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Tandem revocato Eadwardo, Adelredi regis filio, mediante Alwino Wintoniensi episcopo et Godwino comite, convocatis apud Hursteshevet totius Angliae baronibus, ita demum in regem suscipiendus auditur, si eis Cnudi leges et filiorum eius inconvulsa stabilitate suo tempore mansuras iuramenti satisfactione sanciret.
'Argumentum' to Quadripartitus, ch. 9
At length, Edward, son of King AEthelred, was recalled, through the intervention of Bishop AElfwine of Winchester and Earl Godwin; the thegns of all England gathered together at Horstead, and there it was heard that he would be received as king only if he guarantee to them upon oath that the laws of Cnut and his sons should continue in his time with unshaken firmness.
Richard Sharpe's translation of 'Argumentum', ch. 9 (1)
THE sources for the history of eleventh-century England are not so plentiful that we can afford to neglect any fragments that lie to hand. The passage cited above is one such fragment, found in the second of the three prefaces to the post-Conquest Latin translation of Anglo-Saxon legal materials known as Quadripartitus. It tells of the return to England of Edward the atheling, later Edward the Confessor, from the exile in Normandy to which Cnut's conquest of his native country in 1016 had consigned him; of the responsibility of the Bishop of Winchester and of Earl Godwin for his recall; of an assembly at a place called Hursteshevet and of the demand made there that Edward should swear to maintain the laws of Cnut as a condition of his acceptance as future king. Since we are told in the work's next sentence that Edward was 'promoted with such fortunate auspices', we can assume that he took the oath and that he did so at Hursteshevet. The year is 1041.
If this story is true it adds considerably to our scanty knowledge of the events immediately prior to Edward's accession following Harthacnut's death in 1042 and has wider implications for our view of the pre-Conquest polity. Yet although Quadripartitus and its prefaces were first edited by Liebermann in 1892, this particular section has been almost wholly ignored by subsequent scholars. The list of expositors is a short one. The passage's importance was glancingly recognized by York Powell in his contemporary review of Liebermann's work. (2) The place Hursteshevet appears, with no comment but 'unidentified' and' ?1041', in Professor Simon Keynes's list of tenth- and eleventh-century meeting places of the king's councillors. (3) The excerpt is mentioned in a footnote to Mr Patrick Wormald's discussion of Quadripartitus's place of origin, and more generally (if allusively and dismissively) in his great work on the making of English law. (4) Professor Richard Sharpe has translated it, in the form given above and with a brief gloss, in his full translation of the prefaces to Quadripartitus. (5) In total these comments, all that are traceable since 1892, amount to some 250 words. To the major authorities on the period and the king, from Sir Frank Stenton to Professor Barlow and Professor Stafford, the episode appears to have been unknown.
Their oversight is understandable. The preface to a legal compilation dating from Henry I's reign is not the most obvious place to search for information on Edward the Confessor, particularly when the author's Latin is barely penetrable and sometimes entirely obscure. Until Sharpe's brave and public-spirited translation, only the few specialists interested in Quadripartitus were likely to have come across the passage, and they were not by and large those most interested in pre-Conquest politics. Even had it been registered, there would perhaps have been seemingly good reasons for not making too much of it. In the 'Argumentum' which preceded Quadripartitus and from which our passage comes, the author--whom in deference to Wormald's convention we will call 'Q' (6)--wrote to make a case. His 'Argumentum' was indeed an argument and his purpose was ideological: to show that Old English law, which had reached its summation and conclusion in Cnut's great code of 1120 x 21, and had been transmitted forward as King Edward's law, had been happily restored and supplemented in Q's own day by King Henry I. 'Not only has [King Henry] given us back the law of King Edward, which we received with every delight of rejoicing, but strengthened as it was by the improvements introduced by his blessed father, he has improved it with his own laws in everything that belongs to God and life and truth.' (7)
As Wormald has convincingly shown, Q's work was part of a much wider enterprise, beginning under the Conqueror and pursued by others besides himself, which sought to vindicate the claims of the new Norman regime 'to be founded on respect for the English kingdom's ancient values and procedures'. (8) Cnut's code provided the essential foundation stone for this argument, for not only was it the last and longest of the Anglo-Saxon law codes but it also embodied a great deal of earlier legislation. (9) In addition, it was imbued with concepts of justice and of the king's obligations to his subjects which fitted well with post-Conquest notions of the 'good old law'. (10) For these reasons, Q's 'Argumentum' began with an account of Cnut's law-making and of his reign in general, before leading into the passage under discussion; and Cnut's code came first in his latinizing of the Old English laws, its priority a matter of ideology rather than chronology.
But the gap between the time of Cnut's legislation about 1020 and the Conquest was substantial. It could hardly be bridged by the genuine legislation of Edward the Confessor, since (so far as anyone knows) there was none. Hence the crucial importance of the episode which is the subject of this note and in which, according to the 'Argumentum', Edward confirmed Cnut's laws on his return from exile. (11) Edward's validation of Cnut's work meant that he could be seen as the transmitter of the 'good old law', which merged Cnut's real laws with Edward's imaginary ones to make the 'Law of Edward', after 1066 in Wormald's words 'the shibboleth of the acceptable to ruler and ruled'. (12) As the antecessor of the Conqueror, his legitimate successor on the throne of England, Edward was the link through which the corpus of Anglo-Saxon legislation, subsumed and augmented in Cnut's great code, was passed down to William and thence to his son Henry I, who 'has given us back the law of King Edward'.
The convenience of the story which Q tells is thus one possible barrier to its acceptability: Edward's confirmation of Cnut's laws in 1041 is necessary to his case. There are other more obvious question marks against it. The source is late, for Q wrote about 1108 or a little after, nearly seventy years away from the events which he purports to describe. (13) The details of his story cannot be controlled and are wholly confirmed by no other source. Although the author's identity is unclear and he may have regarded himself as English by adoption, he is thought to have been French (14) and so was probably unfamiliar with the Anglo-Saxon past. Unlike, say, Eadmer, another late source for pre-Conquest events but one who wrote as an English-born monk at Christ Church Canterbury, Q was not a member of an ancient and anglophile Benedictine community, with a native interest in preserving English historical traditions. Finally, some of what he says is palpably untrue, notably his reference to the laws of Cnut and his sons, for the reigns of Cnut's sons were as bare of legislation as Edward's own. On all these grounds it would be easy enough to view Q's story of Edward's return with mistrust or even incredulity--a piece of …