On the Origins of the Norman Conquest

Over the summer I have spent my time researching two treaties that I have had an interest in for a long time. The first is the treaty between King Æthelred II, the ‘Unready’, and three Viking leaders, supposedly concluded in 994. This treaty, often known as II Æthelred, has strong connections to English law and having written extensively about it in a couple of articles already, my research over the summer has focussed on producing a new edition, translation and historical commentary for the Early English Laws project. However, it is a second treaty – less known but equally important – that is my focus here, namely the first Anglo-Norman treaty.

The document in question is a letter in the name of Pope John XV detailing the reconciliation and peace agreement of 991 between King Æthelred II and Richard I, duke of Normandy, or the ‘marquis’ as he is referred to in the letter. The document outlines how, having heard of the hostilities between Æthelred and Richard, Pope John sent his legate, Bishop Leo of Trevi, to the two rulers with letters admonishing them to put aside their hostility. First he visited England, where he met the king on Christmas Day 990 and gave him the pope’s letters. After consulting with his witan, the king agreed to make peace with Richard and sent Bishop Æthelsige of Sherborne, Leofstan son of Ælfwold and Æthelnoth son of Wigstan to Normandy with the legate. After peacefully receiving the pope’s warning and hearing of the decision of Æthelred and his court, Richard confirmed the peace on the condition that if any of their people, or they themselves, were to commit any wrong against the other, it should be atoned for with fitting compensation. The peace should remain forever and was confirmed at Rouen on 1 March 991 by the oaths of both parties, that is, the three Anglo-Saxon envoys on behalf of Æthelred and Bishop Roger of Lisieux, Rodulf son of Hugh, and Tursten son Turgis on behalf of Richard. A postscript then adds that neither ruler was to receive the men or enemies of the other without the latter’s seal.

There are many extraordinary things about this treaty. For instance, not only would we not know anything about the relations between the English and Norman courts in the 990s but for this document, but it also, unlike English kings’ treaties with Viking leaders, survives in a very near contemporary, early eleventh-century copy. In fact, this document records the earliest surviving treaty between an English king and a ruler from outside the British Isles. It is thus rather surprising that this reconciliation has attracted so little attention from scholars. Partly this is due to the fact that it has been overshadowed by subsequent relations with the Norman court; the marriage of King Æthelred to Emma of Normandy, daughter of the Richard of the treaty, in 1002 and the later, ‘supposed’, promise of the English throne to William of Normandy by Æthelred and Emma’s son, Edward the Confessor, eventually resulting in the Norman conquest of England.

However, the Anglo-Norman treaty of 991 does in fact have something important to contribute to our knowledge of the origin and events leading to this conquest. In particular, it highlights diplomatic practices, of which we would otherwise know nothing, that have an impact on how we analyse the Norman sources’ accounts of the path to William’s victory at Hastings in 1066. This will be the subject of my talk ‘On the Origins of the Conquest: the First Anglo-Norman Treaty’ at Cardiff University for the autumn series of video seminars for the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies on Tuesday 21 October 2014. If you are a student at any of these Welsh universities Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and Trinity St. David, you will be able to attend at your own university and watch the seminar via the Welsh video network. (For further information, click here.)

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