Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2013
The papers in this volume are based on some of those given at a conference hosted by the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies in April 2006, entitled ‘Royal Authority: Kingship and Power in Anglo-Saxon England’. A volume devoted to this subject is welcome for, despite numerous earlier studies of kingship and of individual kings, it remains easy for students of the Old English period to take kings and their office for granted. There they are, at the pinnacle of their societies, unquestioned and unquestionable. Contemporaries might have opinions on the character and efficiency of particular kings, though these (if not effusively complimentary) were usually expressed retrospectively. No-one, however, seems to have queried the existence of kingship itself. Only the Icelanders, out of all the early European polities, adopted a different form of political organization, and even in Iceland the goðar might be taken for ‘kings’ in their own localities, rather like the kings of the many English provinciae eventually incorporated into the heptarchic realms.
This process of trout swallowing minnows and being swallowed in turn by pike, which eventually produced Englalond, used to be viewed as a natural progression, the first step on the road to nineteenth-century parliamentary sovereignty and the British Empire. Such attitudes are nowadays dismissed as laughable, but some of the attendant preconceptions remain; the expansion of West Saxon power in the tenth century, for instance, is still occasionally called a ‘reconquest’, though in fact it was no such thing.