The King's Closest Counselor: The Legal Basis of Wealhtheow's Comments to Hrothgar, Beowulf 1169–87
Nathan A. Breen
© 2010 by Nathan A. Breen. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.
Abstract: Treatments of Wealhtheow in Beowulf scholarship have traditionally viewed the queen either as an extension of Hrothgar, serving a ceremonial function in Heorot, or as a potentially subversive character, undermining the power structure of Heorot and creating strife. Primarily, these studies have been onomastic, cultural, or literary in nature, and have yielded great insight. However, as this essay demonstrates, the legal ramifications of Wealhtheow's speech have been largely ignored. Yet, it is within the context of Anglo-Saxon legal culture, as witnessed by the various law codes, writs, wills, and diplomas (and as supported by Germanic custom), that the queen's advice to Hrothgar concerning his informal adoption of Beowulf shows her political savvy and elevates her status within the poem, perhaps mirroring the roles of some Anglo-Saxon queens. Wealhtheow's speech recalls the primary prohibition of Hrothgar's kingship—that he should not alienate land from the kingdom or give his people away—as she skillfully protects the right to accession of the throne for her young sons.
§1. In Beowulf, Wealhtheow's speeches are short, but they are full of meaning and innuendo. Yet, in Beowulf scholarship, critics have paid relatively little attention to the legal maneuvers of the queen. Instead, Wealhtheow is viewed as a minor character with a limited role, both in the poem and in Heorot. The prevailing notion seems to be that which is expressed by Michael J. Enright: the queen's actions and speech are to be considered as ritualistic, contributing to and deriving from the status of her husband (Enright 1988). Many other articles focusing primarily or solely on Wealhtheow are onomastic, analyzing potential European and Scandanavian analogues of her name.1 To most scholars, she is a minor character—a peace-weaver or a cup maiden; to a select few, she is slightly more important, but she is still a ceremonial character, providing the audience with a better understanding of Hrothgar's power.2 However, Wealhtheow's speech shows that she plays a far greater role than she has heretofore been given credit. In a short speech comprising only eighteen lines, Wealhtheow asserts her authority as the king's closest advisor and corrects an error in his earlier speech that could have resulted in a battle for the Danish throne after his death. In this essay, I argue that Wealhtheow's role as the king's wife places her in a position of authority as the king's counselor, a role that is supported by Germanic custom and Anglo-Saxon law, as represented in extant legal documents, including charters involving land grants, wills, and various writs that are composed or witnessed by the king's wife. Despite the paucity of speech by Wealhtheow, her terse comments to her husband provide a nuanced statement of Hrothgar's authority when it comes to his ability to transfer the kingdom to Beowulf and averts any possibility of dynastic struggle by evoking legal and cultural norms for the behavior of the king.
§2. During the feast after Beowulf's victory over Grendel, Hrothgar makes a curious speech to Beowulf, in which he states,
Nu ic, Beowulf, þec,
secg betsta, me for sunu wylle
freogan on ferhþe; heald forð tela
niwe sibbe. (946b–49a)
[Beowulf, best of men, I now wish to claim you as a son in my heart; treat this new kinship well.]3
Wealhtheow's response at lines 1169–87 suggests that Hrothgar's statements are a source of dynastic concern, and she moves quickly to rectify the situation, first by speaking directly to her husband, then by speaking to Beowulf. When she speaks to Hrothgar, her comments are both positive and negative; like all good criticism, she states the positive first:
Þu on sælum wes,
Goldwine gumena, ond to Geatum spræc
Mildum wordum, swa sceal man don!
Beo wið Geatas glæd geofena gemyndig,
Nean ond feorran þu nu hafast. (1173–74)
[Be happy, gold-giver of men, and speak mild words to the Geats, as one should do! Be gracious to the Geats, mindful of what gifts, near and far, you now possess.]
This brief passage supports her husband's gifts of treasure as reward for Beowulf's bravery against Grendel. Klein reads it as a refashioning of the concept of heroism: "Two key qualities surface repeatedly in Wealhtheow's prescriptions for exemplary behavior, namely, mildness and gentleness, which she prescribes as desirable traits for men, regardless of age or social station" (Klein 2006, 119). Indeed, Wealhtheow's initial advice supports her husband's acts as mild, gentle and generous; however, her next words are more critical of her husband's speech to Beowulf:
Me man sægde, þæt þu for sunu wolde
Hereri[n]c habban. Heorot is gefælsod,
Beahsele beorhta; bruc þenden þu mote
Manigra medo, ond þinum magum læf
Folc ond rice, þonne ðu forð scyle,
Metodsceaft seon. (1175–1180)
[A man told me that you wish to take this warrior as your son. Heorot, the bright ring-hall, is cleansed; use the many rewards while you may, but leave the people and kingdom to your kinsmen when you go forth to meet the decree of fate.]
Wealhtheow's mention of Folc ond rice should here be read as an indication that there is real property, as well as dynastic implications, at stake in Hrothgar's adoption of Beowulf. In addition, her mention of the possible transfer of folc ond rice at Hrothgar's death (þonne ðu forð scyle) strongly suggests that Hrothgar's speech can be taken as a statement of will.4 Her response is carefully crafted and shows the queen's understanding of her status under the law and according to custom.
§3. Beginning with her first words to Hrothgar, we see Wealhtheow as being mindful of the situation and of her position within Hrothgar's court. The arrival of Hrothgar and his retinue at Heorot after Beowulf's victory over Grendel is clearly stated with copious detail in the text:
Eode scealc monig
swiðhicgende to sele þam hean
searowundor seon; swylce self cyning
of brydbure, beahhorda weard,
tryddode tirfæst getrume micle,
cystum gecyþed, ond his cwen mid him
medostigge mæt mægþa hose. (918b–924)
[Many retainers, resolute in mind, went to the high hall to see the curious wonder; the king himself, the guardian of the hoard of rings, also treaded out of the bed-chamber with a great troop; he of virtue renowned—and his queen with him—traversed the mead-path with a troop of maidens.]
Immediately after this parade to the mead hall, Hrothgar makes the lengthy speech in which he apparently adopts Beowulf. Although the text is not entirely clear on this point, we can assume that Wealhtheow is in the presence of Hrothgar at the time of his pronouncement since she accompanied him to the hall. However, her speech to her husband as she offers him mead does not expressly indicate that she has heard her husband's comments firsthand; instead, she states that "a man told" her (Me man sægde, 1175a) that Hrothgar has made promises to Beowulf that could infringe upon the rights of her mægð to property and succession to the Danish throne.5 As in the case of a Hereford lawsuit of the early eleventh century, which is discussed extensively by Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, in which the female figure—a mother defending her will against her son's claim—is notably absent from the proceedings at the shire court, so too is Wealhtheow's absence from Hrothgar's potentially legally binding utterance notable here (Lees and Overing 2001, 72–89). Yet, unlike the complete absence of the mother in the Hereford lawsuit, which is confirmed by her speech authorizing another woman to attest to her will, there is no indication that Wealhtheow is not present during Hrothgar's proclamation.
§4. Rather than taking her reference to another man's rendering of Hrothgar's speech as indicating that Wealhtheow either was not present (because the text clearly includes her in the retinue approaching Heorot) or did not hear his pronouncement, I argue that she is following custom in bringing a claim against what she sees as a potential real estate transaction that negatively affects her kin, namely her children. Instead of recounting Hrothgar's speech as she has heard it, she opts for the more formal and legal action of citing the testimony of a witness.
§5. In Anglo-Saxon law, all transfers of land—whether they be sales, bequests, gifts, or exchanges—must be corroborated by witnesses. Charters, in particular, provide ample evidence of this use of witnesses. As Marc Meyer has noted, "well over two hundred signatures of women . . . appear in the witness lists of the characters," so women as witnesses was not an unheard of concept (Meyer 1979, 104). However, as Lees and Overing remark, "this is a tiny proportion" of the total number of witnesses listed in the charters (Lees and Overing 2001, 64). Men are much more often cited as witnesses, and this fact is echoed in Wealhtheow's indication that me man sægde ("a man told me") that Hrothgar had spoken certain words to Beowulf rather than citing herself as witness to the speech. As Jane Chance Nitzsche states, "only when masculine support was obtained either through a literal male intermediary or more figuratively through the masculine trait of reason, or through God's help, was a woman permitted to govern men and control wealth" (Nitzsche 1982, 141). Since the laws typically exclude females (particularly married females with male offspring) from acting as primary agents in land transactions or dynastic disputes, Wealhtheow's citing of a man as witness allows her to sidestep the issues pertaining to her gender and still counsel the king concerning this grant. The laws and legal procedures, though, are pertinent primarily when the case is brought in a legal assembly; while the location of the contest is not necessarily proper or ideal—Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian land transactions typically took place in public courts such as the gemot or wapentake—it is not without precedent in early law. In Norwegian law, at least, "a very common substitute [for the legal assembly] was a gathering at a banquet," which is precisely the situation that arises in Beowulf (Vinogradoff 1906, 548).
§6. Both the sophistication of Wealhtheow's response and her decisive intervention in Hrothgar's business should suggest that counseling the king is part of her role as his wife. As Eugene Green has noted:
Nothing Hroðgar says is a formal commitment, yet his desire in wanting Beowulf "for sunu" (947) "as a son" rewarded with dynastic gifts of armor and a gold standard, claims much attention in Heorot . . . That Hroðgar declares his preference for Beowulf is evident, but Wealhþeow's intervention demonstrates, too, that the choice of a successor demands consultation (Green 2001, 101–02).
What is understated, or even unstated, in Green's comments are the legal ramifications of the gifts and speech of Hrothgar; although Green does not see Hrothgar's actions and words as constituting a "formal commitment," Wealhtheow's reaction would indicate otherwise. The formality of his statement and its association with the oral performance of the bequest compel the queen to counsel Hrothgar to reconsider the ramifications of his speech for her and their heirs. Legislative evidence from Alfred, which is treated in more detail below, supports Wealhtheow's reaction and apprehension about the import of Hrothgar's statement to Beowulf. During the time of Alfred, bookland was firmly established, and the restrictions on alienating such property outside of a kinship group were also stipulated. The key restriction concerned documented evidence of a prohibition by those granting the land so that it could not be passed out of the mægburge. According to Alfred, the land could not be alienated outside of a family if there were gewrit oððe gewitness ("written or other testimony") prohibiting the transfer (Alfred 41).6 In Beowulf, this testimony is revealed in the primary prohibition of Hrothgar's kingship, stated at line 73, that he may not distribute folcscare ond feorum gumena ("public land and the bodies of men"). In addition to the formality of the statement in which Hrothgar adopts Beowulf, the seating of the hero between the two blood heirs at Heorot further attests to his new role and entitlement to the inheritance.
§7. Michael Drout contends that Beowulf is situated between Hrethric and Hrothmund "presumably because he is a visitor" (Drout 2007, 201). Yet, none of the other Geats who traveled with Beowulf is mentioned as being placed with the giogoð, and they certainly are not seated between the two genetic heirs. In view of Scandinavian tradition, the seating of Beowulf with Hrothgar's children may be seen as an indication that he has been formally adopted.
§8. In medieval Danish and Swedish legal custom, a father could declare a child legitimate by declaring paternity before an assembly and giving the child gifts; as Foote and Wilson write, "By this act the son became entitled to a share in the inheritance . . . and doubtless a share in the joint responsibilities of the family, such as those of atonement and the maintenance of destitute kinsmen" (Foote and Wilson 1980, 117). The Norwegian custom of legitimation (while much more intricate, including the fabrication of a shoe from an ox in which the legitimated child is to stand) places responsibilities upon the new kin in addition to conferring benefits (Larson 1935, 330). If becoming a legitimate heir also means taking on all of the family's responsibilities and problems, this helps us to understand Hrothgar's somewhat cryptic dictate that Beowulf should heald forð tela niwa sibbe ("treat this new kinship well") and also to contextualize Wealhtheow's response, in which she assures her husband that, if he is survived by Hrothulf, the children's cousin þa geogoðe wile/ arum healdan ("will treat the youths honorably," 1181).
§9. This granting of kinship rights does seem out of line with the expectations of inheritance according to genetics. Drout has examined this issue, suggesting that Beowulf is allowed to enter into the line of succession as the likely heir to the Danish throne according to customs of inheritance by deeds, which he defines as "the transfer of goods, power, or identity across generational boundaries in which the transfer is based not on the genetic relationship of the two individuals but upon the performance of certain culturally valued behaviors" (Drout 2007, 207). For Drout, this variance from the tradition of blood inheritance was not ideal, but it was supported by the idea that power should go not simply to the next of kin, but to the person who has shown by his actions that he is worthy of kingship; he cites the exclusion of "kin relations and lineages" from Hrothgar's speech to Beowulf as well as the bestowal of family heirlooms (namely, the helmet, coat of mail and sword) as constituting not only an adoption, but the establishment of Beowulf as next in the line of succession (Drout 2007, 208). The idea of inheritance by deeds is well supported by Drout, and his insight leads to an added incentive for Wealhtheow to become involved. As he claims, "Wealhtheow works to reestablish these limits [of genetic inheritance] because a system of inheritance with a substantial blood component is the only system in which a female character is individually significant in the cultural world of Beowulf" (Drout 2007, 222). In other words, the queen is only relevant if she is the conduit through which new heirs to the throne descend. While this perhaps trivializes the role of the female and reduces her to her biological function of giving birth, Drout's idea must be considered as part of the reasoning behind Wealhtheow's staunch protection of her kin and of the genetic lines of succession, whether those lines lead to her nephew or to her sons.
§10. Wealhtheow's willingness to reproach her husband, together with his (and the rest of the mead hall guests') tacit acceptance of her right to speak, suggests that her counsel is expected. Returning to Eugene Green, Wealhtheow's "intervention" indicates that she has a right to consult the king in matters concerning the succession to the throne (Green 2001, 102). Whether formal or informal, and whether the changes suggest a movement from blood inheritance to inheritance by deeds, any changes to the structure of succession seem to be an issue that the king is not to decide unilaterally. Yet, as Pauline Stafford has noted, it is historically the king who determines his successor through a process of legitimizing or delegitimizing heirs, citing the examples of Charlemagne and Edward (Stafford 1983, 65).7 The relative formality of Hrothgar's utterance must be contemplated: within the poem, Hrothgar's comments are presented as direct speech; in addition, the audience is not just given the content of the speech, but also the manner in which it was delivered. Hrothgar stod on stapole (926), which may lend formality to the utterance. The meaning of the word "stapole" is uncertain: Klaeber offers "post, pillar" or "steps"; Bosworth-Toller agrees, but adds the additional possibility of "threshold"; Clark-Hall/Merritt suggests "threshold" with a question mark. If we are to view this element contextually, there are very few instances within Beowulf where the position of the speaker is given: when Beowulf arrives on the Danish shore, the coast guard speaks ðær on wicge sæt ("From where he sat on his horse," 286); when Wulfgar speaks to Hrothgar about Beowulf's arrival, the text notes that he for eaxlum gestod/ Deniga frean ("he stood at the shoulder of the Danish lord," 358–59); finally, when Wulfgar gives Hrothgar's reply to Beowulf, the speech is inne abead ("announced from within," 390). Only Wulfgar's position while speaking to Hrothgar merits commentary from the narrator: Wulfgar is praised because cuðe he duguðe þeaw ("he knew the custom of noble retainers," 359). The position of Wulfgar when he speaks to Hrothgar indicates both his status (he is permitted to stand so close to the king) and his awareness of protocol; however, the fact that the narrator has to supply this information to the audience would indicate that such nuances of courtly behavior were not well known or attested. Thus, we are left with a dilemma: where exactly is Hrothgar standing when he pronounces his congratulatory speech to Beowulf, and does it have any impact on the relative formality of his utterance? Had Hrothgar made his speech while brandishing a spear, the import would be obvious. Yet, the preceding passage gives the sense that Hrothgar's entry into Heorot is to be considered a stately affair, as he is accompanied by getrume micle ("a great troop," 922). The number of people present is perhaps a better indicator of the formality of Hrothgar's pledge to Beowulf. As when Wulfhere granted land to the clergy in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry for 656, in which the king "stood up before all his thegns" and spoke "in a loud voice" (ASC an. 656) Hrothgar seems to be making a speech before a large number of his retainers. Just as Wulfhere alienates land in a speech before his retainers, so too does Hrothgar.
§11. In Wealhtheow's speech to Hrothgar, after she has established the legal nature of her advice by citing a witness, she then cites a precedent related earlier in the poem. She advises Hrothgar to þinum magum læf / folc ond rice ("leave the kingdom and people to your kinsmen," 1178–79). When Hrothgar first builds his feast hall, he intends to give out generous gifts to his comitatus; the only prohibition is that he is not to distribute folcscare ond feorum gumena ("public land and the bodies of men," 73). Klein argues that Wealhtheow's emphasis on gentleness and mildness as a method of reinterpreting heroism is not only evident in her speeches to Hrothgar and Beowulf, but also at the conclusion of the poem, when the Geats remember Beowulf as manna mildust ond monðwærust, / leodum liðost ("the mildest of men and the most gentle, / dearest to his nation" 3181–82a); likewise, but working in the opposite direction and citing a statement made earlier in the poem, Wealhtheow's advice to Hrothgar, and particularly her admonishment against giving away the kingdom, recalls the earlier and primary prohibition that frames Hrothgar's kingship (Klein 2006, 120–23). Through the adoption of Beowulf as kin, Wealhtheow fears that Hrothgar is breaking the prohibition against giving away land (she calls this rice, echoing folcscare) and people (which she refers to as folc, recalling the feorum gumena). As king, Hrothgar is in charge of preserving the folcscearu, a position that is supported not only by Anglo-Saxon law, but by the prohibition stated in the poem itself.
§12. The anxiety over the alienation of land outside of the family extends, according to legal evidence, not only to folkland, but also to bookland. The Laws of Alfred serve as an indication of this anxiety:
Se mon se ðe bocland hæbbe, 7 him his mægas læfden, þonne setton we, þæt he hit ne moste sellan of his mægburge, gif þær bið gewrit oððe gewitnes, ðæt hit ðara manna forbod wære þe hit on fruman gestrindon 7 þara þe hit him sealdon, þæt he swa ne mote; 7 þæt þonne on cyniges 7 on biscopes gewitnesse gerecce beforan his mægum. (Alfred 41).
[If a man possesses bookland that his kinsmen have left him, then we set it down that he must not grant it (away) from his family if there is written or other witness that it was forbidden that he do so by those who allotted it to him and let this be reckoned in the witness of the king and the bishop and before his kinsmen.]
What we are dealing with in Beowulf is certainly not bookland, and the transaction is being undertaken by the king himself; however, Alfred's law seems to reflect a concern over the same species of imprudent transfers of land, which is a concern that was shared by Bede and also—apparently—by Wealhtheow.8 Consistent with the policy developed by Alfred, Wealhtheow notes that there is, indeed, a prohibition against Hrothgar's action.
§13. As to Wealhtheow's status and specific position in relation to Hrothgar in Heorot, the text of Beowulf goes to considerable effort to establish her as Hrothgar's queen without ever expressly referring to her as "Queen Wealhtheow." An examination of the language begins to show this, and the exact position of Wealhtheow in Hrothgar's court is essential in determining her role as couselor to the king. Stafford has clearly delineated between the titles "queen," "king's wife," and "concubine," and these distinctions bear heavily upon the power and legal status of the female associated with the king.9 The term cwen by itself and as part of a compound is used a total of ten times in the poem: seven times as a nominative singular,10 once as an accusative singular (665a), once as the compound folccwen (641a), and once as part of a compound used as an adjective (cwenlic; 1940b). Although the usage sometimes fits into the alliteration of the line, the choice of the term does not seem to be linked to the structural or stylistic elements of the poem except in the case of the compound folccwen (used to refer to Wealhtheow), which is formulaically similar to folces cwen (used for Modþryth)—in both of these instances, the lines exhibit "f" alliteration. Six of the appearances of the word cwen are in reference to Wealhtheow, which is more than three times greater than the use of this term to describe any other character (used twice for Modþryth, once as noun and once as an adjective; once for Hildeburh, and once in the damaged line presumably referring to Hrothgar's sister). Five of the six times cwen is used to refer to Wealhtheow, it is spoken by the narrator; the sixth instance occurs in the speech attributed to Beowulf upon his return to Hygelac's court. Although cwen is most often used to refer to Wealhtheow, she is never called "Queen Wealhtheow," but neither are any of the other women in the poem; in fact, Hygd is never associated with the term cwen, even though she is clearly the wife of a king and she expresses her authority after the death of Hygelac by asking Beowulf to become king.11 In Beowulf, the term queen, as with the term king, is used strictly in the substitutive rather than the attributive function; that is, it is never used specifically as a title, as when Alfred refers to himself as "Ælfred kyning" in the preface to his translation of Gregory's Cura Pastoralis. Unlike cyning, however, which was reserved to royalty and denoted status and leadership, the term cwen had other cultural meanings, and was often used in a similar manner as the "more generic hlæfdige, which was commonly used to denote the female head of any landed household that contained servants" until the late tenth century when queens were consecrated (Klein 2006, 63). Thus, in the absence of a date for the poem, we cannot be entirely sure that the title indicates the status it is accorded later in the period.
§14. If we cannot be certain about Wealhtheow's status based on the use of the term "queen", then we must also look at other cultural markings that would serve as indicators of her position and the power that is associated with it. Most pointedly, the physical descriptions of Wealhtheow's behavior and role within Heorot are evidence that she should, in fact, be viewed as both Hrothgar's wife and as the queen of the Danes. Her jewelry and cup, as well as the way she dispenses drink to the comitatus, clarify her status within Hrothgar's kingdom. As André Crepin states succinctly, "Wealhtheow's jewels express her regal status" (Crepin 1979, 51). In addition to her jewelry, Crepin also comments on her role as dispenser of mead:
The role of the Queen is to promote peace among the warriors in the hall by offering them the cup of mead . . . And the cup of mead presented by the Queen symbolizes the bond uniting the warriors gathered around the chief in his hall. I am inclined to think that there was only one ceremonial cup, perhaps a trophy . . . " (Crepin 1979, 52).
The jewelry and the cup are essential to any reading of Wealhtheow's role within Beowulf. The gold and jewelry associated with Wealhtheow are treated by Crepin as expressions of her royalty, but Crepin's essay, as it is concerned with the structure of a specific passage of the poem rather than with Anglo-Saxon culture in general, does not give a sense of how jewelry serves as an indication of status. Enright, whose essay is more concerned with the role of the queen in Germanic culture, cites Crepin's commentary on the jewelry of Wealhtheow and adds, "In this aspect at least she is the ideal queen and her dress, gestures, words and movements are all noted to underline her stately presence and archetypical status. Just as clearly she is also Hrothgar's delegate, and extension of his authority: she sits by him, expressed his thoughts (ll. 608, 627) and is identified as his queen" (Enright 1988, 175). For Enright, Wealhtheow's status and role are a direct result of her marriage to Hrothgar. He brilliantly shows how the mead-cup ritual supports Hrothgar's authority, but like Crepin, he gives no indication of how jewelry serves as a symbol of royal status. Likewise, Klein remarks, "The richly adorned body of the queen may well have served as a means of publicly signaling the wealth and power of her kingdom, inviting traveling guests to broadcast afar that hers was a kingdom with great monetary reserves and hence one that would not prove an easy target of conquest" (Klein 2006, 65). While Wealhtheow's clothing and jewelry certainly reflect her affiliation with Hrothgar and serve as a visible symbol of the official power of the kingdom, the adornments of the queen, I argue, are an indication both of her regal status and her legal status as the king's wife.
§15. Tacitus provides the earliest extant information on early Germanic customs of official and ceremonial marriage, detailing the specific gifts to be granted by husband to wife, their use, and how they are supposed to be treated going forward through successive generations:
Dotem non uxor marito, sed uxori maritus offert. Intersunt parentes et propinqui ac munera probant, munera non ad delicias muliebres quaesita nec quibus nova nupta comatur, sed boves et frenatum equum et scutum cum framea gladioque. In haec munera uxor accipitur, atque in vicem ipsa armorum aliquid viro adfert: hoc maximum vinculum, haec arcana sacra, hos coniugales deos arbitrantur. Ne se mulier extra virtutum cogitationes extraque bellorum casus putet, ipsis incipientis matrimonii auspiciis admonetur venire se laborum periculorumque sociam, idem in pace, idem in proelio passuram ausuramque. Hoc iuncti boves, hoc paratus equus, hoc data arma denuntiant. Sic vivendum, sic pereundum: accipere se, quae liberis inviolata ac digna reddat, quae nurus accipiant, rursusque ad nepotes referantur (Tacitus Germania 18).
[As for dower, it is not the wife who brings it to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relations are present to approve these gifts—gifts not devised for ministering to female fads, nor for the adornment of the person of the bride, but oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield and spear or sword; it is to share these things that the wife is taken by the husband, and she herself, in turn, brings some piece of armor to her husband. Here it is the gift of the bond between them, here in their eyes its mysterious sacrament, the divinity which hedges it. That the wife may not imagine herself released from the practice of heroism, released from the chances of war, she is thus warned by the very rites with which her marriage begins that she comes to share hard work and peril; that her fate will be the same as his in peace and in panic, her risks the same. This is the moral of the yoked oxen, of the bridled horse, of the exchange of arms; so must she live and so must die. The things she takes she is to hand over inviolate to her children, fit to be taken by her daughters-in-law and passed on again to her grandchildren] (Peterson 1914, 288–91).
The gifts of the husband to the wife, as expressed by Tacitus, may do little more than emphasize the bellicose nature that he saw in Germanic tribes; however, and the nature of the gifts he describes notwithstanding, the Germania does note a key difference between Roman and Germanic custom in that the husband is expected to tender gifts to his prospective bride.
§16. Anglo-Saxon law offers little information regarding official and ceremonial marriage; however, legislation is consistent in indicating that the prospective groom must pay a price to marry a woman. The laws of King Æthelbert (d. 616/17) proceed with the understanding that the husband has paid this price:
Gif mon mægþ gebigeð, ceapi geceapod sy, gif hit unfacne is.
Gif hit ponne facne is, ef[t] þær æt ham gebrenge, 7 him man his scæt agefe.
Gif hio cwic bearn gebyreþ, healfne scæt age, gif ceorl ær swylteþ.
Gif mid bearnum bugan wille, healfne scæt age.
Gif ceorl agan wile, swa an bearn.
Gif hio bearn ne gebyreþ, fæderingmagas fioh agan 7 morgengyfe. (Æthelbert 77–81)
[If a man buys a maiden, the deal is completed, if it is without deceit.
If it is deceitful, then she shall be returned to her home, and the price shall be returned to him.
If she bears a live child, half of the price shall be possessed [by her] if the man dies first.
If she wishes to leave with the children, she shall have half the price.
If the man wishes to keep [the children], [she shall have the price] as one child.
If she does not bear a child, the relatives of the father shall have the portion and the morning-gift.]
Although Æthelbert's laws are silent on the amount of the price, as this would no doubt vary according to the deal struck by the prospective groom and the status of the woman, it is clear that payment or gifts are expected as part of the agreement. Additionally, the stipulation of the morgen-gifu seems assumed, as this must be returned to the husband's kin if the marriage does not produce children. Essentially, then, the groom is expected both to pay a price in order to wed and to compensate the bride for her loss of virginity (the morgen-gifu), and the wife is entitled to a portion of the price (and potentially all of the morgen-gifu) as long as she bears live children.
§17. The laws of Ine affirm the necessity of the bride price, albeit in the negative: when the marriage does not take place, the prospective groom is entitled to legal remedy:
Gif mon wíf gebyccge, 7 sio gyft forð ne cume, agife þæt feoh 7 forgielde 7 gebete þam byrgean, swa his borgbryce sie. (Ine 75).
[If a man buys a wife and the marriage does not occur, he shall return that portion and repay and amend the person giving the surety as is his entitlement for the breach of the surety.]
This legislation, like that of Æthelbert, rests on the assumption that the act of marrying is always to be accompanied by the transfer of wealth to the bride or her kin; only in situations in which the wedding is not fully realized does the bride price have to be returned.
§18. In addition to the laws of Æthelbert, which indicate that the wedded wife is entitled to half of the property if she bears a live child, and those of Ine, which reaffirm the necessity of the bride price, the eleventh-century Be Wifmannes Beweddung further clarifies the wife's entitlement to a portion and potentially all of the couple's property: Gif hit swa geforworð bið, þonne is riht, ðæt heo sy healfes yrfes wyrðe—7 ealles, gif hy cild gemæne habban—bute heo eft wær ceose ("If it be so agreed upon, then it is in accordance with the law that [after the husband's death] she is entitled to half of the property—and all of it if they have a child in common—unless she then remarries") (Wif 4).12 However, as Be Wifmannes Beweddung makes clear, the wife is only entitled to this property after the death of her husband, and on the condition that she has not remarried. In Beowulf, this situation has not yet obtained, but Wealhtheow's speech to Hrothgar indicates, in her addition of the conditional statement þonne ðu forð scyle ("when you die," 1179), that she is guarding against what she sees as the improper disposition of their jointly held property after his death rather than assuming a right to their property while he is still living.
§19. The early practice of husbands providing dowry for the wife-to-be seems to have been retained in the royal practice of granting dowry, which, according to Stafford, also served to make the heirs to the king legitimate (Stafford 1983, 65). The notion of the dowry as something not to be used by the wife, but to be passed on "inviolate" to the children—to be used as dowry yet again—sets up a system of inheritance in which the wife is cast as the protector of the couple's heirs. As a Germanic wife, Wealhtheow is following these dictates by interceding in her husband's affairs when those affairs directly affect the inheritance of her sons. So, with or without the distinction of the title of queen, she is still, according to custom, responsible for the protection of her children's inheritance. Yet, by taking into consideration both Tacitus's account and Stafford's contentions about the importance of dowry in Germanic marriage and in establishing legitimacy, we can view the physical descriptions of Wealhtheow as beaghroden ("adorned in rings") and goldhroden ("adorned in gold") as informing the reader about her status and role in Hrothgar's kingdom. While Enright's essay contends that Wealhtheow's adornments serve as an indication of her status and ritualistic or ceremonial duty to act as a reinforcement of Hrothgar's authority, I suggest, in addition, that Wealhtheow's jewelry serves a legal function in indicating her dowry, which, having been granted by the husband according to Germanic tradition, establishes her as "full wife" with all of its benefits and responsibilities. Tacitus' passage conflicts with this notion by categorizing the gifts to be given to the wife by the husband as non ad delicias muliebres quaesita nec quibus nova nupta uxor accipitur ("not devised for female fads nor for the adornment of the person of the bride"), but we must recall that Tacitus is here referring to the tradition pertaining to brides of all social classes, not solely to queens.
§20. Anglo-Saxon customs regulating the matrimonial gifts to be given to the queen by the king are perhaps expressed best in Maxims I, lines 81–82: Cyning sceal mid ceape cwen gebicgan, bunum and beagum ("The king shall acquire a queen with goods, with cups and rings"). The cup, then, is not just for her duties as cup-bearer in the mead-hall, and the rings are not just to make her look pretty: both items indicate her status as the queen. Wealhtheow is not only described as a cup-bearer adorned in gold and rings; she also dispenses treasure—including a necklace as fine as the legendary brosinga men—which suggests that she owns property (in the Norse tradition of heimanfylgja, or "that which would follow her from home"—the more modern sense of dowry) and that she is able to give or gift it to others at her own discretion.13 In both Germanic and Scandinavian custom, the husband was to provide both a dowry (which was to be preserved by the bride for future generations' inheritance) and one or two other gifts during or after the wedding ceremony, that were to be treated exclusively as the bride's property (Foote and Wilson 1980, 112–14).
§21. For an Anglo-Saxon audience, perhaps the ownership of these items was a clear indication of status; however, for a modern audience, the reading of Wealhtheow's adornments requires a broader analysis of Anglo-Saxon culture and extant documents concerning adornment, status, and protocol. Documents concerning marriage gifts and extant wills of aristocratic women help modern readers understand the possible ways in which jewelry and other adornments—such as cups used at ceremonies—serve as indicators of status.
§22. Evidence for the function of dress and jewelry in the determination of status can be found in many Anglo-Saxon cultural resources, but is especially prevalent in legal documents concerning marriage and death. Anglo-Saxon wills provide many instances in which presumably aristocratic women bequeath jewelry, gold, and silver. For example, the will of Æthelflæd, second wife of King Edmund (d. 946), enumerates her gifts, including feower beagas on twam hund mancys goldes . 7 . IIII . pellas. 7 . IIII . cuppan. 7 . IIII . bleda. 7 . IIII . hors. ("four rings worth two hundred gold mancuses, and four robes, and four cups, and four bowls, and four horses") (Whitelock 1986, 34).14 Other wills of aristocratic women—such as those of Winflæd, Ælfgifu, Wulfwaru, and Wulfgyth—also record gifts of jewelry and/or cups.15 That the aristocratic woman is not only in possession of these items but also able to dispense of them as she pleases suggests independent ownership, regardless of whether these items were part of the bride price, morgen-gifu, or were obtained from other sources. In Beowulf, Wealhtheow is shown to be in possession of jewelry that she gives freely, and without consultation, to the hero:
Bruc þisses beages, Beowulf leofa,
Hyse, mid hæle, ond þisses hrægles neot,
Þeodgestreona, ond geþeoh tela,
Cen þec mid cræfte, ond þissum cnyhtum wes
Lara liðe! (1216–1220)
[Enjoy this necklace with good fortune, Beowulf, dear young warrior, and use these clothes, a treasure of the people, and prosper well; use your strength and be kind of advice to these young boys!]
Wealhtheow initially bestows two gifts upon Beowulf: a necklace and clothing. The clothes, as she states in her speech, are a gift from the people, not specifically from her. The necklace, though, is not preceded or followed by any such disclaimer; apparently, it is a gift from her. Slightly later, he is given more gifts by Wealhtheow:
Him wæs ful boren, ond freondlaþu
wordum bewægned, ond wunden gold
estum geeawed, earm[h]reade twa,
hrægl ond hringas, healsbeaga mæst
þara þe ic on foldan gefrægen hæbbe.
Nænigne ic under swegle selran hyrde
hordmaðum hæleþa, syþðan Hama ætwæg
to þære byrhtan byrig Brosinga mene,
sigle ond sincfæt,— searoniðas fleah
Eormenrices, geceas ecne ræd. (1192–1201)
[The cup was carried to him, and words of kindness offered, and wound gold kindly bestowed, two armbands, a garment and rings, and the greatest necklace that I have ever heard of on earth. I have heard of no finer [necklace] from the treasure hoard of heroes under the skies since Hama carried the necklace of the Brosings, the jewel and its precious setting, to that magnificent stronghold—he fled from the cunning enmity of Eormenric; he chose eternal gain.]
Although this passage is presented in the passive voice, the audience can assume that these gifts are given to Beowulf by Wealhtheow, since she is the bearer of the cup. The laundry list of gifts is presented in a similar fashion as the lists of gifts bestowed upon heirs in the will of Æthelflæd, and perhaps indicates that Wealhtheow is, like Hrothgar, granting Beowulf some family heirlooms. These items seem to have been owned by Wealhtheow independently of her husband, and she is able to give them away as she chooses, which links her to the aristocratic women who bequeath personal possessions in their wills.
§23. Unlike the aristocratic women in the wills, however, Wealhtheow does not give Beowulf a cup. In fact, the absence of this gift is conspicuous when compared to the will of Æthelflæd: it is one of the only items given in the will that is not also given in the poem. Perhaps this supports Green's assumption that "there was only one ceremonial cup." If, indeed, there is only one ceremonial cup, Wealhtheow's possession of it and her dispensing of drink are to be seen as indicators of her high status in Heorot, which serves as yet another element of her presentation that is designed to solidify her status as the queen. More likely, however, is the idea that cups were seen as items to be granted specifically to females, and were only later granted to religious houses. The older law of the Frostathing clearly differentiates between those items that may be inherited by a daughter and by a son; among these are all of the cups that are used within the house, unless they are made of pure silver, in which case they are to be granted to the son (Larson 1935, 333–34). Presumably, Wealhtheow's cup would be inherited by her daughter, or her sons; however, since Wealhtheow is ignoring her husband's offer of kinship to Beowulf, the cup would not be granted to him, even though she is quite generous in her gifts. All of the gifts she gives Beowulf follow customs for rewarding good deeds rather than for marking kinship or bestowing rights of inheritance.
§24. Wealhtheow's dress, jewelry, and the gifts she bestows upon Beowulf all suggest that she is aristocratic and queenly; yet, how much power and legal authority does her status allot her in Hrothgar's court? The issues of power and authority, when it comes to queens, are difficult ones, especially since very few documents comment specifically on the actions of the queen when a king is present; even when the king is deceased, texts in praise of the queen are often voiced as veiled commentaries on the king, such as in the case of the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ or the Life of King Edward. In fact, literary and non-literary commentaries on power or authority of queens tend to be negative, citing examples of abuse, such as we see in Beowulf when Modthryth's behavior is described. According to Pauline Stafford:
[p]ower itself, or more correctly, authority and power, had its own language which was not entirely gender specific. Women in general and queens in particular enjoyed little of that "magisterial" authority that was considered legitimate, though they derived some accepted authority from the role of mother and mistress of the household. On the other hand, they exercised much power through influence and counsel (Stafford 1994, 145).
Wealhtheow's behavior in Heorot is a perfect example of Stafford's ideas: she does not have very much independent power or authority (especially while Hrothgar is alive), but she can be influential in giving advice. And the tradition of the female as counselor, especially the aristocratic female, has a long history in Germanic culture, beginning with Tacitus and affirmed by Anglo-Saxon cultural documents such as Maxims I.
§25. In light of Tacitus' appraisal of the role of women in Germanic society, one would assume that the critical reaction to Wealhtheow would be to accord the queen more authority. In the Germania, Tacitus notes that the men of Germanic tribes inesse quin etiam sanctum aliquid et providum putant, nec aut consilia earum aspernantur aut responsa neglegunt ("Further, they conceive that in woman is a certain uncanny and prophetic sense: they neither scorn to consult them nor slight their answers") (Tacitus Germania 8). The content of this passage provides an early indication that the roles of women in Germanic culture were far more authoritative than in many others.16 The term consilia, used by Tacitus to refer to the type of consultation provided by women, is used only one other time, and in that case consilium refers to the administration of justice in legal proceedings in the hundredmoot court: the local judges choose one hundred people from the community to provide counsel (consilium) in coming to a decision in a legal case. In Beowulf, although Hrothgar does not expressly seek the counsel of Wealhtheow, she does give her advice, and gives it in such a way that one can assume that it is expected and heeded.
§26. Further support for Wealhtheow's right and responsibility to give counsel to the king can be found in other Old English poems, particularly in the poem Maxims I. At lines 90–92, the two chief duties of the queen are that she forman fulle to frean hond/ ricene geræcan ond him ræd witan/ boldagendum bæm ætsomne ("quickly bring the first cup to her lord's hand and advise him of what is best for the two of them as heads of the household") (Maxims I). Wealhtheow's actions perfectly mirror the advice of Maxims I: she offers Hrothgar the mead cup, and then offers him legal counsel concerning the inheritance of her children: do not give the kingdom to Beowulf.
§27. The queen's actions and words are corroborated by other Old English poems, but, equally important, there is also support for the intercession of the queen in matters concerning the granting of land and property in Anglo-Saxon charters and wills. Some of the charters for the transfer of land have been witnessed by the queen, specifically in the kingdom of Mercia. For example, Sæthryth, queen and wife of Brihtwulf, king of the Mercians (844 AD), is listed as a witness to the confirmation of a grant of property to a church (Whitelock 1955, 452). Also, Frithogyth, wife of Æthelheard, king of the Mercians (739 AD), and Cynethryth, queen of the Mercians and wife of King Offa (770 AD), are listed as witnesses to transfers of land (Whitelock 1955, 464, 547). These three examples are important because there is a difference in the titles and status of these three women: two are "queens" (Sæthryth and Cynethryth) and one is simply a "wife" (Frithogyth), which, as noted by Stafford, has an impact on the power and social position each holds: the king's wife was not synonymous with the title "queen," since in some circumstances, as with King Alfred the Great's wife, the title "queen" was intentionally denied.17 Thus, while a "queen" had greater power and legal authority than a "wife," it seems that in eighth- and ninth-century Mercia, both the queen and the king's wife had the authority to serve as witnesses to land grants. This evidence of queens serving as witnesses to the transfer of land may, perhaps, set a precedent for the right of the queen to oversee the king's dispensation of property. In Beowulf, then, Queen Wealhtheow is acting as counsel to her husband in an agreement that could potentially involve the transfer of land (the Danish kingdom), and like the Mercian queens, it is her obligation and right to support or deny the gift of land through her role as witness.
§28. The role of women—especially of queens, concubines, or king's wives—in the process of granting land is well attested in extant Anglo-Saxon charters. In Beowulf, Wealhtheow's counseling of Hrothgar would suggest that the rules concerning land grants still follow the Germanic custom in which family land is inalienable, but that that system is breaking down and moving towards a more individualized view of property ownership. The existence and increasing regularity of such charters serves as an indication that more land is becoming bookland, and that the old Germanic custom of folkland is waning. The appearance of such a legal matter in Beowulf is, perhaps, a commentary on the part of the poet: as does Bede, the Beowulf-poet seems to take a stance against the granting of folkland to outsiders. Yet, as the charters show, grants of land, especially to monasteries and religious houses, increased during the ninth century and were utterly commonplace by the tenth. Here, the role of the queen is attested to in her inclusion on the witness list and in the nature of her consent; in most cases, the queen's name appears early in the witness list, and is often accompanied by a brief—often formulaic—comment, such as consensi or consensi et subscripsi.18 As the tradition of the queen's consent on the witness list of land grant charters develops, one can see a clear establishment of a hierarchy that supports the assertion that a queen, such as Wealhtheow in Beowulf, serves as one of—if not the foremost—advisors of the king in matters of property gifts. While, as Lees and Overing have noted, the number of charters including women as witnesses comprises only a small percentage of the total number of charters, we may instead look at the position of the queen's name on the list as an indication of her status and role in the granting of land. More than sixty charters dating from the seventh through the eleventh centuries contain the signature and/or consent of the queen or king's wife as part of the witness list; in sixty-one charters dated during this period, only three list the queen in the bottom half of the witness list. In most cases, the queen's consent appears as one of the first six names listed, and moving into the tenth century, the queen's consent is typically listed second, following only that of the king. This evidence would suggest that, over time, the queen's role expanded more formally to include her supervising the granting of land by the king. The evidence, however, is subject to region, time, and ruler: it is far more common to see the queen's consent in charters of eighth and ninth century Mercia; a majority of the tenth century attestations of a queen's name in charters refer to the regis mater, specifically to Eadgifu, mother of Edmund and Eadred.19 It would appear, then, that there is a substantial pattern of approval by the queen that accompanies the king's alienation of land, which supports Wealhtheow's intervention in Beowulf.
§29. At the very least, this study suggests that Wealhtheow's speech, while brief, is well crafted and thoroughly informed by legislation and cultural practices. Hrothgar's queen is not merely a peace-weaver or cup-bearer; in fact, her legally charged rebuttal to Hrothgar's apparent adoption of Beowulf would tend toward a quite different reading: rather than smoothing over the situation and supporting her husband, Wealhtheow confronts Hrothgar immediately and rectifies it before Beowulf can make any claim on the Danish throne.20 Since, as this study suggests, Hrothgar's pronouncement is both an offer of kinship and a potential transfer of land, the customs concerning the roles of wives in matters of inheritance and extant documents concerning real estate transactions and bequests apply. Although Hrothgar follows custom by indicating his intention to adopt Beowulf before the assembly at the mead-hall, Wealhtheow is justified, and even compelled, by her role as queen to re-establish the primary prohibition of Hrothgar's kingship, and to prevent him from giving away folcsare ond feorum gumena. A cursory appraisal would, perhaps, suggest that she is merely protecting her children as heirs to the throne; this is certainly a positive effect of her actions, and would confirm the tradition of genetic inheritance. However, it is her duty as the king's counselor that compels her to convince Hrothgar to rescind his offer, and this duty is supported by various artifacts from Anglo-Saxon history, including literary, legal, and historical texts, such as charters that include the queen as a witness to the king's alienation of land.
4. While later Anglo-Saxon records contain statements of will, it is clear that wills initially existed as part of oral culture, and that even when written documents became more common, they were seen only as records of oral performance, and that even with some skepticism; as Brenda Danet and Bryna Bogoch write, "Although writing was gaining in importance, the spoken word remained the primary mode of legal transactions, and disputes in court were resolved using procedures like oath-taking and ordeals . . . the conveyance of land and bequest of property continued to be primarily oral acts, performed according to specific ritual and formulas and witnessed by trustworthy individuals" (Danet and Bogotch 1994, 103). Hrothgar's will incorporates certain ritualistic behavior, and the written document in Beowulf supports his act as a bequest partially through Wealhtheow's indication that witnesses were present, who eventually apprised her of her husband's bequest. [Back]
5. Hanneke Wilson (2006, 136–38) has argued that the phrase "Me man sægde" is merely a metrical formula, and not worthy of focus. In her review of Haruko Momma's "The Education of Beowulf and the Affair of the Leisure Class," she writes:
First, 'me men [sic] sægde', which is probably a metrical formula (so Klaeber), is too vague to bear so much meaning. Second, given that Wealhtheow did not need to be told (l. 946), as Momma acknowledges, why should we have to pass off a slip on the poet's part as an unlikely piece of tact? Third, why should the queen be consulted, as if Hrothgar and Wealhtheow were a modern couple? Fourth, the 'adoption' is not a legal agreement but an honour conferred upon Beowulf, so it does not imply a move on Hrothgar's part to exclude the royal couple's two sons from the succession (137).
Whether or not "Me man sægde" is a metrical formula, its inclusion by the poet despite the earlier indication that Wealhtheow is present at the time of Hrothgar's speech is a curious lament worthy of analysis. As to Wilson's second and third points, I argue here that line 1175a concerns the legal ramifications of Wealhtheow's speech rather than those that are strictly social, and legal history provides several instances in which the queen is to be notified of transactions that affect the succession or the granting of land (see, for example, the numerous cases in which the queen is listed as a witness to charters below). Her fourth point concerning the nature of the "adoption" is the subject of scholarly debate, and is by no means a settled issue: the belief that the adoption is an "honour," while accepted by Momma, has most recently been scrutinized by William Cooke (2007) and by Michael D.C. Drout (2007); both critics assume that Hrothgar's speech constitutes a threat (real or perceived) to the usual tradition of genetic succession. [Back]
7. Although Edward attempted to secure the throne for his legitimate son (Ælfweard) and provide for his illegitimate son Athelstan, the latter became king by virtue of the death of the former sixteen days after Edward. [Back]
8. Bede's concern was specifically that too much folcland was being granted to lay people and the clergy, and that not enough remained for those who had fought for the king. As Patrick Wormald writes, "Bede was talking not . . . about shortage of service but shortage of land; young noblemen either desert the kingdom altogether for lack of reward, or carry on as both abbots and servants of the king" (Wormald 2006, 154). [Back]
10. Attestations can be found at lines 62b, 613a, 623b, 923b, 1153b, 1932a, 2016b. [Back]
12. For a lucid discussion of Be Wifmannes Beweddung and how it frames marriage—particularly the expectations placed on the husband and the right of the widow to the couple's property—see Patrick Wormald (1999, 385–87). [Back]
15. See Dorthy Whitelock (1986), items 3, 8, 14, 21, 32 for examples. Also see items 29 and 37 for examples of women bequeathing land and money. For the purposes of this paper, the bequests of females in wills is limited to moveable goods, which is more likely to be the weotuma rather than the morgen-gifu; Julia Crick has convincingly argued that the transfer of land by women in wills is a complicated issue because of the high frequency of bequests that are reversionary or otherwise suggest that the testarix held only a lifetime interest in the land (Crick 1999, 399–422). [Back]
18. The earliest charter in which this statement appears is 770, in which Cynethryth, queen (regina) and wife of Offa of Mercia gives her consent. Her name appears relatively late on the witness list (eighth of ten), but the inclusion of her name on the witness list is an early instance of a trend that would grow rapidly, especially in the kingdom of Mercia. [Back]
19. Eadgifu gives her consent as part of twenty witness lists of grants by Edward and Eadred between 940 and 966. [Back]
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