In the Bible, Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Christian God is described as the “King of Kings”. Christians since before the dream of Constantine have believed God and Christ constitute a ruler of the universe. Anglo-Saxon society perceived the Christian God in the mold of the pre-Christian Germanic tradition of kingship. The Anglo-Saxon perception of God as a king in the Germanic tradition has tremendous significance on late Anglo-Saxon politics. The inclusion of the Christian deity in the leadership hierarchy of Anglo-Saxon society contributed to changes in how earthly kings themselves were perceived.
Tacitus’s Germania offers insight into value system of the continental pagan ...view middle of the document...
The historical battle of Maldon occurred long after this settlement and the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. The poem written of the battle reflects many of those same values observed by Tacitus in 98 AD. In the poem, the Ealdorman Byrhtnoth is a war leader true to the tradition of his ancestors. He is a brave warrior who leads by example fighting alongside the men who follow him. When he perishes in combat, those warriors whom the poet deems noble honor example and fight to their own deaths at the place where he fell. The sons of Odda who lead the retreat are deemed disgraced for their cowardice and betrayal. Byrhtnoth died in service to a king, Æthelred II, who history remembers as Æthelred the Unready. Anglo-Saxon lords and kings expected a great deal of loyalty from their followers. A century, the first of King Alfred’s laws had been that “every man warily keep his oath”. So too, does loyalty play an important role in the epic of Beowulf. Beowulf is deserted by all, but one of his thanes in his final battle against the dragon. The loyal thane Wiglaf lectures his former comrades on their disgrace and dishonor. Beowulf, he insists was their “friend-lord”, so death should have been preferable to deserting him. Wiglaf insists this crime was especially severe, because Beowulf had shown them immense generosity
The Anglo-Saxon political order was “founded upon an ethos of reciprocity”.
This reciprocity is quite evident in Beowulf. Kennings like “giver of rings”, “treasure-bestower”, and “gold-friend of heroes” emphasize the role of a king as a gift-giver. A king must reward the loyalty, gifts, and good deeds of his followers. After Beowulf slays Grendel, Hrothgar rewards him with a golden standard, warhorses, and precious gems. In turn, Beowulf gives these fine presents to his own king Hegelac who rewards his follower’s generosity with considerable generosity of his own. This seemingly endless circle of reward and rewarding calls to mind the image of the snake eating its own tail, so common in Anglo-Saxon artifacts. The snake and the king are both perpetually eating and being eaten. When a king is betrayed and deserted, as Beowulf was in his final battle, this sacred cycle is broken.
This principle of reciprocity could have dire consequences for an immoral or weak king and also serves to symbolize the coexistence of pagan values and Christian faith. The Franks Casket, a eighth century Anglo-Saxon receptacle of uncertain purpose, makes references to lordship on three of its sides. The front side depicts the adoration of the Magi alongside a scene from the Germanic legend of Weland in which the hero kills the cruel king who has wronged him. A good king, illustrated by Christ, is to be given great treasures, while those he has wronged will kill a bad king, represented by Niohad.
In early Christian Anglo-Saxon history, a weak or cruel king meaning one who did not sufficiently reward the loyalty of his followers was removed...