The Difference between the Early Germanic Sacral King, and the Later Medieval Monarch
The Germanic tribes were ruled by kings. Many people, knowing that such is the case, feel they understand the leadership of the ancient tribes; after all, everyone knows what a king is, and what type of rule monarchy implies. However, the word “king” has had different meanings in different ages, and has referred to a good deal of different types of leadership. For example, when most people think of a king, they think of a modern monarch. “King” originally denoted a leader that hardly resembled the modern monarch in any way. The Germanic tribes were primitive, and had not developed civilization (in the classical sense) by the time they came in contact with the classical world. Everything from the material culture to the social structure of the Germanic tribes has been attributed to Roman influence. Kingship itself is often seen as not being native to the tribes, but a borrowing from the Romans. However, when comparing the nature of Germanic kingship with Indo-European kingship, and the leadership of the empire the tribes came in contact with, it appears that this is not the case. Kingship was an Indo-European institution, and therefore was always practiced by the Germanic peoples, but it was more of a limited chiefdom than the absolute Christian monarchy which developed out of Hellenized Roman imperialism, and therefore the two types of kingship cannot be considered the same office.
Leo Weiner, in Commentary to the Germanic Laws and Medieval Documents, presents the argument that before Roman contact, the Germanic peoples were very primitive “barbarians” who had made essentially no advancement towards civilization. He tries to demonstrate that not only Germanic kingship, but any cultural advances found among the Germans were derived from the Romans:
Germanic scholars have proceeded from the theory that the sudden appearance of the Teutons of the political scene in the fifth century, their activity in establishing law and order, which followed their settlement in the conquered territories, their agricultural habits, which they evinced from the start, were all indicative of a long, fairly uniform civil existence of those nations which Caesar and Tacitus knew only as German barbarians. On this theory a proto-Germanic civilization has been postulated, and its continuance has been proved from documents following the migration of the nations down to Carolingian times and even later, although all these documents are compiled in the Latin language and betray the Roman notarial attitude towards legal and social institutions.
He explains that the civilization and leadership attributed to the Germanic peoples were entirely obtained from Roman contact in the same way the Native North Americans adopted many institutions of the European colonists. He sees Germanic kingship as being created by the Romans in the same way that many Native tribes came to have chiefs created by contact with the colonists. On the nature of the Germanic people and their kingship, Weiner states:
As the Goths were the chief apparitors and nearest
servants of the Roman emperors, they were considered not only as "servi
dominici," but as the "devoted people," as which they were frequently addressed,
hence devotus produces not only the connotations "servant," but also "people,
gentiles." We have Goth. žiwadw, AS. žeowot, žeowet "servitude," from which come
AS. žeow "servant, bondsman, slave," žeowe, žeowen, žeowin, žeown "a female
servant," and Gothic has žius "slave," žiwi "a female slave," žewisa "servants,"
while OHG. has exclusively diu, diwa "female servant," diorna "girl, maid." From
the OHG. is derived OSlavic dźva, dźvaya "girl," while OHG. has lost the
masculine from which diu "female servant" was formed, the Slavic dźti
"children"... Russ. ditya "child," originally "puer noster, regius," as used in
old documents, prove that a form diot, diet, now preserved only in OHG. in the
sense of "people," originally meant "puer noster," and this is proved
conclusively by Finnish dievddo, divdo "mas, vir," which has preserved both the
old form devotus and the meaning attached to it. Similarly the OHG. dionōn "to
serve," ONorse žjónari "servant," ORussian tiun, tivun "servant, officer,
ruler," have lost a d, as is again proved
conclusively by the Finnish teudnar "servus, famulus." Goth. žiuda, OHG. diota, diot, diet, AS. žioda, žiod "people ," Goth. žiudans "ruler" have been referred to Umbrian tota-, tuta- "urbs," Sabinian touta "community," Oscan touto "civitas, populus," tśvtķks "publicus," but that is totally impossible since the dialectic Italian words proceed obviously from a meaning "common, whole," that is, from Latin totus, while the Germanic words cannot be separated from the meaning "servus," a connection which has arisen only through the employment of the German people as "servi dominici."
Thus the Germanic peoples are thought to have proudly derived the names that they used for their own people, and even their kings, from the idea that they were all the slaves of the Roman empire. Of course, considering the independent, highly self esteemed attitude of the Germans (as exemplified by such events as the Germans of Tacitus’ time seating themselves among the Senate to observe the games, and the oath made by the Visigoth chiefs as they entered the empire, to always work towards the distruction of Rome) makes this proposal sound unlikely. A more plausible explanation may lie in that while “devotus” and “theaw/theod/theoden” may all derive from the same Indo-European root, the original connotation, in keeping with the northern community/tribal spirit, would be one of serving and preserving themselves; working towards their survival. The king would then probably have been considered not the servant of Rome, but the servant of his folk.
However, the customs and culture of Germanic peoples, including their kingship, sometimes show an affiliation to that of Rome. According to Procopius, the Romans turned over to the Franks and their offspring
...the customs of their fathers, which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them even up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognized as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even as regards their shoes (V. xii. 13-19).
Edward James feels that “the Frankish kings of the 6th century were the heirs of the Roman generals like Aetius; they continued the traditions of the Roman army...and the acceptance of the Gallo-Romans of the Franks as the heirs to Rome is perhaps the main secret of Frankish success” (84).
If Germanic kingship was indeed obtained from the Romans, that would indicate the kingship is a phenomena which is not indigenous to Indo-Europeans in general, but instead arising among a people only in particular circumstances. However, kingship is in fact observable in almost all Indo-European peoples.
The Celts were grouped into small tribes which appear to have been ruled by kings. The evidence indicates that these kings were primarily militarily leaders. In 55 BC, Julius Cęsar landed near Dover, and fought a battle with the Britons, who ended up fleeing. He reports that the next year he brought 25,000 men to Britain, defeated Cassivelaunus, a prominent British king, but was forced to return to Gaul to meet an uprising, and never returned to the island (Roberts 19).
The Romans came to Britain again in AD 42. Emperor Claudius felt the need to support Verica, an ally of Rome in Britain who had been attacked by the sons of Cunobelin, the most important British king. Aulus Plautius sailed up the port of Richborough with 40 000 men and defeated the kingdom of Cunobelin (Roberts 20).
The Celtic king was a military leader. The first major uprising of Britons against Romans was led by Queen Boudicca of the Iceni. This reveals that the ultimate authority of a Celtic tribe could be a woman. This tribe was being unfairly treated by corrupt Roman officials, and while the Roman army was in Angelsey, the Iceni took advantage of the opportunity to attack the towns unhampered. They slew a great many retired Roman soldiers, and destroyed as much of everything Roman they could on the way to their ultimate destination of the larger towns in the south-east. Under Boudicca, the Iceni destroyed London, St. Albans, and Colchester, but Paulinus marched quickly from Angelsey with a couple legions and slaughtered the rebels (Parker 37).
The Venerable Bede names Vortigern as the British king who invited Saxons to come to Britain in 449 to fight as mercenaries in exchange for land to settle. There was a point at which the Britons had some success against the Anglo-Saxons. In the first instance the Britons were led by the Roman Ambrosius Aurelianus. A succession of small victories ended with the battle of Badon in 520, which was a great victory for the Britons (Green 10). One of the British leaders at this battle may have formed the basis for the mythical/historical king Arthur. The Anglo-Saxons were not able to push forward again until 550.
In Greece, from the Mycenaean age onwards, the leaders of society were kings, as Homer’s Iliad reveals. By around 700 BC, kingship had disappeared from most Greek cities. Kings could no longer maintain a retinue of companions due to the collapse of trade, though kingship remained at Argos and Sparta. The Macedonians had also preserved “Homeric” kingship (Burn 326), which culminated later in the rules of Philip and Alexander. Councils and appointed executive officers filler their place (Burn 66). The ancient kingship was hereditary, and it appears in dark Indo-European times from hundreds of years before the existence of Rome. Furthermore, the ancient Greek kingship has parallels to that of the later Germanic tribes; the rain-making kings of northern Achia could be sacrificed for the good of the crops (Burn 94). Administrative power was taken away from the king when the archon was placed over him, and a military commander was appointed. The king at this point only retained his role as a head priest.
In earliest times, kingship is found among the
Romans. In fact, the first division of Roman history is the period of
kings: 753 BC-510 BC (the other two being the Republic and the Empire) when the
last king was ejected (Barrow 27). The tyranny of the last three Etruscan
kings caused a great distaste for the institution. As for the nature of
Roman kingship, “it is not clear how comprehensive the powers of the king (rex)
at the summit of the city-state really were: in Rome, as in other Etruscan
cities they may have been strictly limited at this period” (Christ 9).
Kingship was replaced with a system of two consuls who would be elected for a
term. In times of crisis and war, the consuls and senate would elect a
temporary dictator, much like the Germanic peoples would sometimes elect a
temporary “king” or general for war time. At the end of the Roman
republic, the position
of emperor grew out of the dictator office when Julius Cęsar pronounced himself dictator for life.
There were other influences in the development of
the emperor as well. Throughout the time of the republic, Romans had come under
the influence and education of the Greeks, who in turn had absorbed through
trade and conquest many cultural traits of eastern peoples, and had been doing
so since the time of Alexander. This influence was first strongly felt in
the west after Alexander had installed himself as king of Persia, had adopted
Persian dress, and required that his subjects bow before him in the eastern
manner of emperor worship (Burn 339). Alexander later tried to institute
such a cult for himself. Many of these innovative ideas were as distasteful to
the Macedonians and Greeks as they would be later to the Romans when adopted by
emperors such as Augustus, who established a cult of emperor worship throughout
the empire. As in the east, the emperor
was considered to be divine; a sort of god or demigod, whereas the Indo-European concept of the king portrayed him more as a liaison between gods and men, and though he held the holiest of offices, was no god.
Only a couple Germanic tribes such as the Sciri, Bastarnę and Cimbri came in contact with Rome before the period of emperors, and these contacts were shortly before the time of Cęsar: long after Rome had been Hellenized. Most Germanic peoples would not come into contact with the empire until after 200 AD, when the institution of emperor had been long established. Therefore, any Roman influence would mean that early Germanic kingship should bear some of the eastern qualities of the divine emperor. The presence or absence of these qualities in Germanic kingship will be a useful gauge in determining whether or not Germanic kingship descended from a Roman institution.
In earlier Germanic times when tribes were smaller
bands, it appears that each was ruled by its own king. “The word ‘king’ is
common to all Germanic languages, and it seems that all Germanic peoples enjoyed
the institution at one time or another” Brooke 79). That it is often
impossible to tell how accurate a Roman or foreign source is in identifying the
exact nature of a leader’s role as it was perceived within his own tribe, cannot
be overemphasized. Tacitus states that kings were chosen for their
nobility, and generals were chosen for their valor (Benario 66). How many
generals leading campaigns in distant lands were mistaken as tribal kings?
How many tribes who were led by a lord as an ultimate authority had their leader
mistaken for a king? How many tribal kings were mistaken for petty
lords? Where can the line be drawn between a lord, a general, a regent,
and a king?
Some defining elements of these different offices
must be laid down. First, a king differed from a general in that a king
had to be of noble birth, or descended from other kings, whereas a general did
not. The provenience of hereditary nobility is central to the distinction
of Germanic kingship. A king was descended from other kings, who were
descended from the gods. All lines of Germanic kingship trace back to a
god; Gaut among the Goths, Woden and Seaxnote among English, Shild among the
Danes and Yngvi among the Swedes (Davidson 46). The nobleman was thought
to posses the wisdom and blessing power of the gods through his blood connection
to them. A lord also held his title because he had been born into a family
of lords, or nobility, but generals and powerful warriors with a following could
also become lords. A non-noble lord was called an
ealdorman in late Anglo-Saxon England. Therefore, if sufficient information is available, it is possible to distinguish between a king or lord and a general.
It is well known that the Germanic coronation ceremony involved raising the new king on a shield, to be “shown to the gods.” The religious nature of this ritual is what set a king apart from a lord, and made him an authority even among lords. The king has been officially recognized and accepted by wise men and folk alike as their representative to the gods. His primary role was sacral; he was the head priest of the tribe. He might be the military leader, and often was, but such secondary tasks could be left to others. From the king, the tribe expected to receive the council of the gods, and to be connected to the gods through their oaths to the king. The king had to bless the fields to bring prosperous harvests. If the weather was bad, the seasons poor, and the crops failed, the king was blamed, and could himself be sacrificed to the gods to restore the prosperity of the people (Davidson 36).
A Regent or Protector could be of noble birth or
not. The distinguishing characteristic of regency is that it is a position
of ultimate authority held by an individual who does not have hereditary right
to the throne. If the regent was noble, this could be because either he or
she was not descended from the previous king, that the regent was of the king’s
family but that the throne was either bequeathed to or inherited by another
family member before him, but one who was not competent to rule the kingdom, for
example, because of being a minor. Alternately, the regent could be
limited to such a position because of being a woman, even if she was the
daughter of the previous king, as was the case with Theodoric’s daughter
Amalaswintha. Alternately, a regent could be a non-noble general, advisor,
or caretaker who must rule the kingdom until the king comes
of age, or until a new king is chosen.
A deeper look into the composition and nature of
Germanic kingship will reveal further important subcategories, which were
actually stages in its evolution. Wolfram says of Tacitus: “Though he
appears to describe the simultaneous existence of royal and military (ducal)
authority, he was in fact referring to two forms of Germanic kingship that
supplemented, indeed succeeded one another” (15). Both Caesar and Tacitus
describe the “Gallic-West Germanic Revolution,” around 50 BC, in which the most
advanced and best organized peoples on both sides of the Rhine no longer had
kings, even while they still had royal families (Wolfram 16). Oligarchic
powers sought to prevent the restoration of kingship, and often those who wanted
to become kings “again,” including Arminius, would be executed. The new
type of king ruled a migrating army made up of different tribes. The
migration period Germans who fought with the empire were less often one single
tribe than a group of ethnically diverse tribes. “Tribal kings [of the
archaic sort] were not ideally suited to leading a group of tribes in warfare; a
war leader would be
chosen when the need arose” (James 162). The new military king was chosen by the army because of decisive victory and heroic achievement that acted as a primordial deed from which the new tribe (a confederation of smaller tribes) derived its identity, thus founding a new royalty and people. “...And the generals win public favor by the example they set if they are energetic, if they are distinguished, if they fight before the battle line rather than by the power they wield” (Benario 66).
The ancient form of kingship survived, however, in Scandinavia and among the east Germanic peoples (Wolfram 16). Dual kingship was common, and was religiously associated with two helper gods. This premigration era kingship was archaic, and its holders possessed a high degree of sacral responsibility. These kings were responsible for a small, ethnically homogenous region. The archaic kings ruled a small settled tribe (Wolfram 17). The clarity with which the sources attest the military kingship leaves little to be desired. The archaic tribal kingship, however, becomes only dimly visible in old names, and tales of abandoned cults. Ingemar Nordgren considers the question of the nature of the ancient kingship:
“The cult of Óšinn, as well as of Gaut, is however no cult for the people but
for kings, chieftains and warriors. The opinion is forwarded that the people all
the time worshipped the old fertility-gods. The old sacral king is primarily
tied to the people’s cult. The sun-fertility cult of Bronze Age Scandinavia is
connected with the common name of the peoples worshipping the fruitful sun -
Svižiož - meaning ‘the Sun-people.’ The king, Svķakonungr, accordingly must be
interpreted as the ‘Sun-king,’ and as the
ensurer of fertility, was considered the sun god reborn” (conversation).
The new rule that arose had little in common with
the old style kingship (Wolfram 16). Nowhere in Tacitus is the Germanic
king leading battle; (though to do such probably also fell within his
jurisdiction) rather, the king is seen speaking at the council, observing the
“neighings and snortings of horses” for divining, or prophetic purposes (Benario
68). In the examination of the reasons for the initial change between one type
of kingship and cult in Scandinavia to another, Ingemar Nordgren gives a summary
in English of his groundbreaking German work, The Well Spring of the
Goths. After the climatic change in late Bronze Age Scandinavia, a change
also took place from communal to family farming, which reduced the people’s
dependency on the old sacral king.
“During these circumstances, when the sacral king or chieftain no longer convincingly could claim to be the sun-god reborn, it was important to find a new motivation to recruit warriors. What then could be better than a personification of the god in the local chieftain? Farming was dependent on the protection by divine powers, and such a protection the chieftains could offer in the shape of secret men’s leagues, which could be used as demon-hunters in the fields as well as warriors' leagues” conversation).
The different words used for “king” support the distinction between the two types of early kingship. The Gothic word for people, “thiuda” is complimented by the thiudans, (OE theoden). The “race,” or “lineage,” (kind) was ruled by the kindins, the army, or drauht was led by the drauhtins (OE dryhten, ON drottin) (Wolfram 16).
In the 4th century, the thiudans did not remain a
tribal king, and the kindins was no longer a clan chief. He had now become
the “judge” (iudex) who was elected for the duration of a specific threat and
limited in his authority to the territory of the tribal
confederation (Wolfram 16). However, there is little to indicate that the position of the iudex was temporary (see below). The thiudans no longer represented the people and their land, but came to be associated with higher, more absolute rule, or the divine rule of God. In the Gothic language, the earthly ruler became more commonly designated reiks, and this title was adopted by the other east Germanic peoples (Wolfram 17).
The two types of kingship also had strong religious connections.
“In his search for the system underlying the Indo-European pantheon, Georges Dumezil found a pair of complimentary gods that corresponded to the two types of kings. One was a charitable, “normal” god. He maintained a geographically small, stable system of laws and traditions by ensuring fertility and peace. His counterpart was a wild, dangerous, and even chaotic god. Warlike communities, migrating tribal armies, and individuals consecrated themselves to him, their lord and leader” (Wolfram 17).
Wolfram sees this duality as embodied in the god Woden-Odin, or his predecessor, Gaut- who was a god of war, death, and madness. However, it is clear that the old kingship was actually embodied by Yngvi-Freyr, god of fertility and peace, and the new kingship, based on war, strife, and the creation and movement of new tribes and dynasties signaled the rise of the Gaut-Odin cult to prominence. The duality is therefore represented in the conflicting aspects of these two gods.
The two types of kingship did not develop uniquely among the Germanics, rather, both appear in the entire Euro-Asian sphere, and may in fact represent a form of political organization common to all mankind (Wolfram 19). Certainly both permeated all Germanic tribes.
Some important facts about Germanic kingship are to be gained from examining the leadership of the Burgundians. In the 4th century, they still had the two early types of kingship existing side by side (Wolfram 17). The military king was called a hendinos, and was responsible for the tribe; if the fortunes of war were unfavorable, or the bounty of harvest declined, he could be deposed or sacrificed. The archaic kingship was represented by the sinistus or elder. By the 4th century, his only remaining function was of head priest. Originally, the Burgundian “elder” had no doubt been the sacral tribal king, and because of his sacral responsibilities, continued to hold a monarchical title, whereas the hendinos had to share his power with competitors (Wolfram 17).
Jordanes, in his Getica, mentions that the Goths were ruled by kings from the time they first left Scandinavia (IV-25). The first king to lead the Goths from Scandinavia was Berig, and Filimer, “about the fifth king from Berig” led the Goths to Scythia. Jordanes’ history is quite inaccurate and flawed in many places, and it can be taken as a preservation of the Goths’ own oral history in its 6th century form. The value in Jordanes’ is that it can be said with certainty that the Goths, who were indeed ruled by kings in the 6th century, believed they had always been ruled by kings.
Tacitus mentions that the Gotones were ruled by kings more strictly than other Germanic tribes, but “not to the point of suppression of liberty.” This is not unexpected for the tribe which was known for spreading its nobility and style of leadership throughout the Germanic world. “Under the leadership of military kings, the Goths moved from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and from there attacked the empire. In the battle with Rome the oldest Gothic military kingship and the unity of the tribe were destroyed forever (Wolfram 18). However, Ingemar Nordgren feels that the old kingship survived a little longer:
“The Vistula Goths probably kept their sacral kingdom structure until their arrival to the Black Sea, meaning that the institution of kindins in Gutthiuda represents the last stage of the declining sacral kingdom of the Goths. The only function still executed by the kindins in the Gothic realm of Dacia is that of overseeing the people’s cult of the old fertility gods” (conversation).
In the fourth century, the Gothic people had grown
quite large, and divided into two major subgroups, the Greuthingi and the
Terviningi, which were at first both under one overall leader. These
subgroups were also divided into smaller groups, or kunja,
which were tribes consisting of a number of villages (Heather 97). The main ruling family among the Ostrogoths was the Amal dynasty, and their genealogy shows they were a noble ruling family descended from a god, just like the kings of all other Germanic dynasties. An Amal king ruled not as a thiudans but as a reiks, over diverse peoples (Wolfram 18). The overall leader was not considered a king by the Romans, but an iudex, or “judge of kings” (Heather 98). The Judge occupied a position superior to that of the ordinary nobility. This nobility is interpreted as an oligarchy by Wolfram, who follows the
Roman perceptions of Gothic leadership (18). However, the Goths seem to have used the term reiks (Lat. rex) in its original sense, designating a lord of a subgroup rather than an overall leader. Therefore, the Romans appear to have mistook the lesser Gothic lords as kings themselves, and mistook their king as a “judge of kings.”
To substantiate that the Judge was actually the king, the Judge could enforce a decision to uphold traditional religious observance at a village level (Heather 103). Such powers are beyond that of the temporary military leader. The Judge could initiate war, and was the one who met with the Roman emperor; the agreements he reached were binding on all his followers (Heather 106). Some have suggested that the Judge office was only the temporary head of a confederation required for warfare. However, this cannot be the case, since those termed iudex were succeeded in the position by their sons, making it an hereditary position. Any time the Tervingi are mentioned, the name of an overall ruler who appears much like a monarch to the Romans is also mentioned. According to Heather, there is little evidence to indicate the office was not permanent or hereditary. If the Judge was indeed only appointed in times of special need, he mirrors not the ancient kingship, but the military kingship that was temporarily elected to lead a group of tribes.
The Gothic leaders which the Romans called iudex would have been known amongst the Goths as reiks, while what the Romans called “kings” were the lesser lords which would have been designated frauja, or drauhtin by the Goths. According to The Passion of St. Saba, the Gothic Judge could not just issue commands, but sometimes had to consult his “nobility,” which in fact was quite possibly his Witan, or panel of advisors. The Gothic kingship and nobility system can therefore probably be seen as the same as that of the western and northern Germanic tribes that more is known about.
Among the Visigoths, a second layer of military kingship emerged from the warrior class called the Balthi (the Bold), which was not seen as having noble or divine ancestry. The succession of kings only occasionally followed family lines, although there is an indication that hereditary kinship eventually became important among the Balthi as well.
Gothic kings “clearly had a religious role,” and therefore it is necessary to disagree with Heather’s perspective that “it seems unlikely that the Judge was any kind of priest ruler” (106). As we have seen, there is essentially no difference between the Gothic thiudans and the sacral kings of other Germanic tribes. Germanic kingship was certainly a priest-rulership. The Gothic king, as the high priest of the tribe, could enforce and set the religion of the tribe, and no doubt played an important role at the sacrificial offerings.
Later Gothic kinship began to absorb some Roman
traits, though it kept its Gothic character. “The Italian federates, the
Goths, did not raise up an emperor, but a king equal in rank to the
emperor. Theodoric took the Imperium Romanum as the measure for his
regnum” (Wolfram 110). “This might be termed ‘Flavian kingship;’ just as
the older Flavians possessed the emperorship, the younger Flavians sought to
embody the kingship” (Wolfram 109). Imperial prerogatives- such as the use
of the title “imperator,” the wearing of the imperial robes, the decreeing of
laws and judicial authority over senators and the high clergy, the full right of
minting, and the promulgation of statutes- remained formally untouched until the
end of the 6th century. When a Merovingian king like Theudebert I
(533-547) usurped some of these rights and had gold coins minted with his image,
his pretensions were considered scandalous and isolated actions (Wolfram 109).
The west Germanic version (Frankish and Anglo-Saxon) of the reiks was termed a kuning (German konig), or in Old English, cyning, which later contracted into the Modern English word “king.” The west Germans embodied the later military type of kingship because the tribes along the Elbe and Rhine had lost the archaic kingship before the migrations began. Like the Burgundian hendinos and the Gothic reiks, the west Germanic cyning had to share power with competitors, was responsible for the army and the well-being of the tribe, and could be deposed or sacrificed if the crops failed.
Kingship is evident among the Anglo-Saxons from 450 AD, the time of their earliest significant presence in England. Hengest and Horsa, who were probably actually Jutish, are said to have been the leaders of the Saxons at this time, and after breaking with Vortigern, established the kingdom of Kent. Gregory of Tours, in his Frankish Histories, written in the late 6th century, refers to Kent as a kingdom (Kirby 20). Another band of Saxons led by king Ęlle, would found the kingdom of Sussex.
The nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship was similar to that of other Germanic peoples. Most importantly, it should be cknowledged that “in most particulars, the kingship of Saxon and Norman times was utterly unlike the constitutional monarchy of Elizabeth II” (Brooke 21). The descendants of the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms claimed royal status and “descent from ancient Germanic gods” (Kirby 1). The rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early England regarded themselves as the successors and descendants of the heroic figures of the migration period and are so represented in their king lists and royal genealogies (Kirby 1).
“Among the early Germanic leaders there are likely to have been kings of many types. Tacitus’ distinction, for example, between peace-time rulers of noble blood (reges) and war-leaders (duces), chosen for their prowess in battle, may still have retained some validity, and in the circumstances of the time the duces must have been well placed to secure coercive powers to endow their temporary positions of authority with new found permanence. Later Anglo-Saxon dynasties would probably have numbered both types among their reputed ancestors” (Kirby 16).
Ammianus Marcellinus records how in the year 357 the Alemanni on the continent were led into battle by ten petty kings, under the command of five kings, under the direction of two commanders. “So structured a hierarchy will surely not have been without parallels during the complexities of transmaritime military operation in Britain” (Kirby 16).
Originally, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were quite small;
the approximate area of an early kingdom began to be termed a shire in the 10th
century, meaning an early kingdom was no more than a district or county.
Other petty kingdoms followed, until in 650 there were 11 kingdoms in
England. The small, independent chiefdoms within a migration period or
post migration period tribe were the oligarchies brought about by the
replacement of the old kingship with the military kingship. It is clear
that many successful duces became kings in the course of time, and for
some of these, noble ancestry was invented. Though it appears that the
elder kingship may have survived in Anglo Saxon times as well; “ it may well be
that the founders of Lindsey and Mercia were reges, just as it is fairly certain
that Cerdic was a dux (Brooke 78). Succession by the most suitable noble
rather than the son of the previous king can be seen as an attribute of both
early types of kingship. While Germanic kings were usually descended from
royal ancestors, or later attributed to such, succession was not the Norman
patrilineal succession of the eldest
son, but an election of nobles. Important in the complex of Anglo-Saxon kingship was the Witan, or “king’s council,” which acted as a board of advisors, or early parliament, but also had the power to elect a new king from the noble families, and depose a king if necessary (Brooke 22). There are indications that the Witan was probably also common to the administration of most or all Germanic tribes as well.
The Roman influence was not completely lost in England even in the Anglo-Saxon period. Hengest and Horsa themselves may have served in the Roman army (Roberts 35). Germanic peoples, including Saxons, had served as mercenaries for Rome at least since the period covered by Tacitus. In those centuries, they acquired various aspects of Roman culture and custom, which they brought with them when they invaded England. However, for the most part, the nature and style of early Anglo-Saxon kingship paralleled the non-Romanized Germanic military kingship as found among the other Germanic tribes.
Much like other Germanic areas, the Scandinavian king was primarily a military and religious leader (Roesdahl 68). In Scandinavia, a king could be descended from an earlier king through either his mother’s or father’s side. Gods and heroes were also included in the genealogies to further legitimize rule. Royal power could be shared by fathers, sons and brothers, but unlike Anglo-Saxon kingship, never by a woman (Roesdahl 66). Written sources in general for Sweden, Denmark and Norway before 800 are very rare, and little is known of the earlier Scandinavian kings. However, accounts of kings from the 6th century onwards are preserved in the later sagas which would have been based on oral tradition. While much saga information is not historically reliable, many accounts can be verified by both contemporary and later sources from elsewhere.
It would appear that remigrating Goths and Heruls
from the south usurped much of the leadership in Scandinavia in the early
500s. Therefore, the nature of post-migration period Scandinavian kingship
has much in common with what is known of the earlier Gothic and Herulian
kingship described above. In 6th century Sweden, the later military
kingship takes on the religious cult, deity and connotation of the earlier
sacral kingship, while maintaining its military nature. The military
further merges with the sacral by absorbing its roles, as Ingemar Nordgren
The presumed kings of the later “folklands” north of the Mälar lake formally keep the claim to be related to Yngvi-Frejr, but now in the form of a genealogical descent from Óšinn-Gaut via Njoršr and Yngvi-Frejr - a clearly Odinistic claim. The king, also a petty-king, was also the Goše, “the priest,” of the local cult of Frejr/Freja (conversation).
The story of Germanic kingship among the Franks diverges from the pattern found in most other tribes because of their unique and early acceptance of Roman ways. The earliest leaders of the Franks accounted for by Gregory of Tours are duces, not reges; the tribal kings were not directly involved in dealings with the Romans (James 162). They were considered to be born from the “foremost noble family of their people.” However, this royal descent probably originated in the most powerful and successful of their war leaders, who appropriated for themselves the Roman title rex. By the time of historical mention, the Merovingian kingship had little of the traditional Germanic characteristics of kingship. The later Frankish institution grew up within the Roman empire, partly in response to the need of the Romans themselves to manipulate and organize military support (James 163).
The bulk of a Merovingian king’s subjects were Roman by birth and tradition; he held a position not unlike a Roman emperor: war leader, judge, a potential source of patronage, and an object of awe and fear. Like Roman emperors since Constantine, Frankish kings also had a special relationship with the church (James 164). Clovis converted early to Catholicism and even under his predecessor Childeric, the Franks had begun to be assimilated into Roman life. In the grave of this 5th century pagan king, a seal-ring was found, which depicts Childeric in Roman style military dress. The ring bears the Latin inscription Childerici Regis, and “the whole concept of a seal ring, of course, implying the use of written documents, is Roman rather than Frankish (James 61). One result was the forgoing of the more traditional aspects of Germanic kingship in favor of Roman style rule. The Franks were more Romanized than even the Goths in Italy, who maintained their Gothic language and customs. Gothic tribal identity was maintained, and their persistence in maintaining Arianism, was a tribal distinguisher between their people and those of the empire. Therefore, Frankish kingship must be treated as a special isolated case, showing an affiliation not found in other Germanic tribes, and therefore not a reflection of Germanic kingship in general.
In summary of early Germanic kingship, the old
hereditary sacral king had primarily the religious role of high priest, while he
also had responsibility for the tribe’s well being, and dealt with
administrative matters. As the non-hereditary military kingship
arose, many of the leadership and administrative functions of the old kingship were transferred to the new kingship, while the new kingship also attempted to absorb as much of the sacral function of the old kingship as possible (Wolfram 18), eventually absorbing the hereditary rule. Members of the old royal families who sought kingship again did not seek to re-establish the archaic form, but attempted to gain a more significant kingship over a number of tribes through military victory.
The Roman leadership which the Germanic peoples
encountered was the emperor. As previously described, the institution of emperor
would have derived from eastern concepts of ultimate kingship, and the need of
the extremely large and ever growing
empire to be held together by a central leadership. The earliest Germanic sacral kingship has little in common by way of nature, function, or power with the emperor role. It was Julius Caesar himself who described the state of Germanic kingship for the tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe, as not arising due to Roman contact, but declining at the point of Roman contact, where it had prospered in pre-Roman times. As for the later Germanic military king, he had more in common with a Roman general than with the emperor. However, the Germanic military king could not have descended from the Roman general, as the former can be seen arising independently in Scandinavia due to climatic and social changes in pre-Roman times. It would not be until later that the Germanic military king would evolve into an office which substantially reflected Roman influence rather than
ancient tribal tradition.
The differences between the later monarch and the
earlier Germanic king are well symbolized by the fact that the main token of
office for the Germanic king was not a crown or a diadem, but a helmet.
That the kings could be sacrificed is one example how his position and power
were more limited than the later monarch, who was considered divine and could
not be sacrificed or harmed. Only in the reign of Charles I of England is
an execution of a king by angry throngs seen: a deed done by those who boldly
and illegally asserted for themselves what would have been their right in
Germanic times. Though the Germanic king had ultimate authority, he is not set
as highly above his subjects as the later monarch. “Nor did their kings
have limitless arbitrary
The coming of Christianity to the Germanic peoples
was a substantial factor in the mutation of Germanic kingship. Christian
ideas and notions began to take precedence over Germanic ones. Especially
among the nobles, all aspects of life slowly began to be re-evaluated, and
changed. Christian monarchy, being heavily influenced by Biblical
kingship, was ultimately an outgrowth of the Hellenized Roman imperial tradition
beginning with Constantine. It was only at this later date (6th and 7th
onwards) when the Roman and eastern concepts of kingship began to have any serious influence in the Germanic world, and represented the further evolution of the later Germanic military kingship.
This third type of kingship begins to appear in the Germanic world, and is clearly an outgrowth of the military kingship, but with the imposition of foreign paradigms of leadership not previously known to the Germans. The sequence of tribal to military kingship
...gave rise to a greater kingship which did not revive either the Gothic thiudans, or the Burgundian sinistus, or any of the other names of the old tribal kings. The Visigoth Alaric, the Vandal Geiseric, and the Ostrogoth Theodoric firmly established the monarchy of the reiks. In much the same way, the kuning Clovis became the sole Frankish king, while a number of Anglo-Saxon kings tried to achieve something similar (Wolfram 19).
As for Theodoric, while he was no longer a tribal king in that he ruled a large area of Italy, and a diverse population of Italians and Goths, nevertheless, his kingship for the most part embodied the Germanic in that it rejected much of the Roman, as explained above. Such was probably also the case with the other 6th century Germanic monarchs. Not until the 9th century would Germanic kings start to truly begin to embody the nature of the Christian feudal monarch.
Roman culture in England was advanced when Augustine brought Christianity and began converting the English in the late 6th century. The later Anglo-Saxon period shows that through the influence of Christianity and continental contacts, the English were gradually becoming more Romanized; styles of dress changed, law became codified, Latin writing was introduced, stone became used as a building material, and metal armor became more common.
The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons is told in detail by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Pope Gregory had always wanted to bring Christianity to the English (Roberts 39). He sent Augustine and forty missionaries to England, who took advantage of the fact that Ęthelbert, king of Kent, had married a Christian princess of the Franks. Ęthelbert was at first not interested in become a Christian himself, but because the Germanic heathen tended toward religious toleration, he allowed the missionaries to gain whatever converts they could in his kingdom. After being impressed with their success and austerity, Ęthelbert and his thanes became Christian within the next year, and the king of Essex was also converted. Such set the precedent of the other kingdoms, until only Penda, king of Mercia remained a heathen, and fought adamantly against Christianization. When he fell in the mid 600s, so did the last Anglo-Saxon heathen kingdom.
This was not the only angle from which the Anglo-Saxons were Christianized though. After Penda drove the missionaries from Northumbria, the Christian king Oswald looked for help from the monks of Iona, who professed a Celtic form of Christianity descended from that of the Celtic missionaries of Roman Britain, and which differed from Roman Christianity. Under the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswy, the zeal of the Celtic Christian Aidan did much for the conversion of the English. There were several customs of appearance and administration that differed between the two forms, but the most prominent of the differences was the calculation of Easter. Northumbria ended its days of Celtic Christianity at the council of Whitby in 664, which was called to debate the Easter controversy. The acceptance of the Roman usages led to the organization of the church as a single body, which was performed by Theodore of Tarsus (Roberts 40).
The church was not the only organization unit to be unified into one body. After the spread of Christianity, in the gradual process of Romanization in England, the structure of society and territories changed. The 11 petty kingdoms were regrouped into seven larger ones, which were later grouped into three. Real monarchy began in England with the absorption of the lesser kingdoms into Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex in the 7th century. In the 8th century, Offa of Mercia almost united Britain, but the Mercians were defeated by Egbert in 825; Wessex triumphed over all the others (Roberts 42). The kingdoms became districts, or shires, of the one kingdom of England (which was substantially larger than former kingdoms). Now, with only one king, the former leaders of the smaller territories, who had been kings, were reduced to lordships. The shires were now ruled by ealdormen.
In this new process, the nature of kingship began to change. The chiefs of small areas who governed personally became kings in the sense of the Christian public annointment. They began to govern locally through the use of ealdormen. The system of succession changed, becoming more patriarchal due to Romano-Christian influence; now the king was succeeded by his eldest son rather than the most competent nobleman. Now one king was set over top of the regions which had once been independent kingdoms.
Essentially, each local area whether termed a kingdom or a shire, was still headed by its own leader. The difference was the imposition of one area over all the others as well, producing another layer of subservience. Kings were reduced to ealdormen, and ealdormen were reduced to thanes. However, while socially one rung lower of rank than previous, each class also gained greater responsibility and power. An ealdorman previously controlled an area the size of a Hundred, now that title controlled a shire. Whereas the thane was originally a king’s retainer in a member of a war band who might hope to be given land for his services if the campaign was successful, was now the “lord” of the hundred, had his own hall and is own retainers. Each rank, while farther away from the top, gained the power formerly held by the rank immediately above it.
Kingship grew to be based on land acquisition, and
the English kings eventually claimed ownership of all the land of the country,
whereas land had formerly been considered the possession of the
freeholders. This development was paralleled in a
number of other Northern European countries.
Norway was first united in the 880s by Harald Harifair, who over a ten year period conquered all of the territories around his own for the sake of increasing his own wealth and prestige. In the style of the new monarch, Harald made use of an early eudal-like system:
King Harald set the law wherever he one land, that he was possessed fully of all the land by odal right and he made all bonders, great and small, pay him a tax. Over each shire he set a jarl who should administer the law and justice in the land and gather the fines and land dues, and every jarl should have a third of the tribute for living and costs. Every jarl should have under him four or more district chiefs, and each of them should have an income from the land of 20 marks. Each jarl should muster for the king’s army sixty warriors, and each district chief (herse) twenty men. But so much had king Harald increased the tribute and land taxes, that his jarls had greater incomes than the kings had afortime, and when that was learned in Trondheim, many great men sought king Harald and became his men (Sturlusson 46).
Some Germanic kings not only embodied the
emperor-style kingship, but themselves became emperors, even of Rome.
Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, had built a strong Frankish
empire. By 804, Charlemagne had conquered all
the lands from Saxony to Italy, and had been crowned emperor of Rome in 800 (Chambers et al. 222).
In Germany, tradition lasted longer. Kingship
remained elective, and wealth and power were concentrated in large territorial
blocks-Saxony, Franconia, Swabia and Bavaria. “Originally districts of the
Carolingian empire, these territories became [once
again] independent political entities under powerful dukes” (Chambers et al. 259). Tendency toward later monarchy would not even escape Germany though. In the 10th century, the German king Otto gained much power and territory, and was crowned
emperor of Rome (Chambers et al. 260). This began the line of German Roman emperors, the most famous of whom was Fredrich Barbarossa.
Many other kings in Northern Europe attempted to build empires. Ivar Widefathom succeeded in conquests all over Scandinavia. Harald Hardrada, a Viking who had risen to political prominence in Scandinavia as a result of the great wealth he acquired in the Mediterranean, attempted to conquer England a few days before William of Normandy succeeded in doing so in 1066.
The Norman kings of England, being of Scandinavian origin, French in culture, and English in nationality, are well representative of most of the peoples who have been discussed so far, and will be used to describe the general nature and effect of the new monarchy in Northern Europe. (Author’s note: the following description of historical late Norman kingship in England is in no way to be taken as representative of, or associated in any way with the custom, method or policy of Normani Reiks). Norman rule and law in England, as characteristic of the later monarchy, was despotic and exploitative compared to the much more flexible and fair custom of even the late Anglo-Saxon monarchy; the Norman conquest represented the move to later monarchy, which resulted in a great decrease in status and quality of life for English noble and peasant alike.
Later monarchy was characterized by feudalism. For the most part, the vassals of the king were barons, who had knights as their own vassals. As had already happened elsewhere with ambitious kings and larger kingdoms, such as Harald Hairfair in Norway, the Norman king claimed sole ownership of all the land (Stenton 59). He granted this land to 170 barons, and in exchange they were required to meet his demands, which included money or assistance whenever required by the lord. Half of the rents paid by the tenants on the land went the creation of Norman baronies. Land always reverted back to the lord upon the death of the vassal, and his descendants had to pay to renegotiate the feudal contract. The feudal system was a means for the later monarch to better exploit his subjects.
Some argue that the effects of the Norman conquest
was ultimately beneficial to England. It was the Norman times which saw
the first true flourishing of learning and advancement of civilization in
England. Art and architecture flourished, as the Normans built the first
impressive structures since Roman times in Britain. The Romanesque style
of cathedral building eventually gave way to Gothic architecture, producing ever
increasingly advanced and breathtaking structures, mostly inspired by
developments on the continent, in France and Normandy-areas which has become
culturally linked to England with the coming of the Normans (Roberts 82).
Such things tended to thrive under later monarchs in spite of the accompanying
despotic rule. The Normans were no great lovers of art and culture, but
rather of power and wealth, which they abused tyrannically. For example,
the Normans did not have great cathedrals built out of deep religious devotion,
or patronage to culture, but only in order to have the prestige of outdoing
their political peers and competitors. Many castles were built only to
enforce Norman power and rule over mistrusted peasants. The
unlimited nature of the later monarchy allowed for rampant greed and misuse of
royal power unparalleled in the ancient Germanic tribes.
The Norman feudal system had a serious impact on the people of England; for the most part, the overall effect was negative. Freemen were downgraded in status to villein, which was slavery in practice if not in title. Anglo-Saxon freemen who had owned their own land, and could be under any lord they chose, were now bound to a specific manor and lord which they could not leave. All were now peasants tied to the land on which they were born, and all owed great amounts of services and taxes. Only the Normans could increase their number of slaves while decreasing the number of people they named as slaves. Feudal law took away almost all rights and benefits of women, who had enjoyed considerably more power and prestige in Anglo-Saxon times (Briggs 51). Men and women in England were regarded on a fairly equal platform before the Normans came; women could participate in public and political matters, including leadership, they could divorce, taking half the goods, could retain custody of their children, and were not forced to remarry (Roberts 79). Descent could be rendered bilaterally by the Germanic custom which the Anglo-Saxons preserved. The Normans brought in a more patriarchal system with feudalism and later monarchy.
The labors, rents and taxes owed by the villeins were unfairly increased by the Normans. For example, the burden of providing for Norman military equipping and exploits was made all the worse by the absence of the wealth that was no longer being produced on the large amount of lands and villages that William had destroyed. The unreasonable extractions did not stop with William the Conqueror. William Rufus taxed his subjects endlessly in order to pay for an unnecessary war waged for the purpose of taking Normandy from his brother Robert (Roberts 89). He extorted huge amounts from the people, and left bishoprics vacant so that he could gain their revenues. His successor Henry I at first ended the unfair extractions of William, as per the promise he made at his coronation. However, this did not last long, as he also reaped an unlawful amount of feudal dues, and made heavy extractions from the English in order to support his primary goal of taking Normandy once again from Robert.
Not one Norman king ruled in a way that benefited the people of England, which must have been a shock and disappointment compared to the fairer times of the Anglo-Saxon period. The pattern of each Norman king’s rule included unreasonable demands and taxation on a people recently enslaved to the feudal system. The lives and wealth of the people were in each case not put to any good use, or even to defense of the realm. Instead resources and lives served useless campaigns to try to conquer continental lands, and more often than not, ones that were already ruled by a close relative of the king himself. The contrast between the Anglo-Saxon period and Norman times is quite distinct. Such is well representative of the nature of later monarchy in general.
The tendency towards imperialism continued. Henry II of Anjou had large holdings in France, which he ran as an empire together with England. Edward Longshanks similarly ran Scotland, England and Wales as an empire. The later monarchs were so despotic that limitations had to be placed upon their powers for the preservation of their people. After the signing of the Magna Carta by king John in the 13th century, a number of similar reforms were imposed by the barons and parliament up to the execution of Charles I and the introduction of the Commonwealth in the 17th century. By this time parliament, by the necessity of survival, had become more powerful than the monarchy. These reforms turned the crown into a limited monarchy, which was contrasted with the absolute monarchy in France by the extra rights and freedoms the English slowly regained.
Not all places in Europe saw the end of the old kingship and replacement with later monarchy. The leadership of Iceland was unique among Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. It was ruled by a theocratic oligarchy of Gothar. The Gothi was, at first the priest of a tribe or clan. There was no full time priesthood, and the chieftain or land owner had the responsibility for the upkeep of the local temple. Over time, the office of Gothi became more secularized, and he became an official of the commonwealth, with sovereign power over his leigemen, hallowing and presiding over the courts. The Alsherjargothi, who was usually the oldest, held precedence over the others (Jones and Pennick 148). The Gothar set laws and set the price of goods. The four quarters of Iceland were divided into three jurisdictions, and each was presided over by a Gothi. Therefore, the Gothi was essentially in charge of a district, equal to a late Anglo-Saxon shire or an early Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and as the holder of an office both religious and political, probably held the responsibility and stature equivalent to an early Anglo-Saxon king.
The Icelandic system of Gothar represents the decentralization of leadership into a system more akin to the ancient Germanic one than to the monarchy style overlordship of larger territories that was developing in the other Germanic areas. This was the second time in the history of Germanic development that a priestly class rose to administrative positions, and by doing so, the Icelanders limited the power of their administrators to what it had been in earlier Germanic times. This was the same organic process of leadership evolution taking place all over again, that had created the original Germanic kings millenniums ago, whose descendants in places other than Iceland were moving further towards an unlimited monarchy. However, the evolution of the institution was ongoing, as even the Gothi position later became an inherited office (Jones and Pennick 149).
The ancient kingship that the Germanic peoples held since Indo-European times slowly came under Roman influence and became a later monarchy. More pertinent to the people of a nation would have been that the new monarchy allowed for the free reign of tyranny, which would have never happened under the original Germanic kingship with its limitations on leadership. The influence of the Roman imperial model of political organization and social domination, as well as the influence of the church, and its tendency towards the Romanization of a society, are the factors which lead the small kingdom under a priest-chief to turn into a large kingdom under an absolute monarch. The pattern of the institution’s evolution over the centuries was paralleled in the conversion: one God came to rule over all men who had once been divided by devotions to a number of different pantheons and gods. Unity and universalism came to dominate both the religious and political realms. In that sense, the conversion marks the dividing line between traditional Germanic kingship, and Roman influenced Germanic kingship, though the initial conversion was little more than an external Christianization, which may be the reason why feudal monarchy did not truly appear among the Germans until the 9th century, when Christianity first began to make a significant impact on the nobility. That Germany held on to tribal style organization and leadership longer than others is not surprising; the Saxons were last only to the Scandinavians to convert to the new religion, and only did so under the coercion of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Perhaps it is not actually wrong to claim that Germanic kingship descended from Roman influence; this is certainly true of later monarchy, which was of Germanic descent, but not of Germanic culture. When we say “Germanic kingship” we must ultimately refer to that kingship which was indigenous to the Germans, which did indeed exist before Roman influence, and which should not be overlooked or forgotten about.
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