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Transcultural Approaches to the Concept of Imperial Rule in the Middle Ages

Christian Scholl, Torben R. Gebhardt and Jan Clauß

During the Middle Ages, rulers from different regions aspired to an idea of imperial hegemony. On the other hand, there were rulers who deliberately refused to be «emperors», although their reign showed characteristics of imperial rule. The contributions in this volume ask for the reasons why some rulers such as Charlemagne strove for imperial titles, whereas others voluntarily shrank from them. They also look at the characteristics of and rituals connected to imperial rule as well as to the way Medieval empires saw themselves. Thus, the authors in this volume adopt a transcultural perspective, covering Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern Europe, Byzantium and the Middle East. Furthermore, they go beyond the borders of Christianity by including various caliphates and Islamic «hegemonic» rulers like Saladin.

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From Bretwalda to Basileus: Imperial Concepts in Late Anglo-Saxon England? (Torben R. Gebhardt)


Torben R. Gebhardt (Münster)

From Bretwalda to Basileus: Imperial Concepts in Late Anglo-Saxon England?

In 924 Æthelstan ascended the throne of Mercia after the death of his father Edward, while his younger half-brother Ælfweard received the crown of Wessex. The question whether or not this division of Edward’s realm would have proven to be permanent was rendered obsolete by the death of Ælfweard only sixteen days after his father’s, leaving Æthelstan as the sole sovereign of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.1 This kingdom in itself was already a conglomerate. A kingdom forged by Edward the Elder who obtained direct rule over Mercia in 918 and was accepted to fæder and to hlaforde2 by the kingdoms of York, Scotland and Wales. Yet it was Æthelstan who established direct rule over the Yorkish kingdom in the north, which was never held by a southern king before. Hence, historians, medieval and modern alike, for instance Sarah Foot in a recent biography, often styled him “First king of the English”.3 Yet, it might well be that this title, already loaded with a variety of implications which are hard to prove beyond doubt, does not reflect the aspirations of the king to their fullest, but that he contemplated over an imperial claim. Æthelstan is frequently called rex totius Britanniæ (“king of all Britain”) and even basileus,4 titles implying an im←157 | 158→perial hegemony because they extent the king’s rule beyond the boundaries of the English kingdom. The question...

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