15.04.16, Marafioti, The King's Body

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Levi Roach

The Medieval Review 15.04.16

Marafioti, Nicole. The King's Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. xix, 297. ISBN: 9781442647589 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Levi Roach
University of Exeter

The King's Body is a welcome addition to the growing literature on political culture in later Anglo-Saxon England. The book's core thesis is that royal burials were a key part of how new regimes were established; the body of the previous king was a locus of power and legitimacy with (or against) which new rulers had to identify themselves. Stated in such bald terms, this argument will surprise few; nevertheless, Marafioti reveals just how much can be gained by pursuing this line of enquiry systematically--well known events appear in a new light and previous explanations gain greater depth when viewed from the angle of the 'king's body.'

The book contains seven chapters of roughly equal length, along with an introduction and a short epilogue. The introduction sets out the basic principles of Marafioti's investigation: it emphasizes the importance of royal burials as moments of transition, when one regime came to an end and another emerged. It also notes that these events must be contextualised within the broader archaeological evidence for death and burial in the earlier Middle Ages, material which indicates that burials were of deep religious and symbolic significance; they not only served as lasting memorials to the deceased, but also sent a powerful message to those who lived on. Marafioti notes parallels here between the treatment of royal bodies and those of saints: although most kings were not saints strictu sensu, through consecration they took on some of the trappings of sanctity. While there were no strict rules for how a new ruler should treat his predecessor's body, he could not simply ignore it--or rather, if he did so, that too sent a message. It was a these moments, as Marafioti observes, that the king's 'two bodies,' of which Kantorowicz wrote so eloquently, became distinct: the body politic passed on to the new ruler, whilst the body natural was interred.

The core chapters of the book proceed thematically, surveying all royal burials between the death of Alfred the Great (899) and the Norman Conquest (1066). The first chapter looks at how living kings sought to establish mausolea, using the two most famous examples for this purpose: the New Minster in Winchester, constructed by Edward the Elder in the early tenth century; and Westminster, rebuilt by Edward the Confessor in the mid-eleventh. Though both of these centres were to attract the burials of later kings, in origin they represented attempts to break with tradition: the New Minster was erected directly across from the traditional resting place of West Saxon rulers at the Old Minster, whilst Westminster was chosen over both the Old Minster, where the Confessor's immediate predecessor had been interred, and St Paul's, London, where his father's body lay. The second chapter follows naturally on from the first, examining the burials of tenth-century rulers. Here variety seems to have been the order of the day; a few favoured locations witnessed multiple burials (Glastonbury housed both Edmund and Edgar, while the New Minster boasted the bodies of Ælfweard and Eadwig), but no ruler was buried at the same site as his immediate predecessor. Whilst some kings certainly made plans for their own interment--Æthelstan, for example, clearly chose Malmesbury as his final resting place, distancing himself from his father's foundation at the New Minster in the process--in other cases it seems to have been the new regime which was responsible for such decisions. Often we simply do not know who made the arrangements. In any case, it is clear that these events offered a unique opportunity for a ruler to associate (or indeed disassociate) himself from past precedent, a trend which becomes clearer as we move into the eleventh century, the subject of the third chapter. Here the situation is confused by the profusion of dynasties in play: the Anglo-Danish royal family of Cnut, who conquered England in 1016 and whose offspring would rule there until 1042; the traditional West Saxon house, represented above all by Æthelred's sons Edmund Ironside and Edward the Confessor; the family of Harold Godwineson, who briefly rose to royal dignity in 1066; and the dukes of Normandy, who were ultimately to emerge victorious. Under these circumstances deaths and burials became particularly potent markers of power and control: Edmund Ironside used his father's burial in 1016 to underline his authority against that of Cnut; Cnut, for his part, had Edmund interred at a safe remove at Glastonbury (a worthy site, certainly, but one a long way from the corridors of power in Winchester and London); Harold Harefoot, on the other hand, may have been deliberately kept at arm's length at his father's burial at Winchester (his mother Emma hoped for the accession of her own son, Harthacnut); thereafter Edward the Confessor used his control over Harthacnut's body to ease his succession; and, finally, Harold was initially able to make good his claims in 1066 thanks to his presence at the moment of Edward's death.

Viewed together, the first three chapters offer a panorama of the means by which royal bodies and burials were manipulated for political gain. It is the next two, however, dealing with more unusual cases, which are perhaps the most interesting and methodologically challenging of this book. These deal with situations in which the king's body was not buried (or left buried) with the respect it was felt to deserve; quite the reverse, it was deliberately mistreated in order to condemn the previous ruler's memory to oblivion. The first of these chapters deals the blinding and subsequent death of the ætheling Alfred (the younger brother of Edward the Confessor) by Harold Harefoot in 1036 and the desecration of Harold's own corpse by his successor Harthacnut in 1040. In both of these cases the treatment of the ruler's body (in Harold's case posthumously) was meant to present him as criminal, raising fundamental questions about his legitimacy: Alfred and his followers were handled like rebels and traitors, whilst Harold was treated as a tyrant and usurper. Similar thoughts may have lain behind the treatment of the body of Edward the Martyr in 978, the subject of the fifth chapter. Edward was killed by partisans of Æthelred II ('the Unready'), who had been a rival claimant to the throne three years earlier; here the unceremonious treatment of Edward's body, which was disposed of secretly (apparently on unconsecrated ground), may have been intended to raise questions about his right to rule. However, there may also have been more pragmatic considerations: given the seriousness of regicide, Edward's killers might have wished to cover their tracks. Interestingly enough, in all three of these cases the treatment (or rather mistreatment) of the royal body seems to have occasioned unrest: Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut both received damning verdicts for their actions; meanwhile, Edward the Martyr's body had to be 'rediscovered' and properly interred before his half-brother could accede to the throne in 979. That a cult of Edward developed shortly thereafter provides further indication of the public outrage felt at his treatment. There are continental comparanda for such acts and the present reviewer was particularly struck by the similarities with the treatment of the body of Crescentius 'Nomentanus', which was displayed publicly by Otto III following his retaking of Rome in 999, and the desecration of the graves of Henry IV's family at the Harzburg by the Saxon rebels in 1074, both of which were roundly denounced by contemporary observers.

The sixth and penultimate chapter, 'Bodies of Conquest', examines the means by which Cnut manipulated burial sites and translations in order to underpin his authority. The focus here is less strictly on royal burial; Edmund Ironside's interment is already discussed in chapter three and the real focus is on how Cnut patronised the cult of English saints in order to cement his position. The classic example of this is the translation of Ælfheah from St Paul's, London, to Canterbury in 1023. Since Ælfheah had been martyred by the forces of Thorkell the Tall, who had subsequently entered into Cnut's employ, his cult posed something of a problem; it might all too easily become a rallying point for opposition to the new regime. As Marafioti notes, Ælfheah's translation allowed Cnut to show public support for the prelate's cult, whilst at the same time relocating his body safely away from London, where resistance to the king was most pronounced. However, this act was not a one off: Cnut also threw his support behind the cults of Edmund of East Anglia (another martyr to the vikings, albeit in an earlier age), Edward the Martyr and a range of other local saints. The seventh and concluding chapter sticks with the theme of conquest, examining the death of Harold Godwineson and accession of William the Conqueror. Here the treatment of Harold's body bears comparison with that of Edward the Martyr some eighty-eight years earlier: his corpse disappeared on the battlefield (it may have been consciously overlooked or disposed of, Marafioti notes), allowing William to tread a careful path between desecration of his predecessor's body and acknowledgement of his royal status. The treatment of Harold's corpse thus mirrors other efforts by William to present himself as Edward the Confessor's rightful heir. This case marks a fitting end to the book, since William and many of his successors would find their final rest on the continent.

Overall this is a well-written and intelligently-argued book which ought to be read not only by Anglo-Saxonists of all ilks, but also by anyone interested in kingship and legitimacy in the earlier Middle Ages. Marafioti's case is well made and the attention she gives to royal burials throws salient light on a wide variety of issues, from the relationship between Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, to the early years of Æthelred 'the Unready,' to the means by which figures such as Cnut and William the Conqueror enacted their conquests. There are a few slips within the text (e.g. Æthelstan's death is given as 935 at p. xv and Edmund's accession is similarly placed at 935 at p. 54; the diplomas S 963 and S 971 do not place Cnut at Exeter in 1031, as suggested at p. 217--although preserved in the Exeter archive and probably drawn up by a Crediton scribe, they say nothing about the movements of the king and court), but these are thankfully few and far between. There are also a few points at which Marafioti's assessments might be questioned. Thus her claim that Æthelstan 'held authority in Mercia before 924' (56–7) and that his half-brother Ælfweard did likewise in Wessex (59–60) seems to stretch the evidence rather far--we know next to nothing about either figure's activities before 924 and certainly have no concrete evidence of them being entrusted with rulership duties before this point. Likewise, the author's belief (following Fell) that the Passio Eadwardi relies heavily on a pre-Conquest text of c. 1001 (168, 183) flies in the face of the more recent arguments of Paul Hayward and Eric Denton (the latter, admittedly, in an unpublished PhD dissertation)--certainly the absence of any notable influence of the 'hermeneutic style' would require explanation if this work were to be taken as a bona fide product of Æthelred's reign. Staying with Edward, Marafioti's assertion (following many others, it should be noted) that the young martyr's cult first achieved 'universal recognition' with the translation of his bones in 1001 (191) seems to underestimate the significance of Cholsey's foundation (at some point between 993 and 997)--this centre was established by the king and dedicated to his martyred half-brother, suggesting a degree of formal recognition in the early to mid-990s. Finally, the description of the 'palace revolution' of 1006 as a 'domestic revolt' and the designation of those punished as 'rebels' (133) is rather unfortunate, since no contemporary source mentions a rebellion or indeed any armed resistance at this point--what was involved, as Simon Keynes has demonstrated, was a court coup orchestrated by Eadric Streona.

It would, however, be invidious to let such quibbles mar the overall verdict on this book. The King's Body is in many respects an exemplary study and will repay careful reading and re-reading. Marafioti engages intelligently with a wide range of literature on Anglo-Saxon politics and society and the resulting book is a model for future studies of royal burial elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, if there is anything lacking in this volume, it is perhaps a more systematic comparison with the Anglo-Saxons' continental counterparts: though much is made of ninth-century Carolingian comparanda, less is said about the strictly contemporary evidence from tenth- and eleventh-century France and Germany, where the work of Geoffrey Koziol on late Carolingian lieux de memoire and Joachim Ehlers on Ottonian royal burial provide some sense of the potential awaiting further investigation. In fact, the present reviewer must admit to wondering idly whether Otto I's grand plans for Magdeburg (which, it should be recalled, was first founded as a monastery) might not have been inspired by his father-in-law's precedent in establishing the New Minster--certainly it is striking that that it was Edith and not Otto's more famous second wife, Adelheid, who was to find her final rest alongside him there. Still, to say that this book raises more questions than it can always answer is only to testify to how stimulating it is. The King's Body establishes Marafioti as a force to be reckoned with in later Anglo-Saxon history and I, for one, very much look forward to reading more of her work in the years to come!

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Author Biography

Levi Roach

University of Exeter