The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

An Appeal to Rome

Anglo-Saxon Dispute Settlement, 800-810

by Deanna Forsman

University of California, Los Angeles

Abstract: In this paper, I argue that Anglo-Saxon dispute settlement in the early ninth century exploited Charlemagne's title as Holy Roman Emperor. The willingness of Anglo-Saxon monarchs to evoke a Continental presence in dispute resolution demonstrates the connection between England and Charlemagne's renovatio imperii.


Two disputes between the Northumbrian and Mercian kingdoms were resolved through an external agent, the first in 801, and the second in 809. While conflict between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was nothing new, mediation between kings as a strategy of dispute resolution was unique to this period. I suggest that the kings of Northumbria and Mercia, the two strongest kingdoms in the early ninth century, exploited Charlemagne's imperial title to strengthen their own positions.

Charlemagne's interest in Anglo-Saxon affairs is well attested. He harbored English political exiles and considered a diplomatic marriage with Mercia.[1] In 792 he sent the English a statement from Constantinople regarding the adoration of images along with Alcuin's refutation,[2] and in 794 he invited English clergy to participate in the Synod of Frankfurt rejecting the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (787). Perhaps the best evidence for Charlemagne's interest in Anglo-Saxon affairs is preserved in a letter Alcuin sent to Offa of Mercia (757-796). Alcuin wrote that when Charlemagne learned of the murder of Æthelred of Northumbria (774-779, 790-796), "he was so angry with the people, 'that treacherous, perverse people,' as he called them, 'who murder their own lords,' for he thought them worse than pagans. If I had not interceded for them, he would have deprived them of every advantage and done them every harm he could."[3] It is difficult to determine how Alcuin expected Offa to receive this statement, for it suggests that Charles was ready to mount a punitive expedition into Northumbria. Possibly Alcuin was attempting to impress the Mercian king by demonstrating the importance of his relationship with Charlemagne. On the other hand, it could have reflected Charlemagne's vision of England's relationship to the expanding regnum Francorum. The only comment we can offer with any degree of certainty is that Alcuin was articulating an outsider's view.[4]

Discerning the Anglo-Saxon perception of their relationship to Charlemagne and his renovatio imperii is much more difficult. There is little indication that Anglo-Saxons recognized Charlemagne's imperial title. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to him as cyning when recording his death, fourteen years after his acclamation as emperor.[5] Charlemagne's imperial coronation in 800 is passed over in silence, while the "A" manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records the accession of Alfred's grandfather Egbert in Wessex.[6] This omission is interesting, for the annals do record Pope Leo's banishment and restoration in 799, but instead of describing Charlemagne's role in the situation, the annalist focuses on divine providence.[7] It is unlikely that the Anglo-Saxon annalist knew of Leo's difficulties in Rome, but was unaware that he owed his restoration to Charlemagne.[8] While Anglo-Saxons in the late ninth century preferred to remember Charlemagne as cyning rather than imperator, a careful examination of the two negotiated settlements between Northumbria and Mercia suggests that early ninth century Anglo-Saxons recognized Charlemagne's titular claim to rule the Roman Empire and exploited his position as a means to resolve their disputes.

In 801 Eardwulf of Northumbria (796-806, 808-810) led an army against Cenwulf of Mercia (796-821). Eardwulf justified his invasion by claiming that Cenwulf was harboring his enemies. After a lengthy campaign, both monarchs made peace with the advice of the great bishops and lords of the land, through the grace of the King of the English (regis Anglorum).[9] The account of this dispute is solely preserved in the Historia Regum of Simeon of Durham, written in the early twelfth century. Scholars believe Simeon copied this information from a lost set of Northumbrian annals that continued Bede's Chronological Summary into the early ninth century.[10]

The most puzzling aspect of Simeon's account is the identity of the rex Anglorum. Two suggestions have been proffered, but neither convinces entirely. Thomas Arnold, who edited Simeon for the Rolls Series, glossed rex Anglorum as Egbert, king of Wessex. While Egbert eventually became one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kings, in 801 he was still an exile in Frankia. He did not become king of Wessex until 802. Unfortunately, no early ninth century Anglo-Saxon king is a likely candidate. Offa of Mercia, who exercised hegemony over lands south of the Humber died in 796, five years before the conflict between Eardwulf and Cenwulf. Furthermore, Simeon never once refers to him as rex Anglorum.[11] In fact, the first individual to be designated rex Anglorum in Simeon's work is Alfred (871-899), indicating that Simeon understood a rex Anglorum as a king of all England, and not just of the Angles.[12] Cenwulf, as the king of Mercia and heir to Offa's achievements, would be a possible candidate, were it not for the fact that he was one of the disputants. And since in 801, Mercian hegemony was still relatively intact south of the Humber, other Anglo-Saxon kings were clients of the Mercians. Therefore, it seems unlikely that any Anglo-Saxon king could have been dubbed rex Anglorum by Simeon.

The lack of possible candidates led Dorothy Whitelock to emend Simeon's text. She suggested altering rex Anglorum to rex Angelorum, changing the reference to "king of the angels", an obscure reference to God.[13] This proposal has two advantages, the first being it disposes with the need to look to a real individual, and the second that it matches Simeon's providential tone later in the passage. After relating the peace process, Simeon quotes a verse from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy.[14] He then explains in a gloss that a tranquil time (serena tempora) came to the land through the Lord's favor, a clear reference to the divine.

However, there is a distinct difference between the actions of the rex Anglorum and God. Simeon unequivocally evokes God first as a guarantor of the oaths of peace sworn by the kings, and then as a benevolent force who stands before storms. An invocation to the divine to enforce oaths was standard practice, but it must be noted that God was expected to preserve the peace, not negotiate a settlement. If Simeon meant to indicate that God facilitated peace between the two kings, this would have been inconsistent with Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman conceptions of how the divine intervened in the physical world. For Bede, God operated in the world as a judge rather than as a peacemaker,[15] and the same understanding of the divine seems to function in Simeon's Historia Regum. The work opens with an account of the martyrdom of Æthelbert and Æthelred, where their murderer is revealed by God's divine light.[16] It is also worth noting that in Simeon's explication of the verses from Boethius, he first mentions the joy that came to the magnates of the land after the kings made peace between themselves, and follows later with his allusion to the time of tranquility.

In contrast, the rex Anglorum had a definitive and concrete role, to supervise the peace process that was accomplished by Cenwulf and Eardwulf. I believe that it was much more likely that the rex Anglorum was a real person, who as a mediator had to be acceptable to both disputants, since the decision to enter arbitration was typically made with the consent of both parties.[17] In practical terms, his most salutary attribute would be impartiality. Since none of the English kings could have served in this capacity, being either involved in the dispute or clients of Mercia, we must look beyond England for his identity. When Æthelheard, the Archbishop of Canterbury (793-805) journeyed to Rome in 801 with the West Saxon bishop Cyneberht (c. 781-c. 803), he was possibly seeking an external arbiter for this dispute.[18] There is no other obvious reason for these two bishops to make the journey at that time. Æthelheard had been ruling since 793, so he could not have been going to receive his pallium, and neither bishop was retiring. I suggest that Simeon's rex Anglorum should be identified as Charlemagne, who probably sent an agent, with papal support, to serve as arbiter in the dispute between Eardwulf and Cenwulf.

In a later dispute involving Eardwulf and Cenwulf, there is direct evidence that Charlemagne intervened with papal support. The Royal Frankish Annals provides the basic narrative: Between 806 and 808, Eardwulf was driven from his kingdom.[19] In 808, he came to Charlemagne at Nijmegen, a royal villa located north west of Aachen, and then went on to Rome. The following year, Eardwulf returned to England along with one papal and two imperial representatives. He regained his throne, reigning until his death in 810, and was succeeded by his son Eanred.[20] He was the first Northumbrian king to pass the throne on to his son in over sixty years, a significant achievement for a king with no discernable descent from either the Bernician or Deiran royal lines.[21]

On the surface, Eardwulf's appeal to Charlemagne and Pope Leo III (795-816) appears to be a simple, if ingenious, attempt to regain his kingdom. However, the narrative is complicated by a series of letters exchanged between Charlemagne and Pope Leo.[22] According to one letter, three individuals wrote to Charlemagne regarding Eardwulf's expulsion: Eanbald, the Archbishop of York (796-808), Cenwulf of Mercia, and an individual identified only by the name Wada.[23] Since the matter concerned the king of Northumbria, it is not surprising that Eanbald, as the Archbishop of York, was involved. It seems likely that Eanbald wrote on Eardwulf's behalf, especially since his immediate predecessor had consecrated Eardwulf to the throne in 796.[24] However, the letter from Cenwulf indicates that Eardwulf's expulsion from his kingdom was not strictly an internal Northumbrian affair. The only reasonable explanation for Cenwulf to write to Charlemagne regarding Eardwulf's expulsion is that he was somehow involved in the situation. Leo's phrasing also indicates that the three letters presented opposing views, with Eanbald imparting one version, while Cenwulf and Wada reported another.[25] Leo further states that after reading the letters sent by Eanbald, Cenwulf, and Wada, he recognized the false ones, and he was greatly saddened that Cenwulf was now at odds not only with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Wulfred, 805-832), but with the Archbishop of York as well.[26] Leo's letter indicates that he perceived Cenwulf as one of the primary parties involved in Eardwulf's expulsion, opposed to the ex-Northumbrian king and his supporter Eanbald.

Eardwulf's expulsion from Northumbria and his subsequent restoration were the key items of interest to the author of the Royal Frankish Annals, who does not relate the nature of the dispute that caused Eardwulf to appeal to Charlemagne, or the other individuals who may have been involved. While the entry for 808 focuses on Eardwulf's activity on the Continent and Leo and Charlemagne's response, the account for the following year makes Eardwulf's restoration explicit, stating that Eardwulf had been returned to his kingdom.[27] In a postscript to the entire affair, the analyst describes the return journey of the imperial and papal envoys. All returned safely except for the papal envoy Aldwulf who was captured by pirates and subsequently redeemed by one of Cenwulf's men.[28] However, by including a description of this event, the annalist indicates that Cenwulf was actively involved in the process that led to Eardwulf's restoration.

Cenwulf must have been at least cognizant of the papal legate's mission to England. Leo's letter to Charlemagne indicated concern about Eardwulf's expulsion from Northumbria, and that Leo was equally troubled with Cenwulf's relationship to the Church of England, as indicated by his remark that Cenwulf was not at peace with either the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Archbishop of York. In discussing the matter in preparation to send emissaries to England, Leo requested Charlemagne's assistance to restore concord between Cenwulf and the archbishops.[29] From this letter, it would seem that in addition to assisting Eardwulf, Leo's legate was to negotiate peace between Cenwulf, the Archbishop of York, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although we do not know the nature of the dispute between Cenwulf and Wulfred, it is clear that the discord between Cenwulf and Eanbald was related to Eardwulf's situation.[30] Therefore, Cenwulf must have known why Leo's legate Aldwulf was in England. Yet Cenwulf allowed his "man" (homine) to ransom Aldwulf, and then subsequently permit him to return to the Continent. Although Cenwulf had sent Leo and Charlemagne letters arguing against Eardwulf, the restoration of Eardwulf left Cenwulf in a position where he felt free to ransom a man who had supported his opponent. To my mind, this indicates that the role of the papal and imperial legates was not to use force, or the threat of force, to cow the opposition into reinstating Eardwulf to his throne. Instead, they were there as arbiters, to negotiate a peaceful settlement that involved the restoration of the Northumbrian king, but with the consent of the Mercian king.

Our knowledge of the disputes of 801 and 808 is fragmentary. In neither case do we have a complete narrative of the conflicts from inception to resolution. However, in both cases, the willingness of Anglo-Saxon monarchs to submit their disputes to an outside authority is noteworthy. Non-violent dispute settlement was by no means new to Anglo-Saxons, but hitherto had not occurred between monarchs of neighboring kingdoms. Charter evidence provides us with examples of Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops arbitrating disputes.[31] However, when Anglo-Saxon monarchs had conflicting agendas, the outcome was generally war. If arbitration between two Anglo-Saxon kings were an unusual occurrence, the surrounding circumstances that led to a non-violent dispute process in the first decade of the ninth century merit a closer examination.

Following Offa's death in 796, two powerful kingdoms emerged. Although Mercia suffered setbacks, such as the revolt of Kent and the loss of Wessex from its political orbit, it remained the single most powerful kingdom south of the Humber until the expansion of Wessex in the 820s. The other Anglo-Saxon kingdom to attain considerable strength was Northumbria. The dynastic difficulties that plagued this kingdom during the second half of the eighth century may have ended the days when Northumbria exercised imperium over much of England. However, with a surcease to violent dynastic rivalry at the beginning of Eardwulf's reign, Northumbria was still strong enough to challenge Mercia. Simeon's account of Eardwulf's invasion in 801 implies that this was not a small-scale border skirmish, but a significant threat that required Cenwulf to collect an army from other kingdoms.[32] Simeon also indicates that the two forces were well balanced, leading to a long, but inconclusive, campaign that was eventually settled with the advice of the leading men of the kingdom, and not on the battlefield. Simeon describes a conflict between two kingdoms of relatively equal strength, a contrast to the accepted narrative of eighth-ninth century Anglo-Saxon England, which tends to juxtapose Mercian ascendancy with Northumbrian instability. However, the letter exchanged between Charlemagne and Offa, as well as the letter Alcuin sent to Offa, indicates that Charlemagne conceived of England as ruled by two kings, one in the north and one in the south.[33] Charlemagne's understanding of the political situation in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was most likely reflective of reality, and it is unlikely that Offa's death significantly altered the balance of power.

While Mercia and Northumbria were the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the beginning of the ninth century, they certainly were not unchallenged. Early in his reign, Eardwulf had been faced with an internal rebellion, and Cenwulf similarly experienced the revolt of Kent. During the reign of these two monarchs, Charlemagne claimed the title imperator Romanorum, and it is interesting to consider what this title meant to English kings. Although Charlemagne certainly involved himself in English political and religious affairs, there is no concrete evidence that he ever exercised authority over Britain. However, Charlemagne's claim to rule the Roman World, which in antiquity included the island of Britain, provided Anglo-Saxon kings with a theoretical "higher power" who recognized the kings of both Mercia and Northumbria, but was impartial to their disputes, the ideal arbiter. These kings consequently exploited Charlemagne's title to end costly and inconclusive military conflict.

Before Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor, the only individual with some titular claim to universal authority was the bishop of Rome, who, it can be argued, was perceived in England as the head of the Christian Church.[34] Beginning in the seventh century, the pope was a source of appeal in English ecclesiastical disputes. A well-known example is Bishop Wilfrid (d. 709), who made several journeys to Rome to protest eviction from his see.[35] Offa appealed to the pope when he wanted to create a new Archbishopric at Lichfield, and Cenwulf equally petitioned the pope both to abolish the see at Lichfield, and to move the archbishopric of the southern English from Canterbury to London. There is abundant evidence that the English perceived the bishop of Rome as an arbiter in ecclesiastical matters. It is also clear, however, that the decisions the bishop of Rome made with regards to Anglo-Saxon affairs were far from final; they could only be enforced with the consent of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical and secular authority. Thus, although Wilfrid was vindicated by Pope Agatho (678-681) and returned to Northumbria with letters reinstating him to his see at York, the pope's decision was rejected by the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith (670-685), and Wilfrid was forced into exile for the duration of Ecgfrith's reign. In a similar manner, Offa and Cenwulf manipulated the diocesan structure of the South English church for their own benefit. Offa claimed that the establishment of an archbishopric at Lichfield was a unanimous decision of all the English bishops, while Cenwulf would later argue that Offa had lied in an attempt to humiliate the archbishop of Canterbury. The two conflicting stories, and the fact that the pope acceded to Mercian wishes in both cases, indicate that Anglo-Saxons sought the authority of Rome to bolster and legitimize their own positions. In no case could the pope dictate English ecclesiastical affairs.

Charlemagne's coronation on Dec. 25, 800, in effect, created a secular analogue to the Pope, and Anglo-Saxons expanded their Continental appeals to include Charlemagne, using his titular position to their own advantage. We can see the effects of this practice in the settlement of the dispute between Cenwulf and Archbishop Wulfred that ran from c. 817-821. Although we only know of this event through later documents, it appears that Cenwulf presented Wulfred with an ultimatum: that he either concede to the king, or face an exile that neither pope nor emperor (Caesaris) would be able to mitigate. Wulfred agreed to the terms, and for his part, Cenwulf dropped the charges.[36] While this brief glimpse at the dispute between Wulfred and Cenwulf attributes a more significant role to the pope than the emperor, it is worth noting that Cenwulf expected that the Frankish ruler would involve himself, and made specific provisions, stating that he would not accept either the pope or the emperor as an arbiter in his dispute with Wulfred.[37]

If Cenwulf expected the Frankish emperor to intervene in an internal Anglo-Saxon dispute, it was because he had previously experienced this phenomenon. However, it is also clear that conflicts had to reach a certain level before Anglo-Saxons appealed to the Pope or Emperor. The dispute between Cenwulf and Wulfred, for example, was ongoing for several years before the final settlement in 821. When considering the conflict between Cenwulf and Eardwulf in 801, the indications are that Northumbria and Mercia were equally matched, and that the battle between the two kingdoms was both drawn out and inconclusive. Thus, the kings made peace with the consent of their magnates under the supervision of someone Simeon describes as rex Anglorum, but who should probably be understood as the agent of the rex Francorum. The role of Simeon's rex Anglorum is similar to that of the pope in the ecclesiastical disputes we have briefly examined. Cenwulf and Eardwulf's bishops and lords were the most influential in the settlement of the dispute, while the rex Anglorum simply placed an imprimatur upon the proceedings, as a neutral party who had a higher social status than the two disputants. Simeon's rex Anglorum had no real authority over the Anglo-Saxon kings, who were the main actors throughout the scene.

Strengthening the argument that Simeon identified Charlemagne as rex Anglorum in the Historia Regum is a curious notice in a set of annals known as Annales Lindisfarnensis et Dunelmensis, an. 797, which claims that Eardwulf married Charlemagne's daughter.[38] Laying aside the historical impossibility of such a claim, it is interesting to note scholars have determined that Simeon of Durham authored the Lindisfarne Annals.[39] Clearly, in Simeon's mind, there was a strong connection between Charlemagne and Eardwulf, prompting him to propose a marriage alliance. Simeon's evidence for such a relationship between Eardwulf and Charlemagne is more difficult to determine. Simeon seems to have been unaware that Charlemagne played a significant role in Eardwulf's restoration to his throne, or even that Eardwulf ruled as Northumbrian King after 808, as neither the Historia Regum nor the Lindisfarne Annals mention Eardwulf's expulsion in 808 or his subsequent restoration. The closest any Anglo-Saxon source comes to mentioning the 808 incident is the "D" manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which notes that Eardwulf was driven from his kingdom in 806, and the Lindisfarne Annals which mention Ælfwald's succession to the Northumbrian kingdom in 808.[40] If Simeon was unaware of the 808-809 dispute between Eardwulf and Cenwulf, he must have had an alternative source for thinking that Eardwulf and Charlemagne were connected through marriage. It is plausible that Simeon suggested the marriage alliance based on his understanding of Charlemagne's role in the 801 dispute.

Simeon's conception of Charlemagne's role as Emperor is also worth considering. According to the Lindisfarne Annals, Charlemagne was the first Roman Emperor in sixty years.[41] Although the Annals accurately record the succession of Roman Emperors in Constantinople from Justin II (565-578) to Leo III (717-741), it omits the three Emperors who ruled between 741 and 797, as well as the Empress Irene (797-802).[42] The treatment of Roman Emperors in the Lindisfarne Annals indicates that Simeon had an exalted view of Charlemagne's role as successor to the Roman Empire. When one examines the titles Charlemagne employed after 800, it is easy to see how Simeon could have appended rex Anglorum to the list: Karolus serenissimus augustus a Deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misericordiam Dei rex Francorum atque Langobardorum ("His Imperial Majesty Emperor Charles, crowned the great and peace-loving Emperor by God, ruling the Roman Empire, and through the grace of God, King of the Franks and Lombards").[43] While Charlemagne may never have claimed the title rex Anglorum in any of his surviving charters, it is possible that when he mediated the two disputes between Eardwulf and Cenwulf, he extracted an acknowledgment of his titular claim to rule the Roman Empire from the Anglo-Saxon kings, which Simeon subsequently expanded.[44]

There can be little doubt that both the conflicts of 801 and 808 were resolved through arbitration. In further comparing Simeon's description of the 801 dispute and Leo's letters to Charlemagne, it is striking that both use the language of conciliation. Simeon stresses the graciousness of the kings in coming to an accord, as well as the benefits peace brought. In comparison, Leo states that he sent his legate to make peace in Britain.[45] Earlier, he prayed that God would make peace and dissolve the discord, and that a settlement might be made in Charlemagne's presence.[46] Leo did not envision the papal and imperial representatives imposing peace, but instead facilitating peace. It also seems evident that such arrangements could only occur if both Anglo-Saxon parties agreed, for neither the papacy nor the emperor possessed the wherewithal to enforce settlements. Charlemagne may have raged at the perfidy of Northumbrians in killing their monarch, but he never attempted to mount an expedition within England. In this respect, Eardwulf's appeal to Charlemagne and Leo should be seen as an attempt to find a non-violent resolution to a dispute. By involving an outside power, who had only theoretical authority, Eardwulf and Cenwulf were able to achieve a settlement that permitted both to salvage reputation and resources.

There is enough evidence to indicate that Anglo-Saxons involved the Frankish emperor in their disputes on at least one, and possibly three occasions. Perhaps these events were what Einhard had in mind when he wrote in the Life of Charlemagne, "By his generosity he had so impressed the Irish kings [Scottorum quoque reges] with his goodwill, that they publicly declared that he was certainly their lord and they were his subjects and servants. Some letters they sent to [Charles] still survive and testify to this sort of feeling toward him."[47] The translation of Scottorum quoque reges as "Irish kings" is an acceptable translation. However, it is also possible that Einhard was referring to Anglo-Saxon kings. Support for this interpretation comes from Alcuin's statement in the letter to Offa of Mercia that Charlemagne had learned of the murder of Æthelred of Northumbria from messengers who had returned from Scotia, passing through Offa's kingdom en route.[48] Alcuin's statement is more intelligible if one translates Scotia as "Northumbria", rather than as "Ireland".[49]

While Einhard's claim has not been taken seriously, he describes little more than a titular relationship between the Anglo-Saxon kings and the emperor, placing it in the best possible light. Particularly in comparison with Einhard's account of Charles's relationship with other rulers, his claims are quite modest. Charlemagne may have received an elephant from the king of the Persians, and alliances from the Emperors of Constantinople, but he only received deference and titles from the Scottorum reges. Einhard may have been speaking truer than anyone has hitherto realized. In a similar manner, Simeon's attribution of the title rex Anglorum to Charlemagne should be understood as an exaggeration. While Charlemagne was not a rex Anglorum in the same sense as Offa or Alfred, the title may have indicated that he extracted Anglo-Saxon recognition of his claim to the title imperator Romanorum.

The practice of Anglo-Saxon kings appealing to outsiders as a strategy to settle their disputes is limited to the first decade of the ninth century, when it appears there was a balance of power between Northumbria and Mercia that made mediation attractive. The subsequent years saw an increase in Viking raids in the north, and the emergence of a single powerful kingdom in the south. As the kings of Wessex increased their holdings over England, they gained the power to enforce their will over other kingdoms. Once there was no longer a balance of power between multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, there was no longer a need for arbitration from a distant Emperor or his representative.



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Copyright © Deanna Forsman, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved.