Sunday 7 January 2024

The Kingdom of the Hwicce

As you probably know, I love researching and writing about the history of Mercia. There’s so much to find when we start digging around; legacies and connections that lead to interesting stories and link to decisive moments of history. Today I want to narrow the focus to one part of what became Greater Mercia.

The early history of this midlands kingdom is complicated but it was, in essence, composed of a central core, expanding by absorbing other smaller kingdoms and tribal areas, much in the way that other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms developed. A curious document known as the Tribal Hidage - its origins are also obscure - lists some of these tribes, with Mercia ‘proper’ at the top, then going out from the Mercian heartlands to include such names as the Wreoconsæte, the Westerna, the Pecsæte and the Hwynca, or Hwicce. (See image, left) These names are probably unfamiliar, and sound like they have been lost in time. So were the Hwicce just another lost tribe? No, they retained their status and even provided a link to one of the most widely-talked about periods of Mercian, indeed English, history…

Historians have been troubled by the kingdom of the Hwicce and whether it existed before Penda’s reign (c.628-655). It is often supposed that the kingdom was created when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Penda fought, and beat, the West Saxons at Cirencester in 628. We know where it was - much of what we now know as Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire - but can we discover who they were?

The Hwicce lived in the flat-bottomed valley between the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills, and some suggest that their name means ark, or chest, and refers to that topographical feature. There are many other theories, but none that can be comprehensively proven. It seems the British (or Romano-British) controlled the area in the sixth century, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that at the battle of Dyrham in 577 the Saxons fought and slew three British kings and captured the cities which they had ruled (one of them being Cirencester) but it seems like the area remained a mix of British (‘Celtic’) and Anglo-Saxon.

Cirencester had been the tribal capital of the Dobunni in the late Iron Age - perhaps a little of this tribal identity remained. The distribution of Dobunnic coinage is roughly coterminous with the land of the Hwicce, according to landscape historian Della Hooke.

It is not known what happened to the area and who was in control after Dyrham up to the formation of the bishopric of Worcester in the mid-seventh century but it’s almost universally agreed that the diocese represented the territory of the kingdom. (The bishops there described themselves as episopi Hwicciorum.) The Hwicce might, even as a subkingdom of Mercia, have ruled over smaller tribes (a charter of 849 mentions the Pencersætan - southwest of Birmingham - and the people known as the Weogoran gave their name to Worcester itself).

Whilst we might not be able to pin down their exact origins, or the derivation of their name, they are not lost to us as people, and we know of several individuals who played crucial roles. 

Bede tells us of seventh-century Queen Eafe who was baptised in her own country, the kingdom of the Hwicce, and we know that she was the daughter of King Eanfrith, who was Christian, as were their people. From her story, we can glean that the Hwicce had by her time lost their independent status, if indeed they ever had it; her marriage to Æthelwalh of the South Saxons probably led to, or was conditional upon, her husband converting to Christianity. The baptism was at the ‘suggestion and in the presence of’ Wulfhere, king of Mercia (son of Penda). The inference is that the South Saxons and, indeed, the Hwicce, were certainly subordinate to Mercia at this point. 

It has been suggested, to support the idea that Penda either liberated or created the kingdom, that he did not act alone. Using personal name evidence, one theory has it that Penda was in alliance with a branch of the Northumbrian royal house who had been temporarily exiled, that the area stayed in West Saxon hands after Dyrham and that Penda ‘liberated’ it with the help of these northerners who then ruled it for him. This is based on the number of names beginning with ‘Os’ in both areas and is not universally accepted, although it does lead us to two of those people, both interesting characters. A certain king of the Hwicce, Oshere, was killed, and whilst surviving records don’t tell us how or why, the theory linking the Hwicce to the Northumbrians provides a reason for the murder of Osthryth, the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, who married another of Penda’s sons, Æthelred, and was killed by the Mercians; again, we are given no reason. Had she and Oshere been related, and were they somehow plotting to overthrow the Mercian overlordship? It’s not a theory I subscribe to, but it is tantalising! 

Another ‘Os’ character for whom we have a little more information is Osric. He attested charters in the 670s, one (for the foundation of Bath Monastery) as rex but, crucially, only with the consent of King Æthelred of Mercia. Osric was also said to have founded the original monastery where Gloucester Cathedral now stands, and in that building there is an effigy of him. 

Three brothers, Eanberht, Uhtred and Ealdred appear in charters, each of them as regulus, in charters of 757 and 759, but there is no mention of their having had any children, and by the time of a charter of King Offa in 778, Ealdred is styled subregulus and dux.

After Ealdred, there were no more kings or even subkings of the Hwicce, although an ealdorman, Æthelmund, was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that he ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by Ealdorman Weohstan of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. In a charter of 796 Æthelmund was described as a faithful princeps. But I’ll come back to this ‘mere’ ealdorman in a moment…

One of my favourite Mercian characters is Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf and abbess of Winchcombe, in the heart of Hwiccian territory. A wealthy and powerful estate manager and heiress, she was the keeper of the royal archive (her father claimed Winchcombe as family land, and it may be that his origins were indeed Hwiccian) and abbess of multiple religious houses. Her ownership of some was questioned by the Church at Canterbury and a legal dispute ensued. A later chronicler accused her of arranging the death of her infant brother and, when his body was discovered, of chanting a psalm backwards as a spell in the hope of avoiding retribution, whereupon her eyeballs fell out. The chronicler claimed to have seen blood on the psalter, but the truth is we have no evidence that this younger brother ever existed. [For more on her story, see my blog post HERE]

Nothing remains of Winchcombe Abbey bar a few stones on display at nearby Sudeley Castle, (see left) but in the Hwicce territory you can, unusually, see not one but two existing buildings from this period. Do, if you can, visit Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It was here, at St Mary’s Church, that, according to some, Æthelmund the ealdorman was buried after his death at Kempsford. The church retains much of its original Anglo-Saxon features, including the bifora (double window) and stone-carved animal heads.

A short walk down the lane takes you to Odda’s Chapel. In 1675 a tree fell down outside a half-timbered manor house, revealing an inscription stone. In the nineteenth century the chapel itself was discovered, attached to the house. It was commissioned by Earl Odda, owner of the estate of Deerhurst in the eleventh century, in memory of his brother who had died in 1053. 

Before we leave Deerhurst, let me return to Ealdorman Æthelmund. Though, in reality, Mercia was perhaps no different in its growth from the other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms, it tended to continue to recognise its origins, insofar as its earldormen were often leaders of erstwhile smaller kingdoms/tribes rather than being centrally appointed. This also meant that there was nearly always more than one claimant to the throne, hence its - often bloody - succession struggles. It ran out of kings, eventually, but played a massive part in the history of this period when its leaders, the Lord and Lady of the Mercians (she being Æthelflæd) allied with Wessex to push back the Viking advance. Barbara Yorke, Emeritus Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, has postulated that Æthelflæd’s husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was descended from Æthelmund. It is my view that without the support of the Mercians, Alfred the Great and then his son, Edward the Elder, would not have been able to push back the Vikings. Thus the Hwicce played a major role at a pivotal moment of history.

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

[A version of this article first appeared in Historical Times Magazine 2022]

You can read more on the kingdom of the Hwicce in my book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available in book shops, on the Amberley Publishing Website, and on Amazon

[all photos by and copyright of the author. Tribal Hidage and depiction of Æthelflæd are Public Domain images]

Sunday 18 June 2023

Ad Gefrin - Anglo-Saxon Museum

 On Friday I had the opportunity to travel into ancient Northumbria to visit Ad Gefrin. A few years ago I had visited the site, at Yeavering, where an enormous 'Anglo-Saxon' hall had once stood (you can find my blog post about that visit HERE) so I was excited to hear news that in 2023 a new museum was opening just a few miles away, at Wooler. 

In April, Ad Gefrin Tweeted a selection of the books for sale in the shop, and I was thrilled to see one of mine included. A conversation ensued, during which I promised to let them know when I was planning to visit.

So now, let me tell you about my visit, starting with the website and booking tickets. It's maybe not essential to book in advance, though it would be advisable at busy times, and I was a bit concerned because though I didn't want to travel all that way and find it fully booked, I also - because of travelling such a long way - couldn't say exactly what time I'd be there. No need to worry though, because it's so simple to book your tickets online and know that the ticket gives you all day access, from 10am-6pm.

Off I went, tickets secured and, following another conversation via Twitter, knowing that the team there were ready to welcome me when I arrived. I'm afraid the first thing I did when I got there (in my defence, it wasn't my idea; I was encouraged!) was to sing into the 'atrium' and enjoy the resonance. I must say in apology to all who were there that I had given five talks in the week leading up to the visit and have not been to choir practice for a month so my voice was not at its operatic best!

Upstairs I was welcomed into the mead hall, (and asked to leave any weapons at the door)

and it was explained that there was an audio-visual to watch. I imagined the usual run-of-the-mill VT scenario, and I couldn't have been more wrong. The auditorium makes up an imagined half of the great hall, while the audio-visual presentation makes up the other half. It is an extraordinary presentation and does an incredible job of bringing the Anglo-Saxon hall to life. Various characters stepped forward to speak, and explain who they are and talk about their lives. It was mesmerising (though not easy to photograph, so apologies for the picture quality):

I was told that on the dais where there are three beautiful wall hangings there will soon be two replica 'thrones' so that's all the excuse I need to return for another visit. 

Here are some pictures of the other half of the hall where you can sit and enjoy the audio-visual show:

In the other half of the museum you can see the display of artefacts, some unearthed nearby and some on loan from the British Museum and other places:

as well as site plans and models of the buildings:

I was so intent on scrutinising the exhibits that it was only as I made to leave that I fully noticed the paintings behind the displays, and spent a long time looking at them and appreciating how much they helped to contextualise the exhibits:

Of course, me being me, I chatted at length to the staff who were all knowledgeable and friendly. Downstairs again, I had another long chat with the team, and accidentally found myself purchasing a bottle of gin from the distillery... I didn't have time to do the distillery tour so again, that's another excuse to go back again...

The museum has only been open for three months or so and already it is a stunning place and it will continue to grow and develop. What I especially loved is how immersive it all is and how, without fanfare or fuss, it opens a window onto life in an Anglo-Saxon 'court'. The artefacts are well presented, easy to see and with easy to read notes. The backdrops add visual aids which really help to imagine what life looked like and the colours and detail are rich. Anyone who thought that early medieval buildings were drab wooden sheds will leave with an entirely different impression after looking at the intricate and beautifully decorated carvings in the 'hall'. Similarly, anyone who thinks that the clothing of the period was drab, plain, and unadorned will watch the film and discover that's simply not true.

There are dots to be joined up too: in one of the display cases there is a shield boss

which is, frankly, stunning enough. But back in the hall, you can see a replica of how this shield would once have looked:

I think it's so important to present history in this way; to give an insight into how that world looked. While I was there I noticed that many of the visitors were prompted to ask questions about what they were seeing, and came away having learned even more about the importance of the site at Yeavering, the history of the Northumbrian kingdom, and the Anglo-Saxon world.

I cannot recommend Ad Gefrin highly enough. Do visit if you can.

Find Ad Gefrin on Twitter and Instagram

Saturday 17 June 2023

Prominent Women of Mercia

On Sunday June 12th as part of Tamworth's Æthelfest 23, I delivered the second of my talks*. This time the subject was Prominent Women of Mercia and I began by thanking everyone for coming, and expressed my gratitude to Tamworth Borough Council and the festival organisers for inviting me.

Then I began my talk by shouting at everyone:


That’s how the great epic poem Beowulf starts and whilst scholars argue about what that actually means, the purpose surely is to get everyone to settle down and listen. (And by the way, there’s more than one historian who thinks that Beowulf originated in Mercia).

[You can see that word hwaet up there on the screen, top left – that’s the opening page of a copy of Beowulf there]

And we can imagine them in a hall, gathering round, drinks in hand - drinks served by the women. The poem was eventually written down, but even then it was meant to be performed, not read, because well, the Anglo-Saxons weren’t that literate were they? Well, actually they were. And those women who were serving the drinks? Yes, them too, some of them at any rate, but I’ll come back to them. (Incidentally it was a great honour and a sign of high status when the lady of the hall served the drinks. It was she who really gave permission for the fun and feasting to start.)

Now, whilst I have written a book about Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and there were plenty of them, mostly I write about the ancient kingdom of Mercia, both in my fiction and nonfiction, so I’m going to talk today about some phenomenal Mercian women, some of whom were given a really bad press.

If we go right back to the beginning, one standout woman was King Penda’s wife, Cynewise. We know very little about her but Bede - the Northumbrian monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People - does imply that she was ruling the kingdom when her husband was away and that she was left in charge of a high status hostage, the son of the king of Northumbria, no less. Penda spent a lot of his time up in Northumbria, fighting, so I guess we can assume that the clearly able Cynewise was left in charge during his absences for long periods.

One of their granddaughters was St Werburg, who was revered at Chester, and you can see her pilgrim badge there, a design incorporated into a stained glass window, with geese on it. Among the many miracles attributed to her is the one told by William of Malmesbury. He said that she owned a strip of land where the crops were being eaten by wild geese. Werburg told the bailiff to shut the geese up in his house and, whilst he thought it an odd request, he obeyed. He then stole one of the birds for his supper, fearing no reprisal, we’re told. The next day Werburg commanded the geese to fly off but they did not, instead crowding round her feet and complaining loudly. She realised something was amiss, questioned the bailiff and obtained his confession. She then made a sign of healing and the bird sprouted new feathers and sprang back to life. William of Malmesbury went on to say that Werburg’s powers were such that the prayers of all were granted, especially those of women and children. Her cult was promoted by Mercian kings in their own kingdom and in Kent. In the tenth century, though, the main focus of her cult was Chester, where her remains were enshrined probably at the command of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, at a minster which became known as St Werburgh’s. During the Reformation, St Werburgh’s Abbey became the cathedral of the new see of Chester.

Werburg’s father, Wulfhere, was equally as strong a Mercian king as his father, Penda, but unlike Penda he was Christian, (and you can see him there on the right at Lichfield Cathedral) and he set about ensuring that smaller kingdoms under his overlordship were Christian, too. The king of Sussex accepted Wulfhere as his baptismal sponsor and, perhaps as a reward, received as a bride a princess of the kingdom of the Hwicce (an kingdom roughly the area of modern-day diocese of Worcester)

Now, this princess called Eafe might just -though the dates barely work, be the same person as an abbess of that name, who was granted land by the king of Mercia at the time, Æthelbald, for the murder of her kinsman. If this Eafe is one and the same, then she’s a good example of how royal women forged independent lives in widowhood, because the religious life was far from unpleasant, and she clearly made sure that the king atoned for his crime against her kinsman. The oft-quoted ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ seems to suggest that in such an establishment there will be piety, chastity, and quiet contemplation. All these are true, but perhaps our idea of a nunnery is of a slightly austere building or buildings, where holy sisters spent their days in prayer and hard work. In fact, many were what we call Double Houses, containing both monks and nuns. Sometimes the two houses were separated by high walls, but not always. Most were run by princess-abbesses; royal, they were powerful, and influential, like our next lady.

A few generations after Penda’s family, we meet Cynethryth, wife of Offa. He was not especially closely related to the previous king, and her bloodline might have strengthened his claim (the bloodline of royal women often played a part in establishing rule). He had ambition - reckoning himself the equal to the emperor Charlemagne (it’s clear from his letters that Charlemagne didn’t feel the same way!) - and because of the precarious nature of kingship, Offa arranged to have his son, Ecgfrith, anointed as his official heir (not that it did him much good; the lad only reigned for five months). Offa’s wife, on the other hand, holds a special record. She is the only queen consort - that we know of - who had coins minted in her own name. Part of Offa’s plans for empire, no doubt, but the fact remains that she had her own coinage.

[and you can see her coin there, with the word REGINA on it]

She was also involved in government (she witnessed 25 charters). Alcuin who was a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court wrote to her son after he succeeded, and reminded him that he should learn compassion from his mother and, tellingly, he asked that the king send greeting to her; he would have written to her himself but knew that the king’s business kept her too busy to read letters. So she’s clearly acting as regent, if she’s busy with the king’s business, and also clearly able to read any letters that Alcuin might have chosen to send. She retired to become abbess at Cookham, a foundation which is currently being excavated, so that’s very exciting.

Cynethryth was accused by a later chronicler of inciting her husband to commit murder. But I must emphasise that bit about a LATER chronicler. Because remember Alcuin, who was a contemporary, called her compassionate.

In 794, we’re told, Offa, king of the Mercians, had Æthelberht of East Anglia beheaded.’ This is a contemporary-ish account, fairly standard, blames the king.

And there you can see the murdered king immortalised in a stained glass image

One version of the story is that this murdered king of East Anglia wanted to marry a daughter of Offa. He travelled to meet her in Mercia but Offa suspected him of planning an invasion and had him killed, beheaded and thrown into the nearby River. That later chronicler, Roger of Wendover  - remember that name! - blamed Offa’s wife, saying that it was she who had counselled the murders.

Roger’s story gives great detail: 'Æthelberht came to Offa, the most potent king of the Mercians, beseeching him to give him his daughter in marriage.’  On learning the reason for his visit, Offa apparently entertained him with ‘all possible courtesy’, so this is a different spin. But when he consulted his queen, she said ‘God has this day delivered into your hands your enemy, whose kingdom you have so long desired; if, therefore, you secretly put him to death, his kingdom will pass to you and your successors forever.’

The king was ‘exceedingly disturbed in mind at this counsel of the queen’ and rebuked her as a ‘foolish woman’. But she nevertheless hatched a complicated plan, which involved the digging of a pit underneath the visitor’s chair, into which he fell and was there ‘stifled by the executioners placed there by the queen.’ What we do find in these murder stories is the elaborate nature of some of the schemes!

The noble King Offa, when he heard the news, ‘shut himself up in grief … and tasted no food for three days.’ Still, it seems he was not one to miss an opportunity and set out on a great expedition and ‘united the kingdom of the East Angles to his dominions.’ So it all turned out well for him in the end...!

Cynethryth’s daughter was also labelled a murderess, though her story in a way was much more straightforward. She was married to a king of the West Saxons, and apparently took a dislike to her husband’s counsellor and gave him poison, but inadvertently poisoned her husband, too. She was banished abroad, ended up in the court of Charlemagne and was set up in a nunnery, but she was publicly caught in debauchery with a man of her own race, she was ejected from the nunnery on Charlemagne’s orders. Reduced to a life of poverty, she ‘died a miserable death.’ The chronicler who gave us this story said it was the reason why wives of the West Saxon kings were never again given the name and status of queen. I talked a bit about her yesterday, too)

Another royal daughter and powerful abbess was Cwoenthryth.  Cwoenthryth was the daughter of the king who succeeded Offa’s son Ecgfrith (who only reigned for a matter of months as I said). Cwoenthryth was named as her father’s heir, not to the throne, but to his property, and she became abbess of the family house at Winchcombe, the burial place of her father. She also inherited an argument concerning the lands, which the archbishop of Canterbury insisted belonged to the Church. As well as Winchcombe in Mercia she inherited houses in Kent: Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver. 

[that’s Minster Abbey, showing the original Saxon Stonework and it’s actually still a religious house today]

She cannot have overseen all three sites in person; she was clearly in charge of a wide network, and with the religious houses acting as centres for growing settlements, she would have been a powerful woman in charge of huge revenues. The eventual settlement of the dispute saw Cwoenthryth remaining in possession and in charge of Winchcombe, and continuing her role as abbess of the Kentish abbeys but she had to recognise the archbishop’s authority over them and the associated lands and of course if you own the land, you get the money, the income.

I mentioned at the beginning that we know many women must have been literate, and here are two cases in point: wealthy abbesses such as Cynethryth and Cwoenthryth would need to scrutinise documents, especially when in dispute with the Church as they both were. Letters, legal documents, land grants: they wouldn’t have been able to manage these huge, profitable estates unless they could be sure what was written on those important documents, and it seems to me unlikely that they would trust the word of someone reading them out loud. 

Of course, she too was accused of inciting murder – Here I told the story of how she was supposedly upset that when their father died, her little brother Kenelm was declared heir rather than her and she arranged for him to be taken into the woods and disposed of. All would have been well had not a dove flown over St Peter's in Rome and dropped a message on the altar saying what had happened and where the body could be found. It was duly discovered, and brought back to Winchcombe for burial. Cwoenthryth, reading from a psalter, looked out of the window and saw the procession. Realising the game was up, she began chanting a psalm backwards as a spell, whereupon her eyeballs spontaneously fell out. The chronicler who gave us this story said that even in his day, you could still see the blood spatters on the psalter. It's a great story, but there is no evidence that little Kenelm ever even existed. King Cenwulf might have had a son named Cynehelm, but he wasn’t a small boy and he seems to have predeceased his father.

And there you can see the carving from the building housing 'Kenelm's Well' just outside Winchcombe where the funeral procession is said to have rested.

King Cenwulf was succeeded not by his son, then,  nor by his daughter, but by his brother, Ceolwulf, and Cwoenthryth was succeeded as abbess of Winchcombe by Ceolwulf’s daughter, her cousin Ælfflæd.

Ælfflæd can be seen in action in her capacity as abbess in a charter and this charter seems to mark her only appearance in the contemporary records, but later Saints’ Lives name her as not only the daughter of King Ceolwulf, but the wife of a subsequent king, Wigmund. Her importance in the history of Mercia was not as abbess of a rich foundation, but as a member of more than one branch of the royal family. I mentioned in my talk yesterday this idea that the royal women had huge status by dint of their own bloodlines, which could bolster claims of men seeking the throne and as I said, might have been employed by Offa.

For most of the eighth and ninth centuries Mercia was beset by dynastic struggles. Rarely did son succeed father and, if he did, the reign was short-lived. Between the death of Offa in 796 and the death of the last Mercian king in c. 878 there were more than a dozen reigns. Cenwulf had ruled for twenty-five of those years, but others ruled for short periods, some had their reigns interrupted, and few succeeded or preceded members of their own branch of the family. To get back to Ælfflæd: Ælfflæd’s father Ceolwulf ruled for two years before being replaced by a man named Beornwulf, who was killed in battle a few years later and succeeded by a man called Ludeca. He was killed in battle and succeeded by Wiglaf, who reigned twice, having his kingship interrupted by Ecgberht of Wessex, a man whom Offa had forced into exile. Wiglaf’s son was Wigmund. Phew! Sorry about the slew of names! Anyway, with that last one, Wigmund, we get back to Ælfflæd because, according to a thirteenth-century prior and chronicler of Evesham, Wigmund married Ælfflæd.

And here comes another story of supposed child murder. 

Essentially we can break down the power struggles by looking at the names of the men involved - and it was pretty much a fight between a branch of the royal family whose names began with C, a branch with names beginning with B, and another beginning with W.

Our Ælfflæd was descended from the Cs, but she was now the wife of a W, and she had a son, also a W - Wigstan, or sometimes Wystan. And so he had the blood of two lines and was the grandson of two kings. The story goes though that when his father died, he didn’t want to be king, even though he had a perfect claim, an untainted bloodline, preferring the religious life. A man from the B branch wanted to marry the widowed Ælfflæd. Wigstan protested, was murdered, and his body taken to Repton for burial alongside his grandfather, King Wiglaf.

And there you can see the crypt at Repton (St Wystan's Church, Derbyshire)

Now, this story may or may not be true but it does highlight the importance of women and their bloodlines. We know that Ælfflæd was at some time an abbess, and so perhaps this marriage didn’t go ahead and she retired to Winchcombe after her first husband died. But it’s not quite the end of her story, because whilst the succession stayed with a number of B kings for a while, the last being Burgred, there was one more king of Mercia, a man named Ceolwulf, the same name as Ælfflæd's father. 

He is most famous for having allied with the Vikings who occupied Repton in the 870s and forced Burgred to flee, and he was dismissed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ but there may be a clue to his heritage in his name; we know that he was a recognised king, and shared coinage with Alfred the great, (in fact there’s been a recent court case where two detectorists tried to sell a hoard of those shared coins) and  it is possible that he was the son of Ælfflæd. If so, then it shows clearly how a woman barely mentioned in the sources was nevertheless a daughter, wife and mother of kings and a crucial player in the power politics of the age.

One Mercian woman who was definitely not accused of murder, nor was embroiled in murder plots or coups, is the niece of that king Burgred - Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Some might be familiar with her story. It’s not quite the same as that portrayed recently in the TV show The Last Kingdom though.

[There she is – two very different statues of her in Tamworth. I love the contrast]

The daughter of Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith, she’s perhaps one of the better known Mercian women of power. Whilst she was initially sent to Mercia for an arranged marriage, she made a success of that marriage, and was elected leader after her husband’s death. She worked tirelessly with her brother Edward to push back the ‘Vikings’, but there is one small, often overlooked detail about her which to me is the most significant of all in a way: after her death, the Mercians elected her daughter as leader. Her tenure didn’t last long, only six months or so, but the crucial point is that a woman leader was succeeded by a woman leader, something which didn’t happen again in England until Tudor times.

There is actually very little mention of Æthelflæd in the chronicles, yet we have enough in the documented history about her husband to make deductions about her, and we have the document known as the Mercian Register, compiled in Mercia and inserted into the collection we call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which details her activities (until her death in 918) from 902. Her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, having been mentioned fighting alongside Alfred and his son Edward, abruptly disappears from the record at this time and when we piece the reliable, and not so reliable sources together, it does seem that Æthelflæd was in charge of Mercia at this time, and that her husband was ill for some years. 

When Æthelred died, Edward took London and Oxford under the direct control of Wessex, but left Mercia ‘proper’ to his sister and didn’t even appoint an ealdorman to rule the province in his name. A woman leader was not unique but was rare. Edward didn’t allow Æthelflæd’s daughter to rule for long after her mother died, but the Mercian Register complains that she was ‘deprived of all authority’ so they clearly viewed her as rightful leader.  

We don’t know that Æthelflæd wielded a sword, however. I’m not convinced by the whole warrior woman scenario. [As I said in my talk yesterday] The Mercian Register focuses on her building programme, rather than the fighting, with brother and sister building fortresses in a strategic and coordinated campaign. 

In addition, the Mercian Register tells us she sent an army into Wales to avenge the death of an abbot and that the following year she took Derby out of Viking hands but in neither case are we told specifically that she herself fought.

As I said, she certainly wasn’t accused of murder. In fact, it seems that no one had a bad word to say about her. But in truth, hardly anyone spoke about her at all. She’s not even named in the main version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she’s just called King Edward’s sister. Were it not for the Mercian Register and the Irish and Welsh annals we wouldn’t know very much about her at all. And, sadly, that’s true for many of the women of this period – what we get is straightforward and/or minimal reporting from contemporary sources, or lurid tales of murder and scandal from the later ones.

And actually, let’s just knock these murder accusations on the head. With one exception, they’re all later ‘inventions’ - 12th-century Church attitudes were very different regarding women and of course these chroniclers were all monks. Only one murder story is anything like contemporary - the story of the queen who accidentally poisoned her husband and was banished abroad. But this story came to us from Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great, who didn’t even deign to tell us the name of Alfred’s wife. It's more a story to discredit the Mercians and I have a theory about that because I believe that her husband wasn’t a West Saxon, (his name, Beorhtric, is much more Mercian-sounding (you remember that B branch of the royal family?), so I think he was actually a Mercian, a puppet installed by his father-in-law, Offa, and obviously the West Saxons wouldn’t want to dwell on that. All that said, it does seem likely that her husband was actually killed in battle, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to imply this, so I think we can discount the whole poisoning story full stop.

For our next amazing woman, we stick with the theme of murder, but this time the story is of a canny woman who used it to her advantage.

And we go back in time a bit too, because Domneva, who was from Kent [that’s her in the middle], was married to a son - or perhaps foster son - of Penda of Mercia whom I mentioned earlier. This son or foster son  was king of the Magonsaete, roughly coterminous with the diocese of Hereford. Domneva’s brothers were murdered by their cousin and she demanded compensation, as per the law. But instead of money, she asked for land on which to build an abbey, as much land, in fact, as her tame hind could run round in a day. The murderous king underestimated how far this would be, and ended up being tricked into giving much more land than he'd anticipated. And the abbey that Domneva founded was this one, Minster Abbey, so that's a nice closing of the circle.

Generally, the abbesses began to lose something of their power and status with the decline of the double houses and monasteries gradually began to be ruled by men. Later abbesses as we’ve seen came into direct conflict with the Church which wanted to lessen their wealth and influence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early days, it was women who were entrusted with managing these huge estates and who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their human flocks.

Domneva’s family links were complicated; not only did her cousin kill her brothers, but his sister was married to a brother, or perhaps half-brother, of Domneva’s husband. It must have made for some awkward family Christmases!

And speaking of family sagas and complicated links, I’d like to return to Mercia ‘proper’ as it were, and mention some of the women from the later period of Anglo-Saxon history who left their mark in the 11th century.

It’s a complex tale, of rivalry and murder and astonishingly all these women were related, members of one of the richest and most powerful families in England. It starts with a woman named Wulfrun, and though we don’t know much about her, the few known facts of her life confirm that she was in the uppermost tier of high society. 

She is the only female high status hostage named by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (she was actually taken during a raid here in Tamworth), she founded the monastery in the city named after her [and that statue is there] – Wolverhampton – and was of such high standing that her son was known not by any reference to his father, but as Wulfric Wulfrunsson.

Now, Wulfrun had two other children that we know of, besides Wulfric. Her other son, Ælfhelm, was murdered by another ealdorman and his two sons were blinded. All on the orders of the king, Æthelred the 'Unready' it would seem. But as you can see from this family tree, that left a daughter, 

Ælfgifu of Northampton: 

Æthelred the 'Unready' did not have an especially happy reign, particularly when his country was invaded by Svein Forkbeard. This powerful and influential Mercian family was under suspicion, accused of encouraging or even facilitating the submission of their area of Mercia to Swein. Indeed, it was around the time of that submission that Ælfgifu married Swein’s son, Cnut.

And you can see him there with the two sons who reigned after him, not both Ælfgifu’s, as we’ll see in a moment.

She was later to be called a concubine, but the details of her life suggest that she was more to him than a mere sexual partner, even after Cnut remarried. Perhaps we can imagine how the two met. Swein based his operations in the north, camping at Gainsborough. It would have made perfect sense to strengthen the bonds with the northern families by marrying his son to the daughter of one of the most powerful among them. The union bears all the hallmarks of yet another political marriage, in which the wife’s value rested solely on her bloodline. Yet Ælfgifu’s later life and career show that she was anything but a timid maid given no responsibility other than to breed heirs and keep her family loyal.

By the time of the marriage – probably 1013 – her father was dead and her brothers had been effectively removed from political life, having been blinded. Ælfgifu had two sons by Cnut, who were probably born early on in the marriage. (Cnut remarried in 1017, of which more in a moment.) After Æthelred the Unready’s death, his son Edmund Ironside fought five battles in one year against Cnut but ultimately Cnut was victorious. Cnut set about neutralising any opposition threats, including that from any remaining English royal sons, and to do that he married Æthelred's widow, Emma of Normandy, with whom he also had two children. 

Emma, (there she is, above) with her credentials as an English queen, was no doubt important to Cnut, but so too was Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Cnut had a task for her to perform. He had an empire to rule, and his son by Emma, Harthacnut, was in Denmark for some years before his father’s death, ruling the country and minting coins in his own name there. In 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu and her son Swein to Norway, there to rule for him.

 The regency in Norway may have been hugely symbolic, but it was not a success. At the outset, it demonstrated the powerful status of the mothers of royal heirs. Swein would only have been around fifteen and it is telling that the period was remembered in Scandinavian history as ‘Ælfgifu’s time’. It was a rule noted for harsh taxation, but it has been argued that although the records do indeed indicate a heavy tax being raised during this time, it could not have been achieved without the cooperation of the majority of the nobles. It might also have been wrongly assumed to be an annual tax rather than a one-off payment, which would make it sound worse. Whatever the reason, the regency was not popular and in 1034 Ælfgifu and Swein were ousted and had to flee to Denmark. Swein died shortly afterwards, in 1035. The more significant death of that year, however, was that of Cnut, on 12th November. Now the battle between his two wives, or widows, we should say would really begin, as they revealed their aggressive determination to secure the kingdom of England for their sons.

The fight was on. Emma championed her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, whilst Ælfgifu was unsurprisingly batting for her surviving son, Harold, known as Harefoot (and I must be careful here, because in the famous and fabulously funny book 1066 And All That he is called Harold Hairbrush, so forgive me if I slip up!)

When Cnut died, of the four of them - the two widows and their sons - only Emma was still in England. Harthacnut might have been Cnut’s choice of heir, as promised to Emma upon their wedding, but the political situation in Denmark was too volatile to allow him to return to England, while Ælfgifu and Harold, on the other hand, were free to do so.

The two women entered into the most fascinating propaganda war as they each championed the rights of their sons by Cnut to succeed and it included some dirty tricks and smear campaigns – Ælfgifu was accused of bribery and corruption and Emma commissioned a work known as the Encomium Emmae Reginae,  more of which in a moment. 

And that image above is actually taken from the cover of the Encomium and it shows Emma in, as far as I know, the only contemporary ‘portrait’ that we have for this period.

The long, complicated upshot was that Harold Harefoot was declared king. Emma commissioned this work of fantastic spin, the Encomium, setting out her own son’s claims, in which it was said that the archbishop of Canterbury refused to crown Harold and slurs were cast over his legitimacy, and even his parentage, but he was there, Emma’s son was in Denmark, so the deal was a done one. 

Emma needed to change tack. Reports vary as to whether they were invited by her, or someone else, but her sons by Æthelred the Unready came back from their exile in France. One of them, Alfred, was captured and blinded. Could it be that Ælfgifu was behind this order - in vengeance for the blinding of her brothers all those years ago on the orders of Alfred’s father? Intriguing thought.

One 20th-century historian considered that, during her son’s brief reign, Ælfgifu was actually running the country. Harold died not long after becoming king, Harthacnut reigned for not much longer and then the last of Emma’s sons, Edward the Confessor, eventually succeeded.

Emma had pretty much ignored her sons by Æthelred the Unready until she needed them and when Edward became king, he moved against her and took her treasure from her. These were not women content to sit by their needlework, that’s for sure!

But that’s not quite the end of our Ælfgifu:

There was one last possible ‘sighting’ of this once great lady of the Danelaw, in a twelfth-century cartulary from Aquitaine, which mentions a lady named Alveva who was related to a king named Heroldus. It is possible that these are Ælfgifu and her son Harold. This text mentions a grandson and given that Harold was only in his early twenties when he died, perhaps an infant son of his was given over to his mother who maybe took him with her to exile in southern France. 

But we’re not done with the story of this powerful family descended from Wulfrun. If I take you back to the family tree, you’ll see another branch on the right.

And we now get a look at the descendants of Wulfrun’s daughter, Ælfthryth. You’ll see it says Sigeferth and Morcar, brothers, who were both killed. Again, this seems to have been on the orders of Æthelred the Unready, and it had far-reaching consequences. It appears that these young men, powerful young nobles, were part of the court circle of Edmund Ironside, who, as I mentioned, ultimately lost out to Cnut. But these killings came at a time when Edmund was beginning to flex his muscles and was perhaps anxious that his father’s sons by Emma were coming of age. When Sigeferth and Morcar were killed, Morcar’s wife Ealdgyth was imprisoned and Edmund not only freed her, he married her (we’ve no idea, of course, how she felt about that - but it did gain Edmund the allegiance of the people who lived in the family’s lands, in Mercia).

Now, the line down this side gets a bit uncertain, but if we follow the projection you’ll see a man named Ælfgar, who appears to have married into this illustrious family. He became an earl of Mercia, he locked horns with the powerful Godwine family who had him banished not once, but twice, but he had pretty famous parents himself. His father was Leofric, earl of Mercia, and his mother was Lady Godgifu, or as she’s more familiarly known, Lady Godiva.

First, that horse ride. The story goes that Leofric (her husband) founded the monastery at Coventry on the advice of his wife. He endowed the foundation with so much land, woods and ornaments that Godgifu was keen to free the town of Coventry from such a financial burden, and yet when she spoke to her husband about it [there she is in the first picture, remonstrating with him] he challenged her to ‘Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.’ Whereupon, she ‘loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs, and having completed the journey, returned with gladness to her astonished husband’, who then freed the town from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter. 

Except…the only source we have for the story is Roger of Wendover, a monk writing in the thirteenth century. I told you to remember his name! Other sources suggest that the founding of Coventry was a joint enterprise between husband and wife (and none mentions the horse ride).

It's such a shame that this is all she’s remembered for. She was the matriarch of a very powerful family – her husband was one of three leading earls, her son was an earl, her grandsons were the famous earls Edwin and Morcar and I’ll talk about her granddaughter in a moment. 

We know that Godiva was a wealthy woman; possibly originally from northwest Mercia, she held lands in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire.

Leofric was described as pious, and being ‘but a moderate drinker’ and prayed in secret when his drunken companions were asleep. He was in power for over twenty years, we’re told  ‘without violence or aggression’. He was heavily involved in the succession crisis created by the death of Cnut, when two contenders vied for the throne as we’ve seen and this particular game of thrones was very much directed by the two royal mothers, Ælfgifu and Emma, and was heavily reported. Had another high-ranking woman, wife of a leading and rather staid nobleman, with family ties to Ælfgifu, done a public striptease, I think it would have been commented upon. One of the more contemporary records for this period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is quite detailed by this stage, giving over pages and pages to each year, as opposed to one sentence summaries for earlier centuries (in 776 for example it tells of a battle but not who won, and records that 'marvellous adders were seen in Sussex), but it doesn’t mention the horse ride. 

It's possible that she was born around 990 and if she died even shortly after 1066 then she might have been well into her seventies, having lived through the reigns of Æthelred the ‘Unready’, Swein Forkbeard and Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwineson, and lived to see William of Normandy crowned king of England. And she kept hold of her lands after the conquest which is more than can be said for many!

So she was pious, rich - in her own right as well as through her marriage - and an old lady to be reckoned with. But riding naked through the streets? I don’t think so. 

So, Godiva lived through turbulent times, but she wasn’t the last person in her family to have a large part on the political stage. If I go back one more time to the family tree,

you’ll see that her son Ælfgar had at least three children. The two boys, and they were just boys, teenagers really, Edwin and Morcar, became earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. They fought Harald Hardrada at the battle of Fulford in 1066, though sadly they lost. Morcar seems to have joined the resistance fighter Hereward the Wake down in the fenlands of Ely, though it didn’t end happily for him. He was imprisoned by William and Edwin was killed, seemingly by his own men.

[later depiction of the battle of Fulford]

But their sister, Ealdgyth, well, she has a story too. And it could, but for a moment of fate, have been one that everyone would have heard. Her father had been a staunch ally of Gruffudd, king of Wales and she had been married to Gruffudd until his own men turned on him, killed him, and sent his head to Harold Godwineson. Later on, perhaps looking for support for his bid for the kingship, Harold married Ealdgyth, which presumably secured the support of her brothers, Edwin and Morcar who really had little reason to love Harold whose family had caused their father to be banished twice. So Ealdgyth holds the unique distinction of having been queen of Wales, and queen of England.

What’s more, it is said that when all was lost at Hastings, Edwin and Morcar hot-tailed it back to London and scooped their sister away to Chester and safety. Their pregnant sister… for it is also said that she was carrying, and later gave birth to, Harold’s son, also called Harold.

But for a stray arrow (if we choose to believe the story about Harold’s death on that fateful day) the kings and queens of England could all have been descended from this incredible Mercian family.

It is really challenging piecing together the scant details of these women’s lives, but it is rewarding. And what we find is women who found ways, sometimes unconventional, to influence policy, to establish religious houses and royal dynasties, and remain politically active, even in widowhood. Their stories are there, if we listen carefully.

So yes, Hwaet is an important word – if we listen, we can hear the past and it’s been so wonderful for me to have the opportunity to talk about these great Mercian women here in Tamworth at the very heart of Mercia. Thank you.

*You can read the transcript of my first talk, Lady Æthelflæd - Warrior? Queen? HERE