An uneven record of diplomacy

Third-year Cardiff University student Ellie Collingwood blogs about her summer placement investigating medieval treaties, finding it a surprisingly uneven record.

This summer I took part in an eight-week research placement for Dr Benham. The brief was to compile a database of medieval treaties c. 750-1250. I would be filling in information about where and when the treaties took place, which parties were involved and which original manuscripts and later reproductions contained them. At first, I must admit, I thought that this was going to be a task for which there was a recognised pool of material and that there would be significant gaps in the records for the earlier half of the period. I was wrong on both counts. It seemed that rather than there being more treaties as the period went on, the records of treaties seemed to come in waves with some years having vast numbers of treaties and then no records for perhaps decades. The patterns often coincided with the reigns of particular monarchs; some of whom made considerable amounts of agreements while others made few or none. Similarly, I found that some reigns or time periods had the focus of certain chroniclers and historians, whilst finding a relevant text for other proved more difficult.


And how do you know whether the information you are looking for actually still exists or even if you’ve got all the references to it? This problem was exaggerated by the fact that sometimes there were years (often even centuries) between different publications and therefore that references to later reprints were conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, the geographical spread of the information meant that certain things might exist only in one language or be referenced by only one (and sometimes none) of the chroniclers of the parties involved. With regards to the linguistic element, however, I found that by the end I had got much better at sifting through texts in another language using the format more than the words to identify the information and texts of the treaties. And, as to the chroniclers, by the end of the placement I felt that I had a much better idea of who to go to for what information. I must say, I never realised how indebted I would be to Roger of Howden!

What really struck me as interesting about the information I was researching was what exactly made certain treaties worthy of being written down, preserved and rigorously reprinted over approximately 1000 years while others had been consigned to the history of rumour and speculation. Obviously a percentage of this is due to luck but I think it is fair to say that there must have been an element of selection in the initial phases of the agreements. For example, I found the existence of one lesser researched treaty to be particularly curious. The Ordinance concerning the Dunsæte is one of relatively few early Anglo-Saxon treaties and was an agreement attempting to foster good relations not between two rulers but between King Athelstan and the Welshmen (of the Welsh Dunsæte).

It lays down some basic rules to the Welsh about theft and homicide. But what, in this case, made it necessary to write this down? Was this just one of many similar documents all of which have subsequently disappeared? Had a verbal agreement been ignored in the past? Was it an example to the inhabitants of other borderlands who might make a similar trouble for the Anglo-Saxon government? Or did it just appear that this would be the most sensible way to ensure the terms were upheld? I suppose we will never really know but the existence and survival of this treaty along with all the others in the database provide a fascinating insight into the range of legal practises across the period and of the variation of interactions between different rulers and populations.

Overall my research has been a process characterised equally by feelings of delight at having successfully followed a link to exactly the reproduction I was hoping for and by disappointment at having spent hours chasing up a link to find only a fleeting mention of the treaty and no reprint of it or suggestion of where one could be located. All in all, I’ve enjoyed playing the detective and am really grateful to have been given this perfect opportunity to have a go at some real research first hand. I’m sure the skills I have learnt and honed, as well as knowledge of which resources provide the best information, will help me greatly in my upcoming dissertation and any future research at a higher level.

The King’s Wife

This is the second instalment of guest posts from students who are undertaking research experience placements with me over the summer period. This one comes from recent Cardiff University graduate Laura Richards, whose research placement yielded some interesting gems from a surprisingly small pool of available evidence.

For two weeks I completed some research on Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances focussing on the primary source material. The main thing I learnt was what every person must grapple with when taking on historical research; you have to go through a lot to get a little. What I did find was often scattered across vast pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the main narrative source for the period c. 800-1066. Most evidence came in the form of the names of the couple involved in the marriage and a brief summary of their genealogy. Little was written in way of formal agreements, nevertheless some ideas about these powerful marriages can be drawn out.Books for research

The status of the wife within these alliances was intertwined and representative of her familial support. Eadburh, Queen of Wessex inspires infamy which extends into today as inspiration for the fictional character Princess Kwenthrith; a Mercian princess with a taste for power and poisoning in TV’s Vikings. This stems from the reputation Eadburh receives within the sources granting her an important role within Wessex history compared to other queens. Asser in his Life of King Alfred recounts how Beorhtric of Wessex married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Eadburh. Once in power she began ‘to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father’, poisoning those she could not control or force the King to disown them. As part of her scheming she accidently poisons her husband. She flees to the court of Charlemagne who, after having his age insulted, places her in a nunnery where she is later caught in debauchery and dies in poverty. Asser casts Eadburh as an evil queen to give warning against granting the king’s wife an equal title.

Despite its aspects of legend, through this narrative it is possible to see how women within marriage alliances represented the power of their families and kingdoms. Eighth-century Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Offa was a powerful king and marrying his daughter to Beorhtric cemented Wessex as a lesser kingdom. With the power of her father behind her Eadburh influenced her husband and had the power to destroy those in her way.

However, if the eighth century belonged to Mercia than the ninth was one of Wessex dominance where equal status was no longer granted to the wives of their kings. This could have been more than just a lesson learnt from the evil Eadburh. It shows that Wessex was the dominant power in any alliance so did not need to give power within its court to the female representative of the alliance. The only Wessex queen within the ninth century is Judith, daughter of King Charles the Bald of Frankia who was crowned before her arrival in Wessex. As a Queen Judith was of equal standing to the King and showed the strength Frankia held as an individual kingdom and ally to Wessex. This is seen as a major contributing factor to the conflict between her husband Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald. Furthermore, Judith created her own scandalous reputation by marrying her step-son and later eloping without permission.

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Nevertheless, Wessex, once a dominant kingdom, was quite happy to use its women to extend its influence. Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and within his lifetime witnessed many charters as Regina of Mercia and after his death ruled as Lady of the Mercians. However, Alfred’s own wife was unable to challenge the Wessex court’s refusal to name her Queen. As most of the sources for the later Anglo-Saxon period are written from a Wessex viewpoint, exercising power and familial backing was positive for Wessex women exported to other kingdoms but disastrously dangerous habits for women being brought into the Wessex royal family. Therefore Eadburh’s infamy must be viewed from this particular angle.

Overall my experience of research has at times been painstaking and although I have to accept that the evidence is lacking on marriage alliances, it was possible to see examples of power being wielded by married women through their familial alliances and for other related ideas when I allowed the evidence to lead my areas of exploration.