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8 - The King (and Queen) and ‘I’: Self-Construction in Some Anglo-Saxon Royal Documents

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that’, said Offa, ‘sing it again’.

In crafting Offa's laconic response, Geoffrey Hill epitomizes royal pleasure at a flattering portrait and the menace underlying a powerful and violent king's command. Do it again; see you get it right. Hill's Offa (King of the Mercians, 757–96) sees the political value of words wrought into epithets that build and perpetuate his reputation as a successful king. More than pleasure and threat thus fill the ‘I’ of ‘I liked that’: the poet who supplied powerful words to the king in the hearing of his court helped to make the king by proffering content to be taken up into that ‘I’. It is a pleasure to offer this essay in honour of Antonette diPaolo Healey, whose life's work on Old English words has empowered us all.

This essay on the king and ‘I’ focuses on a king whose reign shows notable efforts at self-creation and image management, and on the witnesses to those efforts – in effect, ego documents (if you will allow me some flexibility with that term) that help us to see a king simultaneously shaping himself and being shaped. While these documents are anything but autobiography, reading them helps us to see the place of ‘I’ in a collaborative self-representation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no Old English encomia for King Cnut, which is not to say that no poets provided epithets for Cnut as Geoffrey Hill imagines for Offa. Such poetic contributions to self-creation were confined to the (surviving) work of eight skalds, whose Cnutsdrapa praised the conqueror Cnut in Norse traditional verse at his palace in Winchester to the acclaim of his Danish housecarls. The early Liðsmannaflokkr praises Cnut (fairly generically) as the ‘great “tree of the shield” [=shield-man, warrior]’.

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Old English Lexicology and Lexicography
Essays in Honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey
, pp. 129 - 142
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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