Comments on Anglo-Saxon Succession

Beowulf opens with a call to remember the great Spear-Danes of old, led to glory by Scyld Scefing.  However, unlike those legendary founders who are given some connection to gods or past heroes or leaders (such as Aeneas or King Arthur), Scyld has no such connection—“his lineage was unknown” (7).  His success without any apparent inheritance of power spurred me to consider the role of succession in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly as it relates to the succession of kings.

Frederick Biggs argues in “The Politics of Succession in Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon England” that while there are many permutations inheritance could take in Anglo-Saxon England, they can generally be boiled down to two different methods:  “the older Germanic assumptions about eligibility for the throne and the newer Christian ideals.”  A great amount of tension existed in England at this time due to a cultural clash—older Germanic settlers’ more pagan culture struggling against the arrival of Christianity.  From this tension, Biggs says, emerged two different models.

The Franks Casket includes images from Germanic and Christian mythology

The Franks Casket (Anglo-Saxon England, c.700) includes images from Germanic and Christian mythology

The Germanic method of inheritance entailed the king choosing his heir from a wide variety of candidates, both familial and otherwise.  Additionally, those who seize power would also fall under this method, as they, albeit forcibly, make themselves candidates.  The Christian method, on the other hand, coming as England became Christianized, was more of what we would call traditional, or patrilineal inheritance, rule being passed from father to first-born son.  While the model then is patrilineal, Biggs designates it the Christian model due to the influence Christianity had culturally in bringing about this shift, particularly stemming from the Carolingian Renaissance (mid-late 8th century) which placed an emphasis on creating laws based on the teaching of God rather than borrowing from Germanic traditions.  The tension we see Beowulf reflects the circumstances of this clash in Anglo-Saxon England.

One of the clearest indications of patrilineal inheritance and how Christianity helped cultivate it appears in Bede in his Historia abbatum.  Bede places this statement in the mouth of Benedict Biscop, founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, with his dying breath:

 ‘For’, he said, ‘as he who by carnal means begets carnal children necessarily by carnal and earthly considerations seeks carnal and earthly heirs for his inheritance those who by the spiritual seed of the Word bring forth spiritual sons of God are necessarily driven by spiritual considerations. Among his spiritual children let him be the greater who is endowed with the greater spiritual grace, just as earthly parents recognize their first born son the principal of their children and in the partition of their inheritance are in the habit of giving preference to him.’

Just as we give our material due to our first-born sons, the bishop says, so too does God give to us our spiritual due, as we are His sons.  The analogy seems to take for granted the fact that fathers pass down to their sons their inheritance, and, as such, indicates that it was expected that a son would inherit land from his father.  And yet, while this may have been expected, perhaps even ideal, in the mind of Bede, the law indicates that it was not nearly as clear-cut as this passage would like to say.

In written legislation seen in the time of Cnut (c. 985-1035), we find the following:

If a man departs from this life intestate [cwydeleas, literally ‘speechless’], whether through negligence or through sudden death, his lord shall take no more from his possessions than his right heriot [what is owed to him]. But, by his direction, the possessions shall be very justly divided among his wife, children and near kin, each according to the share which belongs to him.

As Julie Mumby in “The Descent of Family Land in Later Anglo-Saxon England” says, the first line of this legislation necessarily implies some form of a will.  If there were some universal custom that dictated that a lord would give to his inheritance to his son, there would be no need for a law dictating what should occur if there were no will.  Indeed, the second part of this legislation allows for the lord, if he has a will, to give to his family, both immediate and otherwise, as he sees fit by his discretion.  Mumby says that this makes Bede’s point seem to be an ideal, something that should be the case, but that it is quite common in practice not to have a direct father-to-son lineage.  Thus, one can see that inheritance, at least in some cases, was flexible, being divided and distributed among whomever the deceased lord thought most deserving of it, either within the immediate family or outside of it. (You can see more from Prof. Mumby on Anglo-Saxon inheritance here)

Due to the constant invasions Anglo-Saxon England faced from outside powers, such as the Danes, it was difficult for any kingdom to develop a continuous method of succession—it would have been quite common for these kings to die in invasions suddenly and with no will in place.  A king not only had to watch for possible insurgencies that would take his “inheritance” (his kingdom, wealth, etc.) by force, he also needed to assure that his people accepted him and his eventual successor as their lord in the event that they were able to choose their successor.  Perhaps, as Bede says, it was expected that lineage pass from father to son, but in many cases it may have been a rare occurrence, due to one or both dying.  In this way, then, it seems that the older Germanic system of choosing an heir stayed around in Anglo-Saxon England even while the nation became Christianized, if not of desire then out of necessity.  However, one of the consequences of the rise of Christianity was the need for kings as they assumed the throne to be recognized as Christian.


King Alfred the Great

According to David Pratt in The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great, one of the final elements in securing Alfred’s lineage was “pan-Christian leadership:” Alfred successfully defined himself as “Ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain.”  Because so much of a successful succession relied upon the approval of the people and the projection of unity and strength that would limit the threat of invasion, a common practice of new kings was to both formally declare themselves Christian and advocate themselves as kings of all Christians alike, a true Christian king (aligning themselves in a way with Christ with the right to rule ordained by God Himself).  As Pratt notes, this was not limited to English kings, and was indeed a common practice of Danish invaders to ensure the loyalty of the people living on the land they had conquered.

Broadly speaking, those who seize power by force could fall under Biggs’ Germanic system, as they are putting themselves forth as possible successors even as they reject the will of the incumbent to pass down the title.  Indeed, this is the great flaw of the Germanic system where anyone can be recognized so long as they perform the right actions.  Even in cases of illegitimate seizure, there are ways in which the aggressor can cement his place in the eyes of the common people.  The first is, as Pratt said, by declaring himself under the order of God.  Another way, however, as Nicole Marafioti in The King’s Body:  Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England argues, is shown in how the body of the deceased ruler is treated.  Marafioti says that those who conquer eventually reach an impasse when they ascend:  either they must portray themselves as a continuation of the old crown in much the same way that a chosen successor would, or they must “delegitimize the old ways” as in effect non-Christian, or, at the very least, as lacking value, in order to set the new rule up as superior to the flawed previous one.

In examining archaeological evidence and primary sources concerning the burial and funeral rights of kings following their deaths, she noticed an interesting trend.  Essentially, those who wished to present themselves as a continuation of the old guard would give full funeral rights and blessings to the dead king, while those who wished to break from the old would desecrate the body in various ways, often denying a proper funeral, the desecration of the body serving to posthumously show the degradation of rule under the now-dead king.  On the other hand, those who inherited peacefully by being handed the throne in all instances honored the deceased body.  In effect, the body of the king became the ultimate kind of inheritance for the new ruler, and how they treated what they were “given” showed how they wanted to be viewed.

This speaks to how complicated succession could become in a society that allowed for a more Germanic system of inheritance.  The few instances of the more Christian method, from father to son, on the other hand, are much more simple—the rule simply passes to the eldest son once the incumbent ruler is dead.  This can be seen in the case of Alfred the Great.  As Pratt explains, he had established his kingdom to such an extent and strength that there was no chance of someone from the outside seizing power, and so at his death his son, Edward the Elder, was set to assume the throne, further reinforcing the idea from Bede that it was perhaps expected that the first-born son assume the throne.  And yet, even in a time of relative peace, Edward’s cousin Æthelwold attempted to take the throne by force before he was run out of Wimborne, showing that it may have been expected that a peaceful succession even in peace times may have been uncommon, or, at the very least, that not everyone respected the patrilineal model of inheritance.

So what does this mean for Beowulf?  Indeed, the poem seems to speak to this very tension that Biggs brings to the surface between the two models of succession.  We see this in several places in the poem.  Although Scyld Scefing’s lineage is unknown (7), when he becomes king, he passesscyld lineage down his reign to his eldest son, in the patrilineal model, as do his proceeding heirs (17).  However, Healfdane does not pass his title to his eldest son, but rather to his youngest, Hrothgar.  Hrothgar almost strays from the patrilineal model by unofficially adopting Beowulf, making him a prime candidate to being given the throne as inheritance even though his blood is far removed from Hrothgar’s (1160-1).  This culminates when it is alluded to that Hrothulf, adopted son of Hrothgar, will eventually betray him and seize the throne from Hrethric, Hrothgar’s eldest and rightful heir (983).  Additionally, we also at the poem conclusion that Beowulf has no son and cannot partake in this model, and his people will suffer as a result of not having “another” Beowulf to defend them from invaders. Readers of Beowulf might ask whether the poem favors one model over another and how it represents the pros and cons of each system.

–By Ben Warner ’15

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