This book offers analysis of the making of the kingdom of the English in the tenth century, organised around a firmly stated argument. The author has in his sights the work of James Campbell and Patrick Wormald on the sophistication of the late Anglo-Saxon state, to which the book is presented as a rejoinder. Whereas Campbell emphasised the antiquity of many governmental structures, and Wormald regarded Alfred as the founding figure, Molyneaux makes the case for seeing Edgar’s reign as the key period of administrative change by associating his rule with a package of innovations. Some of these are well attested and known, notably the coinage reform of c.973, the promotion of Benedictine monasticism and the appointment of agents of southern origin to high office at York. But Molyneaux also makes the case for associating Edgar with developments the chronology of which has been debated: namely, the formation of midlands shires, the full establishment of the system of hundreds and wapentakes, and the emergence of the shire court and shire-reeve. The effect of these claims, as Molyneaux presents them, is to qualify Campbell’s view of late Anglo-Saxon government in respect of chronology: the emergence of structures engaging intensively with the mass of the population was, Molyneaux argues, the outcome of reforms under Edgar, and did not antedate his reign. Moreover, Molyneaux enlists his administrative analysis in a further argument against Wormald on the importance of ‘English’ political identity. Whereas Wormald emphasised the role of a nascent sense of ‘English’ identity as a pre-condition for unity, Molyneaux argues that standardised administrative practices in the territory ruled by Alfred’s successors emerged only in the second half of the tenth century, and that the consolidation of ‘English’ political identity may be best explained as a consequence of Edgar’s rule. The book’s argument hinges on Chapters Three and Four, which assess administrative structures before and during Edgar’s reign. The discussion ranges widely across different aspects of government, making relevant comparison with the Carolingian world, and shows good awareness of regional and strategic contexts. The interpretation of the pre-Edgarian period might be characterised as a ‘minimum’ view of early tenth-century government, assigning weight to every possible limitation and evidential silence. The Burghal Hidage is regarded as assigning service for the repair of fortifications rather than garrison duty. Provinciae and regiones are seen as having been more important administrative units than the West Saxon shire system. Doubts are expressed over the Alfredian promotion of commercial activity, and the significance of the extension of minting activity to midland burhs is downplayed. The law-codes of Æthelstan’s reign are seen as reflecting locally driven efforts towards peace-keeping. The interpretation of Edgarian government, conversely, advances a ‘maximum’ view. Weight is attached to Edgar’s ability to legislate for hundreds and wapentakes, a feature seen as indicating a concern for uniformity. The establishment of midlands shires is shown to have been a process probably completed by c.980; the case for assigning them to Edgar also depends on the rejection of arguments which would place the shiring earlier in the tenth century, late in Edward the Elder’s reign. Meetings at shire level are shown to have been an established practice in the period after c.960; the case for maximising Edgar’s contribution also depends on the ‘minimum’ view taken of possible precedents from the reigns of Alfred and Æthelstan. As Molyneaux acknowledges, his view of the pre-Edgarian period rests on some arguments from silence. The point is important, because the evidence for the operation of government in the tenth century has a number of limitations. One should be wary of necessarily assigning significance to the earliest appearance of terminology in sources. As many commentators have suggested, the hundred had an important precedent in the local assembly or folcgemot, seemingly widely attended by members of the general populace and presided over by the king’s reeve. While the terms hundred and wapentake may have been significant, it may be problematic to belittle earlier structures. That the shire system had a legal role is strongly implied by Alfredian evidence; attention should drawn to the establishment of larger, regional ealdordoms by the second quarter of the tenth century, a development which probably had important consequences for the operation of shires and reeves. Continental precedents place practical constraints on the interpretation of Æthelstan’s legislation and render problematic the notion of local initiatives distant from royal power. The term tithing, describing structures of local peace-keeping, is well attested in the law-code VI Æthelstan. There are, indeed, grounds for assocating Æthelstan with the establishment of tithings as a national system. As a study of Edgar’s reign and government more generally, the book is commendably documented and fills important historiographical gaps on a period of English political history which remains difficult and relatively under-studied. Given that scope, and the author’s ambitious combination of administrative with strategic analysis, some straining of the overall argument is perhaps understandable. Despite this, the book helpfully points to the significance of administrative developments under Edgar and assists in contextualising many aspects of his rule. Indeed, the book might be fruitfully re-read while envisaging a more gradual and piecemeal evolution of government under successive rulers. In addition, Molyneaux’s observations on royal arbitrariness in the later Anglo-Saxon period, and on magnates’ efforts to uphold certain expectations of royal rule, explore pertinent features of political practice and thought. If one allows for the author’s commitment to his case, the book’s value lies in the outlining of a stimulating, and at times controversial, thesis with intelligence and clarity. It deserves to be widely read, and will have succeeded if it prompts further thinking on Edgar’s reign, on the making of the English kingdom and on many aspects of later Anglo-Saxon government and politics. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 3, 2018
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