Partway through the first season of The Last Kingdom, our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Draymon) gets married to Mildreth (Amy Wren). This starts a plot thread dealing with a debt owed to the Church that I think is worth looking at, because, as usual whenever medieval law or religion is involved, things go wrong historically.
In the third episode, Uhtred presses Alfred (David Dawson) to give him land. Alfred counters by offering him a bride who has land, and he decides to take the offer. Episode 4 is where the marriage happens. Evidently there was a meeting not shown in the episode in which Uhtred negotiated the details of the marriage with her godfather, Odda. Her father is dead, but it seems a little odd that he would be negotiating with Odda instead of an actual kinsman of hers, since godparents did not have any legal rights over godchildren, but perhaps Odda is actually a kinsman as well as a godparent (which would be fairly irregular, since godparents were not typically relatives of the child) or perhaps her entire family is dead and it was decided that Odda as godparent was the only person around to be responsible for her.
Odda’s son, Odda Jr, (Brian Vernel) has the hots for Mildred and tries to bribe Uhtred to not marry her, presumably because he wants to marry her himself. Unfortunately for him, that would have been a no-no, because since his father is Mildrith’s god-father, he has a spiritual kinship with Mildreth that would render the marriage a form of incest. The show never explicitly says he wants to marry her, and he’s an all-around rotter anyway, so perhaps he just wants some semi-incestuous sexytime with her.
The unseen meeting is technically the engagement ceremony, the beweddung (the ‘wedding’), and it was normally the critical moment of the whole marriage as far as the law was concerned. Engagement was a legal contract, with witnesses, and was often accompanied by a feast to celebrate the establishing of new ties between the two men. Once the beweddung has taken place, groom and bride’s family are legally committed to the union, and if either of them tries to back out, they owe the other side a stiff fine. Socially this would have been an important moment as well, and Uhtred would probably have met Mildrith at that point. However, her presence was not legally required; what mattered was her father’s presence and Uhtred’s. The beweddung would eventually be followed by the gifta, the ‘giving’ of the bride at the nuptial ceremony. In the show, the gifta apparently happens a day or two after the beweddung, but the two ceremonies could actually be months or even years apart. The gifta was less important, but the show assumes it’s the more important one because for modern Westerners, the engagement has become a nominal practice and the nuptial ceremony has become the focus of all the attention as well as the legal heart of the arrangement.
Uhtred pays a “bride price” of “33 pieces”, presumably of silver, that is, shillings. Technically this would have been the ‘handgeld’ or weotuma, paid by the groom to the family of the bride at the engagement ceremony. It compensated the family for the loss of their daughter and her labor and also demonstrated that the groom had the resources to support his wife. However, by Alfred’s time, the handgeld was given to the bride herself. In the show, Odda momentarily tries to keep the handgeld for himself, but it is finally presented to Mildrith by Odda Jr at the nuptials, although it turns out that he’s kept almost half of it without her knowing it. (Uhtred later correctly says that this money belongs to her legally, so Odda has cheated her.)
At the nuptials, Father Beocca (Ian Hart) blesses the wedding. Modern Americans would assume that this was necessary for the marriage to actually be a marriage, but as I’ve mentioned before, the participation of a priest was not a requirement for a marriage to be binding. It’s a social nicety and a religious blessing, but the beweddung was legally the key moment in the joining of the couple.
Then the couple rides to her estate, Lyscombe, which legally is his estate, since it would be the dowry from her family to him. Uhtred would have had control over the property. During the ride, Uhtred discovers there’s a complication involved in this deal, which we’ll get to late. When they get to Lyscombe, Mildrith proceeds to give away some or all of her handgeld to the peasants who have come to congratulate her on her marriage. From a financial standpoint, this is a very foolish thing to do, because that money was intended to help support her when she becomes a widow. It’s also a fairly extravagant gift, since a shilling was enough to purchase a couple acres of land. And, as we’ll see, she’s deeply in debt. However, generosity was an important Christian virtue and Mildrith later decides to become a nun, so perhaps she’s trying to emulate the extravagant disdain of wealth that saints were expected to demonstrate.
Then the newlyweds have sex. However, the show skips over another important moment. After sleeping with her, assuming she was a virgin, a new husband was obligated to pay his bride her morgengabe, or ‘morning gift’. The morgengabe was financial compensation to the bride for the loss of her virginity. The failure to pay this was a statement that the bride was not a virgin, and it was mattered legally. If he married her thinking her a virgin and then discovered that she wasn’t, he would have grounds to repudiate the marriage and sue her father for fraud. Like the handgeld, the morning gift was the bride’s personal property, outside her husband’s legal authority.
So there are three important moments in an Anglo-Saxon wedding: the beweddung, the gifta, and the payment of the morgengabe. The show has chosen to give us only one of them, the gifta, arguably the least critical of the three legally, out of the mistaken sense that it was the most important one. Modern audiences don’t care much about the legal niceties and assume that the blessing of the nuptials is the emotionally critical moment, but I’m far from convinced that an Anglo-Saxon would have seen it that way.
On the ride to Lyscombe, Mildrith reveals that there’s a complication. As she explains it, her dead father made an arrangement with ‘the Church’. She says that to find favor with God he gave the Church 1/10th of the yield of his estate, and ‘they’ demand this payment even when the crops fail or the Danes raid. The bishop sued her father. It’s not clear what court this was, but she says “the Church is the law, and the law decreed that my father owed them a huge sum.” He died right after that. Alfred, she says, could “remove the debt”, but he has chosen not to. Then she reveals that the amount owed is 2,000 shillings. There’s a lot wrong here, so let’s pick it apart.
In the Anglo-Saxon period, 1 librum (a ‘pound’) was worth 48 shillings, while 1 shilling was worth 4-6 pence (the exact exchange rate fluctuated over time, so let’s say it’s 5 pence to the shilling). 2,000 shillings is 10,000 pence or about 42 libra. Translating medieval currency into modern currency is quite difficult, since their economy was drastically different from ours. Instead of trying to declare an equivalent dollar amount, I’ll do what historians do and talk about prices in the Anglo-Saxon so you can get a sense of the buying power of that money. One shilling was enough to purchase a ewe and lamb, so that sum would purchase a massive flock of sheep. A common house dog cost about 4 pence. A sword cost around 240 shillings. 1 librum could purchase around 120 acres of land, so that sum would purchase around 5,000 acres. In other words it’s a huge sum of money.
Since that sum was accrued off of 1/10th of Mildreth’s estates, either her father had a massive estate of which we don’t see much evidence (since her hall is a small house in need of repair), or else her father let that debt run up for a very long time. If her father controlled estates large enough to generate that sort of debt in a just a few years, why was her handgeld so low? If she’s that rich, why didn’t any other noble try to marry her? (She says there were other suitors but “none suitable”, perhaps a reference to her god-sibling Offa Jr.) In other words, these figures don’t make a lot of sense based on what little evidence we have to work with.
But honestly, the math is the least of the issues here. It’s not clear who her father made this deal with. Was it the local church attached to her father’s estates? A local monastery? One of the bishops of Wessex? It’s never explained. I doubt it’s the local “parish” church (in quotations because the actual parish system won’t develop for a few more centuries), because if it’s on his land, he would probably be the proprietor of the church and therefore he’d be making a deal with himself and could let himself out of it if need be. What would make the most sense historically is that he made this deal with a local monastery, since early medieval nobles frequently made donations to a monastery that had an association with their family, in exchange for being able to retire there late in life, but I suppose he could have done it with the bishop for some reason. The fact that the bishop is the one who sued him would suggest that it was a deal with the bishop, so that’s what I’m going to say.
It seems highly unlikely that he signed this deal with the bishop personally. Most Anglo-Saxon bishops were monks, who were trained to think about money as being evil, so most bishops probably won’t have accepted such a deal personally, for fear that the gift might lead them into sin. Instead, Mildrith’s dad probably made the deal with the local cathedral as an ecclesiastical institution. So he probably made the contract with the dean or the treasurer of the cathedral chapter (as the staff of a cathedral was collectively known) and gave the gift to the cathedral for its support and maintenance, or perhaps to build a new chapel or something.
But whatever deal he struck was very odd. Normally, if a noble wanted to give a gift to an ecclesiastical institution he would make it in either movable goods (livestock perhaps, or much less commonly cash) or else he would give land free and clear. He would give an estate to the cathedral and the cathedral would take it over and manage it and it would become part of the permanent endowment of the cathedral. But that’s not what Mildrith’s father did. Instead, he gave the cathedral not the land, but rather some sort of usufructory rights on the land; he gave the cathedral the income from the land but not the land itself. And even more strangely, he didn’t give whatever produce or livestock the estate produced. He guaranteed the cathedral a set revenue from the estate regardless of how much the estate actually produced. That’s pretty bizarre, and it was an idiotic thing to do unless he was rolling in money and absolutely certain that he could afford to make up the difference between what the land actually produced and the revenue he had guaranteed to the cathedral. I’m not a specialist in medieval land law, but I’ve never run across a deal like that in my own research and it sounds suspiciously like it was made up to create a situation where poor Mildrith just happens to owe a vast sum of money she can’t pay. But perhaps some specialist in Anglo-Saxon land law can correct me on this.
But wait! There’s more! The bishop “took [her father] to law”. In what court? His own episcopal court? Her statement that the Church “is the law” seems to mean it was the bishop’s court. That strikes me as suspicious, because that would make the bishop simultaneously judge and plaintiff, a highly irregular situation. Technically, the archdeacon might have been the one to bring the suit, since they handled most of the bishop’s financial matters; perhaps Mildrith is just using ‘the bishop’ as short-hand for the clerical officials under the bishop, but it still amounts to the bishop bringing suit in his own court. Since the gift was probably made to the cathedral rather than to the bishop, it might have been the cathedral treasurer who brought the suit, in which case it would have been the treasurer as representative of the building suing Mildrith’s father in the bishop’s court, in which case the bishop did not bring the suit at all and the bishop sat in judgment. That’s the most likely scenario, if we assume that Mildrith is wrong about who brought the suit.
But if the suit was brought in the bishop’s court, it was done under canon law, which would explain her statement that the Church is the law. But if this was an entirely canon law matter, why can King Alfred ‘remove’ the debt? Does she mean that Alfred has the legal power as king to simply void the contract? The only way that makes sense is if the suit was brought in the royal court, following secular law, with the bishop (or deacon or treasurer) as plaintiff, Mildreth’s father as defendant, and Alfred (or one of his officials) as the judge, and even then it naively assumes that the king can just make up the law as he goes. If it was secular court case under royal law, her claim that the Church controlled the proceedings is nonsense, and if it was an episcopal suit under canon law, her statement that Alfred can waive the debt makes no sense. Perhaps she means that Alfred has the money to pay the bishop what is owed and simply refuses to do so. But if that’s the case, why would she assume the king would intervene to pay her father’s debts?
Now, on top of all that, the show assumes that because Uhtred is Mildrith’s husband, he is now locked into paying this debt. A conversation between Odda and Alfred confirms that this was part of Alfred’s intention. He wants to test whether Uhtred is reliable or not. But he’s forgotten one tiny detail. Anglo-Saxon law allows the groom to divorce his wife and sue her kin for fraud, which is pretty much what Alfred and Odda have just perpetrated. They’ve gotten Uhtred to marry on false pretenses, leading him to think that Mildrith is much wealthier than she actually is. Luckily for them, he’s as ignorant of Anglo-Saxon law as whoever dreamed up this scenario in the first place. He accepts that he’s on the line for the debt and it drives the next several episodes’ worth of action as he tries to find a way to pay the debt.
However, that legal gibberish is a masterpiece of detailed historical research compared to what happens in the next episode.
Uhtred leads an attack against the Danes and scores a major victory. He’s warned to present himself to Alfred before anyone else can claim credit for the victory, but instead he goes to Lyscombe to meet his wife and newborn son. This somehow allows Odda Jr to claim all the credit for the victory, because apparently no other Saxon at the battle noticed that Uhtred had single-handedly engineered it and because Alfred is apparently a gullible fool.
When Uhtred learns about this, he rides back to Winchester and barges into the royal chapel, interrupting a church service that Alfred seems to be leading personally (but, to be fair, there’s someone dressed like a bishop standing next to Alfred, so let’s assume the show understands that kings don’t get to lead church services). Uhtred rages at Odda Jr and draws his sword. This understandably pisses off Alfred, who declares that Uhtred has broken the king’s peace, broken the peace of Christ, and brought weapons into a sacred place. He declares that he will punish Uhtred and sends him out to wait in the courtyard.
Eventually Ealdorman Wulfhere shows up with Aethelwold (Harry McEntire) in tow, who has been caught drunk. Wulfhere tells Uhtred that the punishment for drawing a sword on the king is death. That’s doubtful, since Anglo-Saxon criminal law focused almost entirely on what injury has been done (no harm, no foul, basically), and injuries are either avenged with an equal injury or else handled by fine. Drawing a sword on the king might be an injury to his dignity or his peace, but it’s not the same thing as killing the king, so it would have been handled with a fine. But Alfred is being merciful. Instead of killing Uhtred, Alfred (via Wulfhere) sentences Uhtred to perform penance instead.
There is so much wrong here, I’d put my hands through the tv screen and strangle the scriptwriter if I could. Unfortunately I can’t. So I’m just going to have to explain what the hell penance is so that you too can see how idiotic this is.
Penance began in early Christianity as a way to make up for having committed a major sin, like sleeping with your wife’s sister or sacrificing to an idol. The original idea was that while minor sins could be readily forgiving, once a person was baptized, they were expected to avoid all egregious sin. But if they committed an egregious sin, they had one chance to make things right by confessing the sin and performing a penance to atone for the failing, such as prolonged periods of fasting (for example, fasting on every holy day for a year), prayer, alms-giving, and so on. For a grievous sin, this was a one-time ritual and having performed it rendered one to some extent a second-class congregant; for example those who had performed penance could not be ordained as priests and they could not receive the Eucharist until the bishop reconciled them to the congregation. In other words, this was a very severe religious punishment for a severe sin. It was not automatically a public matter, but penitents frequently made a public confession of their sin as part of the process.
By the 7th century, however, under the influence of early medieval monasticism, a new system emerged that is technically called Tariffed Penance. Under this system, penance was no longer simply for severe sins, but potentially for all sins. It was no longer a one-time ritual, but was rather to be performed repeatedly, as often as a sinner had need of it. Penance was now tariffed, meaning that the penance was graded according to the severity of the sin. This gradually gave rise to the sacrament of confession and penance employed in modern Catholicism (“say 10 Hail Marys” for that sin), which is still essentially Tariffed Penance.
But in order for penance to have any value, the sinner in question has to confess his sin to a priest and repent. And before he can do that, he has to actually be a Christian in the first place.
So there are several problems here. 1) Uhtred doesn’t see himself as a Christian and the people around him don’t see him that way either, although Alfred, Beocca, and Mildrith are trying to push him in that direction. There’s no point in him doing penance because he’s a pagan and is going to Hell regardless. 2) Uhtred hasn’t confessed any sin to a priest. He clearly doesn’t repent of anything he does in that scene because he’s convinced he’s right. No repentance, no confession. No confession, no penance. 3) Alfred isn’t a priest and doesn’t have the authority to impose penance on anyone. 4) Penance isn’t a punishment for a secular crime, which is specifically the thing that Wulfhere says Alfred is punishing Uhtred for. (Alfred did accuse Uhtred to two religious offenses (disrupting a church service and drawing a weapon in church), but that’s not what he’s actually punishing Uhtred for doing.) Penance is a punishment for sin, not crime.
So this is like Donald Trump sentencing someone who tweeted at him to say 10 Hail Marys. Actually that’s a poor analogy, because we have free speech laws. This is like Donald Trump sentencing someone who pulled a gun on him to say 10 Hail Marys. That’s not a great analogy either, because 10 Hail Marys isn’t a very serious penance. This is like is a scriptwriter who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about making up some bullshit because medieval people did penance and medieval people had kings, so clearly the two of those things must somehow intersect at some point.
As if all of that wasn’t dumb enough, the penance involves Uhtred and Aethelwold crawling through mud on their knees begging Alfred’s forgiveness while a crowd jeers and throws things at them. It’s true that some penances did have an element of public humiliation to them (condemned heretics sometimes had to participate in a barefoot public procession to a local church carrying a candle, for example), but while shame was a part of such procedures, it wasn’t meant to be a spectacle of ridicule like a public execution. Penance was intended to be a form of spiritual healing.
On this issue, The Last Kingdom is just another example of how people project nonsensical ideas about an all-powerful church back onto the medieval past while simultaneously making up whatever they want around law, because, hey, medieval law must not make any sense.
Want to Know More?
If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon marriage, there are a number of good books on Anglo-Saxon women, but unfortunately they’re all out of print. Helen Jewell’s Women in Medieval England covers more than just the Anglo-Saxon period, but it’s a good introduction to the topic.
If you want to know more about penance, Robert Meens puts the ritual into its social context in Penance in Medieval Europe.