Posted by: kljolly | June 8, 2014


I am grateful to Jonathan Jarrett for recently pointing out the work of George Molyneaux on tenth-century Anglo-Saxon kingship.  I followed Jonathan’s brief comment back to an earlier post and also acquired Molyneaux’s article, “Why were Some Tenth-Century English Kings Presented as Rulers of Britain?,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 21 (2011), pp. 59-91.

The answer to his title question, vastly oversimplified, is that Wessex rulers in the early tenth century might style themselves rex totius britanniae simply to assert their overlordship of kings and other subrulers in Wales, Cumbria, Northumbria, and Scotland in a way not that different from their overlordship in English territories.  But in the later tenth century (beginning in Edgar’s reign), the growth of an “intensive” style of kingship in England differentiated that style of royal rule from the “extensive” rulership Wessex kings exerted earlier over their subjects and continued to exert over subrulers in other areas of Britain.

Two things especially interested me in this article relevant to the Battle of Brunanburh as well as the tensions between northern forces and the Wessex kings.

First, Molyneaux uses a construct of extensive vs intensive rulership from M. Mann (The Sources of Social Power, 1:  A History of Power from Beginning to A.D. 1760):  extensive power organizes far flung territories and people through cooperation; intensive power is more tightly organized to control people and requires a higher level of commitment from them.  I had been thinking of ways to talk about the complex relationship between Wessex’s rulers and the north, toying with the idea of “non-state space,” but that did not seem to fit well in the medieval era. Molyneaux argues that in the early tenth century, the English kings used power in the extensive sense but not the intensive:  they did not control people’s lives directly, but did seek control over other rulers.  What Molyneaux describes is a loose overlordship over kings who “cooperate” (or not).

The second point has to do with those episodes of non-cooperation.  The  English kings in the early tenth century were content to let the kings of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria/Strathclyde, and earls of Northumbria rule their own territories as long as they acknowledged that the English king was the greater king (he looks at charter attestations and submissions on various occasions to document these relationships). But the English kings would not tolerate–and would invade the north–if any kind of alliance with Hiberno-Scandinavians threatened.  In other words, such an alliance stretching from Dublin to York and beyond might create another extensively ruled realm that could easily break away from English overlordship.

I may not be fairly representing all of his argument–I encourage others to read the article.  However, what it suggests to me is that Brunanburh was not a winner-take-all event but part of a larger pattern of alliance formations and reformations as Wessex kings asserted their overlordship and resisted any effort to create a parallel extensive northern polity.  I also wonder if the reason why our later evidence about the battle of Brunanburh is so confusing is because it assumes a style of intensive rulership that simply did not start to form until later, and so they read back into it an effort to extend English intensive rulership over all of Britain, when in fact the English kings were only interested in maintaining their extensive rulership.




  1. […] the role of language in regional identity and digital humanities.  In it, I explored some theories about extensive versus intensive social power as a way of understanding the political dynamics in tenth century (Viking era) northern England, […]

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