Monastic lands and England’s defence in the Viking Age

Monastic lands and England’s defence in the Viking Age

By Robin Fleming

English Historical Review, No.395 (1985)

Introduction: Only a handful of narrative sources deal with Anglo-Saxon England after the Age of Bede, and they provide only limited information on the reigns of Alfred the Great and his heirs. The few chronicles, saints’ lives, and royal biographies that survive give a general outline of West Saxon military success and consolidation, but little more. Consequently, Anglo-Saxonists have learned to examine the less eloquent evidence of numismatics, diplomatics, and archaeology for indications of West Saxon expansion. While bearing witness to the unification and reconquest of England, none of these sources alone adequately explain why the Wessex kings were able to succeed. But an examination of land and landholdings, particularly those of the early monastic endowments under Alfred and his successors, can help to illuminate the mechanics underlying the West Saxon ascendancy. Evidence for such a study is abundant: Domesday Book provides a comprehensive record of landholding on the eve of the Norman Conquest, and approximately 1700 Old English wills, charters, writs, and memoranda supply a wealth of information about individual estates and their holders. These documents can be used to trace early monastic lands forward into the Viking Age and beyond, and allow us to examine one important factor which enabled the House of Cerdic to survive, and indeed thrive, in an age which generally treated kingship so poorly.

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