31 December 2009

Abuse of hostages in Anglo-Saxon England...

There was similar etymology of the OE word for hostage, gisl, to the Irish giall and the Welsh gwystl and the use of Anglo-Latin sources of the same Latin term, obes, as that used in other European Latin sources.

Whilst godparentship, baptismal sponsorship and enforced marriage may have operated in the same vein of relationship, hostages were seen as a brutal yet practical & effective political tool, which, despite the varying uses and reasons for it, illuminated the power which underlay the mechanisms of that authority.

Hostages ranged from the noble 'guest' in court to ensure ‘good behaviour’ of their kin elsewhere, like a bird in a gilted cage, to the war captive seized in or immediately after battle and pawned as part of a peace treaty, however fragile.
Some were well treated by their captors, others were mutilated and/or killed in calculated acts of barbarism. Hostages served as a crude means of backing up an agreement for which the threat of violence was rarely far beneath the surface.

Cnut dumped his recently-deceased father King Sweyn Forkbeard’s hostages ashore at Sandwich in 1014 minus "hands, ears and noses"(ASC). Brutal, but interesting that he didn’t kill them- maybe some code of conduct prevented men in this era from doing so;-

The hostages had been given to Cnut’s father, not he, so technically the English recalling Ethelred from exile was seen as legal, as the only ones proclaiming him king were his own fleet. Whilst mutilation of these hostages was acceptable to the Danes politically, to the English Cnut wasn’t then the legitimate king and therefore any agreements that the hapless hostages previously signified were now null and void.

• To Cnut maybe, this brutal act was a reminder to the English that they had broken their agreement (as he perhaps saw it?) – in the succession, and in this shocking show of power that he still meant business?

• Heming’s Cartulary records a certain Aethelwine, nephew of earl Leofric, as having lost both hands whilst a hostage of Danes. But given the ‘normal’ use of hostages in Anglo-Saxon England, these ‘atrocities’ were comparatively rare.


With the Viking's slayings of armies and hostages usually called barbaric, the killing or mutilating of hostages maybe had a more practical and symbolic nature. It was usually seen as a kind of termination of an agreement.
But even King Ethelred had had English hostages killed and mutilated himself. Aelfgar son of earldorman Aelfric was one hostage that was blinded on the king’s orders in 993. He did the same to other English noblemen in his reign.

874 is the first instance of giving hostages (gislas salde)- Overlordship. Ceolwulf, ruler of Mercia(by the Vikings as a puppet ruler, on condition that he hand Mercia over ‘as they wished to have it’)- was described by rival Wessex sources as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ (implying submission to the Vikings). Wessex-Mercian relations at this time though were uneasy, as always- Alfred had lent his support to a rival branch of the Mercian royalty.

In 876 hostages were given to Alfred by the Vikings (exchange for money?) under Guthrum- Peacemaking. At wareham, cowed by Alfred, they “gave hostages (gislas sealdon) who were the most important men next to the king in their army’ and swore oaths to him on the holy ring- a thing which they would not do before any nation.”(ASC); “Picked hostages”(Asser).

In 877 Vikings gave hostages to Alfred. (probable exchange)- Peacemaking. “More than were asked for” (Athelweard). This same year though, the Vikings broke their recent treaty and slew their hostages .

In 878 the Vikings again gave hostages to Alfred. Guthrum’s crushing defeat at Ethandun by Alfred ended with the Treaty of Wedmore that year, gift giving and the leading Danes baptised. They swore to move out of Wessex to E.Anglia to settle- and incredibly they stuck to their word, until after Guthrum’s death in the 890’s.

Later examples of hostage giving;-

885 Exchange of hostages between Alfred and the Vikings. Renewed peacemaking (to enforce the 878 treaty?)

886 Another exchange between the W.Saxons and the Vikings. (Legal sureties?)

892 Another exchange between the W.Saxons and the Vikings- Peacemaking.

893 Vikings under Haesten gave hostages (Peacemaking- exchange for money?)

914 Danish chieftains Hroald and Ohtere submitted and gave hostages to the men of Gloucester & Hereford (Edward’s Mercian allies, their acting as agents thus signifying his dominance there)during that king’s brutally effective Reconquest of 'England' (910-20). Overlordship – they would also leave Edward’s realm.

930 Wentsaete (?men of Gwent) to W.Saxons- overlordship.
930 Wentsaete to Dunsaete (via W.Saxon king’s discretion)- legal sureties

991 In the Battle of Maldon Poem, Northumbrians are recorded as giving hostages to Earldorman Byrthnoth (via king Ethelred?). Chief hostage being AEsferth, son of Ecglaf – overlordship.

994 English gave hostages to Norse chieftain Olaf Tryggvasson at Southampton- peacemaking. These were probably given as surety for Olaf’s safety, for that Norse nbole was escorted to Andover(Hants) at this time to be baptised.

1013 Northern shires to Sweyn Forkbeard- submission. The ASC (C) says that this was “Earl Uhtred and all the Northumbrians”; “the people of Lindsey”; “all the people belonging to the district of the Five Boroughs” and “all the Danish settlers [Here] north of Watling Street” The fact that hostages were given, not exchanged, seems to suggest that the northerners, while fiercely independent against the southerners, weren’t allied with the Vikings either.
1013 W.Wessex and later London also submitted to Sweyn (died early 1014).

1014 Cnut, because Ethelred was being recalled from Norman exile to be king (and not him after his recently dead father, thus rendering his political position and ambition for the kingship as hopeless), and chased by Edmund Ironside’s army, dumped the hapless English hostages his father had been given, ashore at Sandwich minus their hands, ears & noses.

1016 Earl Uhtred to Canute – overlordship. Howver, this proved futile and fatal, for the earl was treacherously ambushed and murdered with his retinue of unarmed men- in cold blood when he went to a truce meeting in Northumbria under guarantees of safe conduct by noble bitter rival Thurbrand at his hall (usually feudal disputes, hatred and bloodshed were set aside for these lavish meetings), a man who had also submitted to and maybe even previously plotted with Cnut.
1016 London & Queen Emma to Cnut’s army. After Ethelred died of old age (and the stresses of his reign?) “300 hostages” were given to the Vikings besieging the city (Thietmar of Merseburg).
Cnut also demanded large sums of geld plus the deaths of Emma’s stepsons (Edmund- who fled to fight on- & Eadwig). Thietmar also records that- similar to Cnut’s mutilation of his father’s English hostages three years before- the danes did the same again now.

1046 S.Welsh to Swein Godwineson – overlordship.

1051 Hostages between Godwine & King Edward (never implemented) –Edward refused to give any to the earl, though Godwine’s youngest son (Wulfnoth- named by Orderic), and Swein’s son(Hakon- named by Eadmer- was released to Harold in 1064) were perhaps given over at this point. On Godwine’s return from exile in 1052 they may have been snatched by the fleeing Norman clergyman, Robert of Jumieges, as he escaped to Normandy? Or were they given to Duke William during Godwine’s exile in 1051/2(to ? via Edward?)?

1061 In earl Tostig’s embassy party to Rome was a young Northumbrian noble- Gospatric(who saved Tostig’s life when attacked by robbers). He may have been a hostage demanded and given by his kinsmen before the earl’s departure, to ensure no revolt sprang up in his absence? But the atmosphere seems amiable.

1063 (Spring) Welsh (people of Gwynnedd?) to Earl Harold
“ (Autumn) Welsh (people of Gwynnedd?) to King Edward

1066 (Sept) The city of York offered (picked? “All the leading men”) hostages to Hardrada & Tostig, never delivered due to King Harold’s shock attack.
“ (Sept) Prince Olaf of Norway gave hostages to King Harold after his crushing victory over the Norse at Stamford Bridge under Olaf's father, Harald Hardrada.
“ (October) Men of Canterbury to an advancing William
“ (October) After a violent stand-off, the men of London finally submitted to William, giving “as many [hostages]as he required” (Poitiers)

1067 Eustace revolted against William’s rule and attacked Dover castle, Odo’s realm, where his ‘nepos’ (son? nephew?)is alledged to have been held by William since before he left England in early 1067, to ensure good behaviour?

(Acknowledgement to Ryan Lavelle)

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