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Response to Review of Formation of the English kingdom in the 10th century

This response focuses (unsurprisingly) on points of criticism, but I would like to emphasise at the outset my thanks to Nicole Marafioti. This is not just conventional politeness: I am genuinely grateful for what is a fulsome and overwhelmingly positive review.

Marafioti’s criticisms are largely confined to her antepenultimate and penultimate paragraphs. I confess that I find these paragraphs rather diffuse and hard to follow, but I think that she is seeking to make two arguments. One is that I should have said more about the ideologies prevalent prior to the mid-tenth century. The other is that I focused excessively on the development of the English kingdom as a territorial unit. I shall address these points in turn.

I am puzzled by the suggestion that I paid little attention to the ideologies of the period before the second half of the tenth century. One of the book’s main concerns is to document and explain the early tenth-century idea of a kingship covering the island of Britain, and to account for its subsequent decline; indeed, Marafioti herself identifies this as ‘a central theme of the book’. Further, my analysis of late ninth- and early tenth-century royal ideologies was not confined to aspirations and claims to rulership of Britain. Thus, for example, I examined the great diversity of titles accorded to Alfred and his immediate successors, and concluded (i) that contemporaries were uncertain about how best to characterise the Cerdicings’ power as they extended their domination; (ii) that, insofar as contemporaries associated early tenth-century kings’ power with any territory, they associated it with Britain; and (iii) that there is little sign of any coherent scheme to promote an image of English unity. Notwithstanding my analysis of this last issue, Marafioti asserts that Alfred had ‘a commitment to cultivating a collective identity' and assumes that 'unifying ideals … underpinned … Alfred’s Angelcynn’. If she offered new evidence for these propositions, I would consider it; as it is, I can only really refer readers to the section of the book in which I sought to refute them (pp. 201–9).

Marafioti alludes a number of times to what she sees as a disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality of early tenth-century royal power. Certain of her comments on this issue appear confused and self-contradictory. In particular, she asks: ‘Why was the rhetoric of expansive rulership – over the Anglorum Saxonum, the Angelcynn, the Englisc, or all of Britain – so consistent across the period covered by this book, when political reality was so variable?’ I am at a loss as to why Marafioti thinks that the heterogeneous terminology that she quotes reflects consistency across the period. More generally, the gap between aspiration and reality may well have been narrower than Marafioti supposes. As I argue in the book, early tenth-century claims to rulership of Britain only look inflated if one anachronistically assumes that kingship ought to involve domination of an intensity like that seen within the English kingdom of the 11th and later centuries. From the perspective of those living at the time, however, the idea that Æthelstan was king of Britain quite probably appeared a reasonable description of reality: he had power over all the other leading figures in Britain, and (if my account of the chronology of administrative change be accepted) there was as yet no stark dividing line between the quality of Cerdicing domination in different parts of the island (pp. 211–12).

Perhaps the most puzzling part of the review, however, is the sentence where Marafioti asks ‘why ideology would exert such significant influence during Edgar’s reign and so little in the preceding generations’. The notion that ‘ideology’ was marginal before Edgar is bizarre. The Benedictine reform movement which flourished under Edgar increased the prominence of ideas about royal responsibilities, and I float (but – I admit – do not fully explore) the argument that this was one reason for the administrative reforms implemented around this time (pp. 187–93). These reforms were in turn important in the development of the idea of the English kingdom as a territory confined to the land between the Channel and the River Tees (pp. 195–201). That these particular ideas were absent or less prominent before Edgar’s day does not mean that the same was so of ‘ideology’ in general. Even the briefest dip into David Pratt’s book on Alfred is enough to prove the contrary. Moreover, a key part of my argument is that certain ideas – especially that of a single realm of Britain – were more significant in the early to mid-tenth century than later (pp. 209–13).

As to my focus on explaining how the English kingdom came to exist as a definite territorial unit, Marafioti remarks that ‘measuring the kingdom’s early tenth-century development against 11th-century boundaries is problematic’. Quite what she finds ‘problematic’ is unclear, especially given that she twice notes that I emphasise that the kingdom’s formation was not inevitable. It was, however, certainly not my intention to make some sort of value judgment on the tenth century by 'measuring' it against the 11th. My aim was to explain how and when the situation apparent in the 11th century came into being, and it is hard to imagine how one might do this other than by reference to the preceding period. Similarly, it is far from clear why Marafioti finds it 'troubling’ that I noted moves towards greater numismatic uniformity under Æthelstan, and the solitary reference to a hundred in Edmund’s legislation, but explained why these do not indicate that arrangements observable in Edgar’s day already existed in earlier periods (pp. 136–7, 144, 146, 155, 193–4).

Notwithstanding these comments, Marafioti appears broadly to accept my argument for the importance of administrative changes in or around the time of Edgar. This is reassuring, since the argument in question is in many ways the heart of the book. Rather, the main drift of Marafioti’s criticism seems to be that I might have said more about the non-geographical dimensions to how contemporaries perceived the Cerdicings’ power. She is, however, vague about what topics (if any) I should have covered, aside from the ideological issues already discussed. In any event, though, the reason that I focused on the development of the kingdom as a definite territory is that few historians have considered where the 11th-century English kingdom actually was, why it had those dimensions, and how it eclipsed the once ubiquitous idea of a realm coterminous with Britain. These specific questions seemed to me to be important and underexplored, and so I tried to answer them. There are other questions which could be asked, and books which could be written, about the political ideas, structures and events of the late Anglo-Saxon period. I suspect, however, that a compendium of everything that is interesting about these topics would be too diffuse to be satisfying. I have no regrets about not attempting to write one.