How did the code of loyalty/kinship work in Anglo-Saxon society?
Loyalty and kinship were two very important influences on Anglo-Saxon society – the society that helped produce the Old English epic poem known as Beowulf. It isn’t surprising, for instance, that the poem opens with a long genealogy describing various Danish kings, beginning with Shield Sheafson (in the translation by Seamus Heaney) and ending with his descendant Hrothgar. Even before twenty-five lines have passed the poet explicitly touches on the connection between loyalty and kinship by declaring that
. . . a young prince must be prudent . . .,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterward in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. (20-24)
The irony of these lines, of course, is that Beowulf himself will later prove to be a truly exemplary king, yet his men will disloyally desert him in his hour of greatest need. Yet it will be one of his closest kinsmen – Wiglaf – who will also be his most loyal thane. Such behavior indicates how closely loyalty and kinship were often bound together during this period. Kinsmen, above all, were expected to be most loyal to one another.
Beowulf, for instance, is particularly loyal to the man (Hygelac) who is not only his king but also one of his closest kinsmen. When Beowulf is first mentioned in the poem, he is introduced as “Hygelac’s thane” (194) – that is, Hygelac’s loyal follower. Indeed, Beowulf seems to feel an especially strong loyalty to Hygelac, as when, introducing himself to a Danish coast guardsman, he identifies himself and his followers by saying,
“We belong by birth to the Geat people
and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac.” (260-61)
Here and throughout the poem (at least until Hygelac’s death), Beowulf is always more than ready to make clear his loyalty to the man who is both his king and his closest of kin.
Interestingly, when Hrothgar hears that Beowulf the Geat has come to help the forlorn Danes deal with the monster, Grendel, he immediately assumes that Beowulf is coming to repay Hrothgar for the friendship the latter had shown to Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow (456-72). He explicitly explains that “Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance” (472). Thus, in Hrothgar’s mind at least, Beowulf is showing loyalty to his father by showing loyalty to Hrothgar and by offering Hrothgar assistance in the latter’s hour of need. This moment is just one among many in the poem in which loyalty and kinship are tightly tied together.
Another such moment occurs when Beowulf, having returned from Denmark with gifts from Hrothgar, immediately gives those gifts to Hygelac, the man who is both his king and his kinsman. The poet explicitly praises this kind of behavior, saying,
. . . So ought a kinsman act
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades. The warrior king
was uncle to Beowulf and honored by his nephew:
each was concerned for the other’s good. (2166-71)
It would be hard to ask for a more explicit statement of the ideal connection between kinship and loyalty than the passage just quoted.