Making or Breaking a King: Kingship Ideals in Anglo-Saxon Historiography

Making or Breaking a King: Kingship Ideals in Anglo-Saxon Historiography

By  Catriona Jo Haffenden-Haines

MA Thesis, Leiden University, 2017

Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abindon, c.1220. MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso, The British Library.

Introduction: Our modern perceptions of historical kings are often formed on the basis of literary bias. We are taught that certain kings are good, or even great (when it comes to Alfred the Great). On the other hand, some kings are typically characterised as terrible, such as Æthelred the Unready.

Sometimes the propaganda surrounding kings stemmed from the royal court itself, where the king could have a direct and presumably positive influence on the writings. In addition, the writers of chronicles and histories often went back in time to alter past descriptions with the aid of hindsight or new circumstances.

Contemporary research has already explored the bias surrounding kings; it is generally accepted that history was often written with creative embellishments. As Alice Sheppard has noted with respect to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “the annalists of conquest and invasion create stories of kingdom formation that can more properly be seen as defining or constitutive fictions in which lordship is written as the identifying ethos of the Anglo-Saxon people.” The occurrence of annals that are intentionally biased in order to agree with the political or cultural circumstances of the time is common in Anglo-Saxon historiography.

One such example can be seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 886: “King Alfred occupied London fort and all the English race turned to him, except what was in captivity to Danish men.” The country is in turmoil with constant Danish invasions and the fear of conquest, it is therefore beneficial to portray Alfred as a pillar of strength, someone his subjects can “turn to” in their time of need. It is this deliberate bias, and the selective focus in Anglo-Saxon historiography that will be the focal point of this thesis, in order to explore the different propaganda techniques used by annalists when writing about specific kings.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Leiden

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