Stephen J. Harris

title.none: Higham, The Convert Kings (Harris)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.008 99.01.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen J. Harris, Loyola University at Chicago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Higham, Nick. The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 293. 69.95. ISBN: 0-719-04827-3 (hb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.08

Higham, Nick. The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 293. 69.95. ISBN: 0-719-04827-3 (hb).

Reviewed by:

Stephen J. Harris
Loyola University at Chicago

This is the third book of N. J. Higham's trilogy which begins with The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester, 1994) and continues with An English Empire: Bede and the early Anglo-Saxon Kings (Manchester, 1995). In this work, which in parts builds on the other two, H. asks what exactly Anglo-Saxon kings gained by conversion to Christianity. His interest lies not in the "psychological or intellectual processes" (10) of conversion, by which readers are to understand faith, but with the tantalizing material and political benefits which helped kings realize their wider dynastic objectives. Christianity offered an attractive hierarchical model of authority, as well as willing clerics who could report on the activity of client kings and "subvert separatist local identities" (277). The book is divided into four chapters. There is an introductory chapter in which H. sketches his concerns and methods, and three chapters which focus on (a) King Aethelbert of Kent, (b) King Edwin of Northumbria, and (c) Kings Osric, Oswald, Oswiu, and Oswine of Northumbria. There is also a brief introduction (6pp.), an epilogue (7pp.), and an index (10pp.). There is no bibliography, but each chapter does conclude with notes.

This study is occasioned by new perspectives on religious conversion offered by social anthropologists. An especially attractive aspect of these perspectives is a shared view that religious affiliation is considered "integral to the wider concerns of opinion-forming sections of society--primarily the royal courts" (4). H. sees these wider concerns exclusively as political objectives, and he explains that it is his description of this fundamental "sylloge" between religion and political interests which marks his study off from those by Henry Mayr-Harting, Peter Hunter Blair, Peter Brown, and Judith Herrin. Although H. does not define "politics" or explain what it might mean in a seventh-century context, general political issues regarding conversion are not unknown to the authors he cites. Mayr-Harting, in his preface to the third edition of The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (Pennsylvania, 1991), notes that religious questions (such as those raised at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D.) are also political, and dedicates much of the second part of this monumental work to a discussion of politics. Judith Herrin also speaks to the political and material force of Christianity in her The Formation of Christendom (Princeton, 1987). And neither Hunter Blair nor Brown are ignorant of the relation between Christianity and political power in the early medieval and late antique world. Instead, H. does not so much concentrate on politics as he does avoid religion. In this sense, The Convert Kings is unique among Anglo-Saxon conversion studies. There is much merit to his approach, and H.'s study offers a radically new perspective on Augustine's mission to the English and later efforts at conversion. In another sense, his avoidance of religion and subsequent denigration of the discourse of Christian interpretation (as "mission-centred") permits little critical leverage against the scant and often obscure records of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon society. His antipathy to Christian evidence, the Venerable Bede in particular, leads H. into long, speculative passages with little factual basis which caused Patrick Sims-Williams to remark in a 1995 review of The English Conquest that H. tends to overstep his evidence. This is also the case with The Convert Kings. His style is often difficult to follow, as the speculations depend each upon the last, and one is never quite sure which possibility he is advancing. Numerous parenthetical directions to "see below" and "see above," virtually all unpaginated, link these speculations. The argument is inundated with terms such as "arguably," "possibly," "may be," "likely," "implies," "probably," "if," and "perhaps"^√óproducing what might be called history in the conditional mode. H. is a sensitive reader of difficult evidence, and his methodological foray into uncorroborated speculation is, in my opinion, an unfortunate if sometimes exciting aspect of this book.

H. looks to social anthropology, to the work of Martin Southwold, and to a more holistic view of conversion based on the theories of Robert Horton. H. quietly dismisses the pioneering work of James C. Russell in a brief endnote, claiming Russell's The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (Oxford, 1994) "is charged with a wide range of sociological theory but far less social anthropology" (45, n. 18). The apparently debilitating distinction between sociological theory and social anthropology is left unexplained. H. recognizes a wider definition of Christianity, proposing a less spiritual and more nominal notion, and supposes English converts largely ignorant of theology, incapable of what he terms a "psychological grasp of the religion into which they had been initiated" (39). Christianity instead offered the English "attractive solutions to political problems," and the English elite wanted "ideas about organization, hierarchy and authority which were on offer" (27). This radical notion is buttressed by a dismissal of popular religion as "a red-herring in the context of seventh-century England" (28), unable to tell us anything meaningful about conversion, and declares that royal and popular conversion was almost always a political act. H. concludes (rather circularly) that since the Anglo-Saxons did not convert due to popular disenchantment with the native religion, they must have converted for political reasons. Yet we have virtually no information about early popular religion, nor are we always capable of distinguishing it from popular culture, as Karen Jolly has recently shown in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England (Chapel Hill, 1996). Furthermore, H. confuses faith with doctrinal proficiency (few Christians today could adequately explain the Trinity, but this doesn't make them any less Christian). H. (to my mind wrongly) assumes throughout this work that Christianity has an essential existence outside of a person's capacity to understand and practice it. There is enough in H.'s unique approach to intrigue Anglo-Saxonists, but there is little cause for him to dismiss religion outright as an inappropriate context in which to understand conversion (39). In the end, H. protests that faith is irrelevant to his argument, but he does not explain how faith is irrelevant to conversion.

His second chapter looks to Aethelberht, the king in Kent to whom Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine in 597. The question to which this chapter is dedicated concerns Aethelberht's motives in accepting baptism. Although he raises the stunning possibility that Aethelberht may have been converted before Augustine's arrival (62), he does not pursue its implications. Considering Aethelberht's spiritual motives beyond recovery, he turns exclusively to political motives and declares that "the acceptance of baptism was a matter of strategy rather than conviction" (53). Having dismissed the possibility of spiritual motives, H. permits his reader no other conclusion. But it is not the setting of the question as much as the choice of evidence which mars this chapter. From the first, H. dismisses the evidence of Bede, whose Historia Ecclesiastica gens Anglorum is the most important narrative of Aethelberht's reign and conversion. H.'s antipathy towards the HE is founded on a rabid mistrust of Bede's motives which he says are polluted by implicit "value judgments" (60) marshalled in pursuit of "Bernician-centered historical imperatives" (57). A general concern with Bede's accuracy is not new to Anglo-Saxon studies, but even its stronger proponents--Rob Meens and Walter Goffart, for example--will not ignore Bede entirely. (In fact, H. returns unwillingly to Bede in his third chapter.) Looking to other sources of information, of which there are remarkably few, he introduces his reader to general trends in Frankish and Merovingian politics, Pope Gregory's letters, and Aethelberht's apparent involvement in Continental struggles for power. He suggests that Gregory's mission to the English developed from a conflict between Kings Chilperic and Childebert II--the latter of whom controlled the vast majority of Merovingian Gaul. H. speculates that Gregory and Childebert conspired to ally themselves "in mutual self- interest" in order "to take greater control of the church in Kent." This begs the question, What church in Kent? But rather than asking it, though, H. speculates on why Gregory saw an opportunity to secure control--whatever that might mean with respect to a sixth-century Pope--of an embryonic if hypothetical church. The reason turns on the role of Bishop Liudhard, who accompanied the princess Bertha, Chilperic's niece, to her new home in Kent as Aethelberht's queen. With no evidence to support him (in fact, not much more than Liudhard's name is known), H. calls the bishop "Chilperic's agent." He claims Liudhard headed "a church of sorts" at Canterbury (73). And here is perhaps the most imaginative moment of this chapter: H. invents some "highly placed Kentish travellers" who, in the midst of other business in Gaul, take a moment to speak with Bishop Candidus about a replacement for Liudhard. A Papal agent somehow gets wind of the meeting and sprints to Rome to report to Gregory (81). Gregory then sends "shock- troops of papal intervention" (118) seeking "the colonization of pagan space" and the "use of the coercive powers of local rulers" (119). Thus is Augustine's mission conceived as a Papal attempt to wrest ecclesiastical control away from Chilperic's agent (probably) then in Aethelberht's court.

H. does a very good job of introducing the reader to the various political currents apparently affecting the Kentish king, especially the political intrigues of the Merovingian courts. It is within the context of these Continental political currents that H. places Aethelberht's conversion. He sees Kent, or rather the "Kentings," as a Frankish satellite. He posits an ethnic identity for the "Kentings" exclusive of Saxon or Anglian identity, and it is upon this identity that he predicates his description of Aethelberht's political intrigues. Yet it all turns on the assumed death of Bishop Liudhard in 596 (and news of it almost immediately reaching Rome), which H. supposes is the immediate cause of Gregory's mission. He writes, "There are separate lines of reasoning which point to, but fail to prove, Liudhard's recent death in 596" (75). These lines converge in a circle: he supposes Liudhard died because Gregory wouldn't have sent Augustine had Liudhard been alive. But in the end, we know next to nothing about Liudhard, his ambitions, his obligations to his Frankish province, or his role at Aethelberht's court--and we cannot be certain the Queen's bishop was anybody's political pawn. Another instance of suspect speculation concerns a long chain of hypotheses leading to a council at Augustine's Oak. Based on Augustine's embassy to Gregory in 601, as well as a conviction of the complicity of the Roman church in court politics, H. assumes that Gregory's permission to create as many as twelve bishoprics reveals Aethelberht's unrealized plans for territorial expansion. He then speculates on why these "plans concocted jointly by the Kentish king and his bishop" (100)--for which absolutely no evidence exists--were initiated. This speculation then curiously becomes the factual grounds for further speculation about both the complicity of Queen Bertha in the Pope's agenda and the later abandonment of the plans. By this chain of hypotheticals does H. circumnavigate the scant evidence available and provide a context for its later interpretation. Thus he sees Aethelberht's baptismal sponsorship of the East Anglian king Raedwald as an attempt to bring Raedwald under Kentish dominion. The conference at Augustine's Oak is interpreted as an attempt to bring the recalcitrant Christian Britons under Aethelberht's control. And an unremitting desire for territorial expansion appears to have been Aethelberht's response to Clothar's victories in Frankia (116). In the end, the evidentiary threads which hold together this patchwork of speculation fail to sustain the weight of H.'s intriguing conclusions.

In his third chapter, H. turns to King Edwin and to Bede's account of Aethelberht's death. In the face of current opinion, he suggests that Aethelberht's pagan son Eadbald may have been baptized prior to 616. He takes issue with the standard translation of Bede (Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, Oxford, 1969), arguing that "recipere nolverat" does not mean "had refused to receive," but "had not wished to receive," this latter somehow implying that Eadbald had wished to convert at an earlier time. This quibble turns on tendentious English implications of the phrase rather than the Latin ones. Bede's Latin is fairly clear on the point. Nevertheless, H. goes on to conclude that Eadbald was baptized twice (134). He later allows that Eadbald was never baptized. He next turns to the friction between pagans and Christians in Kent and among the East Saxons. By refusing Christianity, he argues, the East Saxons maintained an independent sense of identity (he does not explain a similar reaction in Kent). H. seems to side with the pagans, and portrays the East Saxon "non-Christians" as having "an essentially inclusive vision of the sacred" while Christians "constructed barriers," which seems to me wholly naive given we know virtually nothing about Anglo-Saxon "non-Christians." But this convenient invention of liberal, inclusive pagans soon becomes established fact in H.'s narrative, and he speculates on the "open cosmology" of the Saxon "world-picture" (136), later noting without comment a pagan propensity to head hunt (223). He later corrects Bede for his irrational account of the pagan priest Coifi, who at first resisted Christianity, since "priests of traditional religions have often proved to be that sector of society most open to religious change" (168)--raising the spectre of his earlier denigration of improper analogies. In considering Eadbald's (possible?) conversion, he disagrees with Bede's account and proposes instead that pressure had been brought to bear by Clothar and the Franks who considered "the Canterbury church as part of their world" (139). In fact, he says, Bede's account was constructed "to disguise that king's vulnerability to pressure from Frankia" (140). Moreover, "Canterbury's metropolitan status required that all evidence of dependence on the Frankish church be written out of English ecclesiastical history" (140)--a conjecture that speaks volumes about both the state of the available evidence and H.'s method. He next supposes that Eadbald was not actually baptized, which then presumably proves Bede's complicity in manufacturing history. This leads to H.'s portrait of Eadbald as a political opportunist who saw Christianity as a way of extending his territory with the help of both the Merovingians and King Edwin of Northumbria. From these dizzying and sometimes contradictory speculations, he next turns to King Edwin.

H. proposes some excellent scenarios in this section, and he is to be credited with a remarkably detailed knowledge of this era. His discussion of Edwin's political intrigues well repays the reading, and complements nicely one of his major sources, D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London, 1991). Yet, there are a number of difficulties. First, he fails to show convincingly that Christianity was commonly considered an arm of Aethelberht's dynastic ambition. Without this, the implicit relation between the two as received political opinion cannot be allowed to substantiate further speculation. Second, he leaves unanswered a number of questions about the "overking," a contentious subject at best, but which he treats as established fact. He seems to consider the "overkingship" the goal of every ambitious Anglo-Saxon king, so it should get some attention per se, but neither does he discuss it, nor does he cite Patrick Wormald's essential study on the topic. This becomes especially troublesome when he comes to the dynastic struggle between Aethelberht and Raedwald, king of the East Angles (HE II, v), and he is forced to depart violently from Bede's Latin in order to make sense of these two simultaneous "overkings" (195, n. 55). Third, while describing the purported political tensions which Edwin engaged, he makes some vexing claims about chronology and identity. Michael Wallace-Hadrill, in his posthumous commentary on the HE, noted that Bede's dating in this regard may have been confused by two conflicting sources. Kirby attempted to set it right. But H., silent on Wallace- Hadrill and Kirby, suggests that Bede purposefully "massaged" the numbers (145). This is simply unfair. H. also assumes a unique Deiran identity common to "the people at large" (145), and it is this identity, like Aethelberht's Kentish identity, which fuels the political tensions within which H. weaves his speculations. But the terminology in Bede (III, vi) suggests that he (and presumably King Ceowulf) understood the unification of the Northumbrian provinces (provincia) under Oswald as reinforcing a common identity as a single Northumbrian gens. The feuding royal families of the Bernician province and the Deiran province need not reflect similar tensions among the greater Northumbrian population. But H. declares that "there was no such thing as Northumbria in 616" (151). Peter Hunter Blair, on the other hand, sees Deira and Bernicia as two territories of a single Anglian people (World of Bede, Cambridge, 1970, p. 35). Gregory, who in the sixth century noticed some Deiran slave boys in a Frankish market, was told they were Anglian. Kirby notes co- operation between Deira and Bernicia, and Aethelfrith's rule over both territories as possibly "a formalization of a previous relationship" (71). There is no reason to assume that Deiran and Bernician identities superseded an Anglian one, even though an assumption of such a tension is convenient for H.'s political speculation. In fact, H. just as conveniently abandons this distinction, later calling Edwin "an Anglian king of Angles" (156). He then adduces from the archaeological remains at Yeavering in Bernicia that Aethelfrith was attempting to build an "English" monumental court complete with a pagan "temple" to rival Aethelberht's "Frankish" Canterbury (148). The distance from Yeavering apparently alienated the Deirans as a people, reducing them in the eyes of the Bernicians "to the status of a satellite community" (149). Within these tensions H. speculates on Edwin's conversion (although he entertains an idea that Edwin may have been baptized earlier by a Briton). He claims that Edwin recovered his pagan roots in order to impress Raedwald of East Anglia. Afterwards, he took over Yeavering and its "temple" with "timber posts which might conceivably have been carved idols" (153), evidence for which is a series of holes; they might just as conceivably have been timber posts.

H.'s final chapter addresses the Bernician or Northumbrian kings following Edwin. Each successive king, H. argues, sought to distance himself from the religion of his predecessor: Edwin (Christian) precedes Eanfrith of Bernicia and Osric of Deira (pagans who each ruled less than a year), who in turn precede Oswald (Christian). But when dealing with Oswald's Christianity (rather than paganism) in the face of Edwin's Christian legacy, H. puts the distinction down to different brands of Christianity: Irish, British, and Roman (208). He assumes that in terms of conversion, these are all essentially different, and Oswald's choice sufficiently distanced him from his predecessor. Although H. represents conversion as a matter of public rather than private conviction, one wonders about such examples as King Sigiberht, who retreated to a monastery (215) or the spiritual pilgrimage to Rome of Kings Ine, Oswiu, and Alfred. In fact, King Oswiu offers a conundrum to H., since he didn't revert to paganism in an effort to distance himself from his predecessor, Oswald. Speculation gets the better of H. with respect to Oswald and he concludes, "This discussion has progressed in very general terms and has been characterized by hypothesis. That is owing to the very little that is actually known about King Oswald." (213) But there is nothing "very general" in speculating about Oswald's motivations and the precise political currents which may have influenced his reign. In fact, unless one is constantly on guard, one might be forgiven for mistaking these hypotheses for something "actually known." H. thus offers his readers an apologia, saying his "may not be an entirely sound conclusion," and faults his poor evidence (213). The fault lies not in the evidence, but in an attempt to extract from it that which it will not yield.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the argument in this chapter concerns the relation between victory in battle and Christianity. Pope Gregory, in writing Aethelberht, had promised him the strength of God in war. Christianity, argues H., is a talisman against defeat. The battle between Edwin and the West Saxons is called "a test of the favours of the Christian God" (208). But this does not seem to be the case with the victory of the Christian Welsh King Cadwallon over the English, the same king who killed both Osric of Deira and Eanfrith of Bernicia. To H., this defeat only damages slightly the reputation of the pagan gods. Yet these same gods had played such an important role in effecting the death of the Christian Edwin in c.616. One wonders if gods can weaken. In a study dedicated to Anglo-Saxon politics and religion, one might expect at the least a systematic treatment of this notion of religion as a talisman against defeat. This would be especially helpful in terms of the one great anomaly in this regard: Penda, the great heathen king of the Mercians.

This is a fascinating study, but I remain skeptical of Higham's speculation. On the whole, I consider it a species of the argumentum ad ingnoratiam fallacy: not-P is unproven, therefore P. (In this case, though, it would be not-P cannot be proven, therefore possibly P.) Much of Anglo-Saxon history will never be known to us. To speculate on what might have been is an intriguing exercise, but in the end we must resolve to be content with a capacity to leave things unresolved and unanswered. I would recommend this work only to those who have a firm grasp of Anglo-Saxon history, lest they consider as fact the speculations on offer.