Æthelstan and Cnut – Emperors or Kings?

Should we consider the most ambitious Anglo-Saxon kings as reigning over ‘empires’, or are historians misusing that term? In his new article (now live on the Cerae website), Matt Firth examines ‘empires’ as a category of power in political theory and questions whether it is an appropriate term for the hegemonies of the Kings Æthelstan and Cnut…

It’s something of a truism that the word ‘hero’ is overused these days. Perhaps we could add the word ‘empire’ to that aphorism? At times it seems historians find empires wherever they look – the Roman Empire, the Gallic Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Angevin Empire just to name a few that attach themselves (often anachronistically) to the early medieval period. So, what of the two kings of Anglo-Saxon England who have had the term ‘empire’ used of their dominions, Æthelstan (924-939) and Cnut (1016-1035)? Is this the appropriate term for their hegemonies, or are historians playing fast and loose with terminology?

I won’t lie – my article in volume 5 of Cerae is theory-heavy. Specifically, it deals with political theory and the definitional aspects of ‘empire’ and ‘hegemony’. This is, in part, because the paper is derived from a coursework essay I wrote during my masters candidature that my supervisor recommended I try get published. The question was something to the effect of ‘is “empire” a useful term to delineate a distinct category of power?’. Spoiler – I answer ‘no’ (within the specific context of the study). I can turn most things to either Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian history given a chance, and therefore I homed in on Æthelstan and Cnut as my case studies to examine the question. Specifically, I looked at three characteristics of empire and questioned how they may apply to the domains governed by Æthelstan and Cnut: rapid and directed territorial expansion, the presence of a central elite as the primary beneficiaries of imperial resources, and the consolidation of administrative structures. As a part of the case studies, I take a particular interest in how the two kings extended regional hegemony into Scotland.

Æthelstan’s rise to emperorship is quite a recent elevation. I have a great deal of interest in Æthelstan and am of the opinion he ranks highly among Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest kings but, even with that in mind, I find the attribution of ‘empire’ to his rule a little odd. To my knowledge, Michael Wood was the first to comprehensively argue the case for Æthelstan’s empire in his 1983 article, ‘The Making of King Aethelstan’s Empire: an English Charlemagne?’, in which he suggests that Æthelstan and his advisors actively modelled his kingship on Charlemagne’s imperial court. The basis for the claims to empire rested on imperial language in diplomas and ordinances; Æthelstan’s military prowess; his practical use of wealth and patronage; and his support of art, of learning, and of Christianity (and something of a posthumous reputation). There is little doubt that Æthelstan was a good king. His foreign policy and diplomacy appear innovative for an Anglo-Saxon king of the time; he was proactive in defence, innovated with his naval forces, and won a number of victories in the field; he was strategic in the political use of grants and diplomas; and he was ambitious in expanding Wessex influence into Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland. All of this, however, fits rather more precisely into the definition of ‘hegemony’ as opposed to ‘empire’ as understood by political theorists.

Cnut’s empire has been a part of historical discourse a little longer, Laurence Larson making that claim in 1910 in an essay entitled ‘Political Policies of Cnut as King of England’. This has had rather a broader uptake and much modern scholarship simply accepts the reality of ‘Cnut’s Scandinavian Empire’. I suspect much of this acceptance relies on the sheer territorial extent of Cnut’s hegemony. However, the politics of expansion remain in many ways similar to those of Æthelstan’s reign. And there remains some debate as to whether the Danish ruler can rightly be considered an emperor and, moreover, whether he considered himself to be an emperor in the mould of the German emperors. Can a loose coalition of territories with little more than the king in common, really be considered an ‘empire’? In a letter to his English subjects, Cnut only termed himself the ‘king of the English, Danes, Norwegians, and part of Sweden’, not ‘emperor’. But then we also have diplomas from Æthelstan’s reign which use the title rex somewhat interchangeably with the titles imperator and basileus – terms used of emperors in the classical and medieval Roman empire. In many ways, the use of such titles seem to align with formulas of address more so than aspirations for imperium. Which is not to say that Æthelstan and Cnut did not seek to claim some legitimacy from the imperial inheritance of Rome, but I’ll let you read the article to find out about that!

My thanks go to Richard Scully, the lecturer who first encouraged me to publish this article. It also extends to the two peer-reviewers who, for all the original article’s flaws, saw its potential and encouraged me to turn it into something so much better. Last, of course, thanks go to the editorial committee for volume 5 of Cerae and their dedication to promoting new research in medieval and early modern studies.

Matthew Firth

Flinders University

(You can find Matt’s other articles at academia.edu, and he also runs an academic medieval studies blog at https://thepostgradchronicles.org)

Feature image: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 183, f. 1v

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