Although I’ve listed this post in the ‘non-Scottish’ category it does have a connection with the blog’s overall theme. It’s basically an announcement of a new article dealing with important events of the 10th century, a period when the dominant power in Britain was the West Saxon royal dynasty. The article is mainly concerned with West Saxon policy towards Wales but the author, Kevin Halloran, considers a wider political picture in which the northern Celtic powers – the kings of Alba and Strathclyde – also figured as key players. Kevin is frequently cited in modern studies of the battle of Brunanburh (937): his two articles in the Scottish Historical Review make a strong case for considering Burnswark (in Scotland) as a likely location for the battlefield.
In his latest article, Kevin takes a detailed look at the reigns of Athelstan (c.925-39) and his younger brothers Edmund (939-46) and Eadred (946-55) by examining their dealings with the Welsh kingdoms. Although West Saxon dominance in Wales cannot be denied, Kevin argues that the situation was more dynamic than has previously been recognised. He sees changes in the fortunes of individual Welsh kings adding instability to the mix and making the situation far less settled for West Saxon overlords than they might have hoped. To a very ambitious king like Athelstan, who had pretensions to be ruler of all Britain, overlordship of Wales was a key element in his plans. Not only did it ease tensions along the western flank of his core territory, it also discouraged Welsh kings from getting too friendly with Viking warlords or with other dangerous powers. As long as the Welsh remained on board as client-rulers, Athelstan could rely on them to boost his military manpower with their own armies. But contemporary records suggest that his overlordship was not as secure as later English chronclers liked to believe. Nor was every formal meeting between Athelstan and his Welsh clients necessarily summoned by him as an opportunity to display his dominance. In some cases, a meeting may have been requested by the clients themselves when they wished to raise particular concerns. West Saxon scribes often described Welsh rulers as subreguli, ‘little under-kings’. As Kevin points out, the term subregulus seems pejorative, as though English propaganda sought to demean those who were given this label in charters and other documents, but it might simply reflect English awareness of the fragmented pattern of royal authority in Wales. Welsh kingdoms were often divided between heirs, a practice that obviously had a weakening effect by hindering cohesion and centralisation.
Another aspect of Athelstan’s relationship with the Welsh is their apparent absence at Brunanburh. If their kings really were his clients in 937, they ought to have fought alongside him in the great battle. Their absence has been viewed by some historians as a sign of loyalty to Athelstan, i.e. the Welsh were good clients because they didn’t join the Celtic-Scandinavian alliance ranged against him. This is not the only interpretation we can draw, nor necessarily the most plausible. Perhaps, as Kevin Halloran suggests, the Welsh had now rejected English overlordship – if only temporarily. When Edmund succeeded Athelstan two years after the battle, the old system of West Saxon domination and patronage appears to have been amended or replaced. Edmund evidently preferred dealing with one powerful Welsh king, Hywel Dda, rather than with a gaggle of petty ones who were, in any case, engaged in perpetual rivalry with each other. Hywel eventually became an overlord in his own right, bringing most of Wales under his authority. In the time of Eadred, Edmund’s successor, West Saxon royal scribes were already calling Hywel rex, ‘king’, to acknowledge his status as a much bigger fish than the small-time subreguli of Athelstan’s time.
The above is merely a selective summary of Kevin’s article. Other interesting aspects could be picked out and highlighted, but this blogpost would then be far too long.
Kevin Halloran, ‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956’ Welsh History Review vol.25, no.3 (June 2011), 297-313
Note: This article is not freely available online.