The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The annals were created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple manuscript copies were made and distributed to monasteries across England and were independently updated. In one case, the chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.
Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value, and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred's reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC, and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other. However, taken as a whole, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the Norman Conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere. In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence.
The earliest extant manuscript, the Winchester Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes. This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser's use of a version of the Chronicle in his work Life of King Alfred, known to have been composed in 893. It is known that the Winchester manuscript is at least two removes from the original Chronicle; as a result, there is no proof that the Chronicle was compiled at Winchester. It is also difficult to fix the date of composition, but it is generally thought that the chronicles were composed during the reign of Alfred the Great (871–99). Alfred deliberately tried to revive learning and culture during his reign, and he encouraged the use of English as a written language. The Chronicle, as well as the distribution of copies to other centres of learning, may be a consequence of the changes Alfred introduced.
Of the nine surviving manuscripts, seven are written entirely in Old English (also known as "Anglo-Saxon"). One is in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. Another, the Peterborough Chronicle, is in Old English except for the last entry, which is in early Middle English. The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Winchester Chronicle or the Parker Chronicle (after Matthew Parker, an Archbishop of Canterbury who once owned it). Six of the manuscripts were printed in an 1861 edition by Benjamin Thorpe with the text laid out in columns labelled A through F. Following this convention, the three additional manuscripts are often called [G], [H] and [I].
The surviving manuscripts are listed below; though manuscript G was burned in a fire in 1731 and only a few leaves remain.
|A||The Parker Chronicle or The Winchester Chronicle||Corpus Christi College, Cambridge||MS. 173|
|B||The Abingdon Chronicle I||British Library||Cotton MS. Tiberius A vi.|
|C||The Abingdon Chronicle II||British Library||Cotton MS. Tiberius B i.|
|D||The Worcester Chronicle||British Library||Cotton MS. Tiberius B iv.|
|E||The Laud Chronicle or The Peterborough Chronicle||Bodleian Library||MS Laud 636|
|F||The Bilingual Canterbury Epitome||British Library||Cotton MS. Domitian A viii.|
|G or A2 or W||A copy of The Winchester Chronicle||British Library||Cotton MS. Otho B xi., 2|
|H||Cottonian Fragment||British Library||Cotton MS. Domitian A ix.|
|I||An Easter Table Chronicle||British Library||Cotton MS. Caligula A xv.|
The manuscripts are all thought to derive from a common original, but the connections between the texts are more complex than simple inheritance via copying. The diagram at right gives an overview of the relationships between the manuscripts. The following is a summary of the relationships that are known.
[A]: The Winchester Chronicle
The Winchester, or Parker, Chronicle, is the oldest manuscript of the Chronicle that survives. It was begun at Old Minster, Winchester, towards the end of Alfred's reign. The manuscript begins with a genealogy of Alfred, and the first chronicle entry is for the year 60 BC. The first scribe stopped with the year 891, and the following entries were made at intervals throughout the 10th century by several scribes. The manuscript becomes independent of the other recensions after the entry for 975. The book, which also had a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine bound in after the entry for 924, was transferred to Canterbury some time in the early eleventh century. The last entry in the vernacular is for 1070. After this comes the Latin Acta Lanfranci, which covers church events from 1070–1093. This is followed by a list of popes, and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium. The manuscript was acquired by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1559–1575 and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, following the dissolution of the monasteries, and bequeathed to the college on his death. It now forms part of the Parker Library.
[B] The Abingdon Chronicle I
[B] was written by a single scribe in the second half of the 10th century. It begins with an entry for 60 BC and ends with the entry for 977. A manuscript that is now separate (British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178) was originally the introduction to this chronicle; it contains a genealogy, as does [A], but extends it to the late 10th century. It is known that [B] was at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, because it was used in the composition of [C]. Shortly after this it went to Canterbury, where interpolations and corrections were made. As with [A], it ends with a list of popes and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium.
[C] The Abingdon Chronicle II
[C] includes additional material from local annals at Abingdon, where it was composed. It also includes an Old English translation of Orosius's world history, followed by a menologium and some verses of the laws of the natural world and of humanity. There follows a copy of the chronicle, beginning with 60 BC; the first scribe copied up to the entry for 490, and a second scribe took over up to the entry for 1048. [B] and [C] are identical between 491 and 652, but differences thereafter make it clear that the second scribe was also using another copy of the Chronicle. This scribe also inserted, after the annal for 915, the Mercian Register, which covers the years 902–924, and which focuses on Aethelflaed. The manuscript continues to 1066 and stops in the middle of the description of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the 12th century a few lines were added to complete the account.
[D] The Worcester Chronicle
[D] appears to have been written in the middle of the 11th century. After 1033 it includes some records from Worcester, so it is generally thought to have been composed there. Five different scribes can be identified for the entries up to 1054, after which it appears to have been worked on at intervals. The text includes material from Bede's Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals. It is thought that some of the entries may have been composed by Archbishop Wulfstan. [D] contains more information than other manuscripts on northern and Scottish affairs, and it has been speculated that it was a copy intended for the Anglicised Scottish court. From 972 to 1016 the sees of York and Worcester were both held by the same person—Oswald from 972, Ealdwulf from 992, and Wulfstan from 1003, and this may explain why a northern recension was to be found at Worcester. By the 16th century, parts of the manuscript were lost; eighteen pages were inserted containing substitute entries from other sources. These pages were probably written by John Joscelyn, who was secretary to Matthew Parker.
[E] The Peterborough Chronicle
In 1116 a fire at the monastery at Peterborough destroyed most of the buildings. The copy of the Chronicle kept there may have been lost at that time or later, but in either case, shortly thereafter a fresh copy was made, apparently copied from a Kentish version—mostly likely from Canterbury. The manuscript was written at one time and by a single scribe down to the annal for 1121. The scribe added material relating to the abbey which is not in other versions. The Canterbury original which he copied was similar but not identical to [D]; the Mercian Register does not appear, and a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, in 937, which appears in most Chronicles, is not recorded. The same scribe then continued the annal through 1131; these entries were made at intervals and are presumably contemporary records. Finally, a second scribe, in 1154, wrote an account of the years 1132–1154; his dating is known to be unreliable. This last entry is in Middle English, rather than Old English. [E] was once owned by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633–1654, and so is also known as the Laud Chronicle.
[F] The Canterbury Bilingual Epitome
At about 1100 a copy of the Chronicle was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably by one of the scribes who made notes in [A]. This version is written in both Old English and Latin; each entry in Old English was followed by the Latin version. The version the scribe copied is similar to the version used by the scribe in Peterborough who wrote [E], though it seems to have been abridged. It includes the same introductory material as [D] and, along with [E], is one of the two chronicles that does not include the "Battle of Brunanburh" poem. The manuscript has many annotations and interlineations, some made by the original scribe and some by later scribes.
[A2]/[G] Copy of the Winchester Chronicle
[A2] was copied from [A] at Winchester. The last annal copied was 1001, so the copy was made no earlier than that; and an episcopal list appended to [A2] suggests that the copy was made by 1013. This manuscript was almost completely destroyed in a fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, where the Cotton Library was housed. A few leaves remain. However, a transcript had been made by Laurence Nowell, a 16th century antiquary, and it was used by Abraham Wheloc in an edition of the Chronicle printed in 1643. Because of this, it is also sometimes known as [W], after Wheloc.
[H] Cottonian Fragment
[H] consists of a single leaf, containing annals for 1113 and 1114. In the entry for 1113 it includes the phrase "he came to Winchester"; hence it is thought likely the manuscript was written at Winchester. There is not enough of this manuscript for reliable relationships to other manuscripts to be established.
[I] Easter Table Chronicle
Part of [I] was written by a scribe soon after 1073. After 1085, the annals are in various hands and appear to have been written at Christ Church, Canterbury. At one point this manuscript was at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury.
Contemporary annals began to be kept in Wessex during the 7th century. The material compiled in Alfred's reign included annals relating to Kentish, South Saxon, Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon history, but, with the exception of the Cynewulf entry, does not gather momentum until it comes to the Danish invasions of the late 8th century onwards. The Chronicle grew out of the tradition of the Easter Tables, drawn up to help the clergy determine the dates of feasts in future years: a page consisted of a sequence of horizontal lines followed by astronomical data, with a space for short notes of events to distinguish one year from another. As the Chronicle developed, it lost its list-like appearance, and such notes took up more space, becoming more like historical records. Many later entries, especially those written by contemporaries, contained a great deal of historical narrative under the year headings.
As with any source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution. For example, between 514 and 544 the Chronicle makes reference to Wihtgar, who is supposedly buried on the Isle of Wight at "Wihtgar's stronghold", which is "Wihtgaræsbyrg" in the original. The name "Isle of Wight" is derived from the Latin name "Vectis", so it does not derive from Wihtgar. The actual name of the fortress was probably "Wihtwarabyrg", "the stronghold of the inhabitants of Wight", and either the chronicler or an earlier source has misinterpreted this as referring to Wihtgar.
The dating of the events recorded also requires care. In addition to dates that are simply inaccurate, scribes occasionally made mistakes that caused further errors. For example, in the [D] manuscript, the scribe omits the year 1044 from the list on the left hand side. The annals copied down are therefore incorrect from 1045 to 1052, which has two entries. A more difficult problem is the question of the date at which a new year began, since the modern custom of starting the year on 1 January was not universal at that time. The entry for 1091 in [E] begins at Christmas and continues throughout the year; it is clear that this entry follows the old custom of starting the year at Christmas. Some other entries appear to begin the year on 25 March, such as the year 1044 in the [C] manuscript, which ends with Edward the Confessor's marriage on 23 January, while the entry for 22 April is recorded under 1045. There are also years which appear to start in September.
The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes. It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred's court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty. This is not universally accepted, but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings' depredations. An example can be seen in the entry for 829, which describes Egbert's invasion of Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, after Egbert conquered Mercia and Essex, he became a "bretwalda", implying overlordship of all of England. Then when he marched into Northumbria, the Northumbrians offered him "submission and peace". The Northumbrian chronicles incorporated into Roger of Wendover's 13th-century history give a different picture: "When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute."
Occasionally the scribes' biases can be seen by comparing different versions of the manuscript they created. For example, Ælfgar, earl of East Anglia, and son of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, was exiled briefly in 1055. The [C], [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:
Another example that mentions Ælfgar shows a different kind of unreliability in the Chronicle: that of omission. Ælfgar was Earl of Mercia by 1058, and in that year was exiled again. This time only [D] has anything to say: "Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd. And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened." In this case other sources exist to clarify the picture: a major Norwegian attempt was made on England, but [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it. It has sometimes been argued that when the Chronicle is silent other sources that report major events must be mistaken, but this example demonstrates that the Chronicle does omit important events.
The three main Anglo-Norman historians, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, and Henry of Huntingdon, each had a copy of the Chronicle, which they adapted for their own purposes. Some later medieval historians also used the Chronicle, and others took their material from those who had used it, and so the Chronicle became "central to the mainstream of English historical tradition".
Its importance is not limited to the historical information it provides, however. It is just as important a source for the early development of English. The Peterborough Chronicle changes from the standard Old English literary language to early Middle English after 1131, providing some of the earliest Middle English text known.
Beginning in the 1980s, a new set of scholarly editions have been printed under the series title "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition". Some volumes are still projected, such as a volume focusing on the northern recension, but existing volumes such as Janet Bately's edition of [A] are now standard references. A recent translation of the Chronicle is Michael Swanton's The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which presents translations of [A] and [E] on opposite pages, with interspersed material from the other manuscripts where they differ.