An Appeal to Rome: Anglo-Saxon Dispute Settlement, 800-810
The Heroic Age: Issue 6 Spring (2003)
In this paper, I argue that Anglo-Saxon dispute settlement in the early ninth century exploited Charlemagne’s title as Holy Roman Emperor. The willingness of Anglo-Saxon monarchs to evoke a Continental presence in dispute resolution demonstrates the connection between England and Charlemagne’s renovatio imperii.
Two disputes between the Northumbrian and Mercian kingdoms were resolved through an external agent, the first in 801, and the second in 809. While conflict between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was nothing new, mediation between kings as a strategy of dispute resolution was unique to this period. I suggest that the kings of Northumbria and Mercia, the two strongest kingdoms in the early ninth century, exploited Charlemagne’s imperial title to strengthen their own positions.
Charlemagne’s interest in Anglo-Saxon affairs is well attested. He harbored English political exiles and considered a diplomatic marriage with Mercia. In 792 he sent the English a statement from Constantinople regarding the adoration of images along with Alcuin’s refutation, and in 794 he invited English clergy to participate in the Synod of Frankfurt rejecting the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (787). Perhaps the best evidence for Charlemagne’s interest in Anglo-Saxon affairs is preserved in a letter Alcuin sent to Offa of Mercia (757-796). Alcuin wrote that when Charlemagne learned of the murder of Æthelred of Northumbria (774-779, 790-796), “he was so angry with the people, ‘that treacherous, perverse people,’ as he called them, ‘who murder their own lords,’ for he thought them worse than pagans. If I had not interceded for them, he would have deprived them of every advantage and done them every harm he could.” It is difficult to determine how Alcuin expected Offa to receive this statement, for it suggests that Charles was ready to mount a punitive expedition into Northumbria. Possibly Alcuin was attempting to impress the Mercian king by demonstrating the importance of his relationship with Charlemagne. On the other hand, it could have reflected Charlemagne’s vision of England’s relationship to the expanding regnum Francorum. The only comment we can offer with any degree of certainty is that Alcuin was articulating an outsider’s view.