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The King’s Closest Counselor: The Legal Basis of Wealhtheow’s Comments to Hrothgar, Beowulf 1169–87

Nathan A. Breen

DePaul University

Abstract:  Treatments of Wealhtheow in Beowulf scholarship have traditionally viewed the queen either as an extension of Hrothgar, serving a ceremonial function in Heorot, or as a potentially subversive character, undermining the power structure of Heorot and creating strife. Primarily, these studies have been onomastic, cultural, or literary in nature, and have yielded great insight. However, as this essay demonstrates, the legal ramifications of Wealhtheow’s speech have been largely ignored. Yet, it is within the context of Anglo-Saxon legal culture, as witnessed by the various law codes, writs, wills, and diplomas (and as supported by Germanic custom), that the queen’s advice to Hrothgar concerning his informal adoption of Beowulf shows her political savvy and elevates her status within the poem, perhaps mirroring the roles of some Anglo-Saxon queens. Wealhtheow’s speech recalls the primary prohibition of Hrothgar’s kingship—that he should not alienate land from the kingdom or give his people away—as she skillfully protects the right to accession of the throne for her young sons.

Click here to read this article from The Heroic Age (n.14, 2010).