Heroes, Saints, and Martyrs: Holy Kingship from Bede to Aelfric
Hare, Kent G.
The Heroic Age, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
Warfare played a crucial but controversial role in the sanctity accorded various early Anglo-Saxon kings, especially Oswald of Northumbria. Different literary treatments over time from Bede to the early eleventh century reveal a changing emphasis regarding that role and possible insight into a more popular view than the ecclesiastically-oriented Bede wished to include.
Warfare was an essential function of kingship in the early Middle Ages. As warlord, the kings of Anglo-Saxon England led their warbands on expeditions of plunder and conquest and defended their peoples against similar efforts by their royal peers (Abels 1988, 11-12). With the coming of Christianity to England at the turn of the seventh century, a tension developed between the lure of Christian asceticism and a king’s royal duty. Some kings followed their thanes into the cloister and undertook spiritual combat in a manner which, by then, was regarded as quite venerable. Other kings lived holy, even saintly lives, while remaining in this world and fighting its battles, some of which gained an aura of Christian significance. The great historian of the English conversion, the Venerable Bede, noticed both responses during the first century after the coming of Christianity. Writing in the next century, the eighth, Bede had definite ideas about which response was appropriate. He would rather that a king not abandon his state for the cloister. He recognized that the king’s role as warchief was necessary, but it was a necessary evil. His Christian kings might be holy in their lives, but that holiness was despite their battles. Nonetheless, later English writers looking back to the events reported by Bede did not take such pains to dissociate those same kings’ holiness from their martial activities. This article will briefly examine the early Christian kings of England as warriors and heroes, saints and martyrs for what they can tell us about warfare, religion, sanctity and kingship.