Did you see that picture last week? Yes, the one where the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt rowed three of the most powerful leaders in Europe (Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the Dutch premier Mark Rutte) to the summer residence in Harpsund outside Stockholm. The four leaders have been holding talks on the EU following the rise of the eurosceptic far right in the European Parliament and in particular trying to resolve their differences over the tricky issue of the appointment of the next European Commission President. In having the Swedish premier row the leaders across the lake, Cameron et al. were of course following a long tradition of Harpsundsekan (the rowing boat, that is) carrying world leaders to this particular country residence, with previous guests including Nikita Krushchev, Willy Brandt and Kofi Annan.
While this might seem quite unusual, in fact, in the medieval period diplomatic meetings involving boats were relatively common. Most famously, of course, we have an occasion that is perhaps the equivalent of Harpsundsekan. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 973 Edgar, king of the English, came to Chester with his naval force (sciphere) and six kings met him there and promised to be his ‘co-workers’ (efenwyrhtan) on land and on sea. In the twelfth century, the chronicler John of Worcester, who may or may not have had a now lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, added to this account that Edgar and the kings (now eight rather than six) got onboard a boat and the kings rowed down the river Dee with Edgar at the helm steering. A significant amount of ink has been spilt by historians trying to unravel the identity of the kings involved and the symbolism behind this particular arrangement, often focussing on the issue of Edgar’s superiority – as seen by him taking the helm. Regardless of any supposed symbolism of these meetings, we know that the incident at Chester in 973 was not the only occasion when medieval kings conducted diplomacy in boats. In November 921, Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, and Henry I, king of the East Franks, concluded a friendship (amicitia) at a meeting in a boat anchored in the middle of the Rhine near Bonn. The intention on this occasion seems to have been to meet at a neutral location and to recognise the rights of both kings. Similarly, in the late twelfth century, the English king Richard I met with his French counterpart Philip Augustus on the river Seine between Les Andelys and Vernon. Here, Richard was stood on a boat in the river because he did not want to land while Philip remained seated on his horse on the riverbank. At the time, Philip and Richard were engaged in particularly bitter warfare, perhaps explaining their arrangement for this meeting. Going a bit further back in time, the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells of a meeting between the Emperor Valens and Athanaric, leader of the Goths, in the late 370s, when boats were rowed mid-stream for the two leaders to conclude a treaty. We further know that conducting diplomacy in this way seems to have been common practice because there are several other descriptions of peace conferences where the two parties discussed using boats and meeting mid-stream. For instance, Ralph Glaber recorded that the Emperor Henry II and the French king, Robert the Pious, considered meeting mid-stream in boats in 1023, and in the late twelfth century Walter Map, supposedly recording a meeting between Edward the Confessor and a Welsh ruler in the 1050s, stated that the English king eventually got into a boat and crossed the river Severn.
Judging by the debate generated by these medieval meetings between rulers, it is rather intriguing that the modern-day press has seemingly refrained from making similar remarks about the arrangements of the Harpsundsekan. Nevertheless, what it does do is remind us that this is a diplomatic practice that has clearly stood the test of time.