16.08.22, Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century

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Andrew Rabin

The Medieval Review 16.08.22

Molyneaux, George. The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century. New York:Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 302. ISBN: 9780198717911 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Andrew Rabin
University of Louisville

Although never explicitly cited, the tutelary angel of George Molyneaux's fine new study of early English governance appears to be the great legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart, whose distinction between "primary" and "secondary" rules aptly describes the development in political administration that Molyneaux traces to the mid-tenth century. According to Hart:

For Hart, it is the emergence of this second category of rules, those governing the administrative apparatus of statehood, that marks the foundation of modern political bureaucracy. While Molyneaux quite rightly avoids the claim that there is anything "modern" about the tenth-century English kingdom--indeed, unlike other recent authors on this topic, he even questions the appropriateness of designating the England of this period a "state" (232-233)--he is nonetheless interested in the growth in governmental structures that make possible the transition from the relatively limited Alfredian monarchy of the 890's to the more sophisticated Æthelredian regime of a century later. Seeking a middle ground between those who see an early centralization of the Anglo-Saxon governmental apparatus--the so-called "maximalist" position--and those who view pre-Conquest political development on a more minimalist scale, he points out that "it is possible to account for the known achievements of Alfred and his successors without resorting to the hypothesis that eleventh-century conditions already obtained" (12-13). His central claim is "that it was probably not until the mid- to late tenth century, around the time of King Edgar, that kings began to make extensive use of the administrative structures that would mark Domesday Anglia off from the rest of Britain" (12). In short, then, what Molyneaux's volume offers is both a useful study of the development of English political structures over the course of the tenth century and an account of the emergence of those "secondary rules" within the Anglo-Saxon legal hierarchy that Hart viewed as necessary for the establishment of a more sophisticated, centralized government.

The volume's first three chapters focus on the features of English governance prior to the reign of Edgar, while the fourth and fifth concern the administrative changes introduced by Edgar and his successors. The first chapter, which serves largely as an extension of the introduction, traces the spread of Cerdicing domination beginning in the late ninth century. (Cerdicing is the term adopted here for the West Saxon royal dynasty, borrowed from a patronymic found in the Old English Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) Molyneaux's purpose in this chapter is to demythologize the accomplishments of Alfred and his successors without diminishing their achievement. He notes that, "While...much is uncertain about how the Cerdicings extended the geographical reach of their power, numerous other early medieval rulers did so too, and there is little reason to think that the methods used by Alfred and his successors were exceptional" (45). That said, he also observes that, in contrast to their continental counterparts, Cerdicing rulers may have had "an additional, more specific objective" in extending their sphere of influence: "one of their major goals was probably to obtain security from the Scandinavian potentates who had gravely threatened Wessex during the second half of the ninth century and who had supported Æthelwold's challenge to Edward the Elder" (45). The second and third chapters examine how the early tenth-century Cerdicing rulers exercised power over their subordinates, both aristocratic and lay. The goal of these chapters is to argue for two, related conclusions: "The first one is that once can account for the known accomplishments of Alfred and his immediate successors without positing that they had a sophisticated or standardized system of local regulation. The second conclusion is that, unless one decides to postulate the existence of an unevidenced administrative apparatus, the land between the Channel and the Tees did not constitute a distinct block" (49). The core of Molyneaux's argument comes in the lengthy fourth chapter, in which he identifies the administrative changes introduced by Edmund, Edgar, and Æthelred which resulted in a higher degree of royal control over what had become a more centralized, bureaucratized state. Molyneaux begins with the reform of coinage under Edgar, then examines the formalization of hundreds and wapentakes, the development of shires, and the changing role of royal agents. Taken together, he argues, these developments indicate that, "the year 955 did not, pace Stenton, mark the beginning of six decades of Cerdicing 'decline.' Nor, in all likelihood, was the mid- to late tenth century a time when kings simply refined some largely pre-existing administrative apparatus. Rather, this period, far more than the reigns of either Alfred or Æthelstan, was probably the most pivotal phase in the development of the institutional structures that were fundamental to royal rule in the eleventh-century English kingdom" (193). The final chapter links the administrative developments of the mid-tenth century to the emergence of an English kingdom anticipating the Anglia of Domesday Book while also recognizing the role they played in "stimulat[ing] attempts to circumscribe royal arbitrariness" (195). In the conclusion, Molyneaux returns to the maximalist-minimalist debate through the work of James Campbell and Patrick Wormald in order to emphasize that his goal has been "to refine, rather than refute, their interpretations of the late Anglo-Saxon period, by identifying the mid- to late tenth century as the key period for the development of relatively standardized administrative structures across the land for the Channel to the Tees" (232).

It's possible to quibble with some of Molyneaux's conclusions. One might reasonably argue that he overrates the extent of Bishop Æthelwold's influence in comparison with that of his contemporaries, Dunstan and Oswald. I was also disappointed that he largely overlooked the contributions of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury to the governing policies of Æthelred beginning in the early 990's. Likewise, more attention to Edward the Martyr's traumatic, albeit brief, reign might have provided a useful perspective on the limits of royal administration beyond those discussed in the final chapter. Somewhat more frustrating is his tendency to recount (sometimes at length) particular scholarly disputes, only to dismiss them as irrelevant to his main point. To cite just one instance, he begins on page 134 by cautioning his reader to be "wary of the assumption that coin production prior to Edgar's reform was consistently subject to a high level of Cerdicing control." Six pages of detailed critique follow, yet he then concludes (somewhat puzzlingly, given the length of the discussion), "ultimately, however, it is not critical to my argument whether minting was subject to close royal regulation in any given region during the decades prior to Edgar's reform" (140). One suspects that Molyneaux wishes to take a stronger stand on the question, only to be held back by an overabundance of caution.

Yet criticisms of this sort are minor when compared with the quality and rigor of Molyneaux's scholarship. In bringing to light the administrative innovations of the mid-tenth century--what might, from another perspective, be described as the incorporation of Hart's "secondary rules" into the legal framework of Anglo-Saxon political institutions--Molyneaux has assembled a convincing argument that meticulously justifies the maximalist view of early English royal administration, accounting both for the circumstances of its formation and the limits of its reach. This is a volume that scholars will be returning to (and arguing with) for years to come.



1. H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 78-79.

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