In Bede's Ecclesiastical History, 2.5, there's a phrase that appears to be the subject of some debate:

Nam primus imperium huiusmodi Aelli rex Australium Saxonum; secundus Caelin rex Occidentalium Saxonum, qui lingua ipsorum Ceaulin uocabatur; tertius, ut diximus, Aedilberct rex Cantuariorum; quartus Reduald rex Orientalium Anglorum, qui etiam uiuente Aedilbercto eidem suae genti ducatum praebebat, obtinuit; quintus Aeduini rex Nordanhymbrorum gentis...

My copy (Oxford, 1999), translated by Colgrave, renders the bolded phrase as:

who even during the lifetime of Æthelberht was gaining the leadership for his own race

But that's quite different from L. C. Jane's translation:

who, whilst Ethelbert lived, had been subservient to him

The note in my copy reads:

Various translations have been suggested, each altering its significance. What it seems to be saying is that Rædwald obtained independent rule over his own people, the East Angles, even during the lifetime of Æthelberht of Kent. It is notable that the author of the Anglo-Saxon translation of EH was equally perplexed, and omitted the entire phrase.

Is this a reasonable interpretation? What is it about this phrase that makes it so difficult to interpret?

  • I think the issue with translation has a lot to do with the complexity allowed by Latin grammar, not always paralelled by modern languages. Being no grammar expert, I see quite a complex relative clause, with two (arguabliy three) verbs: you either translate it as more than one sentence, or agree to loose meaning.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 17:34
  • 2
    I think obtinuit isn't part of this phrase at all, but is the main verb of the sentence (taking the various kings as subjects and imperium as object). Colgrave's translation makes sense to me; Jane's doesn't, because it overlooks etiam and because while Athelbert reigned it would not make sense for anyone to "offer/provide the leadership" to him.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 18:44
  • I see it like this: Reduald obtained something -what? -Ducatum -which one? -the same one he was pursuing for his people (eidem suae genti) -when was he pursuing it? -of course at the time he obtained it, but also he was already pursuing it when Aedilberct was alive.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 19:00

3 Answers 3


For what it's worth, here is how I see the passage.

One interpretation is to to assume that eidem refers to Aedilberct. Then one reads suae genti ducatum as "the leadership of his people". It is this leadership that he offered to Aedilberct: ille ducatum eidem Aedilbercto praebebat. This means being subordinate to Aedilberct. This approach has severe problems: The word obtinuit makes little sense and one would expect suae gentis ducatum instead of the dative. I don't know if any of the translators thought this way.

Because of these issues I would consider eidem to modify suae genti, but that feels a bit fishy, too. It could also be that eidem refers to Reduald, but I would have expected sibi instead.

It seems to me that praebebat and obtinuit have the same object, ducatum. It makes sense that Reduald obtained leadership, but it is a weird combination that he would also offer it. I see two ways around this: Perhaps he offered leadership to his people and then obtained it; the people recognized him as their leader. Or perhaps praebere does not mean "to offer" but "acquire" (my Finnish–Latin–Finnish dictionary offers such an option); he tried to gain power for his people and succeeded.

No matter which way I approach the passage, it sounds fishy. The difficulty seems to boil down to two questions: What does praebere mean here? And, more importantly, what does eidem refer to?

Added: Thanks to comments from TKR, I have refined my opinion. First, obtinuit is the predicate of the sentence Nam primus imperium huiusmodi Aelli rex Australium Saxonum … obtinuit. It is unrelated to the rest of the boldface passage. Second, eidem seems to refer Reduald's own people (the people last mentioned, Orientales Angli). I still feel a bit uneasy about this, since eidem and suae express almost the same thing and this combination feels somehow wrong. Other explanations make less sense, so I see it just as a way of adding emphasis. This brings me essentially to Colgrave's translation, so I will not give a new translation.

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    Eidem suae genti going together makes good sense to me. Eidem here would mean "the same one just mentioned": "the king of the East Angles, who was acquiring the primacy for that same people even while A. was alive..." As for obtinuit, I think it's outside the clause -- see my comment above.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 18:47
  • @TKR, I now see what obtinuit does, and things make more sense. Regarding eidem, do you mean that suae means Aedilberct's? I originally read it as referring to Reduald, but the other people makes more sense after a fresh reading.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 20:10
  • No, I think it does mean "Reduald's own people". I don't see how it can refer to Aedilberct, since it's reflexive.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 21:19
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    Oops, I did mean East Angles, you're right. I think eidem adds the sense "the same one that was just mentioned" -- it's not strictly necessary from an informational standpoint, but I don't think it's unusual from a narrative one.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 21:57
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    @TKR, ok, now I think I fully understand what you are saying. I will try to remember to work these new insights into the answer tomorrow. Thanks! (I edited the first comment.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 22:02

My Latin is poor, so this is only guesswork too long to suggest in comments. Hopefully someone more knowledgeable can confirm my guesses here or correct my errors.


Elsewhere in similar historical records, obtinuit seems to mean "took office", as in chronologies of who served as bishop or archdeacon at a certain place, etc. For example, Prioratum obtinuit anno 1478: he became Prior in 1478. The verb obtineo suggests receiving something that already exists, and indeed in the small sampling of these chronologies that I looked at, this verb seems to appear often in sequences, describing the continuity of a single office as a succession of different people hold it. In many instances, obtinuit combines with ab to indicate who appointed the person to the office; e.g. the office was "obtained from" the Pope. I've also seen tradidit ("handed on").

If that is correct, then imperium obtinuit means "obtained the realm", that is, took over as ruler of all the kingdoms—became a sort of emperor. Some cursory googling suggests that this is indeed a common way of putting it. If so, then ducatum is not the object of obtinuit.


Many of the names of the medieval offices that go with obtinuit seem to end in -atum, which I'm guessing is cognate with English -ate in the same contexts. For example, Archidiaconatum obtinuit = he became archdeacon. Decanatum obtinuit = he became dean, though I'm less sure of this one. Note that in English we usually say "became archdeacon", but the Latin literally translated is "obtained the Archdeaconate".

Following that analogy, in this context ducatum might specifically mean "the Dukeship" or "a Dukedom" rather than leadership in general. See here for other instances of ducatum in similar records.


So, paring down the sentence, this:

Quartus Reduald rex Orientalium Anglorum, qui etiam uiuente Aedilbercto eidem suae genti ducatum praebebat, [imperium] obtinuit.

would mean:

  1. Rædwald, king of the East Angles, became the fourth to hold rule over all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even while the previous such ruler, Æthelberht, was still alive, Rædwald granted a dukedom (or granted independence) to his (Æthelberht's) people.

A problem with this translation is that suae is reflexive and Rædwald is the subject. Possibly, though, Bede intended the apparently redundant eidem suae genti (to his own same people) to relocate the referent of suae to Æthelberht. This would agree with etiam, since the passage would point out something unexpected.

The big question is: did Æthelberht lose the imperium while he was still alive? If so, then the sentence by Bede would mean that Rædwald took the imperium while Æthelberht was still alive and gave the Kentish people some kind of official status as an autonomous dukedom. This chronology says that when Rædwald took the imperium, he did not control Kent, viewing it instead as a peer. So perhaps in this sense, he granted Kent ducatum, meaning autonomy, self-leadership (only a guess of mine).

If suae is Rædwald, then in order to make sense, you'd probably have to interpret ducatum as leadership, as in Colgrave's interpretation, with the somewhat hazy implication that the East Angles were moving up in the world during Æthelberht's lifetime:

  1. Rædwald, king of the East Angles, became the fourth to hold rule over all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even while the previous such ruler, Æthelberht, was still alive, Rædwald provided leadership to his (own) people.

By the way, notice that Æthelberht is called rex Cantuariorum, not rex Cantiæ, that is, king of the Kentish People, not king of Kent. This seems to agree with genti. However, the same applies to Orientalium Anglorum, so this doesn't help resolve the ambiguity.

Finally, note that praebebat is imperfect. My first translation above would fit a lot better with the perfect tense. The imperfect tense suggests the second reading, but I'm not aware of praebere being used in that sense. (That sense might have plenty of currency; I'm just not familiar enough with the literature to know. Can anyone here point out an interesting source?) So, for now, I'm favoring the first translation: Rædwald did not conquer Kent, even as he assumed the imperium from Æthelberht.

Why so ambiguous?

As for why the passage is so ambiguous, there seem to be several different ways to hook up the grammar and sense, none of which is fully satisfactory. Simon Keynes goes over several interpretations in "Rædwald the Bretwalda". It seems strange to say that Rædwald "supplied leadership" to his own people; isn't that what kings normally do? Why etiam, then, which suggests something beyond expectation? It might make sense to say that Rædwald offered Æthelberht leadership of the East Angles, but that would be ducatum suae gentis. Ducatum seems like it's there to contrast with imperium: it's a smaller sort of imperium. "Rædwald was leading his people's advancement during Æthelberht's imperium" (Colgrave's interpretation) violates common usage of praebebat. My translation #1 (originally proposed by Hanna Vollrath-Reichelt in 1971) seems to violate common usage of suae.

The trouble might actually result not from the grammar as much as from the ambiguous nature of the imperium itself. If the imperium is something vague, like a tendency on the part of leaders on the Continent to write to you when they want to address all the Anglo-Saxons through one person, but does not imply military supremacy or recognition at home, then it won't agree with modern expectations about hierarchical relations among leaders. Æthelberht might be bretwalda but at the same time he might sometimes be subservient to Rædwald; the situation changes continually as battles are won and alliances shift.

The imperium also violates the expectation that a ruler is ruler for life and that these rulers were consecutive with no long gaps between them. For example, Ceawlin's Wikipedia page says there was an approximately 50–year gap between Ælle and Ceawlin, and mentions that even during his bretwaldaship, Ceawlin often lost control of some of the kingdoms. The chronology mentioned above suggests that Æthelberht's failure to broker an agreement between the Roman Church and the Celtic Church around 603 damaged his credibility as bretwalda. Rædwald became bretwalda in 616, so there may have been another long gap.

The passage might even be Bede's way of saying that holding the Anglo-Saxon imperium doesn't necessarily mean that you were the top dog always and everywhere. And then again, it might just be a transcription error, as suggested by Henry Hallam here.

  • Oops, TKR's comment elsewhere just reminded me that suae is only reflexive. That pretty well knocks out my first translation. Now my only doubt about the second translation (which is about the same as Colgrave's) is whether there is precedent for praebeo meaning "demonstrates a quality". Or perhaps the meaning is comparable to "won independence for his people".
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 17:09
  • Well, after thinking and browsing Google Scholar some more, I think it's not out of the question that suae refers to Æthelberht. I've updated the answer with more tidbits.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 23:48

I praise the scholar effort of Ben and Joonas.

Even though I feel I am not even close to give such a thorough answer, I think I can add some complementary insights. Particularly, I'd start with the last question, which seems to me -correct my if I am wrong- as an important part of the concern:

What is it about this phrase that makes it so difficult to interpret?

I think the point has become clear that there is some ambiguity in the construction, especially: which role are both verbs playing and to whom is the reflexive reflecting.

It must not be ignored that Latin allows for intricate, even recursive, relative clauses. In fact there are plenty of examples of written Latin sentences that simply cannot be translated as just one into modern languages. This special freedom is not exempt of greater risks of ambiguity.

IMHO, the fact that most of us are not 100% certain of what the author really meant (not even the translators agree) is nothing but evidence of such ambiguity. (Moreover, I see some advantage in not assuming that just every sentence that has been preserved from historic times is free of error, even grammatical ones).

Some additional ideas:

  1. Although I agree that the reflexive may be intended to either Æthelberht or Rædwald, I see qui in nominative while eidem in dative, and can't help but think that suae means Redualdi. I ignore whether, as suggested in the comments, it could be some grammatical feature particular to medieval Latin, or whether I am wrong with this notion.
  2. Regarding the verbal form obtinuit, I do not see alternatives to it being the main verb of the sentence: Reduald rex Orientalium Anglorum is the subject of obtinuit. And its object cannot be other than ducatum, the leadership. (Unless it is treated as intransitive??!!)
  3. As for praebebat, I feel inclined to think that the subject is also R, sharing the object with the main sentence (which is a strange alternative, yet the most plausible to me). That is the best I can do with the nouns's cases. I think some of the meanings of the verb are consistent with R not having power yet, meaning that he was pursuing or claiming such power at the time Æ was alive.
  4. Regarding the most-contentious eidem suae genti, I see it as separate complements: R was holding forth power to Æthelberht (eidem), for [the sake of] his people/clan (suae genti). I think this reading is more likely than willing to give power to the people in the historical context.

I am still not 100% convinced of this. Either due to my own incomplete knowledge or (maybe?) the author's ambiguity (or both? Clearly I'm not the one to certify that). A good translation is beyond my knowledge of English, but I'll try my best:

quartus Reduald rex Orientalium Anglorum, qui etiam uiuente Aedilbercto eidem suae genti ducatum praebebat, obtinuit;

Fourth, Redwald, king of the Eastern Angles, who obtained for his clan the leadership he was claiming from Æthelberht while he (the later, i.e. Æthelberht) was still alive.

  • I think the whole passage Nathaniel quotes is one huge sentence. There is a list of subjects, different kings, separated by semicolons. They all share the same predicate obtinuit. However, this explanation admittedly (which I only now realize!) has the weak point that the list continues after Reduald. Hmm... (I made some small grammar edits to your answer. Feel free to roll back or re-edit.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:26
  • I see it just as a list of kings, separated by semicolons. The fourth one happens to have a relative clause needing a full sentence. I don't see a contradiction for obtinuit to be linked to Redwald only.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:33
  • The beginning "Nam primus imperium huiusmodi Aelli rex Australium Saxonum" does not have a predicate if the sentence terminates at the semicolon. The predicate could semantically well be obtinuit, but it comes so much later that I'm inclined to believe that the kings in between are all intended as subjects. This is why I find having Reduald as the only subject unlikely. The listed subjects can well come with relative clauses. The passage is tricky and ambiguous, so I can't say I'm sure of anything, though.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:37
  • Remember that in Latin you can sometimes omit the verb: the first leader was Aellus, the second one was Caelin, the third one was Aedilberct, the fourth one Redwald, etc. Maybe my mother language is biasing me, but I see the semicolons as pretty clear separators in an enumeration. Besides, why would obtinuit be in such a weird location? Which would be its singular subject?
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:50
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    It is not uncommon to omit esse, but the sentence has an accusative object (imperium) requiring a transitive predicate. Use of punctuation was not always the same it is today. With this in mind, I mentally modernize the semicolons into commas. For some reason I find "Imperium primus Aelli, secundus Caelin, tertius Aedilberct, quartus Reduald obtinuit." quite natural elliptic structure. That said, I just want us to understand each other's readings, not argue that mine is any better.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:59

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