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4 - Witnessing Kingship: Royal Power and the Legal Subject in the Old English Laws

from PART II

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013

Gale R. Owen-Crocker
Affiliation:
Professor of Anglo-Saxon Culture at the University of Manchester
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Summary

The role played by written law in expanding Anglo-Saxon royal authority has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate since Patrick Wormald's 1977 article, ‘Lex scripta and verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship from Euric to Cnut’. In that essay, Wormald argued that early law-codes provide ‘direct evidence for the image which Germanic kings and their advisors, Roman or clerical, wished to project of themselves and their people: an image of king and people as heirs to the Roman emperors, as counterparts to the children of Israel, or as bound together in respect for the traditions of a tribal past’. In broad terms, what Wormald suggests is that Anglo-Saxon royal legislation served a symbolic function, depicting the king as the primary source of legal authority. Though possessing questionable value as applied law, Old English legislation nonetheless asserted an ideological argument for the centralization of royal power. Responses to Wormald, most notably by Paul Hyams, have focused primarily on whether this ‘maximalist’ notion of kingship truly reflected the day-to-day realities of pre-Conquest governance. In this article, however, I approach Wormald's arguments from a slightly different perspective: rather than examining how Anglo-Saxon laws characterize the king, I consider how pre-Conquest legislation portrays the subject. Doing so not only expands our understanding of the relationship between ruler and ruled, but it also reveals how evolving perceptions of the written legal text reflect the changing roles and responsibilities of the individual before the law.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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