The matter of Britain

The Carolingian kings and dukes did not operate in an international vacuum. While the concept of the ‘state’ as we moderns understand the concept would need another half-dozen centuries or so to germinate, the idea of international relations was as sound as it had been in the classical era. There were a few different ways that Francia and Britain interacted in the eighth century. Rulers interacted with other rulers, traded moved across borders, and scholars spread the faith.

In the sixth century the Frankish princess Bertha was married to king Ethelbert of Kent.1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk1, ch25. Charlemagne and king Offa of Kent got into a spat in 790 when Charlemagne wanted to marry his eldest son, also Charles, to Offa’s daughter. Offa would only agree to this if his son would marry Charlemagne’s daughter.2.Ganshof, The Carolingians, p169-70. Charlemagne regarded his relations with Offa as either important enough, or touchy enough, to appoint only one ambassador to him, Abbot Gervold of St Wandrille. Charlemagne regarded this as a great insult, but he was always a little touchy about his daughters.3.Einhard even mentions this in chapter 19 of the vita, saying, “it is strange to have to report that he never wanted to give any of them away in marriage to anyone, whether it be to a Frankish noble or a foreigner.”

A less traditional method of royal interaction was the giving of refuge to those out of favor across the channel. The Royal Annals report that king Eardwulf of Northumbria returned to his realm from Francia, where he had been staying after being deposed.4.Royal Annals, 809. King Sigbert of Anglia fled the realm in the seventh century out of fear of his brother Redwald. He stayed in Francia, gotten baptized, and returned on the death of brother. “When he returned home and became king, he wished to copy what he had seen well contrived in Gaul, and was quick to found a school for the education of boys in the study of letters.”5.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk3, ch18.

Sigbert’s interest in bringing the learning he observed in Gaul back to Anglia is interesting, as most of the knowledge transfer, in the modern vernacular, had been in the other direction. The Irish monks had been the first to come to the continent in the seventh century, but were quickly followed by Anglo-Saxons from Britain. The “three W’s missionaries,” of the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Wilfred, Willibrord, and Wynfrid (Boniface), all came from England. Wilfred had been bishop of York. All focused on Frisia.6.Geary, France and Germany, pp214-15. The missionaries were keenly aware of the necessity of securing political support for their efforts. Willibrord and his twelve companions stopped to see Duke Pippin (Charles Martel’s father) before heading into Frisia to preach. “Since Pippin had recently conquered western Frisia and driven out King Radbod, he dispatched them to preach there, supporting them with his imperial authority so that no one should interfere with their preaching, and granting many favours to those who wished to embrace the faith.”7.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk5, ch10.

Introducing yourself to your host is never a bad idea, no matter the occasion. In 716 abbot Ceolfrith decided to go to Rome. First he landed in Gaul, where “he was warmly welcomed by all, especially king Hilperic himself [king Chilperic II, of Neustria], who besides offering gifts gave him letters for all parts of his kingdom so that in all places he could be received in peace and nobody could delay his journey.”8.Age of Bede, The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith, ch32.

Trade between the island and the continent occurred, but it is difficult to know how widespread it was. The Frankish and English kings established trade ports, the better to control the trade and collect the tolls. In Francia it was Quentovic and Dorestad, and in Britain the ports were Hamwic and Hedeby. Frankish trade goods included ceramics, glass, and metal objects, including swords. Many fragments of basalt quern-stones (used for grinding grains, etc.) have been found at Dorestad, where they were finished for export to Britain.9.Assorted references in Verhulst, Carolingian Economy. In a letter dated 796 from Charlemagne to Offa, he asks how many the Mercian king would like. In exchange he requests that the coats the English make be the usual length.

The oldest profession did not limit itself to native practitioners. Boniface, in a letter to Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury in 747, complains that “There are very few towns in Lombardy or Frankland or Gaul where there is not a courtesan or a harlot of English stock.”10.Boniface, Letters, p.118. The sources do not reveal whether or not Cuthbert was pleased at how well his countrywomen were received overseas.

Notker mentions some British traders that accompanied two Irish monks that landed in Francia early in Charlemagne’s reign.11.Notker the Stammerer, Life of Charlemagne, in Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk1, ch1. As a 19th century Brit put it, “trade follows the flag.” A millennium earlier, trade followed the faith.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk1, ch25.
2. Ganshof, The Carolingians, p169-70. Charlemagne regarded his relations with Offa as either important enough, or touchy enough, to appoint only one ambassador to him, Abbot Gervold of St Wandrille.
3. Einhard even mentions this in chapter 19 of the vita, saying, “it is strange to have to report that he never wanted to give any of them away in marriage to anyone, whether it be to a Frankish noble or a foreigner.”
4. Royal Annals, 809.
5. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk3, ch18.
6. Geary, France and Germany, pp214-15.
7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk5, ch10.
8. Age of Bede, The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith, ch32.
9. Assorted references in Verhulst, Carolingian Economy.
10. Boniface, Letters, p.118.
11. Notker the Stammerer, Life of Charlemagne, in Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk1, ch1.

Leave a Comment

503 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments