Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites

Royal sites of Ireland

Our knowledge of royal inauguration sites in the pagan era of Anglo-Saxon England is scant. However there is good, and relevant, evidence from Ireland and Scotland. .

The four main provinces of Ireland

The four main provinces of Ireland.
Meath, in the centre, is regarded as the 'fifth quarter'.

So, before we look at the English evidence, here's a summary of what is known about the seats of the Gaelic kings of Ireland, places where assemblies, athletic games, and inaugurations were held. There are a number of locally-significant seasonal meeting places but each Irish kingdom seemingly had a pre-eminent one.

kingdommodern namemedieval name
UlsterNavan FortEmain Macha
LeinsterDún AilinneDun Ailinne or Knockaulin
ConnaughtCarnfree of the RathcroghanCruiachain or Cruachu
MeathThe Hill of TaraTeamhair


Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara doubled as the seat of the High King of Ireland. A sixth site – Uisneach, also in Meath – was seemingly not the seat of any one of the kings, although the various kings met there. Meath was a central place and thought of as the 'fifth quarter' of Ireland.

Archaeological investigations show these royal sites were culturally significant thousands of years before the first records in medieval times. All of these royal sites had ring-barrows, most had hillforts and linear earthwork avenues, while a few had cairns or standing stones. A composite mound and circular enclosure structure is almost unique to these royal sites, although not found at all of them. However absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as the preservation of the archaeology is inconsistent.

Literary sources refer to these places as cemeteries, suggesting veneration of ancestors would have been customary. These sources also tell of sacred trees, stone chairs or thrones, inauguration stones, stone basins and churches. Indeed sometimes some of these still survive.

Medieval Irish kings

Allowing for a few local differences, medieval Irish kings were regarded in the same manner their counterparts throughout Europe and into India over the preceding millennia. As such they need to possess exceptional skills of leadership. They were also required to fulfil various duties. Seemingly the king himself once acted as priest, judge and lawgiver, in addition to that of war-leader, as did many Germanic kings. However specialist 'castes' evolved to perform these different roles on behalf of the king – although he still retained overall responsibility.

As Daniel Bray put it in a chapter called 'Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship':

A great deal of the authority wielded by Irish kings depended upon the support of the des ddna, or learned class, to administer ritual confirmation, to provide genealogical and mythico-historical information, as well as to determine legal jurisdiction. The king simultaneously represented and transcended the social hierarchy, which provided for a role as the ideal intermediary between the divine and human realms, expressed through participation in communal ritual. […] According to the mythic ideology of kingship, then, the king appears to be an unique figure in the social order, on the one hand at its centre and on the other set apart from it; since just as the cosmos and the social hierarchy took form from the body of the first king, so the entirety of society and the cosmos is incarnated in the form of the king. […] The cardinal feature of sacral kingship, however, is the king's active participation in communal ritual, particularly rites of inauguration. As the embodiment of society, the king was the perfect representative of the totality of society, thus when he performed ritual, it was as if all his subjects were involved in that activity, greatly amplifying its efficacy. There are a number of different forms of inauguration ritual recorded, most of which involved some form of 'sacred marriage' (Greek. hieros gamos), referred to as a banais ríghe, or 'wedding-feast of kingship', to a figure which represented the sovereignty of the land.
(Bray 1997)

Kings walked a tightrope of controlling the 'assets' of their kingdom. Fundamentally this provided some sort of buffer against poor harvests or the need to finance armies either to defend against or raid other kingdoms. One the one hand the king and his agents exacted tributes. The king acquired part of his status by displaying that wealth in the form of a lavishly-decorated hall and such like. But he was also expected to distribute a large part, either as gifts to individuals or as more general hospitality at feasts. A popular king was one who combined personal wealth with generous gifts, shared fairly.

Classical sources tell of Lovemius, a king of Gaul, who sponsored an enormous feast which was served continuously for several days to all who arrived. Lovemius rode through the fields distributing gold and silver to the crowds that followed, inspiring a poet to proclaim that 'even his chariot-tracks gave gold and benefits to the people.'

On the other hand, as Daniel Bray describes:

'the king could be deposed for being too stingy, as occurs in the Second Battle of Mag Tured, when king Bres of the Fomoire loses his claim to sovereignty upon the utterance of the first satire by the poet Cairbre Mac Etain, 'for their [the Tuatha De Danann's] knives were not greased by him, and however often they visited him their breaths did not smell of ale. Moreover, they saw not their poets nor their bards nor their lampooners nor their harpers nor their pipers nor their jugglers nor their fools amusing them in the household. They did not go to the contests of their athletes. They saw not their champions proving their prowess at the king's court'.
(Bray 1997)

Daniel Bray's article Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship is online and well worth reading in its entirely as it sheds considerable light on the sacred nature of medieval Irish kingship. He is able to draw a number of close parallels with Indian royal rites, strongly suggesting than there is a shared tradition spanning a great expanse of time and place.

The all-important leeks

However there is comparatively little evidence for Germanic kingship. But what evidence has come down to us is, however, consistent with this broader perspective. So we can make reasonable assumptions about how kings were regarded, as well as what they did, for the Anglo-Saxons in their north European homelands as well as their newly-settled homes in Britain.

Some aspects of Anglo-Saxon inaugurations we can be fairly clear about. Firstly, these were not 'coronations' as crowns were still a good few centuries into the future. Secondly, there is one word which is used in both medieval Irish and Old English inauguration rites. This is læc (also transcribed as læce or just lac). And the various interwoven meanings of this word tells us a considerable amount about Anglo-Saxon kingship.


Although I discuss læc in more detail in another article (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol) for the moment it is worth repeating that the 'potency' denoted by the word læc is symbolised by leeks. This is because leeks are 'potent' – something a king needed to be, in every sense. Wild leeks, with a more bulbous root than modern cultivars, are among the most phallic of north European plants. And their strong or 'potent' smell adds to this allusion. If you ever wondered why the Welsh regard the daffodil as their national emblem it is because the name in Welsh is Cenhinen Bedr or '(St) Peter's leek'. And, as any of those who – like me – studied Shakespeare's Henry V at school will recall, Shakespeare has the king tell the Welsh warrior Fluellen that he is wearing a leek because 'I am Welsh, good countryman.'

So the links – albeit rather tenuous – between good kingship and leeks are maintained right at the end of the sixteenth century. Indeed, a vestige is still common currency today. Literally. Those who take the trouble to turn over their coins will see the leek as one of the emblems used on the pound coin as a way of recognising that Wales is one part of the United Kingdom.

Leac mostly appears to refer to the flattish-shaped stone or flagstone on which the king stands for his inauguration – they are sometimes called a læcestan. We know of such stones at Dunadd (near Lochgilphead) and Finlaggan (on Islay). Some of these stones have survived – and a few have an oversized footprint in the surface where, presumably, the king placed his foot at the decisive moment.

Footprint in Stone cover

Janet Bord's research resulted in a book devoted to footprints in stone.

The best example of a surviving læcstan is the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, used for the inauguration of Scottish kings until it was hijacked by Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey to be used for the investiture of English monarchs ever since. Flat stones evolved into rock-cut stone chairs, and thence into free-standing thrones.

Stone of Scone

Stone of Scone

Until recently the Stone of Scone formed part of the coronation throne in Westminster Abbey (top photograph); in 1996 it was returned to Scotland and is now on display in Edinburgh Castle.
Meanwhile, a replica has been created for Boot Hill at Scone (bottom photograph).

The full sense of lęcestan is revealed quite explicitly by the other well-known Stone of Destiny – though one known by an Irish not Old English name, Lia Fáil. It is phallic. It is the Stone of Potency. And this is the full sense of lęc in lęcestan. In pre-Christian times Anglo-Saxon kings would deploy this power. It was known as the king's hęl – a word which seems to have the same sense as the Scandinavian word hamingja, 'the luck of the gods' which came from the king's special relationship with the gods.

The Lia Fáil at Tara

The Lia Fáil at Tara.


Some gateposts to fields in Ireland would seem to fit rather well with the term 'læc'. This ivy-clad example in Downpatrick, county Down, was spotted by Anthony Weir; more examples at Ireland and the phallic continuum.
Perhaps such stones have their origins as 'boundary protectors', icons of the potency of the landowner – see Weohs and stapols

We still give læc to brides at weddings today. Not in the form of leeks but keys. And, long before Sigmund Freud seemingly invented the notion of 'phallic symbols', keys had been regarded as penis-surrogates. There are several bawdy Anglo-Saxon riddles which reveal that, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, a key needed to fit snugly into a lock…

So when back in the 1960s and '70s we gave brides a rather kitsch silver-covered piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a key – or merely a greeting card embellished with keys – at one time this was for læc. We simply forgot what the word læc meant and substituted 'luck'.

However those who are tempted to think that locks have something to do with læc because they sound almost the same are mostly wrong. There is a whole cluster of Germanic words, such as lock, leek and luck, with a variety of meanings which may once have come from a common root – or maybe two early homophones – but which long ago evolved into distinct strands of meanings.

The king alone stood on the mound

Forgetting weddings, and reverting to royal inaugurations. The king's 'special relationship with the gods' formed a key stage in the rite. At some point the king stood alone on a mound, as only he could intercede with the deities on behalf of his subjects. This is a powerful suggestion of the religious as well as secular power of these kings. This should however not to be confused with the 'Divine Right' of Jacobean kings or the current monarch's title of 'Defender of the faith', but be seen as leadership of all aspects of life.

A clue as to the deep – and antiquity – of this divine kingship can be gained from the origins of the modern word 'royal'. In Anglo-Saxon and throughout German-speaking northern it denoted, as now, anything pertaining to a king. But this meaning steadily – and rather slowly – evolves from an earlier meaning of 'pertaining to a god'. The Old English and Old Norse word reg is also cognate with 'regal', royal' and 'rule' – all of which come from a common root meaning 'to rule, to lead straight, to put right'. But that leadership was originally that of god not a mortal monarch – the word reg in Old English and Old Norse means 'gods', not kings.

While the exact chronology when reg and its related words denoted 'god' rather than kings is open to extensive debate, it was a time when 'god' did not denote exclusively male deities. Indeed, that time is sufficiently far back for ideas of female sovereignty of the land to still be very much part of peoples' understanding. In other words, the mortal king was 'merely' the consort to the female sovereignty, the tutelary goddess. How far back this idea goes is open to speculation but we see a clear echo still resonating in the medieval Irish rite of royal inauguration which Gerald of Wales found so distasteful (see The queen of the valley).

Modern ideas of royalty and regal heads of state do not bring to mind someone who is best placed to intercede with the gods. This is just not how we think of modern monarchs! Modern people think instead of walking into a church, or just saying their prayers in their own homes, and God will hear them. Or at least Protestant modern-day people will. Before the Reformation this would have been, quite literally, unthinkable. Before the Reformation priests – pagan or otherwise – were the only ones who could talk to God. At best a lay person could pray to a saint, asking them to intercede on their behalf. (As an aside, modern pagans differ from all traditional paganisms in this key respect, as modern pagans adopt the Protestant assumption that they can talk to the 'universal' deities directly, rather than only through a priest or local tutelary deity.)

The fact that a king – hitherto a lay person, not a priest – could at the time of his inauguration 'leap frog' the role of the priests and become the pre-eminent link between his subjects and the deities was something quite profound. When the king 'stood on the mound alone' a substantial ontological transformation was thought to have taken place.

We probably find it hard to share the belief that the king was more important than the priests when it came to getting in touch with God. However a rather similar belief was still widespread in the seventeenth century when the 'King's Touch' was sought as a cure for a diverse range of illnesses – Charles II was the last monarch to make himself available for such 'treatments'.

Apart from people brought up as Catholics, we probably find it even harder to get our heads around the idea that only kings and priests could communicate with the greater gods – the doctrines of Protestant Christianity have become integrated into the unquestioned assumptions of modern secular societies.

The notion of kingship within various Indo-European societies seems to have started out as an analogy of the king being a 'benign herdsman' of his people. As Daniel Bray describes:

While upholding the dharma (sacred law) he was expected to extend his sway, to gratify his subjects, to control them with power, and above all to protect them with care. One of his first responsibilities was to see that the people were fed, not by making 'social laws', but by bringing rain and fertility. Without planning his subjects' welfare in any modem way he was their herdsman, the mediator, on their behalf, between the earth and the powers of heaven.
(Bray 1999: 115)

He was, to borrow a biblical expression, the 'good shepherd' of his subjects.

Surviving royal mounds



(Top:) Boot Hill, Scone.
(Bottom:) Tynwald, Isle of Man.

Some of these mounds have survived, such as Boot Hill (the name is a corruption of 'moot hill') at Scone, where medieval Scottish kings were crowned and held some of their national parliaments, and the Tynwald on the Isle of Man which is still the place where the Manx 'parliament' (strictly, the High Court of Tynwald) meets every midsummer.

Two speculative inauguration mounds

King's Stone

The King's Stone at Rollright, with the top of the adjacent mound in the middle distance.

Close to the stone circle at Rollright here is a long mound next to the King's Stone. These two monuments straddle the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire boundary. The mound was once thought to be a Neolithic long barrow – it is certainly the right size – but is actually a natural feature. The folklore associated with Rollright is, famously, about a king and his retinue who were turned to stone. Is this perhaps a distorted recollection of the mound by the menhir once being used for royal inaugurations? Neither historians, archaeologists or folklorists can offer any evidence which confirms such a key role in the early Anglo-Saxon era – but, as ever, any such evidence would be scant and unlikely to survive.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill, from the summit of Waden Hill

The same is not quite true of another putative inauguration mound. Its the biggest man-made mound in Europe before the modern era. And there is a good reason to think it was once called King's Hill – although it isn't now. And there is some archaeological evidence of an Anglo-Saxon 'fort' – although the meagre finds mean that this term needs to be taken loosely, and may only refer to one phase of its use.

I am referring of course to Silbury Hill, the famous late Neolithic monument close to the Avebury henge and stone circle. But seventeenth century folklore tells of a King Sil buried under there with either golden armour or a golden horse. And, in the local Wiltshire dialect, someone saying 'King Sil' would sound the same as someone saying 'king's hill'. As –burh means earthwork in Old English then my suspicion is that Silbury Hill starts off as cynings hyll burgh, which has the literal meaning of 'king's hill fort'. Sometime in the later medieval period (perhaps around the time Chaucer's 'wife of Bath' was travelling along what we call the A4 from Bath, past Silbury Hill, towards London and thence Canterbury) when the meaning of these words was beginning to be lost, these names were conflated into 'Silbury Hill', presumably via a corruption (or even intentional mickey-take on the local pronunciation of cynings hyll) 'King Sil's burh' which in due course lost both the prefatory 'king' and the medial consonant 's' (both ways of contracting place-names are well-attested).

The summit of Silbury was certainly a fort in the later Anglo-Saxon period, when the Vikings were making a nuisance of themselves. Prior to that, this part of Wiltshire was also 'debatable lands' on the borders of Wessex and Mercia and at least three battles were fought to gain control in the decades spanning the start of the ninth century. The 'best of three' at Ellendune near Wroughton in 825 went in favour of the Wessex team and at that point Wiltshire as we know it came into existence. Previous 'Wilton shire' extended only as far north as the Wansdyke running a couple of miles to the south of Silbury Hill.

We know nothing of the use of Silbury Hill in the earlier Anglo-Saxon era. It might have been a fort then too. But we do have good reason to think that Waden Hill, which stands between Silbury and the Avebury henge, was the cult centre for the Canningas tribe in the pre-conversion period (see Places of Anglo-Saxon worship). Anyone standing on the summit of Waden Hill can look across to the summit of Silbury. It would be a perfect place to watch the newly inaugurated king ascend to the summit to be nearer the deities…

Waden Hill

Waden Hill, Avebury – possibly the cult centre for the Canningas.
In the foreground are two stones of the Neolithic double stone row or 'Avenue'.

There is also another possible clue. We know that in southern Scandinavia some of the royal sites – some with inauguration mounds – had rows of stones, sometimes double rows. And on the side of Waden Hill hidden from Silbury there is the only surviving prehistoric double stone row in Britain – the West Kennett Avenue. Now this Avenue does not lead towards Silbury (unlike the Scandinavian counterparts) and there is a mismatch of a few centuries between the Scandinavian evidence and when Anglo-Saxon kings were possibly being inaugurated on mounds in England. Not to mention an absence of any evidence for direct contact between southern Scandinavia and England at that time (although both cultures are made up of 'ex-pats' from homelands in Germany).

Even if the double stone row along the side of Waden Hill is not too convincing as evidence, the location of Silbury Hjill next to a cultic hill, its name and later use all suggest that this impressive hill would have made an impressive ready-made venue for a royal inauguration.

If this suggest has some validity then it would make Silbury a close parallel to the way Armargh functioned as an Irish royal centre, as discussed in detail by Nicholas Aitchison in his book Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland (Aitchison 1994: 236–40; 283)

Uffington white horse

Uffington white horse

And, if so, we raise the spectre of Irish kingship and the ritual marriage to a horse representing the sovereignty of the land. So it might be relevant that Silbury Hill is ringed by giant white horses cut into the chalk. The nearest one is at Cherhill, tucked down below the summit of a hill visible from Waden Hill – a summit still crowned by an impressive Iron Age hill fort called Oldbury. The white horses at Alton Barnes, Broad Hinton and Pewsey are all within walking distance (don't quibble – in my twenties I walked from near Avebury to Pewsey in a morning… ). Of course all these white horses only date back a few centuries at best – but the tradition does seem to have older roots as indicated by the white horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire, seems to confirm and the now-lost red horse at Tysoe (on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border – see Hohs and hlaws ).

Alton Barnes white horse

Alton Barnes white horse.
The mound on the top of the hill behind the horse is a Neolithic long barrow now known as Adam's Grave, but previously as Woden's Burg ('barrow'). A battle was fought there in 592.

While I am of course stretching my neck out to suggest that Wiltshire's white horses are successors to Anglo-Saxon ancestors, what better way to 'manifest' the sovereignty of the land – who would be close kin to the horse goddesses such as Epona (see The deities of the Anglo-Saxons) – than to carve her into the land? I am well aware that the modern hill figures have nothing in common with how we might expect Epona to have been depicted. But, given the known history of their creation, why would they? They were certainly not created to fit in with any notions of a pagan past. But the need to create them, and their enduring popularity for both locals and tourists, makes them the most recognisable 'personifications' of the Wiltshire downland landscape. And even Epona couldn't have asked for better than that…

Something all women desire

The passing reference to the Wife of Bath is not entirely gratuitous. One of the few references to female sovereignty in Middle English literature, and perhaps the only one, is when Chaucer has the Wife of Bath inform her travelling companions that the achievement of the sovereignty, although rarely attained by a woman, is something which all women desire (lines 1037–40). What could be read into these lines tell us, however, more about later medieval mentalities than those of Anglo-Saxon England.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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