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  • The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England by Nicole Marafioti
  • Christopher Scull
Nicole Marafioti. The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England. University of Toronto Press. xviii, 298. $65.00

In Anglo-Saxon England there was no expectation that kingship would be inherited through primogeniture, and when any king died there might be alternative candidates for the succession. The royal funeral brought closure to the reign of the dead king but also played a key part in succession politics. Control of the body and involvement in the funeral could be critical to engineering a successful acclamation, and influencing perceptions of a ruler’s legacy through the treatment of the corpse and the place of burial had an important role to play in the construction of legitimizing narratives. The dead ruler’s body was politically charged, the memories and associations it evoked potentially double-edged, and its agency was to be controlled or neutralized. When succession was founded on force or conquest there were compelling reasons to seek complementary justifications through statements of affiliation with, or rejection of, the legitimacy and legacy of earlier rulers.

These dynamics of burial and succession are explored here through the deaths and afterlives of kings, from Alfred (ruled 871–99) to Harold Godwineson (ruled 1066), and their successors, from Edward the Elder (ruled 899–924) to William of Normandy (ruled 1066–87), and through the experience of those—some more and some less fortunate—who lost out in succession struggles. The theoretical perspective is not new in itself, but its critical application to tenth- and eleventh-century England yields important new insights. We are presented with a series of sophisticated and nuanced readings that show how fundamental attitudes toward the politically charged dead were negotiated, deployed, and manipulated according to circumstance and audience, how these actions were received by contemporaries, and how such actions might be represented (and misrepresented) by chroniclers and encomiasts with different agendas. [End Page 320]

Broad trends are identifiable. “After the accessions of Harold Godwineson and William I, continuity was no longer expressed at the time of coronation through interactions with the body or tomb of a predecessor, and after the reign of Harthacnut [1040–42] legitimacy was no longer expressed through burial at existing dynastic mausolea.” The mutilation and death of Alfred Aetheling at the hands of Harold Harefoot (ruled 1035–40), and the subsequent desecration of Harold’s own corpse by his successor, Harthacnut, should be seen as expressing contemporary judicial punishment rather than as egregious savagery. Both backfired, however, because they contradicted expectations of how royal bodies should be treated and so provided fertile ground for the propaganda of political opponents. Cnut (ruled 1016–35), faced with the problematic legacy of invasion, had adopted a subtler and more effective ideological program by honouring his predecessor in burial while geographically marginalizing his body, and by building networks of affiliation through the patronage of earlier Anglo-Saxon royal saints. We should not, however, let these symbolic strategies blind us to the realities of eleventh-century politics: Cnut may have treated Edmund Ironside properly in death, but he began his reign by executing his predecessor’s principal supporters.

The emphasis is on the political, but the analysis does not lose sight of the broader social and cultural contexts or other dimensions of mortality and commemoration. The ways in which kings were treated after death were read by contemporaries against the yardstick of appropriate burial practice and treatment of the body, and it is recognized that motivations and reactions would encompass, for example, communal mourning, individual grief, religious conviction, and the dislocation of social relationships, as well as personal and institutional self-interest. It is possible, of course, to raise questions and caveats. Much of the discussion of Cnut’s ideological program is based on inferences from later sources with their own agendas, and in charting complexity, the book sometimes seems to attribute far-sighted intentions where, in fact, any symbolic statement may have been limited and its subsequent consequences contingent. However, the analysis is always rigorously explicit about its presumptions, and the arguments unfailingly well documented; it is for those...


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pp. 320-321
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