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"Hostage Diplomacy in Anglo-Saxon England: A Look at the Use of Hostages in Warfare and Negotiations


This article explores how Anglo-Saxon England used hostages during warfare and diplomatic negotiations. Hostages were often kept to ensure their own leader behaved well, and hostage exchanges were important to make sure both sides kept to their agreements. The article discusses the Treaty of Wedmore Agreement, how hostage exchange was used in Anglo-Saxon England, and what happened to hostages during the reign of Æthelred II. The article concludes with a list of sources for further reading on the topic.

Treaty of Wedmore Agreement

The agreement between Alfred and Guthrum, known as the Treaty of Wedmore, effectively divided England into two halves: one under Danish control and the other under English control. The boundary was marked by Watling Street, which stretched from London to Chester. The land to the north of this street would be under Danish-inspired law, a region that eventually became known as the Danelaw. Alfred and his family were left with the remaining English Mercia and Wessex.

In a later negotiation, the Danes sought surrender under terms more onerous than before. They offered to give as many hostages as the king wanted without demanding any in return, a condition that had never been agreed upon before. This marked a significant defeat for the Viking army of the ninth century. This negotiation was followed by the baptism of Guthrum, who was given the English name Athelstan. He emerged as a Christian leader in a Christian land, and the Danes agreed to leave Wessex, providing Alfred with the opportunity to rebuild an expanded kingdom.

However, the agreement was not always upheld. The Danes broke their oath, which was sworn on their own holy ring, possibly an arm ring associated with Thor. They killed all their hostages and headed for Exeter, breaking the treaty. Despite this, Alfred continued to negotiate with the Danes, even offering extraordinary mercy at times. The Danes eventually granted Alfred 'as many hostages as he wished to have', implying that the king was able to choose them. This was followed by another agreement, again sworn on oath.

The Danes Break Agreement

The Danes broke their agreement with Alfred in a few ways. Initially, they had sworn an oath on their own holy ring, possibly an arm ring associated with Thor, to bind them to their agreement with Alfred. However, they violated this oath when they left Wareham one night, killed all their hostages, and headed for Exeter, thus breaking the treaty.

In another instance, Alfred managed to secure oaths from the Northumbrians and the East Anglian Danes not to attack him. He procured six 'prime' hostages from the East Anglian Danes. However, the English-based Danes did not keep to this agreement. They continued to aid their cousins in the southeast of the country by supporting their raiding and foraging activities during this uneasy stand-off. The fate of the 'prime' six hostages is not recorded in the document.

Furthermore, after the Treaty of Wedmore, which divided England into a Danish and an English-controlled half, the Vikings twice broke their agreement and sent raids into the wooded heartlands of southern England. Despite these breaches, Alfred continued to negotiate with the Danes, showing extraordinary mercy at times.

Role of Hostage Exchange

Hostage exchanges played a significant role in the history of the Anglo-Saxon era, particularly in the context of warfare and negotiations with enemies. These exchanges were often used as a method to ensure the keeping of an agreement between two parties, typically involving leaders of opposing sides. The hostages were usually individuals of noble background or members of a fighting force, kept at the court of their captors to ensure the good behavior of their own master, the captors' enemy.

The process of hostage exchange was often risky and gritty, with the hostages sometimes treated with little regard. The fate of these hostages could be grim, with some being blinded, mutilated, or incarcerated. However, there were also instances where hostages were treated well enough and kept at court. The story of the hostage is described as the story of Anglo-Saxon warfare.

The effectiveness of hostage exchanges varied. There were instances where deals were broken, oaths meant nothing, and treaties were ignored. However, there were also occasions where the method worked very well. The value of the oaths sworn during these exchanges was dependent on whether they were sworn on relics or holy items that held significance to the oath taker.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the use of hostages in the period covered in the document, particularly in entries for 874 and 876. In 874, the Danes granted the kingdom of Mercia to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish king's thegn, on the condition that he would be obedient to them, which likely involved the exchange of hostages. In 876, King Alfred made peace with the Danes, who granted him hostages and swore oaths on a sacred ring.

In the new Anglo-Danish world that emerged after the Treaty of Wedmore, hostages could be given as surety against fraudulent trading activity. However, there were periods where no recorded deals involving hostages were made, such as during Alfred's grand military and ecclesiastical reforms.

The role of the hostage once again became prominent during the reign of Æthelred II, when the Scandinavian raiders returned to England. Hostage negotiations in the ninth century were described as a bloody and dangerous game, with each phase in a campaign involving an upping of the stakes for both sides. The fate of hostages was often uncertain, with many likely being truly rescued by the king of the Anglo-Saxons after decisive victories against the Danes.


Annotated Bibliography

  • Stenton, F. M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

This book provides a comprehensive overview of Anglo-Saxon England, including the political and social context of the period.

  • Keynes, S. (2001). "Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources". Penguin Classics.

This book focuses on Alfred the Great, one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon kings. It includes Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources.

  • Kirby, D. P. (1992). The Earliest English Kings. Routledge.

This book provides an in-depth look at the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings, including Alfred the Great.

  • Foot, S. (2011). The Making of Angelcynn. Hambledon Continuum.

This book explores the formation of the English nation during the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of historical documents written in Old English. It covers the period from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England to the Norman Conquest.


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