Hello again, and welcome to the latest look at politics in the Dark Age of Britain – that period of time when The Retreat to Avalon is set. Last time we talked about Rome’s influence, because the problems of the empire impacted the rest of Europe. I had planned for the next post to be about the political environment in what would eventually become Scotland, but I realized that, first, we should look at what “kingship” in this period actually meant. Because it is not what most people imagine.
When most people hear the term “kingdom”, it provokes images and terms of feudalism and monarchy. Knights, dukes, earls, kings and queens. But these terms are more appropriate to much later in the Medieval era. At the end of the Roman Empire in Britain, and the dawn of The Arthurian Age, things are much different. Everything is in flux. Feudalism has not developed. The foundations exist, but they are primitive, fluid, and operate on a small scale.
Hopping in the Wayback Machine
To get to our destination, we have to look far back. The roots of fifth century government for “barbarian” Celts and Germans, as well as “civilized” Romans, are found in the very ancient system of clientage that developed from their common Proto-Indo-European ancestors thousands of years earlier.
The clientage system developed for a very small warrior or religious (often both) aristocracy that held control over the majority of the population that provided food, goods and services. The general population supported this warrior elite and, in return, expected to be protected. No doubt, reality and expectations were often at odds.
Large kingdoms were uncommon, if not unheard of. A single ruler controlled only what he and his personal retinue could protect, perhaps an area of no more than a day’s journey at best. Because of the low and widely dispersed population of Europe, this was a sufficient system of social organization.
The warband was the foundation of this system. The Romans called it the “comitatus“. The Celtic Britons’ term was “corrios”, and among Germanic tribes, “druhtiz”. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving stories that relates examples of this code, though others may be found in other sources, including old Welsh, Irish and Norse sagas. Our best description of the system is found in the Germania by the Roman historian, Tacitus.
Relationships are a two-way street
Within the warband, there was a mutual obligation between the superior (warlord, king, chieftain, etc.), and the inferior (warrior, retainer, vassal, etc). The inferior was obligated to provide military service to the superior, while the superior was obligated to provide wealth, privileges and material support to the inferior. This was a heroic code, sealed with a sacred oath by both the warlord and his warrior.
The warrior class was based on ability, and potentially wealth, not birth. Rule was not necessarily hereditary. Chieftains were typically chosen by the warriors. A warlord who failed to provide wealth, or failed to show valor would find himself abandoned as his warriors left to find a more worthy patron.
Warlords were “ring-givers”, signifying the wealth they bestowed on their followers. In some Migration Period swords, we can even see how this term came to be symbolized by the attachment of rings to sword pommels. The ring represented the oath-bond between the warrior and his lord.
The warlord was expected to be generous to his followers, giving freely of his treasure, not hoarding it. The status of a warlord was displayed not in material wealth or land, but in the size and quality of his warband. The warlord must also be unsurpassed in valor and prowess in battle- leading his warriors from the front, never directing them from the back, never leaving his men behind to cover his retreat. It was the warlord who fought for victory; his warriors fought for the warlord.
The warrior must attempt to rival his lord in valor. In this he “earns his mead”, the food, support and comfort of an elite existence, rather than a tiller of the earth. His fame will bring gifts and honor from other warlords hoping to draw him to their own bands. There is no lifelong oath. But when the oath is in effect, the warrior must defend his chieftain unto death. If the warrior returns from battle where his liege has fallen, he is dishonored and scorned for life.
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
As populations grew and systems within the cultures evolved, larger kingdoms developed, but even these were smaller than what people think of today, like France and England. Instead, a kingdom might be the size of a single county. And while a ruler would likely have his own fortress, for most of the year, the king would travel around his realm with an itinerant court, staying in the halls of his subjects. This allowed the ruler and his retinue to be clothed and fed without the risk and expense of transporting a steady stream of supplies across his realm. It also allowed the ruler to interact closely with his subjects, act as a judge, provide religious and other ceremonial duties, and so on. Besides easing the administrative burden of a centralized capitol, it strengthened the bond between ruler and subject.
The Anglo-Saxons and Celts of the fifth century were not so different from those of the first century in these regards. Things had evolved, of course, and mostly because of the influence of the Roman Empire. The Romans, themselves, came from the same Proto-Indo-European culture as the Celts and Germans, but had taken a different developmental route that resulted in a more regimented society. Their patronage system, however, was a descendant of the clientage system of their ancestors, and the exchange of ideas that comes from the meeting of cultures influenced the Germans and Celts.
Germans and Celts, especially those who lived under Roman rule, such as the southern Britons, often adopted Roman systems, or adapted them to their own cultural systems. This might be little more than Roman trappings superimposed over tribal customs, or wholesale adoption of the provincial Roman government system, such as we will see when we discuss the British kingdoms after Rome left.
A rose by any other name…
The term “king” was a vague thing in the The Arthurian Age. Some who we would have considered petty warlords may have style themselves as kings. Others we would consider kings may have called themselves “Protector”, or chosen Roman titles. It would take time for titles to standardize. The Roman Comes became the medieval Count. The Dux, the Duke. As populations increased, and Roman and barbarian cultures combined, the feudalism and monarchy of the Medieval world we know developed. Greater societal sophistication led to the consolidation of the small kingdoms into the larger ones we recognize today.
It is a fascinating era, the foundations upon which our own systems and beliefs are founded. I hope you enjoyed this post and look forward to the next one. And as always, please feel free to comment with questions, arguments, anything you like. Thanks!