Monday, May 19, 2014

A Soap Opera of Kings and Saints II

I've previously summarized some of the royal soap opera that was Great Britain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, for St. Margaret's day. Today is the feast of St. Dunstan, who also lived through that elaborate drama of Vikings, Scottish intrigue, Anglo-Saxon assassinations, and a Norman Invasion.

Dunstan was born at some point in the first half of the tenth century; his uncle Athelm was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Being bright and competent, Dunstan became part of the court of King Æthelstan, who, having joined Mercia and Wessex and conquered the Viking kingdom of York (or Jórvík, as it would have been in those days), had become the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of all England. Æthelstan also invaded Scotland (then known as Alba) and defeated King Constantine, bringing Alba into submission -- but the Scots were not exactly the kind to stay submitting and much of his reign was taken up with repeatedly having to defeat them. Dunstan became a favorite of Æthelstan, which, of course, inevitably made him enemies; they started spreading rumors of his involvement with black magic, and Dunstan was forced to leave court. He went to stay with what was probably another of his uncles, St. Ælfheah the Bald, who was Bishop of Winchester.

Ælfheah himself had an interesting life. While Bishop of Winchester, the area was subject to a massive Viking raid under the great Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason; Ælfheah seems to have convinced the king to accept a treaty with danegeld and go away peacefully. In any case, Ælfheah tried to convince Dunstan to become a monk, and after a terrible sickness, Dunstan agreed. He withdrew to a cell. Many of the most popular legends of Dunstan's life come from this period, including the legend of his fight with the devil:

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

In his monastic seclusion, Dunstan performed the monastic requirement of labor by working as a silversmith and in the illumination of manuscripts. He became an advisor and confessor to Lady Æthelflaed, who was Æthelstan's niece; when she died an early death, she left a small fortune to Dunstan, who used it to build monasteries.

As all of this had been going on things were happening in the succession of Carlovingian Western Francia. Louis IV was the son of Edmund's half-sister Eadgifu, or Edgiva; he was deposed by nobles when he was two years old, and Eadgifu and Louis fled to England and the court of Æthelstan -- which is why Louis is often called Louis d'Outremer, i.e., Louis Overseas. Louis would eventually return, but he only ever had a very limited power.

When Æthelstan died in 939, Edmund I became king; he is usually known as Edmund the Just or Edmund the Magnificent. Edmund called Dunstan back to court. For quite some time after he became king, Edmund faced some serious problems; King Olaf III Guthfrithson, who was a king of the Uí Ímair, or Dynasty of Ivar, which ruled the Viking Kingdom of Dublin, rose up against him. He was married to the daughter of Constantine of Alba, and had been itching to retake Northumbria ever since Æthelstan had beaten him in the Battle of Brunanburh, often considered the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon victories, in 937. Olaf did not manage to take everything in his invasion, but he did manage to force Edmund into a treaty ceding parts of Northumbria and Mercia. Olaf didn't live long after his success; according to legend he was struck down by St. Cuthbert for sacking church. He was succeeded by his cousin Amlaib Cuaran (Amlaib is the Gaelic form of Olaf). Amlaib is possibly the early origin for the later legendary figure of medieval romances, Havelok the Dane. In any case, Amlaib's mother was probably Æthelstan's sister. Amlaib was baptized, perhaps as part of an attempt to shore up his political position; Edmund became his godfather. But eventually, in 944, perhaps due to feuding between Amlaib and another local king, Ragnell, Edmund invaded and retook Northumbria from his godson and Amlaib fled back to Ireland, where he got tangled up in the politics over the High Kingship there.

Edmund conquered Strathclyde, one of the rivals against him, but as part of a treaty he eventually ceded the territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland, who was Constantine's cousin (Constantine having abdicated in order to become a monk). In the meantime, Louis IV was having trouble in Western Francia, having been captured by the Normans, who handed him over to Hugh the Great, one of his enemies (and an ally of Otto the Great, who was Holy Roman Emperor, was married to Edmund's sister Ædgyth, or Edith, and whose mother was Saint Matilda of Ringelheim). Edmund threatened Hugh, but nothing much came of it because Edmund was assassinated in 946 by a man named Leofa, who had been exiled for thievery.

He was succeeded by his brother Eadred, who spent much of his reign cleaning up various problems with the Vikings, including the former King of Norway, Eric Bloodaxe, who tried to set up his own kingdom in Northumbria. In the early 950s the Danes invaded, capturing Ælfheah the Bald. He refused to pay a ransom to his kidnappers, and refused to let anyone else do it. Angered (and, by all accounts, drunk), they took him out to throw things at him, and eventually he was hit with the butt of an axe and died, in 951. Eadred died in 955 and was succeeded by Eadwig, his nephew, usually known as Eadwig the Fair.

The reign of Eadwig was a trying one for Dunstan, because Eadwig and Dunstan were quickly involved in a feud. According to the stories, on the day he was crowned king, Dunstan went around trying to find him in order to talk to him about something; he discovered the young king cavorting with a young woman, and refused to come back with Dunstan. So Dunstan grabbed the king, literally dragged him back to his advisors, and forced him to denounce the young woman. Dunstan, on cooler reflection, considered that perhaps this might have angered the young king, and so returned to his monastery to get away, but Eadwig, incited by the young woman, chased him down, plundered the monastery, and forced him to flee to Flanders, which was ruled at that time by the Count of Flanders, Arnulf I. There Dunstan became involved in the Cluniac reforms. While he was there, a party opposed to Eadwig began to gather in Flanders and elsewhere, and in 957, Northumbria and Mercia revolted against Eadwig and installed his brother Edgar, often known as Edgar the Peaceful, as their king. Edgar recalled Dunstan to his court. In 959 Eadwig died and Edgar became King of Wessex as well. Despite his agnomen, Edgar was a very strong king, and with the advice of Dunstan managed to unify his realm as it had never been unified before.

On becoming king, Edgar made Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, so Dunstan made a brief trip to Rome to receive the pallium from Pope John XII. On return he used his position to push through further monastic reforms. He also continued to advise Edgar. According to some stories, Dunstan helped to consolidate Edgar's reign by managing various symbolic coronations at which various lords and kings came to recognize Edgar's kingship.

Edgar died in 975, and it was the beginning of extraordinary troubles. Edgar had two sons, Edward and Æthelred. Technically Edward succeeded his father, but a party of supporters sprang up around Æthelred, and Edward was assassinated in 978. He was about fifteen years old. He is usually known today as St. Edward the Martyr. Æthelred became king at the age of thirteen. He was almost certainly not involved in the murder at all (his mother was), but it was not a good start. Æthelred is known to the ages as Æthelred the Unready ('Unready' is a transliteration of Unræd, which means literally 'Ill-Advised', the opposite of the name Æthelred -- Æthelred Unræd is a deliberate oxymoron), so one can imagine how well his reign went. St. Dunstan himself died in 988.

Æthelred himself wasn't a bad king, but the Danes, sensing the genuine weakness in his position, took direct advantage and began to raid again. The raids started creating tension between the English and the Normans, who were enabling the Danish raids. A rough peace was worked out between England and Normandy, but the Danes attempted to invade in 991. This led to the famous Battle of Maldon, at which England was dealt a crushing defeat. Æthelred met with the leaders of the fleet, among whom was the great king Olaf Tryggvason, and worked out a peace, at the cost of a very harsh tribute. However, Olaf Tryggvason, already baptized, was confirmed in 994, and Æthelred became his confirmation sponsor. Olaf promised him never to return to England, and kept his promise. (He was not the only leader involved, however, and other Viking kings kept their footholds in England.)

In 1002, having had enough of these Vikings, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danes everywhere in England on St. Brice's Day. This was completely impracticable in significant portions of the island, but it was carried out where it could be carried out. Obviously this led various Viking kings outside of England to return with vengeance on their minds. For the next several years there was a consistent pattern: a Danish army would invade, then have to be bought off with an even larger bribe than the last. In 1009, Thorkell the Tall invaded with one of the largest Viking armies ever and had to be bought off with an extraordinarily vast tribute.

One of the Danes who is supposed to have died in the St. Brice's Day massacre was Gunhilde, the sister of the very powerful king Sweyn Forkbeard, who eventually set out to conquer all of England. Some sharp fighting managed to hold him off, but Sweyn's son, Cnute, perhaps the greatest of all the Viking kings ever, finished the job. Cnute, of course, was succeeded by Harold, who was succeeded by Harthacnut, who was succeeded by St. Edward the Confessor. All this period, of course, overlaps with the soap opera events I mentioned in the first post.


  1. Itinérante12:49 PM

    Waw! J'ai bien aimé ce poste! Les noms sont formidables! En fait c'est trop compliqué mais de toute façon toute l'histoire de l'humanité est pareil en tout cas! Ce que je ne comprends pas là du coup c'est pourquoi St.Dunstan est un saint? Désolée d'être assez ignorante!

  2. branemrys6:37 PM

    Dunstan was canonized before there was a formal process for canonization -- a popular devotion developed around him. So there is probably no single reason why he was named a saint; it was likely a great many things.

  3. Itinérante3:03 AM

    Ah, merci bien Mr. Brandon. Alors là comme Jeanne d'Arc je pense.

    Un peu hors sujet si vous le permettez: Grâce au cite IEP du poste Links of Note (lien de Blaise Pascal en particulier, tag 17th Century European), j'ai découvert un article intitulé Nicolas Melbranche: Religion (yay pour un autre Français!) et je me suis rendu compte que l'auteur s'appelle Brandon. Je me demande si par (grand) hasard c'est vous?
    En tout cas c'est un trés trés bon article, bien clair et vraiment bein ecrit! Je l'ai commencé hier soir, j'ai pas tout terminé mais déjà je peux tout suivre et comprendre que même j'ai pu avoir une petite idée de la phrase qui suivrait! Trop chouettel! Bon alors j'arrête ici! J'ai hâte d'aller le terminer!

  4. branemrys7:31 AM

    Yes, it's mine.


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