Medieval(ish) matters #12: secrets of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

HistoryExtra content director Dr David Musgrove takes a look inside the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicles with Professor Pauline Stafford to find out why King Alfred is crucial to their creation and what story they are really telling

Hamo Thornycroft's 1901 statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

Read any historical book about the early medieval period in Britain – about the Viking raids, or the rule of King Alfred and the centuries after that, up until the Norman Conquest and a bit beyond – and like as not, you’ll come across references to a source called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Advertisement

Professor Pauline Stafford, one of the leading experts in this period, has just written a fascinating book about this, entitled After Alfred: Anglo-Saxon Chronicles & Chronicles, 900-1150 (OUP). I had the pleasure of interviewing her for our podcast – listen to an exclusive, extended version here:

Note that her subtitle talks of chronicles in the plural. One of the first tasks that Professor Stafford takes on in her book is to remind us that there were various vernacular chronicles produced during the period, all of which have been bracketed together into the source that is now commonly described in the singular as the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’.

Anonymous annals

She explains:

“They are a group of chronicles all in the form of annals [a chronological record of events]. They are all written in the Old English language, between the end of the ninth and the middle of the 12th century. There are seven of them surviving, and we’ve got a fragment of another. We also know that there are some lost chronicles, three or four certainly. They’re anonymous. Nobody signed them. Nobody claimed authorship. We don’t know who wrote them, so we can’t attach a name to them. And they’re usually called now by letters, so chronicle A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and the fragment is H. They’re often called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as if they’re somehow all the same one. And there is a lot in common between them. But you have to recognise that they’re all individual chronicles – and that really is the basis of my book.”

“They’re written at different times and places. But there’s no statements about where they were written. And they all grow in some way out of a chronicle that was written at the court of Alfred, King of the West Saxons, at the end of the ninth century. And like Alfred’s, they all go back to the arrival of Julius Caesar. So they all cover centuries long before they were themselves written. Some of them go beyond 1066, beyond the Norman conquest. They’ve all finished by the middle of the 12th century.”

As Professor Stafford notes, these chronicles are written as annals, so they read a little like yearly national diary entries. For example, here’s a typical reference, this one from chronicles C, D and E for the year 986 (translation by Professor Michael Swanton, from his 1996 edition of the chronicles):

986: Here the king did for the bishopric at Rochester; and here the great pestilence among cattle first came to England.

Rewriting history?

Professor Stafford notes that this seemingly straightforward, matter-of-fact, layout can lead us into accepting them at face value too easily: “The danger with these chronicles is we just read them as one damn fact after another. We might think someone is just writing it down year by year. But that’s nonsense because whole chunks of these are written retrospectively or sometimes rewritten.”

In fact, you can see an example of such retrospective writing in the 986 entry above, because the use of the word ‘first’ to describe the cattle pestilence informs us that the author must have been aware of at least one subsequent example of pestilence.

“So there will be agendas and there’s a danger we might miss them. The big advantage of chronicles like this is that they are open ended. You can just add bits on; add a few more pages, add a bit more history on at the end. They grow organically in that way,” continues Professor Stafford.

She stresses the importance of trying to get past the anonymity of authorship. Because we don’t know who actually wrote the records, it’s easy to consider them as a sort of anodyne record, when the reality is more complicated. “We’ve got to remember there were people behind them,” she says. “The danger is that we read them as if they are just lists of obvious facts. We’ve got to almost ignore the anonymity.”

Seeking out the audience

The way to pull back the veil of anonymity is to try to understand who was writing them, and of course that also leads into the question of who was reading them. According to Professor Stafford, they were probably written by ecclesiastics:

“We shouldn’t rule out some lay people, but mostly ecclesiastics. They’re written at places like Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough, probably York, Worcester. They’re written by church people, usually connected to the royal court. And this is right from the beginning. Alfred’s own chronicle is written close to his court by people who come regularly there.

Some of them might be written by women

“Because they’re anonymous, we assume very often that means that they’re written by men. One of the things that I wanted to open up in this book was that some of them might be written by women – at least to consider that possibility. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that in Alfred’s own chronicle, they used a group of annals that were written at the nunnery of Wimborne. Nunneries were often full of educated women. There are women here who write and who can compose annals.

“It looks as if the language would make them accessible to a wider audience, but it could be that they’re very much aimed at people at court. My best guess is that the audience wasn’t very big; that these are not things that were going to be read very widely, or even heard very widely. I think we’re talking about the court and the great bishops and episcopal households, perhaps some religious communities, too.”

Kings and Christians

So, given that possible courtly audience, what if anything is the underlying theme of these chronicles?

Professor Stafford says:

“The main theme is kings: kings, and especially their military activity, including their struggles against the Vikings or Scandinavian invaders. That’s what seems to have prompted Alfred’s chronicle at the end of the 9th century. It’s changing a bit in the 11th century and especially after 1066, but is still very focussed on royal figures and kings.

“Another theme is Christianity, and this is especially true of Alfred’s chronicle, which, of course, they all include. There is a lot about the conversion to Christianity. Alfred’s chronicle also has a skeleton story of the other kingdoms apart from Wessex: Mercia, Northumbria, Kent. But the focus is kings, Christianity, and especially Wessex and West Saxon history.

“I think just as interesting as what’s there is what’s not there. There’s very little about politics as we would understand it. So there’s a lot about kings, but there’s very little about their relationships with great nobles, the discussions and factions at court, the kind of political tensions that must have arisen as West Saxon kings expanded north of the River Thames. There’s very little of that, and very little of what I would call family politics, the struggle for the succession to the throne. Even though I think some of them are actually written in the context of struggles over the throne, they don’t talk about it much explicitly. Instead of that, they are pushing kings, and especially West Saxon kings, and their claims to rule.

“There’s also very little about what we call foreign affairs: not much about foreign rulers, and not much even about the rulers of the rest of Britain. They don’t get much more than walk-on parts. I think maybe I should call them ‘kneel-on parts’ because they often only come in when they’re bowing to the West Saxon kings or to the kings of the English – especially in the 10th-century chronicles. So they’re written about kings, and through the history that they tell, they’re legitimising them as kings of a Christian people. They are legitimising them as successful military rulers. I do think that changes a bit over time, and the 11th–12th century chronicles start to look a bit different (more for example on events outside England). And also they do get a bit more critical than the early ones are.”

Writing in Wales

It’s interesting here, in the light of that point about the inward-looking focus of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, to pause and consider what was happening elsewhere in Britain in chronicling terms. Happily, a new book has just come out called The Chronicles of Medieval Wales and the March (edited by Ben Guy, Georgia Henley, Owain Wyn Jones, and Rebecca Thomas, published by Brepols).

In the opening chapter, Professor Huw Pryce of Bangor University introduces Welsh chronicling. He talks about the Harleian Chronicle (otherwise known as the A-text of Annales Cambriae), which records events up to the year 954AD, and was probably composed at St Davids in West Wales, using chronicles kept both there and in Gwynedd in north-west Wales from the late eighth century onwards. It take a similar interest in the themes of Christianity and secular events as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do, but also provides rather more focus on matters beyond Wales, as Professor Pryce explains in his chapter:

“Unsurprisingly, in view of the text’s clerical authorship, one prominent theme is the progress of Christianity and the history of individual churches, witnessed not only by annals concerning the adoption of the Roman Easter, but by obits of numerous Irish and British religious figures, including Brigit, Patrick, Columba, Gildas, and David, by references to the conversion of the English and the death of Bede, and by notices of destruction suffered by the church of St Davids. The world of secular politics also receives considerable coverage, with annals recording conflicts among the Britons and their neighbours and the deaths of secular rulers in the kingdoms not only of the Britons but also of the English, Irish, Picts, and, in one case, the Franks.”

Another interesting point that Professor Pryce makes is that all the early chronicles composed in Wales during the same period as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written in Latin, rather than the vernacular. I dropped him an email to ask why that might be the case, and this is his response:

“Most chronicle writing in early medieval western Europe was in Latin, so you could argue that it’s the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ use of the vernacular that needs explaining. As Professor Stafford suggests, those chronicles probably used English because they were aimed in part at lay elites in the royal court. The Welsh chronicles seem to belong to a more purely ecclesiastical environment. Their chronological framework shows they started to be kept after the Britons of Wales accepted the Roman Easter in 768. And, though they include some individual words and phrases in Welsh, they were clearly intended as Latin texts, reflecting the cultivation of Latin learning in Wales – as shown by Asser, recruited by Alfred from the church of St Davids as one of his court scholars and author of a Latin Life of the king.”

Back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Professor Stafford thinks that the chronicles are more about backing up the royal line of kings (the Wessex dynasty) rather than pushing the theme of the rise of a nation of the English or an idea of Englishness, though they are linked:

“They’re especially pushing the dynasty. I really wouldn’t see them as being attempts to form the English, as it were. But the tenth-century ones especially are products of the period when West Saxon kings were extending their rule northwards into Mercia and Northumbria. They’re likely to reflect all that’s going on at this time. I think England is emerging. England is being made. And the chronicles are part of that process. But I don’t think we should think of them as a kind of propaganda that is being produced to achieve that. I think it’s much better to think of them as very much attached to these kings, at least the 10th century ones especially, because they’re made for an audience and read by an audience and patronised by people who are signed up to this wider project. They are part of the story.”

Advertisement

David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here