Places of Royal Power and Ritual in Early Medieval Scotland and Europe

18 June 2021, 9.30am to 5pm. content

18 June 2021, 9.30am to 5pm.

East Lomond Hill

This conference is the culmination of a series of workshops on early medieval Kingship and its attendant rituals funded by a grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It aims to explore the diverse range of evidence for early medieval of kingship and ritual in Scotland within a wider European setting and thus bring new light to an under researched area. Contributions come from a range of disciplines, including archaeology, art history, history and onomastics. Despite the excellent research to date, particularly across Europe, the physical dynamics of how kingship operated in Scotland and how it related to the rest of Europe remains under-explored.

This full day conference is held online in conjunction by the Institute for Northern Studies of the University of the Highland and Islands and Perth Museum and Art Gallery.  Attendance at this online event is free. Please read our privacy notice to find out how we will treat your data


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Morning Session 9.30am to 11.00am content

Morning Session 9.30am to 11.00am

Morning Session 9.30am to 11.00am

9.30am to 9.45am

Introduction with Mark Hall and Alex Sanmark

9.45am to 10.05am

Adrián Maldonado: Feasting with Latinus: Whithorn as the seat of a Late Antique regulus 

The excavations led by the late Peter Hill at Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway are widely understood as revealing one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. While the early Christian site is undoubtedly significant, new analysis and dating evidence is forcing a rethink of the earliest phases of the sequence. A poorly-understood late Roman phase was followed by an early medieval settlement marked with a fifth-century Latin-inscribed stone bearing a Christian invocation. The following two centuries of the sequence were interpreted as the beginnings of a monastery, but re-dating of the cemetery shows burial began at least a century or more later than the early settlement. The fifth to seventh-century sequence is characterised by feasting activity, including copious amounts of luxury imported ceramic and glass vessels from Gaul and the eastern Mediterranean, alongside metalworking and apparently ceremonial but ephemeral timber structures. The archaeological signal is reminiscent of early royal and proto-royal settlements in northern and western Britain. New work on the formation of a ‘British’ identity on the edges of the Roman province of Britannia suggests that Latinity and Christianity were crucial elements in the formation of Late Antique power structures within the militarised zones of north and west Britain. These duces and reguli were then in a position to profit from the vacuum created by the transformations of the fifth century. The precocious adoption of the Christian faith and the Latin language at Whithorn can best be explained not as the foundation of an early monastery, but a seat of a Late Antique regulus or perhaps a wealthy bishop. This raises new questions about the role of Christianity, alongside other evidence for cult action, in the formation of rituals of power in the mid-first millennium.

10.10am to 10.30am

Ewan Campbell: Characterising early royal sites: Scotland in an Insular context

Excavations at a number of historically documented royal sites in Atlantic Britain and Ireland dating to the 6 th and 7th centuries enables identification of a suite of shared archaeological characteristics in terms of site form and material culture. These features include strong defences, presence of precious metals (especially gold), consumption of imported pottery (and its contents) and glass vessels, and large-scale production of personal jewellery. Other sites which share these characteristics can be postulated to be have been royal. The material culture of these sites is remarkably similar, except for the form of the brooches and pins produced. Some aspects of the form and function of the sites differ, and these are examined to see if regional patterns can be discerned. Local topography may have influenced the choice of site locations, but similar types are seen over broad areas, for example from Scotland to Wales. The relationship of these royal settlement sites to inauguration sites, ecclesiastic centres, and prehistoric ritual monuments varies. It is suggested that these fortified royal sites and the activities within them represent a key stage in the development of kingship and kingdoms in the Celtic-speaking areas. The trajectory of kingship in Germanic speaking areas of England seems to have followed a different path. By the later first millennium most of these sites were abandoned, as the creation of larger polities necessitated different strategies of royal control.

10.35am to 10.55am

Jane Geddes: Royal Ritual in Pictish sculpture: the foundation of St Andrew’s and Solomonic ceremonies 

My previous paper in this conference series suggested that the St Andrew’s Sarcophagus provides a Pictish interpretation of Psalm 44, whereby the dominant David figure represents Onuist as an anointed king. This was backed up by wording from the Frankish Ordines which use the same imagery for the rite of royal unction. This paper examines another carved panel at St Andrew’s , hitherto interpreted as David harping, and proposes it is an altar frontal showing a dramatic representation of Onuist’s foundation relic, as described in the St Andrew’s Foundation legend. A clutch of stones with highly contested iconography, Hilton of Cadboll, Aberlemno roadside, Meigle 2, Sueno’s stone and finally the Scone seal are then discussed in terms of the royal adventus, not relating to Christ entering Jerusalem but of the anointing of Solomon. Again, the Frankish ordines provide liturgical back up for the use of this imagery at a royal consecration.


Morning Session 11.15am to 13.50pm content

Morning Session 11.15am to 13.50pm

Morning Session 11.15am to 13.50pm

11.15am to 11.35am

John Borland: Just how Pictish was Perthshire?

Adamnán tells us that the mountain range of Druim Alban separated the Kingdom of Dál Riada from Pictland. Although he does not specify its location, Druim Alban is generally considered to be the mountains that separate Glen Lochy to the west and Strath Fillan to the east. This would put the modern county of Perthshire in its entirety firmly in Pictland, a fact that few would dispute. The presence of simple cross-marked stones alongside Pictish sculpture at ecclesiastical sites such as Fortingall and Dull indicates a strong Dalriadic influence in western Perthshire. Indeed the prevalence of these simple crosses throughout the area suggests that influence was not restricted to a few major Christian centres. This is backed up by place-name evidence. In contrast, Pictish sculpture is conspicuous by its absence in western Perthshire. This paper will look at the nature and distribution pattern of Early Medieval sculpture in western Perthshire and ask what it tells us about who might have controlled this part of Pictland.

11.40am to 12.00pm

Thomas Clancy: Kings’ feet or the marks of angels? Stone footprints revisited

There has been general consensus in the literature regarding stone footprints at royal and inauguration sites that they should be regarded as belonging to the complex of kingship imagery, and related to the relationship between the rightful king and the land. The evidence for this interpretation is, however, fairly late in comparison with the artefacts themselves. This paper will argue that, whereas in the later middle ages these footprints may have been understood as part of the imagery of the king in relation to the land, their initial origins may lie elsewhere. The paper will focus on Dunadd, and propose that the introduction of a footprint at the site was instead prompted by contemporary knowledge of sites in the Holy Land and in Europe at which the marks or footprints of holy beings (Christ, the Archangel Michael) were part of the visual offerings to pilgrims. A particular emphasis will be laid on the cult of St Michael and the early accounts of his shrine at Monte Gargano.

12.05pm to 12.45pm

Sam Leggett and Tom Lambert: Food and Early English Kingship (I and II)

Where did early medieval kings get their food from and what were they eating day-to-day? These two papers interrogate the system of food renders (often termed ‘feorm’) by which, it is widely accepted, early royal households were supported. Data strongly suggests that this system did not work in the way the literature supposes. These papers are an interdisciplinary attempt to work through this insight, and to build on it to enhance our understanding of early political structures and provisioning of elite households. The first portion is focussed on the archaeological evidence, primarily from Early Medieval England, with a core focus on bioarchaeology. The isotopic evidence in particular is now at a stage where we can re-evaluate at a large scale assumptions of social status and consumption patterns across early medieval Europe and integrate it with other strands of evidence with fascinating results. The second section focuses on the historiography and documentary evidence for feorm and elite consumption interrogating both in depth. How much and what kinds of food are asked for in these texts, how many people could that have fed and for how long, and how often would these have reasonably been expected? We tackle questions of elite consumption and economic organisation, the implications of which are far-reaching and raise questions about the nature of early medieval Kingship.

12.50pm to 13.50pm Lunch Break


Afternoon Session 1.50pm to 3.30pm content

Afternoon Session 1.50pm to 3.30pm

Afternoon Session 1.50pm to 3.30pm

1.55pm to 2.15pm

Heidi Stoner: ‘A Hall Must Stand, and Itself Grow Old’: the signifiers of kingship in early medieval England. 

Neither buildings nor material culture has survived in a complete or perfect form from the Anglo-Saxon age, yet what has survived provides glimpses into the daily lives of Anglo-Saxons. Visual culture in Anglo-Saxon England is often limited to what remains within an archaeological context, limiting the discussion the fragmented and partial picture of the past. The kings of the early medieval insular world are suffused into the landscape through the burial, the foundations of royal centres and the forming of kingdoms through battlefields. In each of these processes the king, himself, remains invisible and unfigured. Yet, the signifiers of this early medieval kingship can be seen in the incredible wealth and ornament surviving in burials and images from the period. This paper seeks to address the visual signifiers that stands for the king, and by extension power and authority. Those objects that formed part of the daily visual culture become signifiers of status, role and habitual practices which become ingrained within the cultural consequence evidenced in language, texts, and images. This daily spectacle and ritual is accessible through a multi-disciplinary approach to the Anglo-Saxon world. This paper will address this fragmented visual culture of daily life in Anglo-Saxon England, taking in to account the textual record of material culture, in order to hypothesis about the cultural significance of everyday objects and their role in the contexts of the hall and enthronement. The space occupied by a king has come to be defined by the things that a king has: sword, sceptre, crown, and throne. In looking closely at both texts and images, perhaps it is possible to imagine how the manipulation of imagery may have been used to redefine kingship in early medieval England.

2.20pm to 2.40pm


David Petts: Monasteries as royal residences in early medieval Britain

This contribution aims to consider the way in which early medieval monasteries might be framed as royal residences. Members of royal dynasties interacted with monastic sites in many ways: as objects of benefaction, as sites of temporary residence, as the site of royal assemblies, as institutions requiring leadership and as places to retire too. Exploring the archaeological and textual evidence from Britain and Ireland, this paper will explore how the royal presence at such sites might be reflected archaeologically, and consider how a better understanding of the multivalency of such sites might help in our understanding of how such sites functioned.

2.45pm to 3.05pm

Jakub Morawiec: Origins of tøglag metre and the royal power rituals at the court of Cnut the Great.

In 1028 Cnut, the king England and Denmark, attacked Norway. His army met no resistance, especially from the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, who fled via Sweden to Rus’. Taking control over Norway closed period of important and spectacular Cnut’s activities outside England featuring an encounter with Norwegian-Swedish army trying to invade Denmark in 1026 and pilgrimage to Rome combined with an assistance at Conrad II’s imperial coronation in 1027. These events showed Cnut not only as effective ruler over his own Anglo-Danish dominion but also redefined his position in Europe as rightful Christian monarch and respected partner in political game. Significance of these events was not ignored by a circle of skalds active at Cnut’s court in Winchester. A series of Poems on Cnut (Knútsdrápur) was composed at that time in order to praise king’ both military and political achievements. A poetic response included origins of a new metre, called tøglag (journey-metre), devoted exclusively to highlight king’s recent travels. This new poetic initiative is reflected by two poems: Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Knútsdrápa and Þórarinn loftunga’s Tøgdrápa. The aim of my presentation is to investigate to what extend both compositions allow one define skaldic activity (composition, delivery) as part of royal rituals and their role in depiction of Cnut as monarch and scope of his royal power.

3.05 to 3.30pm Tea Break

Afternoon Session 3.30pm to 5pm content

Afternoon Session 3.30pm to 5pm

Afternoon Session 3.30pm to 5pm

3.35pm to 4.15pm

Anne Irene Riisøy and Karl Christian Alvestad: King’s Sagas 1.

Anne Irene Riisøy: Placing kings in the King’s sagas

Although Snorri Sturlason’s Heimskringla is the most famous, different kinds of histories of the Norwegian kings are preserved; concise synopsis, longer works, the majority written in Old Norse, some written in Latin, some describing kings living hundreds of years before the saga was penned on parchment, and some were contemporary sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries. As the name implies, the king’s sagas have a common theme throughout, the king and the king’s doings and his whereabouts. The king’s whereabouts concern us here. Kingship in the saga-age was by and large itinerating, and kings were normally not settled at one place for long. ‘Place’ denotes a physical location, that is created, regulated and has meaning, and often associated with power. The king’s sagas make occasional notes of places associated with kings, but hitherto this theme has not been systematically explored. We will ask the following questions: At which places were kings staying, why and when, what characterizes such places and which activities were going on there? What came first, place or king, i.e. was the place important because the king came there or was the place important regardless of the king, but the king had to be there? We will also investigate whether the presence of the kings led to special ritual being performed in said places. Parallel to these questions is the issue of whether the different king’s sagas present a rather similar, or divergent, picture of kings and places, and, if so, can this be related to sub-genre or to when the action purports to have happened (i.e. some sort of historical consciousness)?

King’s sagas 2: Karl Christian Alvestad: Kings places in the King’s sagas as lieux de mémoire

Taking the outcome of the paper Placing kings in the King’s sagas as our point of departure, in this paper we wish to explore the legacy of royal sites. Of course, not every royal site gained a legacy, but some clearly did. Here we wish apply Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire to explore which places or sites (lieux) that the nation, community or group of people, consider to be an essential part of their identity and which contain the collective memories from the past are invested. This paper will attempt to apply this framework to the use of sites both in the Viking Age and the medieval period, and in the post-medieval period. We argue that the repeated use and visit to specific sites, including but not limited to Stiklestad, Borre, Avaldsnes, etc., not only were places of power and ritual, but also places of memory and that the active use of these sites through ritual and rule invoked these memories as a tool for social and political cohesion and legitimacy. Paralleled with this hypothesis, the paper will also explore how places in the Heimskringla were transformed and actively used as sites of memory in the post medieval period. We will particularly pay attention to how sites mentioned in Heimskringla was used in the 1906 coronation voyage by King Haakon VII and Maud, but we will also highlight how these sites and their legacies have evolved since then. In so doing, we seek to reflect over the longevity of such sites of memory over time.

4.20pm to 4.40pm

Oisín Plumb: Memories of Pictish royal power in places of Christian ritual

The memory of Pictish secular authority remained strong in local church foundation accounts long after the end of the Pictish kingdom. It is notable that in the origin accounts of several churches, the original bestowal of land to the Church comes from an unambiguously Pictish king or noble. This is despite the long-recognised process of ‘depictification’ in medieval hagiography, which led to Pictish men and women in the church coming to be portrayed as Gaels. The discussion will focus on surviving church foundation accounts of establishments in formerly Pictish locations, such as those of St Andrews, Deer, Loch Leven and Abernethy. It will consider why Pictish secular authority is given such a prominent role in these texts and ask if these accounts can tell us anything of the legacy of royal authority in Pictland and its relationship with places of Christian ritual, both in the Pictish period and as perceived in later ages.

Discussion & Close – finish by 5.00pm