen (1152–90) relied on their great personal wealth and family connections to provide themselves with vassals and allies. The fall of Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in 1181, weakened the traditional power of the ancient dukedoms and allowed the emergence of many small feudal states. The fall of the Hohenstaufen family in the thirteenth century prevented a strong kingship from growing up, as in France and England. The centrifugal forces of feudalism took over. Vassals became independent of their overlords, and the condition of Germany began to resemble that of France under the later Carolingians.


The ‘Feudal System’ in England, as it is taught in schools, seems fairly simple and consistent, the result of the imposition by a small conquering minority of a system already developed beyond these shores, and modified even as it was imposed. But even in England it was extremely complex, developing fairly rapidly from the hour of its introduction, modified by the adoption of Saxon law and custom and by changing conditions within the kingdom, and even now still open to re-interpretation in many of its features. On the Continent, however, it differed greatly from country to country depending on the circumstances under which it developed. In those areas which have been studied, custom and feudal law varied widely and it would be quite impractical to try to cover the whole of Europe except in the most general terms. Outside northern France and those lands where feudalism was deliberately imported, England, Sicily and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, many variations are found. Almost everywhere else, even in France south of the Loire, some allodial land remained, that is land held free of any overlord, and the frequency and complexities of vassalage varied from place to place. For instance, in parts of the south of France vassalage was established by a simple oath of fealty, a promise not to harm the lord or his interests in any way, without any question of homage; that is, without the ceremony of clasping hands and the statement of willingness by the vassal and acceptance by the lord. In northern Italy homage disappeared by the twelfth century and vassalage was established by an oath of fealty only. The special class of unfree knights, called ministeriales, found in Germany and the Low Countries, did not perform homage since they were already regarded as the property of their lord.

In Russia, Scandinavia, Castile and León, a few feudal customs were found but the system never developed fully in these lands. Even feudal terminology was not uniform all over Europe. For instance, the word vavassor refers in France to a sub-vassal of lowly rank, sometimes serving with incomplete armour; in northern Italy a sub-vassal of the crown; while in England it could imply a freeman owing military service, not necessarily a vassal at all. In northern Italy, the power and organization of the great mercantile cities and the tradition of urban life going back to Roman times always outshone feudalism which is an institution based essentially on land and rural communities. The wealth of the cities over-shadowed that of the feudatories. The Italian nobility, many of whom were heavily engaged in trade, tended to live in the towns, sometimes in fortified houses like those of many-towered San Gimignano. Similarly in Germany, relatively free from the devastation of the Norsemen, and with a series of strong kings able to assert themselves and to prevent the chaos which rent France during the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire, a rather different social system developed.

In general, the essence of the system, as we have seen, was protection in exchange for service. Even as late as the four-teenth century the exchange of services between knight and peasant, inherent in the earliest stages of feudalism, was still recognized. The peasant in Piers Plowman says that he will work and sweat for the knight who in turn will protect him and Holy Church from evildoers, and protect the land from vermin large and small. In France, the cradle of feudalism, one can add to this the phrase ‘no land without a lord, no lord without a fief.’

All land was regarded as belonging to the king under God. The greater nobles, the tenants-in-chief, held their land, now beginning to be called a fief rather than a benefice, in return for auxilium and consilium; the duty of serving the king with a stipulated number of knights (servicium debitum), and the duty of assisting the king with their advice in all matters on which the king required it. The tenants-in-chief in turn granted part of their fief to sub-tenants who helped to make up the quota of knights owed by them to the king, by personal military service and, if their tenement was large, by providing an additional fixed number of knights. The lord in return must protect his vassal, which on the Continent might mean going to war on his behalf, and defend him in the courts of law, even in the royal courts. He must also advise him and maintain him, which usually entailed the granting of a fief. Many vassals are recorded in France holding very small fiefs and owing military service less than knight’s service, that is, not fully armed. The vassal without a fief still existed in the twelfth century and was maintained in his lord’s household but was becoming increasingly rare. The centrifugal force of feudalism was so great in France under the very weak kings that the dukes and counts managed to force many originally royal vassals to do homage to them instead. By the eleventh century the dukes of Burgundy were able to prevent the building of castles on allods within their sphere of influence, and the allod had to be converted into a fief held of the duke before permission was granted.

The land remained the possession of the overlord, to whom the payment of a ‘relief’ was due before the heir could take possession. If the tenant died without heirs or failed in his feudal duty, the fief returned to the grantor who could either retain it or grant it to another vassal. The overlord had the right of ‘wardship’, that is, the right to administer the fief and enjoy its profits during the minority of the heir or heiress, and the right to dispose of him or her in marriage. Similarly, he could dispose of the widow of a tenant in marriage. Two clauses in Magna Carta (1215) seek to prevent the abuse of the estates of minors, while another prevents a widow from being forced to remarry against her will. In the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the heiress of a great feudatory was allowed to choose from three suitable candidates for her hand selected by the king. In parts of France wardship was replaced by a system in which a close kinsman of the heir was appointed baillie and did homage and was invested with the fief during the minority. In Germany very high reliefs, fixed arbitrarily, were normal for important fiefs, but for smaller ones relief often consisted of a horse and arms, a practice going back to the return of the gifts made by his lord in the man’s lifetime, during the era of the war-bands of early times. By the late twelfth century, relief was fixed in France at one year’s revenue of the fief. In England, Magna Carta fixed relief for an earl at 100 l. and for a knight at 100 s., and less for those who held less land.

Originally, the lord had the right to an arbitrary tax from his vassals whenever he wished, but this was gradually reduced to the three customary ‘aids’ which could be demanded at the knighting of the lord’s eldest son, the wedding of his eldest daughter for the first time, and to pay his own ransom if he was captured in war. Even these aids were not universal in Italy and the German lands. A similar tax from the unfree was called tallage.

The tenants and sub-tenants had a duty to the peasants on their land to administer justice in the local courts, and to defend them from raiders, robbers, and enemies human and animal, in return for agricultural labour on the lord’s own demesne lands, carriage of his goods, and payments of food and produce. The right to administer justice developed from the power of a man to judge his own slaves, from the need to keep order among a lord’s dependants, and from simple usurpation of royal rights as the Carolingian Empire broke up. Medieval justice, resting largely upon fines, was profitable to those who administered it. To those judged, justice of any sort is better than no justice at all.

Many offices, such as those of duke, count, and in Germany of some bishops, were held as fiefs, but alongside these were many very minor offices and even duties which were held in this way; for instance the mayor of a town, the constable of a castle, or the right to tolls of a certain bridge or ferry.

The money fief or fief-rente was a device by which homage was rendered and stipulated military service was supplied in exchange, not for a fief, but for an annual fixed payment, sometimes secured on a particular tax or custom due. The best known example is the agreement with the Count of Flanders to supply troops to the Norman kings which lasted, with interruptions, until the death of Henry I or even later. This type of vassalage in return for an annuity was much more common later and was found particularly useful by Edward III and his Low Country allies.

Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.

Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.

Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.

Vita of Pope Adeodatus II

During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.

The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.

Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.

At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.

The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.

Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.

During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.

The Serbian Grand Principality (Kingdom from 1346)

Detail of fresco depicting Serbian Emperor Stefan Dušan. Painted in the mid-14th century. Restorated (coloured). Lesnovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia.

Serbian Empire, 1355

Serbia had the Adriatic Sea to the west, Hungary to the north and Bulgaria to the east. Stefan divided his principality between his five sons when he died and their mother acted as their go-between. But the barons killed Gojislav; Domanek and Saganek fought; and Radoslav murdered Domanek. Mihailo was appointed Knez in 1050 and he married Kōnstantinos IX’s niece to make peace with the Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria asked Mihailo I to help him attack the Byzantines, following their defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. They even gave the Bulgarian throne to his young son Bodin (who was renamed Petar III) to secure the alliance. But Petar was captured in 1073 and the Byzantine general who was released to rescue him defected.

Mihailo improved relations with the west and he was granted a royal title in 1077 while Duklja became a kingdom. Venetian sailors rescued Bodin and his first act was to support the Byzantine attack on the Normans at Durazzo in 1081. His second was to do nothing when the Normans seized the city. He married the daughter of a Norman nobleman and backed Pope Urban to get Rome’s support but Queen Jakvinta executed, murdered and exiled all claimants to the throne, plunging Duklja into a civil war. The Byzantines recaptured Durazzo, defeated the Pecheneg hordes and then turned on the Serbians in 1090.

Vukan, Grand Prince of Rascia, defeated the first invading Byzantine army but asked for peace when a larger army approached. Emperor Alexios had to accept because the Cumans were raiding his lands. Vukan broke the treaty when he seized Byzantine territory and then offered his son Uroš as hostage when Alexios retaliated. Vukan the Great invaded Macedonia as Alexios faced the First Crusade and invaded Byzantine territory when the Normans attacked the Byzantines in 1106. This time he was defeated and finally had to submit to Alexios; he died in 1112.

Vukan’s nephew, Uroš I, was immediately attacked by the Byzantines so he married his daughter, Jelena, to the blind Béla II to get Hungarian help. Her first act was to execute the sixty barons who had supported the blinding of her husband.

Uroš II was crowned grand prince in 1145 and his brother Beloš brought a Hungarian army to help him defend Serbia. The Byzantines defeated their combined army at the Battle of Tara River in 1150, and while Uroš II swore loyalty to Byzantine Emperor Manouēl I, the emperor abandoned his fight against the Normans in Sicily and concentrated on Hungary. Desa was made co-ruler in 1153 but he ousted Uroš because he refused to be a Byzantine vassal. Emperor Manouēl re-instated Uroš but soon grew tired of him. He appointed his brother Beloš in 1162 but he gave the crown to Desa and returned to Croatia to rule. Emperor Manouēl then appointed Stephen IV, but Beloš took him prisoner and sent him to the Byzantines. The emperor forced Desa to meet him, making him swear humiliating public oaths over his diplomacy with Hungary. He then appointed Tihomir and his brothers as rulers of Serbia in 1162. But one of them, Nemanja, rebelled and deposed the others in 1166, taking the throne for himself.

The emperor wanted Tihomir back on the Serbian throne because he was the weakest leader, so he gave him an army. But Nemanja defeated Tihomir at Pantino and Tihomir was drowned in the River Sitnica. His brothers were captured but they were given land after promising to keep the peace. Nemanja maintained his anti-Byzantine stance by joining the coalition with the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary and Venice in 1172. Unfortunately, Venice left the alliance when an epidemic devastated its fleet and then István II died, leaving the Hungarian throne to the pro-Byzantine Béla III. Emperor Manouēl’s troops defeated the Serbian army and Nemanja was forced to hand his sword over and was taken to Constantinople as a slave.

Nemanja befriended Manouēl and he was recognised as Serbia’s Grand Zupan after vowing never to attack the Byzantine Empire again. Instead he concentrated on dealing with the Bogomil heresy until Manouēl died in 1180. He then allied with Béla III of Bulgaria and advanced to Byzantine-held Sofia until a rebellion forced the Bulgarians to withdraw, leaving the Serbians to fight on alone. Nemanja invited the Third Crusade to stay in Serbia in 1188 but Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa rejected his plan and attacked the Byzantines instead. Both Nemanja and Béla followed the Crusaders until Friedrich made peace with Isaakios II. The Byzantines attacked Serbia as soon as the Crusaders left for the Holy Land. The Byzantines forced Nemanja to relinquish his conquests, recognise Byzantine rule. Emperor Isaakios II also made Nemanja marry his son to the Byzantine Princess Eudokia to split the Serbs from the Bulgarians.

Nemanja became a monk in 1196. He favoured his second son, Stefan, but his first son, Vukan, pledged allegiance to Emeric and seized the throne with Hungarian help. Kaloyan of Bulgaria retaliated by conquering the eastern part of Serbia before Stefan could retake the Serbian throne in 1204. Boril succeeded Kaloyan and while his brother, Strez, took refuge in the Serbian court, Stefan refused money to help him retake the Bulgarian throne. Instead Stefan reclaimed lost Serbian territories while the Latin Empire attacked the Bulgarians.

Stefan the First-Crowned received a crown from Pope Honourius III in 1217, making him the first Serbian king acknowledged by Rome. Although Radoslav succeeded him in 1228, he was rejected because his mother, Eudokia, had been exiled for adultery; a rebellion forced him to retire to a monastery five years later. Vladislav was married to Belošlava, daughter of Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, but both their countries were ransacked by the Mongols in 1242. Ivan was killed and his successor, Kaliman, made Bulgaria a Mongol vassal. The move ruined Vladislav’s reputation and the nobles replaced him with his brother.

The development of silver mines made Uroš I the Great so rich he invaded Hungary in 1268. But he was captured and had to hand over all his wealth to pay the ransom. Uroš was also forced to marry his eldest son, Dragutin, to Katalin, daughter of the Hungarian heir, and he was outraged when his younger brother was named heir. Uroš was given a Hungarian army to defeat the Serbs at the Battle of Gacko in 1276 and forced his father to retire to a monastery.

Dragutin broke his leg while out hunting and he had to pass the throne to his brother Uroš II (also called Milutin) when he fell ill in 1282 but he continued to rule Syrmia until he died. Meanwhile, Uroš captured parts of Macedonia and Albania from the Byzantines but Emperor Mikhaēl VIII died before he could counterattack. Instead it was the Bulgarians who attacked Serbia first. Although Dragutin and Uroš defeated them, a Bulgarian boyar convinced the Mongols to attack Serbia and Uroš had to hand his son Dečanski over to the Golden Horde as a hostage to stop them.

Uroš made peace with the Byzantine Empire in 1299 and helped them defeat the Ottomans on the Gallipoli Peninsula. When Dragutin died in 1314, Dečanski rebelled when Uroš took control of his father’s lands. Decanski was exiled to Constantinople and partially blinded, while his younger brother Kōnstantinos was made heir. Dečanski soon returned from exile and was pardoned but his brother refused to submit. Uroš II died in 1321 and Vladislav II was freed to rule Syrmia with Hungarian help. Kōnstantinos was captured in battle in 1322. According to some stories, he may have been nailed to a tree and cut in half; it is known for certain that his skull was turned into a wine goblet for the new king Uroš III (the same name Dečanski had taken).

Uroš III was challenged by his cousin Vladislav II, but Vadislav was defeated in battle in 1324 and forced to flee, despite Hungarian support. Uroš was angered to hear Mihail Asen III of Bulgaria had divorced his sister Anna so he could marry the Byzantine princess Theōdora. The Bulgarians and the Byzantines then invaded Serbia in 1330 but Mihail was killed at the Battle of Velbazhd and Andronikos III withdrew. Despite driving off the invaders, Uroš’s advisers convinced his son (also Uroš) to imprison and strangle his father in 1331.

Ivan Aleksandǎr of Bulgaria married his sister, Jelena, to Uroš IV to secure a peace but Serbia continued to raid Byzantine. Lajos the Great’s huge army caused him most trouble when it invaded and defeated him in the Šumajida region in 1336. Uroš struck back by defeating both the Croatian and Hungarian armies and then exploited a Byzantine civil war, conquering most of their Balkan territory by 1342. The Byzantines retaliated, defeating the Serbs with Ottoman help, at the Battle of Stephaniana in 1344. Uroš, or Dušan the Mighty as he was known, fought back by conquering Byzantine lands and attacking Bosnia. Uroš was excommunicated by Constantinople when he took over the kingdom’s churches and he died in 1355, possibly from poison.

Uroš V was a weak ruler who depended on his mother, Jelena, and his advisers. His uncle Simeon (renamed Siniša) made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne in 1356 and the empire fragmented as Serbia’s nobles assumed control. Vukašin was made co-ruler in 1365 but he and most of the Serbian nobility were defeated and killed by the Ottomans at the Battle of Maritsa in 1371. Uroš died childless soon after. The surviving Serbian nobles refused to recognise Marko as their ruler and when Nikola Altomanović emerged as the most powerful noble, Prince Lazar and Tvrtko of Bosnia worked together to capture and blind him in 1373. Although Tvrtko became titular king, Serbia’s nobility stopped Lazar reunifying the kingdom.

Lajos I of Hungary died in 1382 and both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad were killed at the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389. Serbia was left with too few men to defend its lands and Lazar’s brothers, Andrijas and Dmitar, fled to Hungary with the countries treasury before the kingdom became an Ottoman vassal. The surviving Serbian nobles joined the Bayazid invasion of Wallachia only to be defeated and killed at the Battle of Rovine in 1395.

Stefan the Tall’s Serbian army fought alongside the Ottomans when they defeated Zgismond’s Catholic alliance at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. However, Bayezid’s empire began to collapse when the Timurs invaded from the east and they were defeated at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Stefan had fought well and Bayezid granted him the title of Despot. But Stefan accepted Hungarian suzerainty after his nephew Ðurađ Branković and Bayezid’s son, Suleyman, defeated him at the Battle of Tripolje in 1402.

Zgismond died suddenly in 1427, leaving no children, and the throne went to Ðurađ. The Ottomans captured Thessalonica in 1430, and while Ðurađ paid a ransom to rescue the area’s people, he could not afford the annual tribute and had to hand over his son as a hostage. He fled to Hungary when the Ottomans invaded in 1439 but two years later he was back in Serbia, trying to raise an army.

Ðurađ played an important part in the 1444 Peace of Szeged between Hungary and the Ottomans. He married his daughter, Mara, to Sultan Murad II and gave János Hunyadi lands and in return was allowed to rule Serbia. The truce did not last long and Ðurađ distanced himself from Hungary when it allied with Poland and attacked the Ottomans. Their Crusade ended with an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Varna in 1444. Hunyadi was again defeated by Murad II’s forces at Kosovo in 1448 but he beat Mehmet II at the Siege of Belgrade in July 1456, allowing Ðurađ to reoccupy Serbia before he died.

Lazar’s older brothers, Grgur and Stefan, had been blinded in 1441 for plotting against Murad II. Lazar exiled them both and then poisoned his mother to secure his position. He offered to be an Ottoman despot in 1457 but died the following year. The blinded Stefan became co-ruler with Lazar’s widow, but Jelena married her young daughter Maria to Tomašević, Prince of Bosnia, to hold onto the power.

Mátyás Corvinus of Hungary and Tomaš of Bosnia dethroned Stefan in 1459. Two months later, Tomašević surrendered the Serbian throne to the Ottomans and fled to his father’s court where he became the Ban of Bosnia in 1461. Mehmed the Conqueror invaded Bosnia after he refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans; he captured and beheaded Stephen.

Medieval Scotland: Kings and Bishops I

Church and State

The political changes that led to the foundation of medieval Scotland at the end of the first millennium began several centuries earlier. Gaelicisation of the Picts, for example, was not so much a ninth-century event as a process of interaction and assimilation which accelerated under the mac Ailpín kings. In a similar way, the shaping of today’s Anglo-Scottish border was not a one-off occurrence, represented by the formal cession of Lothian in 1018, but rather a later phase in a lengthy sequence of political relationships dating back to the sixth century. One important aspect of these relationships was the evolution of small kingdoms into larger hegemonies and, ultimately, into what we might call ‘proto-states’. By c.1000, both Alba in the North and Wessex-dominated England in the South were large kingdoms displaying some of the key attributes of statehood. Both were already starting to exhibit the kind of organisational sophistication seen in contemporary France and Germany, most notably in the delegation of royal authority to provincial stewards such as earls and mormaers. Neither tenth-century England nor contemporary Alba were true states in the modern bureaucratic sense, but nor were they simple political units of the type classified by anthropologists as ‘chiefdoms’. Both kingdoms had indeed evolved to become ‘complex chiefdoms’ moving confidently towards statehood. In this, their rulers benefited from close ties with the ecclesiastical elite – the abbots and bishops of major churches and monasteries – whose expertise in matters of administration and communication made them indispensable advisers to ambitious kings. We see an example of this increasingly symbiotic relationship between ‘Church and state’, between high priest and monarch, in a chronicle entry for 906. In that year, a great gathering of the elite of Alba took place at Scone, presided over by Constantine mac Áeda with Cellach the bishop of St Andrews at his side. Here, we may note the key role played in its proceedings by a senior cleric, no less than the chief bishop of the kingdom. As we saw in the cases of Columba and Adomnán, and as we shall see again direct intervention by ecclesiastical figures in the policies of kings was by no means a ninth-century innovation.

Priests and Kings

The renowned Adomnán, abbot of Iona and promulgator of the Law of Innocents, died in 704 at the venerable age of seventy-seven. In spite of all his great achievements, the conversion of his monks to the customs of Rome eluded him to the last. His passing was followed a year later by that of his friend and pupil, the scholarly King Aldfrith of Northumbria, whose young son Osred succeeded to the throne. In Osred’s time the most influential religious figure in the northern English realm was Ceolfrith, abbot of the dual monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow where Bede was then a senior monk. Ceolfrith had close connections with the Gaelic churches: he had conversed with Adomnán during the latter’s visits to Northumbria; he was a friend of Ecgbert, the Bernician cleric who dwelt among the Irish; and his own brother Cynefrith had served as a monk in Ireland. Ceolfrith was known throughout many lands as a man of great piety and as a staunch advocate of conformity with ‘Roman’ ecclesiastical practices. When the Pictish king Nechtan, son of Derile, decided to bring the churches of his realm into line, he sought Ceolfrith’s advice and assistance.

At that time, the Picts still largely relied on Columban clergy for spiritual leadership. Some Pictish clerics undoubtedly favoured conformity with the Roman Easter, but no major changes could be implemented without the assent of Iona. The impetus for religious reform in Pictland was thus initiated by Nechtan himself in his role as secular patron of all churches within his kingdom. Indeed, he emerges from the sources as a literate and well-informed monarch with a keen interest in religious matters. His initiative began with a letter to Ceolfrith in which he expressed a desire for information and guidance. The Northumbrian abbot was happy to help and the two men began to correspond. Bede included a copy of Ceolfrith’s first reply to Nechtan in his Ecclesiastical History. The detailed correspondence on spiritual matters ran alongside a foedus pacis, a peace pact drawn up between Picts and Northumbrians to end the simmering tensions still lingering in the wake of Brude’s victory at Dunnichen. Religious correspondence and secular diplomacy thus formed twin strands of a single peacemaking strategy designed to forge political and religious harmony between the two kingdoms. The ensuing negotiations yielded a positive outcome: the peace treaty which Bede described as still being in force when he completed his magnum opus in 731. As well as rejoicing at the cessation of frontier skirmishes, Bede was heartened by the successful religious negotiations in which he himself had undoubtedly played a part. It is likely, for instance, that he served as Ceolfrith’s chief letter-writer as well as providing detailed scriptural references employed by the abbot to bolster his arguments.

On the secular front, the foedus pacis held firm for many years. Hostilities along the Anglo-Pictish border did not break out again until the middle of the century. Meanwhile, among the churches of his kingdom, King Nechtan began a rigorous programme of reform. He soon met stubborn resistance from traditionalists who either rejected the changes or implemented them too slowly for his liking. There might have been additional resentment at such direct royal interference in ecclesiastical affairs. In 716, having become frustrated by the intransigence of anti-reformist clerics, Nechtan ordered them to leave his domains. Like Colman’s refugees from the synod of Whitby five decades earlier, these ecclesiastical rebels – perhaps a mixed group of Picts and Gaels – took the road back to Iona. Their defiance of the king was destined to be short-lived: in 717, Iona finally adopted the Roman Easter and the Petrine tonsure. This momentous change was ushered in by the Englishman Ecgbert after his appointment as Iona’s bishop in 716.

In 724, Nechtan relinquished his crown to enter monastic life. This happened at a time when dynastic strife was simmering among the Pictish royal kindreds and may have been his response to the growing uncertainty. It is equally possible that the decision was not his own but was forced upon him by rivals. The same could perhaps be said of Selbach, king of Cenél Loairn and claimant on the sovereignty of Dál Riata, who had likewise entered a monastery in 723. Since both kings returned to the secular stage as warlords within a few years, their respective sojourns in holy orders were perhaps either half-hearted or involuntary. In 733, Selbach’s son Dungal raided a number of northern Irish monasteries, violating the sanctity of the church on Tory Island by dragging the Pictish prince Brude out of it. At first glance, this looks like a blatant flouting of Adomnán’s Law of Innocents, which sought to protect monks and other non-combatants from the perils of war. However, the Law would only have applied to Dungal and his Cenél Loairn kinsmen if they had lain under the spiritual authority of Iona. Their plundering of Irish monasteries suggests that they did not feel bound by the Law and implies rather that their principal church and centre of worship lay outside the Columban familia. This church was almost certainly Lismore, the island monastery in the Firth of Lorn opposite the royal stronghold of Dunollie. Its abbot appears not to have been a guarantor of the Lex Innocentium in 697.

In the early eighth century, Lismore was not the only non-Columban centre still thriving in the western seaways. Applecross, Eigg and Kingarth all retained their independence of Iona and had sent no delegates to the Synod of Birr. Missionaries from Ireland were, in fact, still arriving on the shores of northern Britain. Some came to preach in peripheral districts where pockets of paganism were most likely to remain. Others sought places of sanctuary away from the cares of the secular world. In the early 700s, three members of a high-ranking Irish family are said to have sailed to Britain in the hope of finding solitude and spiritual fulfilment. These were Kentigerna, the daughter of a king, with her brother Congan and her son Faelan. After establishing a place of peace and contemplation in Strathfillan, in southern Perthshire, the trio went their separate ways. Kentigerna eventually settled on Inchcailloch (‘Isle of the Old Woman’), in Loch Lomond, where she died in 734. The similarity of her name to that of Saint Kentigern has not passed unnoticed, with some historians wondering if the two individuals might be one and the same.

Kentigerna’s death preceded by one year the passing of the Venerable Bede, who died in the monastery at Jarrow where he had spent almost his entire life. The renowned chronicler of Northumbrian Christianity departed at the age of sixty-two, having borne witness to some of the most important events in the spiritual history of his nation. As a contemporary of leading churchmen such as Ceolfrith, Ecgbert and the great Adomnán himself, Bede had seen some of these events at first hand. He was almost certainly present at Jarrow when Adomnán visited Northumbria, and he probably assisted Ceolfrith during the reform of the Pictish churches. Although he played no active role in the reform of Iona, the fact that this had taken place under the guidance of an English bishop gave him great satisfaction. His network of personal contacts was impressive. It included figures whose childhood memories reached back to the beginnings of Christianity in Bernicia and Deira, to the time of Aidan and Paulinus. At the time of his death, southern Scotland still had an English bishopric at Whithorn in Galloway. This would eventually fall out of Northumbrian control but, in the early eighth century, it testified to the English kingdom’s continuing political and ecclesiastical dominance between Clyde and Solway.

Before the Storm

By the middle of the eighth century, most of the native churches of Ireland and northern Britain had embraced reform, thereby rejoining the mainstream of European Christianity. In 768, the clergy of Gwynedd likewise adopted the Roman Easter. It is possible that those of South Wales had already made the change, perhaps copying the example of their Cornish countrymen who seemingly reformed before 700. The churches of the Strathclyde Britons may have followed those of North Wales in the 760s, unless their own acceptance of reform also came earlier. In Pictland, the impact of King Nechtan’s ecclesiastical policies remained graven on the landscape long after his death in 732. Many archaeologists and art historians attribute to his reign the first appearance of upright stone slabs inscribed with ornate crosses on the front face and Pictish motifs on the reverse. The oldest examples were produced in the early eighth century and are therefore contemporary with Nechtan’s reformist agenda. Their appearance coincided with the building of stone churches founded by Pictish royal patronage and dedicated to Saint Peter of Rome. Nechtan himself endowed the first of these churches and, according to Bede, invited Northumbrian masons to build it. Its precise location is unknown, but both Meigle and Aberlemno are plausible candidates: patronage by high-status individuals and a rich sculptural tradition are evident at both sites. A third candidate is Restenneth, now the site of a medieval priory close to the battlefield of Dunnichen. A lost place-name Egglespether (‘St Peter’s Church’) was recorded in later landholding documents relating to the area, but a similar name was also known in the vicinity of Aberlemno. The most northerly site proposed for Nechtan’s earliest stone-built church is Rosemarkie in Easter Ross.

Another Pictish foundation attributed to the eighth-century was Cenrigmonaid, now St Andrews, a site perhaps owing its origin to Nechtan’s successor Óengus, son of Fergus. Here was built the great royal church of St Andrew, dedicated to the Apostle whose bones were supposedly interred there. One version of the St Andrews foundation-legend tells of a monk named Regulus or Rule who, after experiencing a prophetic vision, brought the apostolic relics from Constantinople to Britain. At a place called Kylrimont, more correctly Cenrigmonaid (‘Head of the Royal Hill’), he allegedly met a certain ‘King Hungus’ who granted a portion of land for a church in which the sacred remains could be enshrined. Although the tale is largely fictional, the identification of Hungus as Óengus, son of Fergus, is consistent with other evidence. The Irish annals, for instance, include an entry noting the death of Tuathalan, abbot of Cenrigmonaid, in 747. This is the earliest reference to an ecclesiastical settlement at St Andrews and suggests that Tuathalan was the first abbot of a recently founded monastery. Óengus was the paramount Pictish king in the 740s and perhaps appointed Tuathalan to the abbacy. The corresponding archaeological data likewise seems consistent with this chronology, the oldest sculpture at St Andrews being attibuted to the second half of the eighth century. Foremost among a rich collection of Christian sculpture is a sandstone box-shrine or sarcophagus designed to contain the bones of an important individual. This superb example of Pictish craftsmanship, carved between 750 and 800, was set up in the church as a focus of veneration. The identity of the person whose corporeal remains were interred within it is unknown. Did it once hold the bones of the Apostle Andrew, or those of the mighty Óengus himself? Whatever the true purpose of the sarcophagus, the richness of its carving suggests royal patronage and a close connection between king and clergy. If the chief architect of ‘church and state’ relationships in Pictish territory was Nechtan, son of Derile, then the main beneficiary was a confident, independent religious elite in the time of his successors. The new foundation at St Andrews was home to Pictish monks who were no longer answerable to Iona.

An alternative interpretation of the St Andrews foundation-legend sees the royal patron ‘Hungus’ or Óengus not as Nechtan’s successor but as a namesake who died in 834. This was the Óengus who succeeded his brother Constantine as a Pictish overking in 820. Both siblings may have been involved in the founding or redeveloping of major churches in territory south of the Mounth. Given the presence of an abbot at Cenrigmonaid in the 740s, it seems unlikely that the later Óengus was responsible for its foundation, but he perhaps endowed it with gifts. Constantine, on the other hand, almost certainly founded the Pictish royal church at Dunkeld. This important religious settlement was established beside the River Tay, below the ancient Fort of the Caledonians, on a site now occupied by the medieval cathedral. Here, the modern visitor can observe two sculptured stones, both of which were probably carved in the ninth century. Within a few decades of its foundation, Dunkeld was earmarked as the premier church of the mac Ailpín kings.

South of Pictish territory and across the Firth of Forth lay Lothian, an area still under English rule in the eighth century. Here, the Northumbrian bishops of Lindisfarne held spiritual authority over a population descended largely from Britons but now thoroughly Anglicised. Among the satellite churches of the Lindisfarne diocese was a monastery at Tyninghame on the coast of East Lothian, eight miles north of the Bernician fortress at Dunbar. Tyninghame was founded by Saint Balthere or Baldred, an obscure figure whose Germanic name is suggestive of English origin. During his abbacy he frequently sought solitude on the Bass Rock, a precipitous feature rising out of the sea near the modern resort of North Berwick. He died in 756 and was buried at Tyninghame where, in later times, his tomb became the focus of a major cult. In the eleventh century, around the time of the cession of Lothian to the Scots, his body was disinterred by the Northumbrian priest Alfred, son of Westou, as part of an initiative to gather the remains of long-dead saints for reburial at Durham. This presumably happened around the time of the battle of Carham when the Anglo-Scottish border was finally fixed along the Tweed. At some point thereafter, Scottish ecclesiastical tradition tried to recast Balthere as a pupil of Saint Kentigern of Glasgow, hence the appearance of two ‘Baldreds’ in the documentary record. One of these has a a sixth-century context, the other belongs to the eighth. They are essentially one and the same, although the earlier is plainly an invention.

Medieval Scotland: Kings and Bishops II

The Storm Breaks

The final decade of the eighth century brought the first Viking raids on the British Isles. As worshippers of pagan gods, the Scandinavian warriors gave no immunity to Christian religious settlements and regarded them as soft targets. Isolated monasteries in the Hebrides were particularly vulnerable to seaborne marauders and offered rich pickings. They often possessed items of great value, such as finely decorated chalices and reliquaries, many adorned with gold and silver. Weaponless monks and nuns, armed only with prayer, gave little or no resistance and were easily slaughtered or enslaved. The earliest record of a Gaelic religious settlement being attacked by Vikings appears in the Irish annals under the year 795, when the island of Rathlin between Ulster and Kintyre was pillaged. Seven years later, Iona endured a devastating assault, the first of many, but the surviving monks resumed their vocation and the primary centre of Gaelic Christendom endured. Nevertheless, the era of Iona’s power and influence was drawing to an end. The tiny isle’s exposed location made it an unsuitable home for monks in an age when heathen pirates controlled the surrounding seaways.

Viking attacks intensified as the ninth century dawned. In the raid on Iona in 802 the monastery was burned and it is hard to imagine the great library and scriptorium remaining unscathed. Many precious and irreplaceable books undoubtedly perished, together with other unique objects deemed worthless by the heathen plunderers. The human cost, in terms of murder and enslavement, must have been considerable. At that time, the abbot of the monastery was Cellach, a far-sighted man who perceived that his community now lay in deadly peril. In 804, faced with the inevitability of further raids, he obtained land in Ireland for the building of a new monastery. The chosen site lay forty miles north of Dublin at Ceannanus Mór, a place better known today as Kells, where a church allegedly founded by Columba had existed since the sixth century. Construction of what was to become the new Columban headquarters began, but it was a major project and the work required considerable time to complete. In 806, Iona again endured a brutal assault in which sixty-eight monks were mercilessly slaughtered. By the following year, the work at Kells was completed and some of the brethren came down from the Hebrides to take up residence. Their old home was not, however, abandoned: contemporary notices in the Irish annals suggest that it continued as a residence for part of the community. Modern historians are divided on the question of how many monks remained, but the annalists imply that the leaders of the community, perhaps even Abbot Cellach himself, did not immediately transfer to Kells. After Cellach’s death in 814, his successor Diarmait seems also to have stayed behind, despite the persistent threat of Viking aggression. One violent raid on Iona in 825 claimed the life of Blathmac, an Irish monk and former soldier, whose murder was described in a contemporary poem. This was written within a decade or two of Blathmac’s death and portrays him as a courageous seeker of the bloody ‘red martyrdom’ bestowed by heathen swords. The story of his last hours tells of his foresight of an impending raid and of his resolve to complete his spiritual duties. Having sent many of his companions to safety, he prepared to celebrate mass in the church, even as the fearsome longships approached. When the Scandinavian warriors eventually arrived, demanding to know the whereabouts of the richly adorned tomb and shrine of Columba, they were confronted by a defiant Blathmac. Enraged by his refusal to divulge the tomb’s secret location, they slew him savagely, thereby granting his desire to perish as a ‘red’ martyr. This brutal episode highlights Iona’s unsuitability as a home for the founder’s relics, even when the tomb-shrine or reliquary was hidden in the ground. Columba’s mortal remains were of little interest to a Viking warband, but their preservation was at risk while their repository lay on an isolated Hebridean isle. After further raids in the 840s, a decision was made to remove the precious bones to safety. Centuries of royal burial meant that Iona was also the ancient spiritual home of Cenél nGabráin. Indeed, it may have been regarded by Cináed mac Ailpín himself as the ancestral church of his dynasty, even after he established his main power-base east of Druim Alban. Later tradition shows Cináed playing a key role in the decision to move Columba’s tomb. He is said to have requested that the bones and other relics be divided between the community’s new headquarters in Ireland and his own domains in Perthshire. In 849, when Abbot Indrechtach brought some of the relics to Kells, the rest went eastward to be housed in the mac Ailpín royal church at Dunkeld. A religious house had already been established there by Constantine, son of Fergus, earlier in the ninth century. One tradition attributed its foundation to Cináed, but this is not generally regarded as reliable. It is more likely that Cináed selected Dunkeld for special patronage by his family because it already had a connection with Pictish royalty. He evidently refurbished, expanded or otherwise redeveloped the existing church. In 865, the abbot of Dunkeld was also prim-escop Fortrenn (‘chief bishop of Fortriu’), a title referring to lands north of the Mounth towards the Moray Firth. This looks like a claim by the eccleiastical elite of the mac Ailpín kingdom on a Pictish region that may not have been answerable to their secular patrons at that time. By the end of the century, when the southern Pictish overkingship was held by Cináed’s grandsons, the dynasty’s major seat of spiritual authority had already been transferred to St Andrews.

Blathmac’s violent death epitomises the vulnerability of holy men and women in the Viking period, but not every ‘red martyrdom’ came on the point of a Scandinavian sword. Another member of the Columban brethren, no less a figure than Abbot Indrechtach, was slain while on a pilgrimage to Rome in 854. His assailants were not pagan Vikings but Englishmen, a band of robbers whose religious affiliation was presumably Christian. They slew him during his overland passage through the southern regions of Britain. It seems highly unlikely that they were unaware of his identity or profession. Nevertheless, we are left in no doubt that the principal danger to ecclesiastical personnel and property came from Viking pirates rather than from English brigands. This must have been especially true in the period before the Scandinavian colonies began to embrace Christianity. Iona thus remained vulnerable throughout the entire ninth century, although its value as a source of booty may have waned if precious artefacts were moved to Kells or Dunkeld. Later tradition claimed that the island’s ancient burial ground continued to serve as a resting-place for abbots and kings. Both Cináed and his brother Domnall were supposedly interred there, as too were their sons and grandsons. How far these traditions reflect ninth-century fact rather than twelfth-century fiction is unclear, but they are increasingly doubted by historians. Giric, the presumed mentor of Eochaid, son of Rhun, was one of the rulers allegedly buried on Iona after his death in 889. In spite of the mystery surrounding his origins, he emerges as a figure of some importance in contemporary religious developments, at least according to one tradition which asserts that ‘he was the first to give liberty to the Scottish Church, which was in servitude up to that time, after the custom and fashion of the Picts’. This curious statement seems to imply that Giric freed the clergy from a burden formerly imposed upon them by Pictish secular authority. It could be a veiled reference to a repeal of the reforms introduced by Nechtan, son of Derile, by royal decree in the early eighth century. Perhaps, as some historians suggest, Nechtan introduced a tax obligation which diverted substantial church revenues to his treasury? If this was indeed the ‘servitude’ ended by Giric, its removal may have brought the Pictish churches into line with those on the western side of Druim Alban, in the Argyll homelands of the Scots.

The Church in Alba

By the end of the ninth century, some Scandinavian communities around the isles and shorelands of northern Britain were starting to adopt Christianity. Intermarriage with Scots and Picts, or with Britons and Anglo-Saxons, paved the way for a rejection of pagan gods by sons and daughters of mixed parentage. Even the fearsome armies of Viking Dublin now included Norse-Irish warriors of hybrid ancestry and Christian belief. There was, however, no mass conversion of warriors and colonists, nor did the warlords of Orkney and the Hebridean isles invite missionaries from Kells or Dunkeld or St Andrews to preach the Word among their people. The decline of paganism among the Scandinavian settlers was therefore a random process driven by individual choice and kinship. It was neither imposed nor actively encouraged by their political leaders, but nor does it seem to have been forcefully discouraged.

The principal churches of the mac Ailpín dynasty lay at Dunkeld and St Andrews. Both places enjoyed the patronage of kings and each served as the primary ceremonial centre for a saintly cult. At Dunkeld, a shrine containing Columba’s bones was venerated with honour by Cináed and his successors, while at St Andrews the alleged relics of the eponymous Apostle sanctified a major royal monastery. Other places rose to prominence in regional contexts, but Dunkeld and St Andrews retained their special importance as the main royal churches for the early kings of Alba. In the tenth century, St Andrews became a centre of the Culdees or Céli Dé (‘clients of God’), a movement of religious reformers which had its roots in Ireland. The Céli Dé sought a return to traditional monastic values of ascetism and discipline. They held strong views on the roles of monks, abbots and bishops within the ecclesiastical and secular communities. Their ideas began to appear in southern Irish monasteries in the eighth century and from there permeated the Columban familia, reaching Iona before 800 and Dunkeld by c.850. It is even possible that Dunkeld was founded on Céli Dé principles.

The tenth century saw the development of an additional role for Columba as a spiritual standard-bearer in time of war. This role was not without precedent: three hundred years earlier, the Northumbrian king Oswald had received the saint’s blessing in a dream on the eve of his decisive battle against Cadwallon. In the last century of the first millennium, Columba’s role in warfare evolved into something more tangible. Not only did the soldiers of Alba invoke his name in prayers for victory, they also carried his staff or crozier when they marched into battle. This holy totem was borne in the front rank and became known as Cathbuaid (‘Battle Triumph’). In peacetime it was probably kept at Dunkeld with other relics, but, unfortunately, it has not survived. Other items associated with Columba seem to have conferred less protection from hostile foes. In 920, a Scandinavian force attacked and devastated Kells, the Irish headquarters of the familia, where some of the founder’s remains were enshrined. During the onslaught, many monks were wantonly slain as they prayed in the church. Dunkeld, too, suffered similar outrages during the same century, as in 903 when it was caught up in a Norse raid.

Attacks on the churches and monasteries of northern Britain continued to the end of the millennium, despite the adoption of Christianity by some Scandinavian colonies. In the Hebrides there were many folk of mixed blood – descendants of early Norse colonists who had intermarried with local natives – who turned their backs on paganism. Others stayed fiercely loyal to the old beliefs and continued to maintain a callous disregard for Christian sites. At Tyninghame in 941, the church founded by Saint Balthere was plundered and burned by Olaf Gothfrithsson of Dublin. More puzzling, and perhaps more shocking to contemporaries, were acts of violence directed at holy places by Christian allies of the heathens. An example of this type of sacrilege was the plundering of Kells in 969 by a Viking force accompanied by Irishmen from Leinster who, we may presume, were men of Christian birth. Equally disturbing, at least to modern eyes, is a reference to a battle in 965 where Abbot Donnchad of Dunkeld was listed among the casualties. The event in question occurred at the unidentified ‘Ridge of Crup’ where the rival mac Ailpín princes Dub and Cuilén contested the kingship of Alba. Whether or not Abbot Donnchad took part in the fighting is unknown, but the fact that he perished on the battlefield suggests that he was no passive bystander. Indeed, we may note that military service by clergymen was not unheard of in this period, in spite of Adomnán’s prohibitive Law.

Aside from the risk of robbery and destruction, the churches of Alba continued to fulfil their spiritual role. The reforms traditionally ascribed to King Giric in the late ninth century were presumably still in place at the dawn of the tenth. Further changes were implemented by Constantine mac Áeda, grandson of Cináed mac Ailpín, in the early years of his reign. In 906, at Scone in Perthshire, Constantine summoned the great assembly. Here, the secular and religious elites of Alba gathered to witness a royal pronouncement on ecclesiastical matters. At Constantine’s side stood Cellach, bishop of St Andrews, taking the role of high priest of the kingdom. Together, these two decreed that ‘the laws and disciplines of the faith and the rights in churches and gospels should be kept in conformity with the Scots’. The venue for the ceremony was Moot Hill, a man-made mound whose focus was the revered Stone of Destiny. It seems likely that the event marked a change in the relationship between the mac Ailpín dynasty and the senior clergy of Alba. Perhaps Constantine used the occasion to grant greater autonomy to the bishops? Something significant certainly occurred, even if the precise context cannot now be recovered.

During Constantine’s reign a young nobleman called Catroe embarked on a remarkable religious career that began in Perthshire and ended in France. Catroe was born around 900, at the start of Constantine’s kingship, among a wealthy Gaelic-speaking family. His mother might have been a Briton connected to the royal house of Strathclyde. Whatever her origin, she and Catroe’s father were devoted to the memory of Columba and probably worshipped at the saint’s shrine in Dunkeld. They gave their son into the keeping of Saint Bean, an obscure figure holding ecclesiastical rank either at Dunkeld or at another Perthshire monastery. Under Bean’s guidance Catroe trained as a monk and, after studying in Ireland, returned to Alba to instruct his mentor’s other pupils. At around forty years of age, c.941, Catroe grew restless and felt a strong urge to embark on a pilgrimage. His journey took him first to a church dedicated to Saint Brigit, perhaps at the old Pictish monastery at Abernethy, where he met King Constantine. From there he travelled south under royal protection to Strathclyde, where he stayed as a guest of King Dyfnwal, described as his kinsman. The Clyde Britons escorted Catroe on the next stage of his pilgrimage, bringing him to their border with Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria at a place called Loida which may have been on the River Lowther near Penrith. From there he journeyed east to York before turning south and eventually reaching the royal palace of Wessex at Winchester. The West Saxon king Edmund instructed no less a personage than the archbishop of Canterbury to arrange Catroe’s safe passage across the English Channel. On the European mainland, various high-ranking members of the Frankish secular and religious elites offered patronage to the Scottish pilgrim, whose piety and austerity won him many admirers. He was eventually chosen as abbot of the great cathedral at Metz, close to the centres of eastern Frankish imperial power. It was while travelling back there from a visit to the court of the Empress Adelaide in 971 that he died. In later times, his tomb at Metz became a place of veneration and he was accorded the honour of sainthood.

Catroe was in the early stages of his Continental career when Constantine mac Áeda exchanged the rich trappings of royalty for the robes of a cleric. Racked by age and infirmity, and after a forty-year reign, the king of Alba abdicated to spend his remaining days as abbot of St Andrews. The religious community there included many Céli Dé and it was these reformist brethren whom the old warrior-king now found himself leading. He was not the only tenth-century ruler to relinquish earthly authority in the twilight of life. In 965, the Irish prince Áed, a son of King Maelmithid of Brega, journeyed as a pilgrim to St Andrews and died there. Ten years later, a rather longer voyage of penitence was made by Dyfnwal, the king of Strathclyde who had given hospitality to Catroe. Like his kinsman and erstwhile guest, Dyfnwal embarked on a pilgrimage, but he died en route to Rome. He had already transferred the Clyde kingship to his son Malcolm, with whom he had hauled the oars of King Edgar’s boat on the River Dee in 973.

Dyfnwal’s fellow-pilgrims among the powerful men of the time generally chose destinations closer to home, such as St Andrews or Iona. In the late tenth century, the old Hebridean home of the Columban monks still held an allure for penitents opting out from the world of secular politics. One of its more unusual pilgrims was Olaf Cuaran, the archetypal Viking warlord. He arrived on Iona as an old man after relinquishing the throne of Dublin in 980. In the place where his heathen countrymen had inflicted so much distress he lived out his final years as a pious Christian convert, perhaps even being interred in the ancient burial ground. By then, of course, the role of the old monastery was dwindling. It was still occupied by monks and still ruled by an abbot, but the headship of the Columban familia had already passed to men based at Irish churches such as Kells and Armagh. In 986, an unidentified abbot of Iona was slain by Vikings while celebrating Christmas on the island with his brethren. He was not, however, the head of the wider familia, for the symbolic title comarba Coluim Cille (‘successor of Columba’) was at that time held by a contemporary whose own violent death at heathen hands occurred in Dublin.

Acts of destruction at holy sites remained a hallmark of Viking raids until Norway, Denmark and the overseas Scandinavian colonies adopted the Christian faith. The slow process of conversion began in the ninth century and continued to the end of the tenth, not attaining its final goal until Iceland adopted Christianity around the year 1000. Among the settlements in northern Britain, those on Orkney were converted after the baptism of Earl Sigurd in 995 on the orders of the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvasson. Olaf subsequently encouraged the people of Shetland and the Faeroe Islands to abandon paganism, thereby bringing the outer Scandinavian colonies into the Christian fold. By then, most of the Viking lordships in the western seaways were already moving along the same path, under the guidance of Irish and Scottish missionaries. The age of the heathen marauder was almost over.


This late 15th-century picture of the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 shows fallen warhorses. Despite their power, horses proved vulnerable to English archers, especially when using hunting broadhead arrows with wide cutting surfaces.

This late 15th-century depiction from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques of the battle of Crécy on 26 August 1346 shows many elements of medieval armies, including archers, crossbowmen, foot soldiers and mounted knights.


Flags took several forms. The pennon or pennoncelle was a small triangular flag nailed to the lance behind the head, and was painted with the owner’s arms. Bannerets had a banner, in the 13th century usually a slim rectangular flag with the longest side against the staff, where it was nailed or tied in place. Banners bore their owner’s arms and were carried by banner bearers whose duty was to stay close to their lord. The lord’s arms during the 13th century could also be carried by all of his followers. In 1218 a robber is recorded buying 100 marks’ worth of cloth for his band as though he were a baron or an earl, suggesting that followers could be equipped in coats of the same colour at least. Barons and knights had the right to have their knights and squires wear a badge or uniform.

In battle men looked to their lord’s banner, which was usually carried furled and only broken out when fighting was expected. Its symbolism was of high import: if it fell or was captured there was a risk of panic, and it would be protected by several tough men. Signals were given by trumpet or by hand, especially if the noise made shouting ineffective. Trumpets were also used to call the troops to arms before battle. War cries were used to frighten the enemy and bolster courage.

When fighting on foot the knight relied in part on his following – his squires, household and retained men – to watch his back. In the 14th century he might wear a jupon with his coat-of-arms displayed on front and rear, but equally some were plain and a warrior with his visor down was then difficult to recognize. As well as the banner, for his followers, a man of rank might, by the end of the century, also have a standard, a long flag perhaps carrying the red cross of St George next to the fly, then elements of his heraldic coat, such as main charges and colours, and perhaps his motto, the war-cry shouted to rally and encourage his men.

By the 15th century, surcoats were increasingly discarded and, with a lack of shields, it was essential that the banner-bearer remain close to his master, following his horse’s tail, as it was said. A lord might give the order not to move more than 10 feet (or a similar measurement) from the standards, but if the line slightly shifted it would not be too difficult in the confusion of battle to strike out accidentally at an ally.

In order to carry out heraldic identification and to deliver messages, important nobles employed their own heralds wearing tabards of their master’s arms, and trumpeters with the arms on hangings below the instruments.


The outcome of a war in the medieval age hung not merely upon skill at arms; in fact, this could actually be a secondary factor. John made an abortive attempt to invade Wales in 1211 that failed because of a lack of supplies; Llywelyn and the Welsh collected their belongings and cattle and withdrew into the mountains. In 1265 Simon de Montfort’s troops were unable to get their normal food and suffered from having to live off the land in Wales. Edward I fought no major battles in Wales – the ground was wrong for cavalry and the Welsh fought more as guerrillas. Knights were often hampered by the mountainous terrain but the English were nevertheless victorious in two engagements. Edward instead used attrition. He launched his first campaign against Wales both by land and sea, using labourers and woodcutters to make a road through the forests, building castles and cutting off the grain supply from Anglesey. In 1282 a bridge of boats was built to cross to Anglesey.

The king used similar tactics against the Scots. The first campaign in 1296 was completed in just over five months, with Scotland annexed to England. After his victory at Falkirk in 1298 he was able to provision his garrisons. He was in Scotland again in 1300, besieging Caerlaverock Castle and leading his armies across the country, but the Scots withdrew and refused battle. English armies would always be hampered by problems of supply in Scotland: the further they ventured, the longer the lifeline to England became. Moreover, many English-held castles were scattered and remote, making it difficult to march swiftly from one to another, or to relieve a fortress if besieged.

Scouts were used to locate enemy forces, after which the commanders tried to work out the best way to proceed. Armies made use of terrain where possible, and were careful to protect a flank if feasible. William Marshal, in a speech to his troops before the second battle of Lincoln in 1217, pointed out how the enemy’s division of his force meant that Marshal could lead all his men against one part alone. Other commanders were less prudent or simply hotheaded. The decision by the Earl of Surrey in 1297 to cross Stirling Bridge with the Scots in near proximity was foolhardy, since there was a wide ford 2 miles upstream that would have allowed a flank attack, and indeed Sir Richard Lundy had suggested this move. As it turned out, William Wallace and Andrew Murray attacked before even half the English force was across the bridge and the majority of those caught on the wrong bank were crushed.

When Edward was in direct control he proved a good tactician, as he showed at Evesham in 1265. He advanced to stop Simon de Montfort reaching Kenilworth, and divided his army into three battles to block his escape. Caught in a loop of the River Avon, Simon’s vain hope of killing Edward was dashed when the second battle swung into his flank while the third blocked any escape back south.

In his Scottish campaign of 1298, Edward brought 2,500 heavy cavalry and probably about 15,000 infantry. At Falkirk he faced the Scots arrayed in their schiltrons, tightly packed formations presenting a hedge of spears towards any attacker. They may have additionally fortified the position with wooden stakes. Again, disagreement was found among the division leaders: having skirted to the right of wet ground, the Bishop of Durham sensibly wanted to wait for the earls of the left-hand division to come level, and for the king who was bringing up the centre. But the impetuous young Ralph Bassett urged the cavalry on. Swinging out round the flanks, the two English divisions rode down the Scottish archers stationed between the schiltrons, and the Scottish cavalry broke and fled. However, the horsemen could not break the determined Scottish ranks of spears and it was the move by the king to bring up his archers and crossbowmen that helped prevent his knights dashing themselves to pieces. English cavalry deterred the Scots from breaking their ranks, and they were then forced to stand their ground until the archers withdrew, allowing the cavalry finally to break through. Even so, over 100 horses were killed. It should be noted that there appear to have been more cavalrymen in the battle than archers, and that crossbowmen were also used. Edward does not seem as yet to have developed his tactic of using massed longbows to decimate enemy ranks.

Knights at this time still often fought from horseback, changing to their destriers or coursers from the palfreys they used for riding. There is no evidence that cavalry routinely dismounted during the Welsh wars.

When delivered correctly the charge of the heavy horse was a formidable weapon that could smash a hole in enemy ranks. The charge began as a walk, increasing speed when within suitable range so that the horses would not be blown or the formation disorganized when the final push came. The mounted charge could still be highly effective, the knights riding almost knee to knee with lowered lances in the hope of steam-rollering over the opposition. The lance usually shattered during the first charge, the stump being dropped and, if need be, the sword was drawn, or perhaps a mace or horseman’s axe. Inventories from the 13th century show that horses killed in battle largely belong to knights and those with mounts of quality; in other words, the knights formed the front line.

Another problem with a mounted charge was discipline. As happened at Lewes, the charge by Prince Edward’s cavalry was successful but the elated horsemen kept going, pursuing their opponents so far as to put themselves out of the battle as well. The threat of the front line being completely penetrated was one reason commanders sometimes used a reserve, as did Simon de Montfort at Lewes. The knights who burst through might turn and strike the rear of the enemy line. The reserve was also quite often the position of the commander, with subordinates controlling the forward battles.

During the 14th century war was conducted in a number of ways. The chevauchée was one method. Like the well-tried feudal tactics that preceded it, the aim was to disrupt the economy of the area by swift movement, seizing food for the soldiers and destroying crops, villages and peasants (thereby insulting the lord of the place into the bargain) while evading danger to oneself by avoiding castles unless they were easy to capture.

Successful battles for the English required the use of cavalry to smash a hole in the enemy ranks, and the matchless skills of the English archers. However, as in the previous century, there were times when the cavalry shock manoeuvre could not be used effectively, for example in the bogs and mountains of Wales or against the Scottish schiltrons.

The young Edward III composed his forces so that the bulk of infantry were bowmen, and were mostly mounted to assist swift movement on the march. His men-at-arms were much more likely now to dismount on the battlefield to form the front divisions (called ‘battles’). Where possible, they stood in a naturally defended position with their archers, thus forcing the enemy to wear themselves out attacking them, a style of warfare first tested in battle against the Scots. Froissart describes how, in 1327, when Edward’s troops encountered the Scots, they were ordered to dismount and take off their spurs before forming themselves into three battles. In 1332 a force of the ‘disinherited Scots’ under the pretender Balliol (in fact pretty much an English force) invaded Scotland and after an abortive attack on the Scottish camp on the River Earn, formed a single block of dismounted men-at-arms at Dupplin Muir, with wings of archers and a small mounted reserve. The Scots, under the Regent, Donald, Earl of Mar, withered under the archery, and many of Balliol’s men-at-arms remounted to chase the routed enemy.

When Edward launched his main campaign against France, the English took their new double-pronged strategy with them. The first encounter in France was in 1342 when the English, driven back from the siege of Morlaix, formed up with a wood at their backs, a stream on one flank and dug a ditch to protect the front. Despite being pushed back to the woods, the English held their enemies off. At Crécy in 1346, dismounted men-at-arms and archers beat off repeated attacks by French cavalry, whose horses were a prime target for arrows. That same year this combination defeated a Scottish invasion at Neville’s Cross near the city of Durham, but there was heavy pressure on the English centre and right until a mounted English reserve was brought up and caught the Scots by surprise, the victory made complete by the arrival of reinforcements. At Poitiers in 1356 a mounted reserve swung the battle for the English, who were hard pressed in their defensive array by dismounted Frenchmen. The reserves turned the battle round and King John himself was captured.

In 1351 at Saintes the French retained mounted wings of horse to try to break up the archers on the flanks, and retained this formation for the rest of the century. At Nogent-sur-Seine in 1359 they succeeded in breaking into the English formation of archers in this way, whereas the men-at-arms kept tightly packed.

The significance of English archers in the French theatre is shown by the defeat at Ardres in 1351, where Sir John Beauchamp, caught by a dismounted French force as he returned from a raid, lined a ditch and held them off until they came to close quarters and another force broke up the archers.

In 1345 an English relieving force under the Earl of Derby charged into a French siege camp before Auberoche, the archers and men-at-arms doing much damage, while a sortie from the garrison finally broke the French forces. This form of surprise attack would occur again at La Roche Derien in 1347 during the Breton War of Succession, when an English relieving force fell on the French siege camp at night.

After Poitiers there were no further major battles between England and France until Agincourt in 1415. It was not battles that won a country as much as hard sieges: the French generally refused to fight in the open, instead shutting themselves up in castles and fortified towns, and forcing the English to besiege them, or else wander the countryside.

With the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 garrisons emptied, and groups of soldiers formed free companies under captains such as Sir Robert Knollys (perhaps the earliest) and Sir John Hawkwood. These ‘rutters’, as the English called them, or routiers, actually consisted of men from many nationalities, though the French often referred to them all as ‘English’. Each company often consisted of only a few hundred men, archers, infantry and men-at-arms. A typical ploy was to seize one or two strong castles and use them as bases from which to terrorize an area. They hired their services out to rulers, and according to Froissart, the Black Prince used 12,000 of them in Castile. At the end of the 14th century they tended to disappear until their rebirth on a smaller scale after the renewal of war by Henry V.

English forces were also involved in Spain. At Najera in 1367 the army of the Black Prince formed three entirely dismounted lines, the main battle in the centre, to face a Castilian force including many French soldiers, also in three lines but with many cavalry. The men-at-arms again fought well, ably supported by archers who out-ranged the Spanish javelin-wielding mounted jinetes. They also out-shot crossbowmen and slingers, who drew back, allowing the English men-at-arms to overlap the enemy division. When the English rearguard swung in on the flank, the Spanish and French lines shattered.

By the 15th century, the knight often fought on foot. He had been trained to fight mounted, with a lance, but it was often more effective to dismount most of the men-at-arms and to keep only a small mounted reserve. This was partly due to the increasing threat from missiles. In France during the early 15th century, the English forces used tactics learned the previous century. If the armoured fighting men were kept near the blocks of archers and all waited for the enemy to advance, it meant the latter arrived in a more tired state, all the while harassed by the arrows from the archers and compressed by a natural tendency to shy away from them. This bunching could then work to the advantage of the English who used their archers to strike at the press of French soldiers, now aggravated by those behind pushing forward, as happened at Agincourt. The groups of mounted men-at-arms who tried to outflank the archers at the start of the battle were foiled by the woods which protected each end of the English line, and found to their cost the price of facing archers when mounted.

When archers were in a strong position, ideally defended by stakes, hedges or ditches, a cavalry charge was extremely dangerous. Even when the horses were protected by armour, there was always some exposed part that an arrow could strike, and arrows went deep. Shafts fitted with broad hunting heads made short work of flesh, and the horses became unmanageable even when not mortally wounded. The mounted knight then became useless as he fought for control or was thrown to the ground as the animal collapsed. It is worth noting that only a few hundred at each end of the French line attacked, and of these a few still reached the stakes despite the volleys of presumably thousands of arrows launched at them. Yet it was the dismounted men-at-arms who did most of the fighting in this battle, and it was they who, according to one chronicler, pushed the English line back a spear’s length before everything became jammed up:

But when the French nobility, who at first approached in full front, had nearly joined battle, either from fear of the arrows, which by their impetuosity pierced through the sides and bevors of their basinets, or that they might more speedily penetrate our ranks to the banners, they divided themselves into three troops, charging our line in three places where the banners were: and intermingling their spears closely, they assaulted our men with so ferocious an impetuosity, that they compelled them to retreat almost at spear’s length.

Since plate armour obviated the need for a shield, and fighting dismounted meant the rein hand was free, it became common for knights on foot to carry a two-handed staff weapon in addition to the sword hanging at their side. At first this was often a lance cut down to a length of around 6–7ft (1.8–2.1m). Increasingly, other staff weapons were carried, which could deal more effectively with plate armour. One of the most popular was the pollaxe, designed to dent or crush the plates, either to wound the wearer or so damage the plates that they ceased to function properly.

Mounted men were very useful in a rout, for they could catch up a fleeing enemy and cut him down with minimum risk to themselves, especially if he was lightly armoured. Indeed, catching archers out of position was the best way for cavalry to scatter them before they got a chance to deploy. In the Hundred Years’ War this was not too much of a problem for English knights, since the French did not use archers on a large scale. During the Wars of the Roses, archers fought on both sides in Yorkist and Lancastrian armies and, for the most part, the men-at-arms found it best to stick with the tried-and-trusted methods and fight on foot.


Knights who were injured or sick faced two obstacles on any road to recovery. First, dependent on their rank, they might or might not get the chance to see a surgeon. Second, if they did get medical attention, a great deal depended on the quality of the physician and the nature of the wound. The king and the great nobles would have surgeons in their pay and such men would travel with their master when they were on the move. Thomas Morestede is styled as the King’s Surgeon in his agreement with Henry V for the invasion of France in 1415, where he is also to provide three archers and 12 ‘hommes de son mestier’ (men of his service). In addition, William Bradwardyn is listed as a surgeon and both he and Morestede came with nine more surgeons each, making a total of 20 for the army. Some surgeons were retained by indenture in the same way as the soldiers. John Paston, who was hit below the right elbow by an arrow during the battle of Barnet in 1471, managed to escape with other fleeing Yorkists but lost his baggage. His brother sent a surgeon who stayed with him and used his ‘leechcraft’ and ‘physic’ until the wound was on the mend, though John complained it cost £5 in a fortnight and he was broke.

The medical care itself was a mixture of skill and luck, since astrology and the doctrine of humours played a large part in medical care. Surgeons of repute were taught at the school of Montpellier in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, but even these men would have had limited skills. Many could treat broken legs or dislocations successfully, even hernias, and carried out amputations, though a lack of knowledge of bacteria made it a risky business for the patient. Some used alcohol, opium or mandragora to dull the pain. Neither instruments nor hands were necessarily washed. Open wounds could be treated by stitching, and egg yolks were recognized as a soothing balm. However, blood flow was staunched by the use of a hot iron.

Arrows might go deep, though by the 15th century it was less common to be hit by one with a head bearing barbs, especially when wearing armour. Yet arrows were often stuck in the ground for swift reloading, and conveyed on their tips a lethal dose of dirt which, together with cloth fragments, would be carried into the wound. Abdominal wounds were usually fatal, and surgery in this area was fairly lethal, since any tear in the gut would allow material into the abdominal cavity (not to mention dirt from the weapon used), resulting in peritonitis and death. However, skeletons from the battle of Towton in 1461 show that men did survive quite horrendous wounds. Bones show evidence of slashing blows which bit through muscle into the bone itself, in some cases shearing off pieces. One individual in particular had been in battle before, having been struck across the jaw with such force that the blade cut across to the other side of the mouth. He also had wounds to the skull, but survived all of these, with some disfigurement, to face action once more at Towton, knowing what that might entail – in this instance his own death. Although knights might wear better armour, it was (theoretically) their job to lead from the front. Some unfortunate knights neither escaped nor perished, but were left for dead, robbed and left half-naked in the open unless by chance they were discovered and succoured.

Much of the Towton evidence comes from men who were infantry. Compression of the left arm bones strongly suggests that some were almost certainly longbowmen. They appear to have been killed during the rout or after capture, and some have several wounds, especially to the head, suggesting that once cut down, further blows were delivered to finish them off. Presumably they had no helmet, or had discarded or lost it while being pursued. The victims were then placed in grave pits. Knights and men of rank might escape such a fate. After Agincourt, the Duke of York’s body was boiled and the bones brought back to England for burial. Similarly those of lords would be found either by their retainers or else by heralds, whose job it was to wander the field and book the dead (meaning those with coats-of-arms), which gave the victor a good indication of how he had fared. The families would then transport the body back to be buried on home ground, in the case of the nobility next to their ancestors. Otherwise they were buried locally, usually in a churchyard.

During the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, with men supporting rivals to the throne, treason was an easy and swift charge to bring. For example, after the battle of Wakefield in 1460, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, was captured and executed next day. Men of rank killed while in revolt might also undergo the degradation of public humiliation. This was not common during the first part of the 15th century, since much of the time knights fought in France, where they were usually treated as honourable opponents. Warwick the Kingmaker, however, having been slain at Barnet in 1471, was brought to London and displayed for all to see, before his body was allowed to rest at Bisham Abbey with other family members. Richard III was exposed for two days in the Church of St Mary in the Newarke in Leicester, naked except for a piece of cloth, and then buried in a plain tomb in the house of the Grey Friars nearby. Salisbury’s head, with those of the Duke of York and his young son, the Earl of Rutland, both killed at Wakefield, was stuck on a spike on the walls of York, the Duke’s complete with a paper crown.

Being treated to the indignity of having one’s head spiked on London Bridge or on other town gates served as a warning to all those passing beneath. However, a number of attainders (loss of civil rights following a sentence for treason) were reversed, such as that of Sir Richard Tunstall who, despite being placed in the Tower, managed to persuade Edward IV that he was more use alive and gained his favour. Children of those who died accused of treason did not usually suffer because of it, though their father’s lands might pass to the crown until they inherited them.

In contrast to this brutality, there is evidence that humanity and regret did exist. Chantry chapels were set up on various battlefields to pray for the souls of those who died, for example at Barnet, some half a mile (800m) from the town, where the corpses were buried. Richard III endowed Queen’s College, Cambridge, for prayers to be said for those of his retinue who perished at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Nobles might make provision for men of their retinues to be cared for if wounded; Henry of Northumberland told his executors to carry out such wishes if he should be killed at Bosworth.