Books: When Violence and Piety Went Hand in Hand ; Blood Feud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Fletcher ALLEN LANE Pounds 14.99; the Death of One Nobleman at Canute's Court Led to 60 Years of Savagery. Fiona Hook Explores the Social Conventions of Killing

Article excerpt

On a gusty March day in 1016, Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, the most important man in England north of the Humber, came with 40 followers to make submission to England's new ruler, King Canute. Entering the smoky hall, he stood before the king and was cut down with Canute's connivance by an old enemy, Thurbrand, thus sparking a chain reaction of violence and counterviolence covering 60 years, three generations and the conquest of England by the Normans.

Uhtred's murder laid on his kinsmen the solemn duty to kill the man who carried out the crime. This was entirely proper to his contemporaries. The prosecution of a feud to Anglo-Saxon society was governed by social conventions as rigid as those of a Philadelphia cotillion. You kill one of mine, I kill one of yours and so on without end. Mediation and negotiated settlement with the exchange of gifts were possible, but feuds are like volcanoes. They can be reactivated, sometimes by overt incidents, but more often because one or other of the parties just feels like it, even after years.

Our sources for the prosecution of the Uhtred feud are very sparse. His death is reported in one line of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We don't know why Thurbrand hated him. Professor Fletcher employs that useful historian's tool, the intelligent guess, to suggest that Thurbrand owned land at the other end of Northumbria and that their enmity was about jockeying for power in an area where southern kings seldom came, and never without a large armed escort. The local magnates were semi-independent princes. Canute found Uhtred's loyalty suspect, so he had him removed, giving the earldom to a Danish crony.

Our knowledge of subsequent events, like so much of medieval history, has come down to us by accident as a sideline to something else. In this case, from a Durham monk who was writing a short pamphlet tracing the history of six estates in lower Teesdale belonging to the bishopric of Durham, at one stage the dowry of Uhtred's first wife, Ecgfrida. He's not interested in the quarrel. "Let my pen return to more important matters," he remarks crisply after telling his tale.

"Ealdred killed Thurbrand his father's murderer," is his telegraphic announcement of the feud's next stage. His readers would have understood that this was a matter of honour, not a crime to be punished by due process of law. Ealdred was reconciled with Thurbrand's son Carl by the intervention of mediators, so much so that they swore brotherhood. Their projected pilgrimage to Rome never came off. Instead, Carl entertained Ealdred splendidly at his manor house near Beverley, took him for a walk one day, and killed him. In due course, a change of regime from Saxon to Norman notwithstanding, Ealdred's grandson Waltheof avenged that murder by cornering all Carl's sons and grandsons during a family feast at Settrington near York and killing nearly all of them, probably in the winter of 1073-74. The feud terminated when William the Conquerer, never a man to mess about, beheaded Waltheof after an unsuccessful rebellion. …