AuthorHarding, Seth

    It was partly the primitive behavior of the Vikings that dimmed the post-Roman centuries sufficiently to be dubbed the Dark Ages. Thus, it is unsurprising that scholars tracing the existence of a sophisticated practice such as international law are drawn to the brighter lights of the continent when covering this period. G. P. Cuttino, for example, devoted the pre-Norman invasion portion of his book, English Medieval Diplomacy, to discussing Anglo-Saxon relations with the Franks, the Papacy, Rome, and Germany. (2) Regarding the Vikings, Cuttino merely observed that the Anglo-Saxons opposed them, and gave a few details about King Cnut's interactions with the Continent. (3) He asserted that on the subject of international relations "[t]here is surprisingly little to report from the reign of... Alfred," failing to even mention King Alfred's famous treaty with the Danish King Guthrum. (4) It seems that in the study of historic international law, the Vikings are often written off as very successful pirates. (5)

    By doing so, we have limited our understanding of both the Norse and Anglo-Saxon peoples. Our conception of our legal heritage has an unmended hole. This paper seeks to help with the patchwork by determining the extent to which the political units of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians engaged in formal legal relationships with one another and how those relationships developed over the course of the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries. Part II presents a brief history of Anglo-Norse legal relations. This part is subdivided into three sections: Section A surveys relations before Alfred, Section B examines relations during Alfred's reign and the reigns of his better successors, and Section C explores relations during the reign of AEthelred until his exile in 1013. (6) Each section, focuses on treaties, agreements, and the surrounding historical context. Finally, Part III analyzes the agreements and treaties discussed in Part II under modern principles of international law to determine their level of sophistication and similarity to modern international legal relationships.


    1. Before Alfred (789-871)

      Scholars often observe that when the people of Scandinavia reintroduced themselves to the British Isles with raids in 787 (7) and 793, it was the reunion of distant cousins. (8) The Vikings came from areas on the continent that overlapped with the homelands of the Anglo-Saxon's tribal ancestors, who sailed to England in the 5th and 6th centuries. (9) However, the Anglo-Saxons had been subject to the civilizing and Christianizing influence of the continent for centuries, while it had yet to reach Scandinavia. (10) The Vikings remained devotedly pagan and violent, still practiced human sacrifice, and saw "piracy as the noblest occupation for warriors and freemen." (11) Thus, this period of history sheds light on the question, "what would happen if a time traveler met his past self?" The answer in 787 was English horror and disdain. (12) The dreadful first impressions recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are worth repeating:

      A.D. 787. This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king's town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation. (13) The entry for 793 is better-known, probably due to its dark eloquence and mention of dragons:

      A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. (14) Despite this apocalyptic rhetoric, and the assertion that the Danes "sought the land[,]" the early Viking presence in England likely consisted of no more than several dozen chieftains with purely military authority. (15) These men were selected by their raiding parties based on charisma and leadership ability, and competed with one another for plunder and followers. (16) Their objectives were riches and respect to wield upon return to the homeland. (17)

      Unsurprisingly, these early groups had no interest in agreement-making; the Chronicle is void of record of even the most preliminary negotiations during the majority of this period. (18) Instead, after the above-mentioned raids during the reign of Beorhtric, it portrays decades of sporadic military conflict. (19) In 832, "heathen men overran the Isle of Shepey." (20) In 833, King Egbert fought "thirty-five [ship-loads] at Charmouth, where a great slaughter was made, and the Danes remained masters of the field." (21) In 835, Egbert battled a combined force of Danes and Welsh at Hengeston and "put to flight both ... ," (22) In 837, a nobleman named Wulfheard battled "thirty-three pirates ... and after a great slaughter there, obtained the victory... . " (23) Another noble named AEthelhelm was slain while battling Vikings at the isle of Portland in the same year. (24) The entries continue, recording raids or battles in 838, 840, 845, and 851. (25)

      Then, in an entry for 865, Anglo-Saxon monks recorded the following: "This year sat the heathen army in the isle of Thanet, and made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money therewith; but under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the army in the night stole up the country, and overran all Kent eastward.'" (26) Asser, a Welsh monk who counselled Alfred, (27) described the agreement in his work, Annals of the Reign of Alfred the Great, as

      a firm treaty with the men of Kent, who promised them money for adhering to their covenant; but the pagans, like cunning foxes, burst from their camp by night, and setting at naught their engagements, and spurning at the promised money, which they knew was less than they could get by plunder, they ravaged all the eastern coast of Kent. (28) Unfortunately, this agreement, like nearly all Anglo-Norse agreements, was either never written down, or all its copies have been lost. (29) Thus, it is unclear whether the Chronicle includes all its terms and details. Nevertheless, this small entry is surprisingly informative. It is the first example in England of a Viking group agreeing to receive payment from its target in exchange for a truce. (30) The practice had taken two decades to spread to the island after it was started in 845 between Vikings and Frankish kings. (31) Furthermore, it begins what would become a pattern of Viking bands double-crossing on such agreements, though many examples of Scandinavians staying true to their word will follow. (32)

      The frequent failures of Anglo-Norse agreements were caused in part by the different legal, cultural, and religious backgrounds from which their parties approached peace-making. (33) Richard Abels ingeniously summarized the English perspective, "[t]he conception of peace in early England ... presupposed an ordered and harmonious relationship in which one ruler recognized either the authority of another and placed himself and his people under the other's protection, or the two rulers entered into a friendship modelled on kinship relations that was to include their peoples." (34) Furthermore, Anglo-Saxon kings generally approached the legal and religious device of oath-making, which accompanied their agreements, with deep sincerity and reverence. (35) It appears ratification by oath had already become "the foundational stone of the binding character of treaties" in the minds of Christian kings. (36) Throughout the middle ages, the procedure would only grow in importance and sanctity. (37) Later, "[u]nder canon law, the enforcement of treaties fell under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, as the breaking of a promise was a sin... . [P]erjury [of an oath] was considered an even more grave sin." (38)

      Viking groups and their backgrounds were incompatible with these principles for several reasons. First, the average raiding party, as described above, did not include a territorial king, nor were its forces truly a "people." (39) This difference meant that peace was not mutually beneficial. (40) Without having to protect noncombatants or homesteads, the raider had more to gain from accepting payment and backstabbing the Englishman than honoring the agreement. (41) Second, although the Scandinavian legal tradition also included oaths, the commonality proved to be a pitfall for the English rather than a bridge between the groups. (42) Viking culture and religion praised deceit and trickery, including the breaking of oaths, when used skillfully against enemies. (43) Their chief god, Odin, was exceedingly treacherous, and even obtained the gift of poetry for mankind by "forswearing the oath he took 'on [a] holy ring' to the giant Suttung." (44) Additionally, we can infer from later Scandinavian sources that early Vikings perceived those who purchased peace from stronger enemies as "cowardly and shameful." (45) Later sagas describing such individuals use the terms nid, argr, and ragr, which "connote willingness to be used sexually by other men." (46) Thus, Abels theorizes that "the payment of tribute in the long run may have promoted contempt for Frankish and English rulers and their warriors and hence further Viking activity." (47)

      Accordingly, English peace-making attempts succeeded more frequently when, as we will see was often true in the time of Alfred, the invading force included kings with colonial ambitions. (48) Such men had much to gain from...

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