What were the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles?

What were the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? What was their political and sociocultural significance in the period during which the chronicles were kept? How do these texts fit into the overall pattern of hegemonic discourse in the time between King Alfred and the Norman Conquest (e.g. legal and administrative texts such as laws, edicts, capitularies, diplomas, land grants, charters; religious texts such as sermons, homilies, hagiographic texts; poetic texts; types of narrative text other than saints’ lives; and riddles, recipes, quasi-medical texts and charms)? What is the sociolinguistic and discursive significance of the ASC?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a unique set of manuscripts from scriptoria in different parts of the country, written in Anglo-Saxon, documenting events from the birth of Christ (or from Julius Caesar’s abortive attempt to conquer Britain) to the time at which the scribe is entering his annal, which is generally not the immediate present of making the entry. Palaeographical evidence indicates that scribes may not always have made the entries immediately after the year that they were recording, but may have chosen to write up entries for a set of years. This appears to be the case in the central text that we shall be looking at in section 4: the Second Continuation of the so-called Peterborough Chronicle.

There is some dispute over whether it is more appropriate to refer to the ASC in the singular or to use the plural form. Those in favour of just one chronicle base their argument on the fact that successive copies were made from one master copy, and, as we shall see, there is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in this argument. However, some scholars have found it safer and, in view of the complexity of the existing manuscript situation, more expedient to consider the manuscripts that have survived as being, at least in part, independent versions. Many of the chronicles make use of sources other than the original Alfredian Chronicle, as we shall see, and there are clear cases of changes having been made to chronicle entries at later dates in history, often for propaganda purposes.

We can piece together a history of the ASC, beginning at the end of the ninth century during the reign of King Alfred and stretching as far as 1154, when the last entry was made in the Peterborough Chronicle in a form of English that is markedly different from Anglo-Saxon and clearly an early forerunner of Middle English.[1] The origins of the ASC lie at the end of the ninth century, in the reign of King Alfred, and represent, as Swanton puts it, “a reflection of both the ‘revival of learning’ and revival of English national awareness” at that time (1996: xviii).[2] He also points out that the twelfth- century Anglo-Norman chronicler Gaimar explicitly mentions the chronicles.

The sources for the ASC range from local information on events in the West Country through records of world history from the beginning of the Christian era to annals taken from Bede’s chronological summary of his Ecclesiastical History. In later copies of the ASC northern annals extending into the ninth century, lists of Northumbrian and Mercian kings with their genealogies, material drawn from a continental source for the years 880-890 were also added (Swanton 1996).

The texts are unique in that they are written in the vernacular at a period in European history in which chronicles were otherwise written in Latin. Later in this section I will argue that this provides evidence for suggesting that the texts themselves formed an important set of statements in a hegemonic discourse archive.

The ASC has survived in the following nine manuscripts:

1. The A ms., or Parker Chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 173), since it was in the possession of Archbishop Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 till his death in 1575.

This was begun in the Winchester scriptorium by a scribe who copied out a genealogy of King Alfred and then began copying out the first version of the chronicle. After 891 we have a comprehensive contemporary account of the Danish invasions until 924. At this point a page is missing in the manuscript, and we come across a copy of the laws of Alfred and Ine. A new scribe then took up work on the chronicle, giving surprisingly sparse entries covering the reigns from Athelstan to ^thelrsd II (the Unready). On the other hand, the entries contain four occasional poems in alliterative verse on Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburh, Edmund’s liberation of the Five Boroughs in 942, the coronation of Edgar at Bath in 973 and on his death in 975. The manuscript was transferred to St. Augustine’s Canterbury around 1011, possibly to mitigate the manuscript losses after the Danish occupation and sacking of Canterbury in 1011 and also to assure safer keeping than at Winchester, which was now also prey to invasion after the devastating Danish raids on Hampshire, Sussex and Berkshire in 1010 (Howard 2003). Very few new entries were made at Canterbury, but a privilege granted by King Cnut around 1031, an Acta Lanfranci in Latin, church events from 1070 to 1095, and a list of popes and archbishops of Canterbury who received the pallium were also included. The last entry in Anglo-Saxon was made in 1070.

2. The A2, more commonly G, ms., also from the Winchester scriptorium, and sometimes called the Cottonian Otho Fragment (British Museum, Cotton MS. Otho B xi, 2), since it was in the possession of Sir Robert Cotton in the sixteenth century and was almost completely destroyed in the 1731 fire at Ashburnham House (cf. chap. 2).

A copy was made of the A manuscript before it left Winchester sometime between 1001, when the last annal was copied, and 1012-13, if we judge by the names in the episcopal lists appended to the manuscript.

3. The B ms. or the Abingdon Chronicle I (British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius A vi.) from the Abingdon scriptorium.

The B manuscript appears to be a copy of A made by one scribe, in that it also starts in 60 bc and contains a preface with a modified genealogy of Alfred extending the line to Edward the Martyr. It thus ends in 977 and was therefore probably copied shortly after Edward’s accession to the throne. The manuscript served as the basis for the C manuscript, also copied at Abingdon, but it was transferred to Christ Church, Canterbury, in the middle of the eleventh century, where several interpolations and corrections were made and a list of popes and archbishops of Canterbury who had received the pallium was added. These lists end with Anselm in 1095.

4. The C ms. or the Abingdon Chronicle II (British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius B i.), again from the Abingdon scriptorium.

Swanton assumes that C was copied from B in the middle of the eleventh century at Abingdon. The manuscript begins with an Anglo-Saxon translation of Orosius’s world history, a metrical calendar and a series of verse maxims on the laws of the natural world. At the bottom of the leaf on which these verses are copied, the scribe begins a version of the chronicle. As in B, he begins in 60 BC, and he copies up to 490, at which point a second scribe takes over and continues the entries as far as 1048. After the entry for 652 the second scribe apparently had access to a version other than the original, and between the entries for 915 and 934 he inserts a series of short entries known as the Mercian Register documenting the activities of ^thelflsd, Lady of the

Mercians. Thereafter he appears to go back to the original and continues as far as 1066, where the manuscript ends in the middle of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, subsequent entries being lost.

5. The D ms. or the Worcester Chronicle (British Museum, Cotton MS.

Tiberius B iv.) from the Worcester scriptorium.

The D manuscript is the most puzzling of all, being copied in the middle of the eleventh century in all probability from a version of the chronicle that Archbishop Wulfstan is assumed to have had prepared in Worcester in 1016 from what may have been a York/Ripon copy. Howard (2003: 3) gives his version of how he considers the D manuscript to have come about:

As part of a propaganda campaign supporting King Edmund, Archbishop Wulfstan instructed his scribes to prepare an updated version of the ASC. This version of the ASC, which will be referred to as the Жthelredian Exemplar (ЖЕ), drew upon earlier versions of the ASC and other sources for early annals. Then annals covering the reigns of King ^thelred and King Edmund were added by one man. The scribes were probably based at Worcester, a see that Wulfstan held in plurality with York. Version D is possibly a fair copy of this updated version up to and including 1016. The annals covering the reigns of ^thelred and King Edmund in versions C and E of the ASC are derived from the same source.

Howard assumes, then, that the copy at York or Ripon was transferred to Worcester and was altered on Wulfstan’s instructions. The D manuscript is different from the others in that, instead of a genealogy of Alfred, it contains a description of Britain taken from Bede, material from a set of eighth- century Northumbrian annals, and an amalgam of the Mercian Register. The first evidence of Wulstanian influence is a set of rhetorically coloured prose texts covering the short reign of Edgar from 973 to 975 in place of the poems in the A manuscript. The entry for 1016 does indeed read as propaganda in favour of Edmund. The last entry in the D manuscript was made for the year 1080.

6. The E ms. or the Laud (or “Peterborough”) manuscript (Bodleian, MS. Laud 636) from the Peterborough scriptorium, named after its seventeenth-century owner Archbishop William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645.

The E manuscript, with which we are primarily concerned in this chapter, is thought to have been copied from one of the Canterbury manuscripts. The source texts from which the E manuscript may have been copied will be dealt with later. It contains several interpolations referring to local events in the Fenlands and on the affairs of the abbey, in particular an elaborate story of the building and consecration of the abbey. Since the E manuscript will interest us further in this chapter, I will not give a detailed description of it here.

7. The F ms. or the Bilingual Canterbury Epitome (British Museum, Cotton MS. Domitian A viii.).

This manuscript was copied from the original A manuscript deposited at St. Augustine’s. It contains entries in both English and Latin and was begun around 1100, some 30 years after the last entry in A. The scribe was one of those who had written notes in the A manuscript at Christ Church. Its preface is also from Bede’s description of Britain, and the same scribe made several interlinear annotations and insertions.

8. The H ms. or Cottonian Domitian Fragment (British Museum, Cotton MS. Domitian A ix.).

This is a single leaf covering the years 1113 and 1114, probably copied in Winchester as part of the G (or A2) manuscript from the original A manuscript.

9. The I ms. or an Easter Table Chronicle (British Museum, Cotton MS. Caligula A xv.).

This was a late addition to the chronicle containing bilingual notes from 952 to 1130 and dealing largely with the affairs of Christ Church,


As we have seen, there has been some discussion as to whether the manuscripts were compiled independently of one another, but because of similarities in the wording of the texts, it seems much more likely that one of them was a master copy from which the others were made and adapted. Further evidence to support this interpretation is provided by Keynes (1980), who argues that diplomas (land grants) were prepared and witnessed “on the occasion of the gathering of the king and his council” in which the “witness lists appear to be ‘official’ records of attendance at a witenagemot” and that they therefore need to be dissociated “from ecclesiastical scriptoria, since it requires that the agency was mobile and could operate . . . where the gatherings were commonly held” (1980: 79).

Howard (2003), who uses the ASC as a source text to give a historical account of the second wave of Danish invasions during the reign of ^thelrsd II (the Unready), which eventually led to the conquest of England by Swein Forkbeard in 1013 and the accession to the throne of Swein’s son Cnut in 1017, suggests that three texts were made from the original chronicle compiled during the latter part of Alfred’s reign, two of these being copies and the third Asser’s Life of Alfred. According to Howard one copy of the ASC was kept at Winchester while the second was taken to York or Ripon (presumably to be copied from the Winchester original). While the Winchester copy (the A manuscript) is certainly extant, there is no evidence of there ever having been a York/Ripon copy. However, for the sake of historical consistency Howard develops a line of “ghost” copies emanating from this supposed copy, one of which is said to have been enlarged by a set of northern annals, and another to have been enlarged by Mercian annals. Howard then suggests that the second of these gave rise to the B manuscript before the end of the tenth century and the later C manuscript, both kept at Abingdon. According to Howard, the York/Ripon manuscript, whose existence must remain pure speculation, was removed by Archbishop Wulfstan to Worcester towards the end of ^.thelrad’s reign and was changed to support the royal lineage in the person of ^.thelrad’s son Edmund

Ironside in 1016. This then became the Worcester manuscript D. The E manuscript made after Peterborough Abbey burned down in 1116 is also given a direct lineage from the York/Ripon copy, although the A manuscript, which was moved from Winchester to Canterbury around 1011, is assumed to have served as a model to be copied. Howard’s schematic history of the different copies of the ASC is presented in figure 3.2.

Any such scheme must remain at worst pure speculation and at best a careful reconstruction of all the evidence available, and it is important to note that this evidence will be extralinguistic and social-historical as well as textual. It is clear from a close study of figure 3.2 that Howard has tried to create as coherent a history of the ASC as the facts will allow. In so doing, however, he helps to create a present-day discursive account of what can only be, by nature

A slightly revised version of the schematic history of the ASC suggested by Howard (2003

figure 3.2. A slightly revised version of the schematic history of the ASC suggested by Howard (2003: 4) of the “archaeological” evidence on hand, a historical discourse, which, in Foucault’s terms, displays gaping discontinuities. The starred textual exemplars, none of which has ever been discovered, are fitted into the assumed historical discourse to present a continuity that probably never existed. There are thus far too many points at which continuities have been presupposed where we in fact have discontinuities.

The most problematic aspect of Howard’s schematic history is the assumption that there ever was an Жthelredian exemplar, since this plays a central role in his overall interpretation. Howard’s argument for its existence presupposes a York/Ripon copy of the ASC which has likewise never come to light. Part of his argument rests on the fact that Wulfstan, certainly the politically most powerful ecclesiastical figure during ^.thelrad’s reign, was both archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester. He was thus in the advantageous position of being able to have a York/Ripon copy of the ASC removed to Worcester during a period in which Danish influence in the Danelaw must have been strongly in favour of Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut. It would have been relatively easy for the assumed “northern annals” not only to have been removed and copied, but also to have been altered in favour of the royal inheritance. Wulfstan was, after all, a loyal supporter of the royal house and of ^thelrsd’s son Edmund Ironside’s claim to the throne.[3] There is also textual evidence that the Worcester D manuscript was subject to changes in the annals dealing with ^.thelrad’s reign that smack of political propaganda, although it is more than a little curious that the putative ^thelredian exemplar exerted no apparent influence on the A manuscript which had been transferred from Winchester to Canterbury. What is important from the point of view of this chapter is that the Peterborough Chronicle, copied shortly after a fire at the abbey in 1116, has more affinities with the D manuscript than with the A manuscript.

There is an alternative schematic history of the ASC that preserves the discontinuities which Howard has tried to erase, one which allows us to posit the rough outline of a discourse archive at the centre of which was the ASC itself. We first need to develop Keynes’s analysis of diplomas written during the course of ^.thelrad’s reign, in which he suggests that documents were produced on the occasion of the meetings of the witenagemote (meetings of the wise men) in different parts of the country, thus indicating that, even if it is difficult to talk of a royal chancery, it is certainly the case that the king took his official scribes with him on his travels throughout the country. If we consider where these meetings were held from the time of King Alfred on, it immediately becomes obvious that very few indeed were held in Danelaw territory and that the overwhelming majority took place in territory under the jurisdiction of English law.

In addition, there is ample evidence that both the ASC, sets of laws and other “official” texts were collected in the same manuscript codices. The crucial manuscript collection is the Parker Manuscript, Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 173, in which we have not only the A manuscript of the ASC but also two quires of laws, a set of papal and episcopal lists and a text of Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale. Wormald (1999) argues that laws (both secular and ecclesiastical), other official documents such as charters and diplomas (land grants) and papal and episcopal lists were closely associated with the ASC and were originally deposited at the Winchester scriptorium. Despite an intensive debate about whether one can talk of a royal chancery in Winchester or whether many or most of the texts, particularly charters (cf. Keynes 1980 on the ^thelredian diplomas), were prepared by scribes accompanying the king on his travels through the country, the place in which the manuscripts were stored was still Winchester. In addition, both written laws and a written historical account of important political events were intimately bound together in an archive emanating ultimately from royal authority. The chronicle as such acquired its authoritative legitimacy from its close association with the law codes.

If we consider where the other copies of the ASC were stored—Worcester, Abingdon in the Thames Valley and Canterbury (to which the A manuscript

An alternative schematic history of the ASC

figure 3.3. An alternative schematic history of the ASC

was transferred for safekeeping around 1011)—we can conclude that those copies were made from the A manuscript and distributed to politically strategic points throughout the English part of the country (rather than to locations in the Danelaw area).

We can thus leave the discontinuities as an unsolvable enigma if we simply assume that all other manuscripts were copied from A. In figure 3.3, I represent this way of viewing the ASC, which outlines the connections between A and the other copies and gives the dates at which the entries begin and the dates at which they cease.

  • [1] A good source for the information provided here can be found in Swanton 1996.
  • [2] The reader can be forgiven for detecting rather more than a faint echo of the nation-state ideology here.
  • [3] Curiously enough, however, Wulfstan continued in office after Cnut’s accession to the throne andserved Cnut as loyally as he had ^thelrad.
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