Bretwaldas and Alex Woolf

This post continues my musings on the volume: Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain.

Chapter 5 is an essay by Alex Woolf entitled ‘Community, Identity and Kingship in Early England.’ The first half of the chapter is devoted to ideas about the latin word ‘rex’, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon term, and he begins by contextualising Augustine’s mission to Kent. The ruler there was described as ‘Rex Anglorum.’

Rex Anglorum: Aethelberht of Kent from his statue in Rochester Cathedral via wikipedia


Yup, that’s right, before 600. Never having paid much attention to the Augustinian mission myself (one of the bits to fast read/skip in Bede), this was news to me, but it seems that the Italians did think that the ruler of Kent was the ruler of all the Angles (even though he was not an Angle, so far as we know, and whatever that meant, one of the central topics of the entire volume.)

Woolf’s explanation is that Pope Gregory and his missionaries were very familiar with barbarian invaders in Italy, Langobards, who established their rule with a number of duces and a single rex. Hence, they envisaged that the Anglo-Saxons in Britain ruled through a number of provincial duces and a single overall rex. This mindset then prevailed whilst the missionaries to Britain were mainly from the continent, but after about the 630s, the missionaries were mainly from Ireland. There, as Woolf points out, the Latin word rex was applied to their very much more localised rulers, so that in Latin Britain was conceptualised as ruled by multiple kings, each in their own province.

Brilliant, I say, because this explains what I had never quite understood in Bede – his obsession with Bretwaldas, or rather one king having ‘imperium’ over the others. For him, there always had to be some sort of top king/over-king. Does periodic raiding and demanding tribute by force count as being an over-king? Hmm. I have never been really convinced. It always seemed to me much more like pretty continuous pushing and shoving and my god is better than yours/ my war band is bigger than yours sort of posturing. But acknowledged over-king?

Anyway, the point is that Bede’s mind set was deeply influenced by Rome and hence by the idea that a ‘real’ rex had to rule over something rather larger than Deira, or East Anglia. Just another instance of why we should read Bede with the same critical appraisal as any other text.

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