The Politics of Hegemony and the ‘Empires’ of Anglo-Saxon England

Matthew Firth


The term ‘empire’ is frequently applied retrospectively by historians to historical trans-cultural political entities that are notable either for their geographic breadth, unprecedented expansionary ambitions, or extensive political hegemony. Yet the use of the terminology of empire in historical studies is often ill-defined, as exemplified by the territorial hegemonies of Æthelstan (r. 924 – 939) and Cnut (r. 1016 – 1035). In their programs of territorial expansion and political consolidation, modern historians have credited both Æthelstan and Cnut as the creators and overlords of trans-cultural European empires. Yet common characteristics that warrant categorisation of the polities they governed as ‘empires’ are not readily discernible. Not only were the regions each controlled territorially and culturally distinct, but their methods of establishing political dominance and regional governance were equally varied. This raises the question as to whether the term 'empire' can be considered to define a distinct and coherent category of political power when applied to medieval monarchical hegemonies. By analysing the Anglo-Saxon ‘empires’ of Æthelstan and Cnut within the frameworks of empire set out by modern political theorists, this paper will establish whether the structural commonalities of their domains supersede their inherent diversity, thereby justifying a common categorisation as ‘empires.’


Empire; Political Theory; Æthelstan; Cnut the Great; Anglo-Saxon Studies; Hegemony

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