England: Anglo-Saxon Royal Styles: 871-1066 - Archontology
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England: Anglo-Saxon Royal Styles: 871-1066

Anglo-Saxon Royal Styles (9th-11th century)

The evidence found in contemporary sources of different kinds suggests that the Anglo-Saxon rulers of England in the 9th-11th century used a number of forms of royal title, which loosely varied. As a matter of fact, the royal title was a conflation of the word 'king', usually inscribed in Latin ('rex') or Old English ('cing', 'cyng', 'cyngc', etc.), with an attribution to national authority — 'English', 'Anglo-Saxon', 'West-Saxon'. The combination which became most common since the reign of King Æthelstan was 'rex Anglorum' ('king of the English'), but it was usually coupled with colorful epithets in charters and writs. A fine example of such styling is found in a charter of king Æthelstan of 931 (Sawyer 412):

Æðelstanus rex Anglorum . per omnipatrantis dexteram totius Bryttaniæ regni solio sublimatus .
Æthelstan, King of the English, raised by the right hand of the Almighty to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain...

Occasionally, 'rex' was dropped in favor of other titles emphasizing imperium over other peoples in Britain. In some instances, as illustrated by Eadwig's charter of 956 (Sawyer 633), the Anglo-Saxon rulers were styled 'imperator' ('Eadwi Rex nutu Dei Angulsæxna . et Northanhumbrorum imperator . paganorum gubernator . Breotonumque propugnator'). The title 'basileus' also occasionally substituted for 'rex'.

The legend on Anglo-Saxon coins comprised a terse version of the royal title in Latin. The word REX, rarely contracted, was normally followed by an abbreviation or stood alone. The attribution to national authority on coins was almost inalterably ANGLORUM contracted to A., ANGL., ANGLO. etc.

The manuscripts issued by king's scribes contain a variety of royal styles, but this evidence should be taken with a grain of salt since the authenticity of many charters and writs cannot be credibly proved. Later forgeries might have included unauthentic royal styles invented by its authors under the influence of contemporary patterns.

It is really hard to trace the changes in style of any given ruler because the officials at that time were not bound by king's will embodied in legal statutes, but relied on a vague concept of traditional royal authority. In consequence, charters and writs reflected fluctuations in the king's political position.

The charters of the first decade of Ælfred's reign mostly referred to him as 'rex Saxonum' ('king of the Saxons'). After the capture of London (886), Ælfred's royal style shifted to variations on 'rex Angulsaxonum' ('king of the Anglo-Saxons') and 'rex Anglorum et Saxonum' ('king of the English and Saxons').

Æthelstan was styled 'rex Angulsaxonum' ('king of the Anglo-Saxons') until the late 920s, when this style was superseded by 'rex Anglorum' ('king of the English'). In 930s the charters gave the king grander titles, claiming not only kingship of the English but lordship over all of Albion or Britannia: 'rex et primicerius totius Albionis regni', 'rex tocius Britannie'. First among the rulers of the English, Æthelstan used the title REX TOT(ius) BR(itanniae) on his coins.

Eadmund was styled 'rex Angulsaxonum' ('king of the Anglo-Saxons') in the early 940s, when his rule was confined south of Watling Street. He was styled either REX or REX BR(itanniae) on coins, and 'rex Anglorum caeterarumque gentium gobernator et rector' in a 944 charter.

Eadred was styled 'regis qui regimina regnorum Angulsaxna, Norþhymbra, Paganorum, Brettonumque' ('king of the Anglo-Saxons, Northumbrians, pagans, and Britons') in a charter of 946 (Sawyer 520), and again in 949-950. He was reduced to 'rex Anglorum' in 951, and raised back to 'king of the Anglo-Saxons, Northumbrians, pagans, and Britons' in 954.

Eadgar was styled 'rex Merciorum', when he was installed as king in Mercia (957-959), but he acquired the traditional title of 'rex Anglorum', when he succeeded his brother, Eadwig, in 959. The consecration at Bath (973) and the ceremony on the Dee River probably influenced additions to the royal title. A charter of 974 (Sawyer 797) styled Eadgar 'totius Albionis finitimorumque regum basileus' ('Of all Britain and of the neighboring kings basileus').

Contemporary charters use a number of styles for Cnut having 'rex Anglorum' in the core and other titles ('rex Angligenæ nationis', 'rex Anglorum totiusque Brittannice orbis gubernator et rector', 'Brytannie totius Anglorum monarchus', 'basileon Angelsaxonum', etc.). In his letter of 1027 to the English people, he was styled 'rex totius Angliæ et Denemarchiæ et Norreganorum et partis Suanorum' ('King of all England and of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden') [1, p. 105].

Edward the Confessor was 'rex Anglorum' on coins, 'rex Anglorum' or 'Anglorum Basileus' in charters and on his seal.

[1] "Source-Book of English History", ed. by Guy Carleton Lee, 2d ed. rev. (New York: Holt & Co., 1901).
[2] "Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography", by P. H. Sawyer (London, Royal Historical Society, 1968).
[3] Anglo-Saxons.net: Charters (web site).