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Thomas Vare

History, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

Kinship and Power in Mercia in the Long Eighth Century

My project uses an interdisciplinary methodology to investigate how kinship, status and power was expressed within Mercian royal families in the long eighth-century (from Penda, d. 655, to Ceolwulf I, 821–3). These phenomena have been little studied in eighth-century Mercia, despite the contemporary dominance of that kingdom in Britain, and a well-established historiography on the medieval royal family. My project will investigate dynastic policies of Mercian kings and their familial implications, through analysis of a wide range of contemporary texts including charters, letters (especially the Boniface/Alcuin collections), hagiographical texts (eg: Vita Æthelberhti), genealogies and Mercian material culture (coins, manuscripts, sculpture and architecture). 

The dynastic and familial underpinnings of early English kingship have been studied. Nevertheless, there has been little research on the dynastic policies of Mercian kings. At varying times, descent from historical or semi-historical ancestral figures such as Penda, Icel or Pybba was important, and Offa (757–96) attempted to create a tightly formalised and exclusive kingship, drawing upon Carolingian kingmaking practices such as anointing. My project will investigate how these policies defined the royal family, in theory and practice. To this end, the genealogical representation of Mercian dynasties will be a major focus, especially the ‘Anglian Collection’ (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian B.vi, fols 104–9). Early English genealogies have been examined as political assertions, however, the ‘Anglian Collection’ lacks recent scrutiny and new work on Insular Manuscripts opens more lines of inquiry. 

The political and familial roles of Mercian royal women, particularly queens, is a central theme. The roles of queens in pre-Viking Mercia have been surveyed and the influence of early medieval royal women has been studied. However, the position of each Mercian queen has not been properly contextualised and their relationships to wider familial identities remains unexplored. My study will use relevant Frankish and Anglo-Saxon comparanda, gender theory, and insights from Women’s History, to enrich understanding of early English queenship and female expressions of power.  

This project will also explore the importance of religious houses (eg: Repton, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Bedford, Cookham) as expressions of Mercian dynastic identity. The socio-political power of Anglo-Saxon religious houses has been studied including those in Mercia. The architectural and newly-catalogued sculptural record is ripe for re-evaluating elite patronage of Mercian monasteries, especially in the Nene Valley (Northampton, Brixworth, Brigstock), and the network associated with the Anglo-Saxon abbey at Peterborough.

Religious houses, dynastic policies, and queenship were all interlinked expressions of Mercian royal familial identity and by researching and comparing them to neighbouring Anglo-Saxon and European traditions I hope to both increase our overall understanding of the Mercian polity and early medieval dynastic and familial identity.

Research Area

  • History