- Angles on a Kingdom: East Anglian Identities from Bede to Ælfric by Joseph Grossi
East Anglia—on a map of Britain, the prominent bulge to the northeast of London—has often defined itself as geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of England. Largely flat, it is in part cut off from the Midland region to its west by fenland. Bounded on the north and east by the Wash and the North Sea, it naturally looks to the European Continent, whence many influences have flowed into it. A kingdom of the East Angles, with its capital at Rendlesham (Suffolk), emerged in the course of the sixth century. In the late ninth, the kingdom was overthrown and the region settled and ruled by Danish Vikings. In the tenth, East Anglia was incorporated, though not without resistance, into the single kingdom of England that resulted from aggressive West Saxon political and military initiatives. Joseph Grossi's book examines the treatment of the region in texts produced between the 730s and the late tenth century by authors who, for the most part, did not hail from East Anglia. The book is formidably researched, engaging, and thoughtprovoking, though, in the end, some of its arguments fail to convince.
The core of the book comprises five chapters that offer in-depth critical evaluations of key passages in some half-dozen texts. Chapters 1 and 2 ("Rædwald's Unhappy Realm: Bede's Mixed Views of East Anglian Imperium" and "Æthelthryth in a Virgin Wilderness") discuss the presentation of specific episodes of East Anglia's early history in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Grossi argues that the kingdom was an outlier to Bede's largely triumphal narrative of England's Christian conversion: notoriously, East Anglia experimented with syncretism after its ruler Rædwald (d. ca. 625; the likely occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship burial) received baptism in Kent. Grossi's analysis focuses on Ecclesiastical History II.5, II.12, and II.15, where Rædwald is first named by Bede within the list of those rulers who held imperium over other English kings, then shamed by his wife into lending military support to King Edwin of Northumbria, and then persuaded by her to maintain Christian and pagan altars side by side in a shrine probably located at Rendlesham. Grossi argues persuasively that Rædwald's religious ambivalence reflects tensions between the new and the old religions that were ongoing under his Christian son and [End Page 224] successor Eorpwald (d. 627/8), Eorpwald's killer the pagan Ricberht (r. 627/8–630/1), and the Christian Sigeberht (acc. 630/1), who was forced out of monastic retirement to die defending his kingdom against the pagan Penda of Mercia. For Bede, Grossi contends, East Anglia's flirtation with syncretism was finally redeemed only several decades later, when Æthelthryth, herself the daughter of the East Anglian King Anna (d. 654), founded a house of nuns at Ely and, sixteen years after her death in 679, was discovered to be incorrupt when translated to a new tomb. Æthelthryth had maintained her chastity through two marriages, of which the second was to the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith, the founding patron of Bede's own monastery. In Grossi's interpretation, Bede's underlying goal in the two chapters that he dedicates to Ætheltryth (Ecclesiastical History IV. 19–20)—of which the second includes his remarkable abecedarian poem in her honor—is to make the case that only through her virginal and royal sanctity could East Anglia rescue itself from the religious equivocation into which Rædwald had plunged it. This is an arresting literary interpretation, though it risks underplaying Bede's dependence upon sources and his incorporation of Æthelthryth's story within the broader narrative of his fourth book, which seeks to highlight Christian accomplishment throughout England during the archiepiscopate of Theodore (669–90).
Chapter 3, "Solace for a Client-King: Felix's Vita sancti Guthlaci," addresses the seeming anomaly that circa 740, an East Anglian king, Ælfwald, commissioned from an otherwise...