British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 7.3: Notes on the origin of the English people

Fabio P. Barbieri


Aelle was remembered by the English, but had no prestigious descendants; this would be natural if Ambrosius had destroyed him as Geoffrey says.  The difficulties of relying on Geoffrey of Monmouth, great imaginative writer and immense hoaxer, are obvious, but I believe that at least part of his account of the hero are historically-based.  Ambrosius enters Britain with a host of Armoricans; kills Vortigern by fire in his fortress; raises the standard of revolt against "Hengist", that is whoever was the leader of the Saxons at the time - almost certainly Aelle; fights two successful battles; captures and executes the Saxon leader; and receives the ceremonial submission of the remaining Saxons, who probably accept Baptism, allowing them to remain in "the deserted parts of Britain".  But it was a false dawn.  Ambrosius died, of illness if we can believe Geoffrey; his settlement collapsed; the war burst out again, to go on for many, many more years to come.  The Saxons were by now too firmly established to be expelled, and, what is more, they held the most fertile and strategically advantageous regions - the grain country of East Anglia, the mouths of various rivers, and possibly Kent.  Gildas, who describes the intractability of their presence with the typically superb image of claws dug inextricably in Britain's soil, dates the war's ending to about the time of his own birth, that is in the early sixth century; which, beginning from 468, gives us a bare minimum of fifty years of conflict!

Aelle's lack of heirs raises a certain echo in a vague hint in Nennius (ch.56) about the Saxons bringing over their king to rule over them; and in an English claim, to be reconstructed from royal pedigrees, an allusion in the Life of St.Guthlac, and another in Beowulf, that the earliest royal house of England came over from an illustrious line in what is today southern Denmark, through a certain Icel.  He turns up in the dynastic lists of Mercia, and he is explicitly said by a first-rate source - the English Latin Life of St.Guthlac - to have been the first king of the dynasty.  His line is claimed to go back to the well-attested Scandinavian hero, English Offa, Danish Uffi, and his name also seems connected with Icklingham, a royal site in East Anglia[1].

John Morris (who, alas, believes in the historicity of Hengist and Horsa) attractively argues that the line of Offa and Icel moved from Jutland to rule in Britain, and was subsequently expelled from East Anglia by intruders from Scandinavia, only to establish itself in Middle Anglia. Alas, as so often, he takes surviving documents at face value, which weakens his analysis.  It has been shown that Old English dynastic lists are formulaic documents showing the descent of the then ruling monarch from fourteen generations of kings and heroes, which often led to collapsing previous lists together, missing several generations.  And that is apart from purely fictitious pedigrees such as that of Wessex, whose kings seem to have tied their more-than-dubious lineage to the better established genealogies of East Anglia[2], their close ally against the Mercians in the seventh century.

Nevertheless, a good case may be made for Morris' theory of an original "Iceling" dynasty displaced from East Anglia by intruders from Scandinavia but successful in holding on Mercia[3].  As late as Procopius (530s), the Franks acknowledged only one legitimate king for the Teutons of Britain, the Angiloi.  This does not mean that there were no other Teutonic kings, but that Frankish power politics in the island were based on the recognition of only one.  Fifty years later, the situation had changed to the extent that the same Franks now backed the Oiscing king of Kent, whose probable upstart nature I discussed in bk.6, ch.5.  This suggests that whatever all-English lordship had existed in the days of Theudebert had now collapsed.  In point of fact, we know that the conquering Teutons were fragmented into up to a dozen independent kingdoms.

A trace of the upheavals this caused in Frankish diplomacy may perhaps be found in the circumspection of Gregory of Tours (the dog that did not bark in the night, as far as Britain and England are concerned) about the marriage of the daughter of the Frankish king Charibert.  Charibert belonged to the generation that followed the kings known to Procopius; his father was Lothar I, who, in spite of being Theudebert's uncle, survived him.  Charibert himself died in 567, and his daughter is none other than Adelburg or Bertha, wife of Aethelberht of Kent.  Gregory himself seems to have been an intimate of her mother, Charibert’s widow, Ingoberga, whose last will and testament he witnessed.  A shrewd observation by Ian Wood: “Both times that [Gregory] mentions [Ingoberga], he refers to her daughter, which would seem to be significant, for Gregory is not in the habit of introducing characters or even of reminding the reader of family relationships for no apparent reason.  Although he says next to nothing about Bertha [not even her name], Gregory seems to have thought that she was worth a mention each time he referred to her mother.”

Wood, however, does not seem to have noticed that the two mentions are of different character.  In the first, Gregory announces, without even saying her name, that a daughter of Charibert had married "a man of Kent" and gone to live there[4] it seems very strange that the bishop should not call bride and groom by their titles - even though the groom was a pagan - unless of course there were serious sensitivities somewhere that would be injured by admitting that Aethelberht of Kent was a king - or at least a royal heir - and that his wife was to become a queen.  In the section on Ingoberga’s testament, however, which cannot have been written before 589, this "man" suddenly is "the son of a king of Kent"[5].

Another likely trace of sixth-century upheavals is in the archaeology of East Anglia.  Seventh-century East Anglia, the land of the Sutton Hoo and Snape ship-burials, is well known to have had links, not with the Jutland of Offa and Icel, but with mainland Scandinavia, and particularly with prehistoric Sweden: the famous Sutton Hoo face-mask helmet, among many other features of the burial, has its closest parallels in burial wares from graves in Vendel and Valsgärde, in the ancient royal region of Uppsala[6].  The East Anglian and related pedigrees include an allusion to a famous Scandinavian feud, recorded half a millennium later by Saxo Grammaticus and the Saga of Hrolfr Kraki; which suggests that the dynasty of East Anglia may have claimed descent from a hero called Hroğmund, who, according to the English epic Beowulf, was living with his father Hroğgar in the Danish court of Heorot at a date identifiable with the first quarter of the sixth century[7].  According to Beowulf's time-reckoning, Hroğmund was a younger contemporary of Hygelac, a historical king known to Gregory of Tours as Chlochilaichus, killed by the Franks in the 520s[8].  If that is the case, then his supposed flight to England would come well within the time we are speaking about, the second or third quarter of the sixth century.  By that time, the descendants of Icel must have been in England for some while; if Hroğmund was an ancestor of the Wuffinga[9] East Anglian kings, they must, like the Oiscings, have been late-comers to the island.

It is remarkable and interesting that the saga-writers, who wrote half a millennium after the English accounts began to be written down, and whom it is difficult to credit with a similar mainly written tradition, still had a lot to say about these kings (though the fact that Saxo mistakenly splits his "Rørik" - Old English Hreğrik - into two separate heroes, should warn us against taking every one of their traditions literally).  Their traditions reversed the values that can be guessed from the English sources, Beowulf, Widsiğ and the East Anglian royal pedigree.  According to the English, Hroğulf was the traitor and murderer of Hreğrik and responsible for the presumable flight and exile of his brother Hroğmund, whose tragic story was apparently claimed by the East Anglians; in Saxo and the sagas, Hroğmund is unknown, and Rørik is a "man without virtue" rightly slain by Hrolfr, who becomes one of the greatest kings of legend - Dumézil called him "the Charlemagne of the north".  This would of course make sense if there had really been a family feud between an uncle Hroğulf and his two nephews Hreğrik and Hroğmund, and English accounts came, at whatever remove, from the defeated branch of the family, and Danish account from the victorious.

We might add that the legend of Hrolfr Kraki shows evident signs of being rewritten from an original in which the king was not nearly so admired.  Hrolfr’s father Helgi, a vicious raider and rapist, once raped a young woman called Thora.  A daughter was born to her, and she called her Yrsa.  Decades later, Helgi came back to her island, and she deliberately sent Yrsa to him, trusting in his ungovernable lust: punctually, he raped and impregnated her.  When he found out that he had had his own daughter, he killed himself; and the son of that unhallowed union was Hrolfr.  In other words, Hrolfr was the instrument of Thora’s vengeance on the royal house of Denmark; and this tells us that the legend originally saw Hrolfr, or rather Hroğulf, as the man who tore the royal house apart and destroyed or expelled the legitimate heirs - the tool of Thora’s revenge through the generations.  In short, all these legends make best sense as reflexes of real politics, and argue that the man driven out by Hroğulf, Hroğmund, was a real person, a member of the Danish Scylding royal family, who fled the treacherous uncle who murdered his brother and eventually founded a lordship in British exile.

The picture is anything but clear, however much scholarship is taken to the poem – or to the East Anglian pedigree.  Hroğmund turns up in the pedigree’s fifth, ultra-legendary generation.  His father is Trygil, whom Sam Newton plausibly argues to be another name for the mysterious Scyld Sceafing, Beowulf’s ancestor of the Danish kings; his great-grandfather is none other than Caesar; and his great-great-grandfather, Caesar's father, is Woden - Wotan, Odin.  The best that can be said of such a king-list is that the East Anglian kings wanted Hroğmund as an ancestor to legitimate their royalty; it is not easy to imagine a direct descent.  But that, of course, only strengthens the argument for the Wuffingas being late and upstart rulers over East Anglia.  And if they were, how and when did they get to rule a region where the English had been masters without interruption since 442?  Morris' theory of alien interlopers from Scandinavia gains ground[10].

The poem itself is clear enough, however.  The purpose of Beowulf is unmistakeably to bring its hero into contact with the most prestigious royal houses of the North.  Beowulf rescues the illustrious Hroğgar, king of the Danes (at this point based mainly or wholly on the islands) from a dreadful haunting, and, on his mother's side, is the nephew of the famous Hygelac of the Geats (from what is today Swedish Götaland).  A nephew on his mother's side: a kind of kinship which comes familiar after all our contacts with Celtic pedigrees, where it almost invariably signals a pretended kinship with a greater bloodline – could this be the same kind of thing?  Coulod someone be claiming a patent of nobility through Beowulf?

In rescuing Hroğgar from the monster Grendel, Beowulf is paying off a debt of gratitude established in the previous generation, when Hroğgar paid off the wergeld for a man killed by his father Ecgşeow.  Evidently, each gives what he has: the Danish king, the splendour of whose hall Heorot is part of the epic's theme, rescues Ecgşeow with his wealth; and Beowulf - who only achieves great wealth at the hour of his death, when he slays a dragon and bequeaths his people the monster's hoard - rescues him with his own right arm, "as strong as thirty men" and practiced in killing monsters.  In fact, Beowulf is a nordic Herakles, a wandering monster-slayer travelling from coast to Baltic coast in search of non-human enemies; in all the poem, he is never shown fighting a human opponent.

While Hroğgar (Icelandic Hroarr) and all the other kings mentioned in the story are famous in later Northern legend, Beowulf is quite unknown: no *Bijulfr turns up anywhere in Saxo, Snorri or other sources.  At the same time, all the figures who feature in Saxo and Snorri as taking part in great feuds and dying dramatic deaths also do so in the poem.  Beowulf seems to have absolutely no effect on these feuds, as if, though tremendous against monsters, he were quite helpless to stop the malignity of human beings.  He does not even rescue the sons of Hroğgar, to whom he had implicitly promised protection and even blood-brotherhood.  Tragedies take place, and royal houses fall, as if this immensely powerful warrior king weren't there.   The inference is obvious. Northern historical traditions were known in very similar terms, across a gulf of centuries, to the English author of Beowulf, to the Dane Saxo Grammaticus, and to the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and the author of Hrolfs Saga Kraka.  If their tragedies carry on as though this supposedly tremendous warrior had no impact whatever on them, so that his presence in the English poem cannot ward off the evil fate that hangs over good people nor his absence in the Scandinavian items make things any worse - in short: if things end up happening as if he wasn't there - then he wasn't there.  He was no part of the original tradition.

What we have here is a fictional (or legendary) hero, in a fictional (or legendary) context, but among largely or fully historical kings.  Hygelac and Hroğgar were famous figures, Hroğgar's name was so prestigious as to turn up in Italy a century and a half later as Rothari, the great law-giver who was one of the most successful and significant Longobard kings (the Longobards came from an area south of Denmark).  The poem is very concerned not to suggest that, because he could not cope with the monster Grendel, therefore he was a weakling: he is always treated with the highest respect, and the point is made that he has deserved his rescue at Beowulf's hands, because he himself has rescued Beowulf's father.  It does the fictional Beowulf honour to be received so well by the historical Hroğgar, and therefore Hroğgar must remain the glorious figure that pre-existent memories imply.

Now if Beowulf is an English insertion into Northern historical legendry, this insertion must have been done to serve someone's purpose; heroes are not sent visiting all the glorious royal houses of a heroic but comparatively recent past for the fun of it, but to establish someone's glorious past.  Hence, whether the legend of Beowulf begins with the first redaction of the poem or whether the poem casts previous accounts in high poetic form, it represents the claim to high royal connections of a royal house – surely an English one.  That Scandinavian legendry knew nothing of it - and made no effort to connect its own heroes with England - strongly suggests that these links are invented; in other words, that the dynasty in question can fairly be described as upstart.

The nature of the hero supplies another hint.  The monster slayers of legend, especially in England, tend to be found at the origin of dynasties and land-claims.  We remember that the most famous Greek monster-slayers, Perseus and Herakles, are the ancestors of the greatest royal lines; but closer to home, and more to the point closer to Beowulf, we find that the idea of monster-slaying is an integral part of the English peasant's view of a legitimate landlord family.  At Bisterne, Hampshire, an ancestor of the local squires, Sir Morris Berkeley, killed a dragon and died of his wounds, but his children and descendants took a dragon to their ensign.  In Scotland the territory of Linton in Roxburghshire (a highly Anglian area) became the appanage of John Somerville of Laurieston when he killed a dragon.  In Brent Pelham it was Piers Shonks, the local squire, and again he died of it - the dragon he had killed was a form of the Devil himself; but in Wantley, Yorkshire, More of More Hall, covered from head to toe in spiky iron, beat the local fire-breather up till he found his weak spot and, surviving the experience, settled down to the enjoyment of a local maid as the price of his valour (the rather ribald story does not say that they were married).  In Slingsby, Yorkshire, it was an unnamed member of the once-powerful local family of Wyvill, while in Sockburn, Durham, it was the noted Sir John Conyers, vassal of the Bishop of Durham, and in Bishop Auckland one of the local Pollard family.  In Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, the rank of the dragon-slayer was more modest: a mere farm labourer with the undistinguished name of John Smith, whose descendants were untitled landowners with a few tenants[11], but again the issue was possession of land and protection of the local people.  The most interesting fact about these stories is that almost all of them can be attributed, beyond possibility of mistake, to the local peasantry or tenants.  These stories are the peasant’s explanation of the landlord's title to the land; that is, they embody their expectation that the landlord will not only give them orders and make use of them, but also defend and protect them (though the story of More of More Hall involves a healthily sceptical mind about his reasons for doing so).  It is by protecting the helpless local commoners against a terrible vision of chaos and devouring hate, that the squire's ancestor has won the land, and that is his descendant's title to it.

Beowulf should therefore represent, in some sort, the beginnings and justification of monarchy; only he does not.  He succeeds to the throne of the already-established kingdom of the Geats.  This kingdom had a history - a grim one: it had already twice been close to destruction.  Before Beowulf’s time, Ongenşeow king of the Swedes had destroyed the Geatish king Heağocyn, only to fall in turn under Hygelac; then Hygelac himself had rashly invaded Frisia and Frankland.  Beowulf alone, it seems, had escaped that rout thanks to his prodigious swimming powers.  Hygelac’s son Heardred succeeded to his father’s throne; but when he fell in battle because of his involvement in a Swedish feud - continuing the theme of the grim fortunes of the Geats - the crown fell into Beowulf's hands by default.  So far as we know, Beowulf was not of royal race; but he had been more or less formally adopted as a son, first by Hroğgar, and then by Hygelac himself, because of his great deeds.

His foreign policy seems remarkably peaceful[12].  One wonders why the poem has nothing to say about the already-mentioned Danish feud between Hreğulf, the cousin, and Hreğrik, Hroğgar's son and heir; perhaps it happened while Beowulf was away in Frisia with Hygelac.  But though the great and bloody feud among the Swedes is going on under his eyes as he is king, he takes no part in it.  Nevertheless, his formidable presence preserves the kingdom for decades: it is when he falls fighting a fire-breathing dragon, that his likely heir, Wiglaf, predicts that the old hatreds of Swedes and Franks/Frisians will destroy the kingdom.  And in fact, the Geats vanish from history.

Part of the whole poem is a sense of great things already past their prime and passing away. Hroğgar has built the great hall Heorot to be a wonder of the northern world; but apart that he himself is old and the hall has drawn the murderous haunting of Grendel, the poem foreshadows his nephew's murderous feud with his heirs, renewed deadly war with the Heağobards, and Heorot's destruction by fire.  The Swedish royal house sees one feud after another, each ending in civil war; and no less a person than the valiant Wiglaf, the young kinsman who stood alone by Beowulf as he fought the dragon, foretells the ruin of the Geats - and, the poem assures us, foretells truly.  Great things are aging, they are beginning to pass away, to fade, to die.

The poem is written from a distinctly English and insular perspective, contemplating the ancient continental north from a position of inevitable distance; and this sense of fading is part of that.  The king of the North are not a reality, but a great past already (in the poet’s time, I mean) gone and vanished.  As for the monster-slaying Beowulf, he leaves no direct descent.  And all this sense of the fading of the North’s greatest age has its silent counterpart in the world of the poet himself: the new, conquering English people.  While something great is dying out on one side of the North Sea, something else, unnoticed and even unmentioned, is rising on the other.

When we realize this, the real significance of the poem hits us like a blow.  It is the exact counterpart of modern historical fiction, in which the modern world is the silent counterpart, never mentioned (except perhaps in an injudicious moment) but ever present, of the ancient world it presents; and it presents the epic past of the Germanic north to the present of the Christian English kingdoms exactly as, say, the novels of a Mary Renault evoke her idea of the Greek past as a continuous commentary on her own English world.

I would say, therefore, that the monster-slaying hero does not so much found a monarchy as foreshadow one; and that it is across the sea.  Beowulf himself is an ocean crosser who never goes anywhere on foot if he can reach it by boat, and a superhumanly powerful swimmer; and it is somehow typical of his whole monster-killing career, and his long and weary path to kingship, that his first great deed takes place during an epic seven-day swimming race whose stakes appear to be the crown of what is to become Norway.  His rival, though weaker, wins, because Beowulf is dragged under by sea monsters and has to kill no less than nine of them before he can escape, so exhausted that the sea drags him away to the land of the Finns[13].  It is only after he has loyally served both Hygelac and his son, not to mention killed every monster he could lay his hands on, that he becomes king of the doomed Geatish kingdom.

Beowulf is constantly described as a Geat, but the fact that his father's feud was "among" the Wulfings, mid Wulfingum, must mean that Ecgşeow was a Wulfing.  Following K.Malone, Newton argues that the people who, according to the poem, would not receive Ecgşeow for fear of violence, and whose name is hopelessly corrupt in the poem's text, were Wul(f)garas, that is Wulfings.  The status of the Wulfings is rather ill-defined in the poem, but if Beowulf was a Wulfing, then there cannot have been an independent Wulfing kingdom at the time: no Wulfing court is ever mentioned, though Beowulf spends all the time he can spare from monster-chasing at the court of the Geats, and visits that of the Danes.  Yet these same Wulfings have made a series of prestigious dynastic marriages: the house of Beowulf is probably not the only one to be related to royal houses.

The most notable of these marriages, that of Hroğgar with the "Helming", i.e. Wulfing, lady Wealhşeow, clearly represents a confused tradition; perhaps intentionally confused.  Two later nordic sources, the Hrolfs Saga Kraka and Arngrimur Jonsson's summary of a lost Skjoldunga Saga, tell us that Hroğgar 's wife was in fact from England.  Her name, in my view, agrees: it shows traces of Britain.  Wealh-, as we will see in the next chapter, is the Old English version of the common Germanic word for a Latin-speaking Roman.  Her name, in ordinary Anglo-Saxon, would give the nonsensical Serf of a serf or the humiliating serf of the Welshmen or Romans, unimaginable for a woman of royal blood; and it follows that, in spite of the sound, the second part of Wealhşeow cannot be the ordinary Anglo-Saxon şeow, serf, bondman.  -Şeow as part of a name is also found in the Swedish king Ongenşeow, who turns up in Icelandic sagas as Angantyr, and this suggests that this -şeow as part of a royal name is the English version of the suffix -tyr, a particle for "god" found in many of Oğinn's names[14] as well as in words for kings or earls[15].  It was a highly archaic form (deriving ultimately from the ancient Indo-European *deiwos, i.e. god, being of light) with strongly pagan connotations, and may well have been forgotten and misunderstood in a long-since-Christian England.  This, in turn, implies that the name of Hroğgar’s queen had been remembered down the centuries, from a pagan original, even though its meaning was forgotten; it implies, that is, that it was a historical name.

In my view, therefore, Hroğgar 's wife is called "Queen (or goddess) of the Romans", not a credible name - even as a boast of successful piracy - for an early-sixth-century daughter of a minor Scandinavian house, but on the other hand quite credible for an English queen, when English monarchs would think of ruling wealhas - whose meaning was already shifting from "Roman" to "Welshman or slave" - as a matter of course.  On the Nordic side, none of the ancient king's names transmitted by Snorri and Saxo Grammaticus in stories related to this period contains the particle val, while quick perusal of an index to Bede reveals a Coenwealh (the victor of Wyrtgeornesburg) and an Ethelwealh king of Sussex.

But if Wealhşeow, the Helming lady, was from England, then she cannot have been close kin to Beowulf; and in fact, though the poem makes her a Helming, it does not make her a Wulfing.  On the other hand, it does make her the mother of a hero whose name features in the pedigree - however artificial - of the Wuffing kings of East Anglia.

If her kinship has been muddied or hidden, it was because there was something to hide.  Suppose, for instance, that the Helmingas were the royal house of the Wulfingas and had already moved to England, thus accounting for the kingless status of Beowulf's Scandinavian branch of the tribe[16](and for the two Helminghams, both with strong early English connections, in Norfolk and Suffolk); and suppose that her second son Hroğmund, driven out of his kingdom by Hroğulf's murder of his brother, decided not only to go back to his mother's country but to establish himself against his own mother's kin; would that not be enough to want to cover up in an account of the nordic heroic age that preluded to it?

Beowulf would then represent the ideal of Wulfinga royalty, devoted to duty, valiant, invincible, but gentle to his people and peaceful to his neighbours: a wonder-king whose royalty is too perfect, perhaps, to have any future in an imperfect world that can see the horrible kin-slaughter and betrayal of the Danish and Swedish royal houses, but who stands as a shining example and paragon to all later kings of his blood; and who, by proving that a Wulfinga was fit to be a king, indirectly consecrates their monarchy.

There are yet more dynastic complexities.  A probably very early source makes "Wuffa" the founder of East Anglia; more surprisingly still, it dates him at 571.  The first reaction to this is of course that this makes the whole hypothesis about Beowulf and Swedish Wulfingas ancestry fall to the ground; and yet that is not acceptable either.  The relationship between Sweden and East Anglia - and specifically the East Anglia of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, that is of the early seventh century - is really too well established to be denied; and the three-sided relationship between Beowulf, Scandinavian seaways, and East Anglia, seems a better bet than any alternative proposal for the origin of this obviously insular Germanic saga.  Beowulf, on many grounds, must originate in East Anglia[17].

It is Nennius, of all people, who comes to our rescue, by telling us that not Wuffa, but Wilhelm Wehha, his father, was in fact the first king of the East Anglians.  His genealogy is otherwise quite identical with that of the manuscript Cotton Vespasian b.VI, except for the very last king.  Both are gross oversimplifications of the list of succession, managing even to miss the historical figure of Redwald, the first Christian king.  Now both Wuffa and Wehha look like hypocoristic (shortened) forms; in fact, nick-names; and it is my impression, based on the perusal of a dictionary of English place-names, that such hypocoristic forms did not go with rank and status.  Place-names in brough, burgh or bury, denoting strongholds and - implicitly - political power, always seem to carry a polysillabic personal name of the kind familiar from heroic literature and king-lists.  Conversely, individual farms in -tun or -stead, denoting no great amount of wealth or power, frequently carry hypocoristic personal names.  The impression is that Wilhelm (William) had a nick-name of this kind, and therefore did not amount to much; he sounds like an upstart of some sort.  The connection with the royal Wulfingas may have been quite artificial, or he may have been a retainer promoted above his station.  That Wuffa, eponym of the tribe, is said to be his son, only means that he came to be regarded as the "father" of the nation, that is that it, in some sense, owed its existence to him.  The genealogy makes him the grandfather of the historical Tyttil through Wuffa, but Bede mentions only Tyttil himself and his son Redwald; it is not too sceptical to ask whether the genealogy, so thoroughly artificial elsewhere, is to be trusted here.

What follows is speculative in the extreme.  But what we have is a suggestion of an upstart ruler regarded as the father of his people, who apparently takes power in the 570s; some time before that, there is a suggestion of dynastic turmoil connected with the possible intrusion of an exiled Danish prince called Hreğmund, son of a Helming princess from England; even earlier, we seem to have a royal house of Wulfing origin claiming descent from the hero Helm, mentioned in Widsiğ; Wealhşeow is one of them.  Earlier yet, it is possible to suggest a claim for a house of Icel, historically surviving only in Mercia; and well over the horizon of dynastic descent, there is the great yet faded figure of the first Breatwealda, Aelle.

A chronological sequence seems to suggest itself, and is by no means impossible in view of other known events around the North Sea and the Baltic, in every part of which the sixth century - and especially its middle fifty years - appear to have been a time of turmoil.  The first person we see is the first king of the Saxons in Britain, Aelle.  At some point before 468, Ambrosius kills him and forces a temporary submission on the Saxons, including baptism.  By 468, however, we hear of Saxons fighting the British on the Loire; a few years later, insular Saxons are raiding the coasts of Gaul as far as Saintes, which indicates that they are, one way or another, out of the control of the Romano-British.  At some point after Aelle, we hear of ”kings” being called in from the Continent to rule over the Saxons; and of an Icel, of the race of Offa, king of the Angles of Angeln.  Icel is the first named Angle in British history.  Fifth-century records such as Sidonius Apollinaris and the Gaulish Chronicle call the Teutonic settlers in Britain ”Saxons”; but by Procopius’ time, they are called Angiloi, Angles, and have only one king and one ethnic identity.  This suggests that the Angle kings of Icel and Offa’s line had effective control of most or all of the Teutons of the island.

Following events are dominated by a sequel of seaborne invasions.  In the 520s, a famous king from the North[18], Hygelac or Chlochilaicus, fell attempting an invasion of Frankland and Frisia; Wiglaf's speech at the end of Beowulf (we must remember that all the events in the poem are invented, but interpolated among real events) hints that the Geats were then destroyed by Swedes and Franks/Frisians, whether in a formal alliance or in successive separate attacks.  It is at the same time that a most unreliable account from Procopius makes the English invade the Varni, a tribe south of Jutland; the story as he tells it is absurd, but something did intervene to stop the advance of Frankish interests in the form of a dynastic marriage with the sister of the otherwise all-conquering Theudebert I, and a seaborne invasion does fit into the contemporary pattern of violent feuds and large-scale naval and land warfare.  Again in the 520s, according to the Wendy Davies-John Morris conjecture, invasions from Scandinavia strike Britain, especially East Anglia; according to my conjecture, these are Wulfingas, related to those Geats whose king Hygelac/Chlochilaicus is, at the same time, trying it on with Franks and Frisians.  The effect is probably to separate East Anglia from the rest of the English settlers – Middle Anglia and the future Mercia – where an Iceling Anglian dynasty remains ensconced.  The unity of the English/ Saxons falls apart.

It is certain, with no lying Frankish ambassadors to confuse the issue, that both the Danish and the Swedish royal houses were rent at something like this time by major feuds that caused repeated civil wars; their protagonists, under such names as Hrolfr Kraki, Hjorvarğr, Ali, Ağils and Angantyr, passsed into legend and were remembered for centuries.  If the Wulfingas from whom the Helmingas of East Anglia seem to have sprung were a sub-group of the Geats and could count on the connection - as Beowulf seems to hint - they would certainly have been weakened by the defeat of their oversea cousins in Frankland, let alone their final destruction; and would then have made, with their tempting cornlands, an attractive target for any exiled Danish royal heir – let’s, just for the heck of it, call him Hreğmund - who might boast a dynastic claim through his mother.  Finally, a local hero of comparatively humble rank but with some connection with the older Wulfinga line might well have been able to overthrow the usurping Danes and establish a new native dynasty; his claims, however, were so slight that he does not seem to have been able to decide whether he and his people claimed descent from the Wulfingas or from Offa the ancestor of Icel - and compromised on a middle form, calling themselves the Wuffingas.

Whatever construction is put on the shadowy names and even more shadowy accounts that reach us from a dozen legendary, fragmentary, suppositious or downright mendacious sources, one thing we cannot doubt: the sixth century was a time of turmoil and instability.  Indeed, the turmoil seems to have started independently of the Justinianic wars that convulsed the Mediterranean: Justinian only began his campaign of systematic invasion in the 530s, but the fall of Hygelac is dated, however dubiously, to 523 (Gregory gives no exact year, and our earliest authority for the date 523 is over a century later).  This also seems to correspond with the beginning of the chronic instability and frequent civil wars of the Frankish kingdom (or kingdoms), whose internal politics, as far as violent feuds and kin-slaying go, was little different from contemporary Swedish or Danish realities.  It is no wonder that archaeology suggests that North Sea trade virtually collapsed during this period, and that when it started again - in about the last decade of the century - it was centred about largely new centres such as Quentovic, Dorestad and Hamwih (later Southampton).  The only exchanges shown by archaeological finds are political, in the form of diplomatic gifts; which corresponds with the picture of Beowulf (with its ceremonious embassies of young warriors and exchanges of gifts) and what can be gathered from contemporary sources.

This turmoil seems to have affected whatever Teutonic monarchy or monarchies were established in Britain, and there is no reason to deny that, at some point in this period, East Anglia was separated from the rest of England and became a separate kingdom. Something of the kind may have happened to Kent, perhaps under Frankish pressure, ending in the rise of the Oiscing dynasty. This violent instability on the Teutonic side is to be remembered when we come to reconstruct events on the sixth-century British side; apart from anything else, it mirrors Gildas' descriptions of such things as Maglocunus' murder of his uncle, the "frequent" murders of simoniac clergymen, and the unhallowed feud in the Dumnonian royal house.

Notes


[1]For all the facts to follow, SAM NEWTON, The origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking kingdom of East Anglia, Woodbridge, 1994, 57-64 and authorities therein (including an important article by none other than David Dumville). Recent scholarship is rather dubious about the descent of Icel from Offa, pointing out that both terms between them - Eomer son of Angengeot - are questionable, and that Eomer, in particular, could simply result from a misreading of ongeomor, “sad”, a known feature of the legendary Offa. Whatever the rights of this case - which I tend not to accept, on the grounds that the scholars concerned cannot show all the references to Eomer to come from one source and one misunderstanding - that is less important than the fact that Offa was a hero of the continental Angles according to the unequivocal witness of the author of the English poem Widsiğ, who claims that he fixed the borders of his kingdom with a blow of his sword. At some point after that, the continental history of the Angles comes to an end. 500 years later Saxo Grammaticus does not even know there was such a people, and simply ascribes Uffi to the Danish royal line; while on the other hand, the English poem Beowulf, in spite of having nice things to say about the Danes, seems to confirm that Offa was from a quite different line, and to that extent confirms Widsiğ.

[2]NEWTON op.cit., 139-140.

[3]Alternatively, of course, it might be argued that the Mercian dynasty made up its claim to the clearly prestigious Iceling succession! The point however is that the historical lords of East Anglia did not.

[4]GREGORY OF TOURS, op.cit.4.26.

[5]ibid. 9.26

[6]NEWTON op.cit., 110, and authorities therein. Other similar items have been found in Torslunda (island of Öland) and Hög Edslen (province Bohuslän), both of which, apart from being part of modern Sweden and of the area covered by Beowulf, happen to be on the sea-route between the Uppsala region and Britain.

[7]King Hrolf and his champions, in Erik the red and other Icelandic sagas, ed.Gwyn Jones, Oxford 1980; SAXO GRAMMATICUS (tr.Peter Fisher, ed. Hilda Ellis-Davidson) The History of the Danes Books I-IX, #s 62, 82-85.

[8]GREGORY OF TOURS, History of the Franks 3.3.

[9]It also seems possible - though I leave it to Anglo-Saxon experts to judge - that the name of the legendary Wuffinga ancestor, Wuffa, and the dynastic term itself, may represent another, failed, attempt at claiming an illustrious descent. Sam Newton argues that the original name was Wulf, and his descendants were originally known as Wulfingas, a tribe or dynasty he places somewhere on Sweden's Kattegat coast - NEWTON op.cit. 106-117 and map 1. If that is the case, it is truly strange that the name should have been distorted for whatever reason; Wulf/Wolf must surely count as the most widespread and best-known of all Germanic names and name-parts. In other words, a dynastic name wulfingas can only have become corrupt into wuffingas as a result of a deliberate decision, since otherwise its origin and meaning would be clear to everyone. And it seems to me that the sound of wuffa, "little wolf", the ancestral name as we have it, is more than half-way from wulf to Offa, the illustrious continental ancestor of Icel. It sounds quite as if, in the dynasty's earliest days, someone had tried to assimilate its own little-known patriarch to the already celebrated Offa, whose descendants, through Icel, may have held most or all of English Britain. Icel, of course, does not feature in the East Anglian king-list

[10]It is also worth mentioning that Professor V.Evison and Sam Newton see an analogy between the disconnected nature of the notices for Hengist on the continent - in the tragedy at the court of Finn - and in Kent, and those of Hroğmund in the middle of a feud among the Danes and as the possible ancestor of the kings of East Anglia; NEWTON op.cit.127-131. I have big problems with identifying the Hengist of the fight at Finnsburgh with the Kentish brother of Horsa, but I will not go so far as to reject it altogether, and I find their point fair.

[11]JENNIFER WESTWOOD, Albion, London 1985: 53 (Sir Morris Berkeley), 129-131 (Piers Shonks); 305 (John Smith); 418-19 (the Slingsby Wyvill), 419-20 (Sir John Conyers), 426-29 (More of More Hall), 470-72 (John Somerville).

[12]If this sounds rather too modern for the period, I must point out that the poem itself, in spite of its monster-slaying aspects, is remarkably cool and perspicuous about what we would call international relationships. Kingdoms, established in definite areas, look at each other with armed suspicion, and international diplomacy is carried out according to definite rules and with simple political purposes. Beowulf himself, returning to Hygelac's court, informs the king of the state of Hroğgar's attempt to make peace with his hereditary enemies, the Heağobards - which the young warrior-diplomat presciently regards as doomed; and only then reports on the rather less important matter of his own double dragon-slaying. At Hroğgar’s court, he had successfully pleaded for agreement between Hroğgar and Hygelac. It is all quite as realistic as Livy; and comparison with, for instance, the Tyrolean epic Kudrun, with its indeterminate kingdoms, vast distances and implausible happenings, is very telling.

[13]This enormity, by the way, is typical of the aura of romantic imprecision with which the poem apprehends the Scandinavian past: the half-unconscious Beowulf has been carried by the Gulf Stream all along Norway’s enormous coastline. Modern Norway is as long as the distance from Hamburg to the toe of Italy, and while no doubt Teutonic settlement did not reach as far in Beowulf’s days, this would still be an impossibly long floating - that is, the poem’s author had no clear idea of the shape and size of Scandinavian countries.

[14]Veratyr, god of men; Hroptatyr, god of gods; Farmatyr, god of cargoes - probably a grim joke on the "cargo" of a gallows; etc.. SNORRI STURLUSON, Edda, tr.Anthony Faulkes, London 1995, 64-68.

[15]ibid. 176, 188, 195, 197f.

[16]Indeed, was there such a branch at all at such a late date? If Beowulf is invented, and if - more to the point - no descent lines in either England or Scandinavia go back to him in any way, then the Scandinavian Wulfing tribe which he represents also becomes - in terms of actual history - an unnecessary hypothesis. It may be that the legend's authors wanted to prolong, for his own artistic purposes, the historical span of a Scandinavian Wulfinga tribe that had, in fact, moved over to Britain earlier. It is interesting that the Wulfinga founder Helm, named among the great kings of the past by the author of Widsiğ, is completely absent from Beowulf, a poem otherwise eager to mention every early hero it can think of; he seems to be part of the whole cloud of vagueness and confusion that covers dynastic relationships throughout.

[17]NEWTON, op.cit., passim.

[18]Beowulf makes him a Geat from Swedish Gotland; Gregory of Tours, a Dane. Although Gregory is considerably closer to events, he is very poorly informed about nordic countries, while the author of Beowulf, though two centuries later, may be credited with a better understanding of the area. What is more, the fall of the Geats seems to be the underlying fact of the poem, put off but not avoided by Beowulf's heroic presence; which suggests that it was a well-known event. On the whole I would think that Beowulf is likelier to be right.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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