Monday, 19 April 2021

Roman Remains – Did the Saxons Use Them?

I suppose the first thing that springs to mind when we think about ‘what the Romans did for us’ is that they left some rather straight roads. Did the Anglo-Saxons use them? I’d say absolutely yes. Why would they not? Let’s work backwards here. 

With York being so important, not only to the Anglo-Saxons but then later to the ‘Vikings’ who had it as the centre of their kingdom, a road heading due south from York - Ermine Street - was bound to have seen heavy traffic, in particular, when Harold Godwinson marched his troops up to Stamford Bridge in 1066 and back down again to meet William of Normandy. Could he have moved his troops - men and horses - so quickly without using the Roman road (the most direct route)? And as fellow author Helen Hollick has pointed out, those roads must therefore have been well maintained. 

Another Roman road, Watling Street, was, famously, the line used to divide up the kingdom when Alfred the Great came to an agreement with Guthrum the Dane in the ninth century so, again, we have to assume it was still in use in the late ninth century if it was used as a boundary marker.

We have more certain and tantalising proof that the Roman roads were still in use though. In 2009 one of the most exciting finds to date was dug up in a field. This was the seventh-century Staffordshire Hoard and it’s surely no coincidence that it was found just off the A5, more usually known as Watling Street. Imagine the scene: whoever buried the hoard made a quick getaway along the old road, intending to come back at some point to retrieve it… (It’s a scenario I portrayed in Cometh the Hour.) 

The Staffordshire Hoard included many items - almost all of them military - inlaid with garnets, which brings me on to another aspect of Roman ‘remains’: jewels. From the seventh century on, for example, while glass beads remained popular, amethyst was incorporated, possibly from recycled Roman ornaments, but they were repurposed and worn strung lengthways with other beads, rather than dangling down, and pendants were also made from old Roman coins.

Staffordshire Hoard - Image Credit

What else did the Anglo-Saxons upcycle?

They didn’t, on the whole, reuse the domestic buildings. If the buildings were in poor repair, why did they not rebuild? They certainly knew how to build, so that wasn’t the issue. Reconstructions, such as those at West Stow, and the excavation of great halls such as Yeavering, show that they were not incompetent builders. Tacitus said that none of the Germanic tribes on the continent lived in walled cities, so it’s more likely that the Anglo-Saxons preferred to live in buildings that kept them feeling close to the natural world. I also think that affected the way they communicated. Their lifestyle was one of community gatherings, of feasts in great halls, with many folk sleeping on benches or on the floor of the halls once the food and tables had been cleared away. It was where they exchanged stories, gifts, and heard songs and poems performed. 

And here’s the crucial thing: the acoustic properties of wooden buildings also offer opportunities for intimate conversation. Sound will fall away, muffled by the absorbent materials in the building. Living communally provides companionship and a strong sense of belonging, but it must have been a boon to be able to conduct private conversations if the need or urge arose. Stone buildings have large spaces where sound echoes and resonates. 

Churches, of course, are a different matter. Plenty of these were built in stone and an early example can be seen in the surviving crypt at Hexham Abbey, commissioned by Bishop Wilfrid in the seventh century. With a good ethos of ‘waste not, want not’ recycled Roman bricks were used, from the remains of the Roman fort and town at Corbridge just a few miles away; Wilfrid's church was probably built entirely from stones taken from this site.

The crypt at Hexham abbey - my photo

A Roman town also played a part in a pivotal real-life scene in my novel Alvar the Kingmaker. It was the setting for a coronation, and not just any old coronation. King Edgar, who became king in 957, was crowned there in 973. Yes, 16 years after he ascended the throne. Can this be right?

Edgar had a chequered love life, with historians unable to agree whether he had two or three wives, and with earlier chroniclers suggesting that one of them was even a consecrated nun. For his supposed sins, he was allegedly given a seven-year penance, which delayed his coronation. But we know that by 964 he was married to his last wife, so that doesn’t explain the delay of the coronation until 973. Often-times, Anglo-Saxon kings had delayed coronations, but not usually for this length of time. 

Edgar’s epithet was The Peaceable, and there were no Viking raids during his reign. He had control of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and, during another ceremony in 973, was famously rowed along the River Dee by 6-8 (depending on sources) other kings of the British Isles, who paid him homage. He was also probably 30 years old in that year, the canonical age for ordination. This might have been significant; a sort of symbol of spiritual maturity. 

I suspect that this was a second coronation, and that Edgar’s age, and his supremacy over the kingdoms, was being marked. Bath was on the edge of the two major erstwhile Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, kingdoms which had traditionally voted for different candidates for the throne, including Edgar’s own accession, so its location would signify a unification. More than this, though, is the fact the Bath was a remnant of the Empire and this would have been a very clear sign that this was some kind of imperial coronation. It’s clear that the memory of the Romans was very much alive.

Not that this helped in the long run. With all those wives/women came a few children, which meant, ultimately, another fight for the throne. Alvar the Kingmaker certainly had his work cut out…

Find all my books (fiction, nonfiction and short stories) HERE

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

When Monks go Off-message

History is a serious business, in the main. We look at documents, chronicles, diaries, in order to analyse reigns, policies, wars, social deprivation...

Sometimes though, history - specifically that recorded by monks - can make us chuckle. Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which I do on a regular basis, I never fail to smile when I see the entry for the year 776. It tells of a battle fought at Otford, but it doesn't say who won, and it also informs us that "marvellous adders were seen in Sussex."

Later on in the pre-Conquest period, in 1058, the earl of Mercia, Ælfgar, was banished for a second time. He wasn't away for long, returning as he had after his first banishment with the help of the Welsh. This time though he also had a Norwegian fleet with him, commanded by Harald Hardrada, but we don't know if this was a planned invasion, or just an attempt to restore Ælfgar to his earldom in Mercia, because as this point the Chronicle says that it was all "too tedious to relate." 

It kind of skews the image of monks, with heads bent over their writing desks, diligently expending their best efforts in the pursuit of accurate recording of events. And in that vein, I am grateful to the Anglandicus blog for bringing to my attention the case of the Irish monk with an almighty hangover. A ninth-century copy of a Latin Grammar has a marginal gloss in Ogham script which apparently translates as Latheirt and has been defined thus: "Ale [Lait] + killed [ort], i.e. ale has killed us, that is ale drinking." So it would seem that the monk was hampered in his endeavours by a hangover. 

It gets worse...

I'm currently writing the follow-up to my novel, Cometh the Hour, and as I always do, I checked my reference books for details about the Anglo-Saxon way of life. I was thrown a little off-topic though when I came across a reference to a particular craftsman, cited for having advanced through his abilities. This man had made a name for himself as a craftsman, specifically a metal-worker, and had risen from being a monk, to an abbot and then a bishop. "It was at this stage he disappeared, as did the gold and jewels provided to make a new crown for the king (Edward the Confessor) and the bishop’s treasury."[1]

Well, I had to find out more...

The man in question was called Spearhafoc (Sparrowhawk), and this might have been a nickname, referring to the sharp eyes he'd need for his metal work. He began his career as a monk at Bury St Edmonds, but in around 1047 he was appointed abbot of Abingdon by King Edward the Confessor. There's a suggestion in the chronicle of that abbey that some bribery might have been involved, but by fair means or otherwise, he was made bishop of London in 1051. 

There was a bit of a hitch, however. Robert of Jumièges, the recently appointed archbishop of Canterbury, when presented with the king's writ and seal which made clear that Spearhafoc should be consecrated as bishop of London, stated that this had been forbidden by the pope. 

After trying a second time to persuade the archbishop and having again been refused, Spearhafoc simply went back to London and squatted there with, apparently, the king's full permission, "all that summer and autumn." [2]

But 1051 was quite a tumultuous year, which saw the banishment of the powerful Godwine family with whom Spearhafoc seems to have allied, and we are told that straight away after he'd exiled them, the king expelled Spearhafoc from the bishopric of London and Spearhafoc was never heard of again. 

Sounds like a straightforward case of politics, bickering, and clashes of interest. Certainly, Goscelin of St Bertin, an eleventh-century Benedictine chronicler, extolled Spearhafoc's skills in goldsmithing. The Abingdon Chronicle also mentioned that he was marvellous at working gold and silver. So it does seem as if these talents helped propel him to high office and yes, craftsmen could advance. However, the Abingdon Chronicle also mentions that when Spearhafoc left London, he took with him a store of gold and gems which the king had given him to make an imperial crown [3] and it appears he also took valuables from the diocesan stores.

As historian John Blair has said, there seems very little other than Spearhafoc's skills as a craftsman that might have recommended him to the king, and I can just imagine him, thwarted, frustrated and under orders to quit the country, deciding to take with him whatever he could stuff into his bags.

None of these stories helps my research, but I do enjoy them, and they are a reminder that even monks' patience can sometimes snap!

My own photo of a visiting Sparrowhawk

[1] Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy p 172.

[2] ASC (C-F) 1042-1087  E 1048 (1051)

[3] Chronicon monasterii de Abingdon, 1.462–3)

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Murder in Saxon England

There were laws against killing people in times of peace, of course there were, and the punishments were severe, although I'll save the details for another blog post. Suffice to say that one did not murder with impunity. But there are some notable, high-profile cases which either went unpunished, or weren't murders at all. 

Firstly, and sadly, there seem to be a lot of documented cases of child killings and female killers. But as I’ll try to show, they should perhaps be taken with a large pinch of salt. 


In the seventh century, a Mercian king, Wulfhere, allegedly had two sons who had been baptised by St Cedd. This so offended their father that he ‘killed them both with his own hands.’ The problem with this story is that the boys, if they even existed, had a sister who was allowed to live, and became a holy woman, living as a nun on her father’s estates. It hardly seems compatible with an anti-Christian child killer.

Then we have the strange case of Abbess Cwoenthryth, who arranged to have her little brother killed and was discovered when a dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, alerting the pope to the crime. To avoid being discovered, she chanted a psalm backwards and her eyes fell out. Now, there is slightly more evidence for the existence of this brother, Cynehelm or Kenelm, but he wasn’t a child; he simply pre-deceased their father the king and, tellingly, this abbess had a long-running argument with the Church about her abbey lands, so this might be why she received such a bad press.

There’s another recorded murder of a young man, but there may be some truth in the story. He was supposedly killed for objecting to the marriage of his mother to a contender for the Mercian throne, and he may very well have been caught up in a dynastic dispute. This young man was Wigstan, and it's possible to visit the site where in all likelihood, his bones were laid to rest, in the crypt at the church in Repton which is named after him.

My photo of the crypt at St Wystan's
Church, Repton


A murder which certainly happened was that of Edward the Martyr, who was allegedly killed by, or on the orders of, his stepmother, Ælfthryth. I’m not convinced, because she too was given a rather bad press, but there’s no disputing the fact that Edward died and her son, Æthelred (the 'Unready') then became king.

Depiction of Edward's visit to his stepmother
where he was allegedly killed on her orders

Another woman accused of murder was a Northumbrian princess, Alhflæd, who was married to the son of her father’s rival and, according to the Venerable Bede, arranged her husband’s killing. We are not told why, or whether she was punished, only that around Easter time, she killed her husband Peada, who was the son of Penda of Mercia. 

We do know of a later murderess who, jealous of her husband the king’s advisers, poisoned one of those counsellors and accidentally killed her husband along with him. She was punished, banished abroad (ending up briefly at the court of the Emperor Charlemagne) and was supposedly the reason why kings’ wives in Wessex from that point on were never called ‘queen’. But this story of Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia, is one which I've explored in depth in my books and there's a little bit more to this story than meets the eye...

Assassination attempts 

In seventh-century Northumbria, King Edwin was establishing his supremacy when an assassin was sent from the south to his court, hiding a poisoned blade under his cloak. Lunging forward, he made a rush for the king and was only prevented from killing Edwin by the bravery of Edwin’s thegn, who put himself between the assailant and the king, although Edwin nevertheless sustained an injury. The thegn was somewhat less fortunate.

And this leads me nicely onto the second batch of recorded deaths, which I think warranted more investigation...

Convenient Deaths

In 946 King Edmund was murdered, supposedly either in a brawl, or by a robber who’d been previously banished but returned, evidently with a score to settle. Investigation by historians though suggests that this was more than likely a political murder arranged by members of a rival court faction. *

His sons, Eadwig and Edgar, eventually became kings, one after the other. Trouble was, there were still rival factions at court, so much so that for a while the country was split, with one half supporting one son, the other supporting the other. And then, around two years after the partition, the elder son, still only a teenager, died. There’s absolutely nothing anywhere in the records to say how, or where, but it was very timely for his enemies.

This wasn’t the first time the country had been split. Those boys’ father had become king after the death of King Athelstan. When his father died, he left Mercia to Athelstan, and Wessex to Athelstan’s half-brother who, conveniently, was dead within the month. Again, no record of foul play.

We’re starting to get a pattern though. In the latter part of the period, England endured a renewal of the Viking incursions only this time they weren’t raiding, they were conquering. Cnut had come to stay, and after a series of bloody but ultimately indecisive battles, it was agreed that the country would be jointly ruled by him, and his English adversary, Edmund Ironside. Guess what? Edmund was dead within the month. This time, slight record of foul play, with some later sources suggesting he was murdered whilst on the privy.

Depiction of Edmund Ironside

Of course, it is possible that Ironside died from wounds sustained in the last battle, but this wasn’t recorded either, even though I’m fairly certain that cause and effect would have been understood: you get wounded in battle, you die a short time later, the wounds are probably what killed you.

What I love about studying this period, and writing about it, is that we have two avenues of exploration: The later, Anglo-Norman chroniclers, who tend to over dramatize and exaggerate, giving us sordid stories about child killers and evil women, and the more contemporary sources who give us minimal information and seem sometimes to ignore the obvious.

Diving down these paths on the search for the truth is good fun, but often inconclusive. Still, it's all perfect fodder for the novelist and always interesting to wonder about motive, for both the killings and the reporting of them.

[A version of this article appeared on Pam Lecky's Blog in October 2020]

You can read more about all these characters in my books Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.

The family of King Penda feature in my novel Cometh the Hour and its sequel which is currently in draft form, and the young kings Eadwig and Edgar, and the alleged murderous stepmother Ælfthryth, all appear in my novel Alvar the Kingmaker 
*For more on the murder of King Edmund, check out my story in Betrayal which is FREE to download!

Thursday, 28 January 2021

An A-Z (almost) of Anglo-Saxon Women

My new book details the lives of over 100 women, some of whom had their careers well documented and some of whom were barely mentioned, leaving me quite a bit of detective work to do. Often I’ve been asked why I’m so drawn to these women and I think it’s because they defy assumptions about their lives. So, in light-hearted vein, I’d like to present:

An A-Z (almost) of Anglo-Saxon Women

A is for Æthelburh, a little-known queen regent who got cross and burned a town to the ground. She also had the servants trash the royal hall to prove a point to her husband about the dangers of valuing material things.

B is for Burhs. These are the defensive towns which Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, built. Æthelflæd ruled a kingdom and was instrumental in forcing out the invading Vikings.

C is for Cynethryth. She is the only queen (that we know of) who had coins minted in her own name and with her own image.

Replica of Cynethryth's coin from my own collection

D is for Domneva. She tricked a king into giving her land to build an abbey.

E is for St Edith of Wilton. She was a nun and a princess, and a bishop told her off for her snappy dress sense. She ignored him.

Edith of Wilton - 
public domain image

F is for Fladbury, the site of an abbey and possibly named after Ælfflæd, daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria. Her testimony was used to secure the throne for a king after a succession dispute.

G is for Godiva. She most likely didn’t ride round Coventry naked, but she belonged to a powerful family and she lived to a ripe old age.

Statue of Godiva in Coventry
My own photo

H is for Hild. She founded Whitby Abbey where her nuns produced books, and she educated no fewer than five future bishops.

St Hild - public domain image

I is for Iurminburg, wife of a Northumbrian king. She was accused of stealing a reliquary from St Wilfrid and dancing around with it in triumph while Wilfrid languished in prison.

J is for Judith of Flanders. She married a king of Wessex, and when he died she married his son. When he died, her father put her under the watch of a bishop, but she eloped and married again!

Public Domain image of Judith with her
third husband, Baldwin of Flanders

K is for Kenelm. His sister, a princess and abbess, was accused of arranging his murder, and when she cast a spell to avoid discovery, her eyeballs fell out. Apparently.

L is for Lyminge, an abbey founded by Æthelburh, a Kentish princess who married a Northumbrian king. Endearingly, we know that she had a nickname, Tate, which comes to us from the pages of Bede’s History of the English People.

M is for St Margaret. She married the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, but she was descended from the Anglo-Saxon royal family (her father was briefly declared heir to the throne in 1066) and her daughter married Henry I of England, thus bringing the Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood lines together.

Shrine to St Margaret, Dunfermline Abbey
My photo

N is for Northampton. A woman known as Ælfgifu of Northampton married King Cnut, who sent her to rule Norway on behalf of their son. She then fought successfully for her other son to become crowned king of England.

O is for Osthryth. A rather sad tale here, for she was married off to her father’s enemy and was subsequently murdered by the nobles in her new home.

P is for Pega, the sister of the hermit St Guthlac. One legend says the devil took on her appearance to tempt Guthlac to eat before sunset, contrary to his vows, but Guthlac actually entrusted no one but her with the task of tending to his body when he died.

Q is for Queen, which was allegedly not a name given to the wives of Wessex kings, on account of one of them accidentally poisoning her husband whilst attempting to murder his counsellor.

R is for Rhianfellt, a princess of the British kingdom of Rheged. Her children by a future king of Northumbria married into the family of their father’s enemies. The son became king after his father, while the daughter was accused of murdering her husband.

S is for Seaxburh. A very special woman indeed, who is the only one ever to be included on a Regnal List. A rarity, but a queen nevertheless.

T is for Tawdry. The word, meaning shoddy or of bad quality, came from St Æthelthryth, or Audrey. On her feast day, the market would become swamped with inferior souvenirs.

St Æthelthryth

U is for Uhtred of Bamburgh (not the Bernard Cornwell character). His wife was a daughter of Æthelred the Unready, and Uhtred was killed by her sister’s husband. I wonder how this affected the relationship between the sisters, although sadly we’ll never know.

V is for Vikings. There are many stories but one dramatic (and anachronistic) tale records how one brave abbess deliberately cut off her nose and exhorted her nuns to do the same, so that they would not be ‘tempting’ for the marauders.

W is for Wulfrun. A high-status woman who was taken hostage by the Danes, and after whom the town of Wolverhampton is named.

Statue of Wulfrun in Wolverhampton
Attribution Link

Y is for Ymme, the wife of a king of Kent. One of a number of women who are mentioned only once by name. Tracking these women down is not always easy.

There is no X and there is no Z. They simply didn’t form part of the Old English alphabet. I hope no one minds though, because I think there are plenty of interesting Anglo-Saxon women in the rest of the alphabet!

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is published by Pen & Sword Books and is available on their website, in book shops and from Amazon

[A version of this article appeared on Kristie Dean's Website in 2020]

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Many Ælfgifus - Some Anglo-Saxon Ladies who Shared a Name

I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Northampton where we chatted about a lady known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. During the pre-recording chat, it became clear that there was some confusion over the name. I told the presenter that I wasn’t the least surprised, as there are no fewer than eight ladies with that name featured in my new book. I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce them. (The name, incidentally, translates as Elf-gift, which I think is rather beautiful.)

Ælfgifu, daughter of Edward the Elder

We don’t know a great deal about her but I do feel rather sorry for her. She and her sister, Eadgyth, were, apparently, both sent to Germany so that the future emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his bride. He married Eadgyth – it was, apparently, ‘love at first sight’ – and Ælfgifu married another prince. What Ælfgifu felt about being rejected by Otto, we can only surmise. Of course, Otto might not have been every young girl’s dream, in which case Ælfgifu might have considered that she’d had a lucky escape. It must have rankled though, being declared less attractive than her sister.

Depiction of Edward the Elder

Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury

King Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and a half-brother of the Ælfgifu mentioned above. He became king at around the age of eighteen and his first wife, Ælfgifu, bore him two sons, both future kings. Her identity is debateable and her background unknown. She wasn’t married for long.  Her son Eadwig (I’ll come back to him) was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and it would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury Abbey in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely a benefactor. 

Ælfgifu the Harlot

In 955 Edmund’s brother, who’d succeeded him, died and was in turn succeeded by Edmund’s son, Eadwig (see, I told you I’d come back to him). Life at court got rather interesting when Eadwig, still only a teenager, married a young woman named Ælfgifu. Many of you will know the story of how he was found in bed on his coronation day with his wife, and her mother. Depending on which version one reads, the mother was banished and/or hamstrung in punishment, or she threatened the abbot who found them, and who was himself subsequently banished, that she would have his eyes put out if he ever returned. The young couple’s marriage was annulled two years later, on the grounds that they were too closely related. 

Mortimer's depiction of the 
scandalous bedroom scene

However, Ælfgifu is presumed to be the same woman who left a will, in which she’s identified as being descended from the brother of Alfred the Great. This being so, she was descended from the branch of the royal family that had risen up in rebellion. Ælfgifu’s marrying the king might have been seen as an attempt to strengthen those claims. It’s not a theory which I whole-heartedly embrace but it does seem that there was a lot of political manoeuvring at court and I suspect Ælfgifu was an innocent caught up in the turmoil. She was certainly welcomed back to court by Eadwig’s brother when he became king. 

Ælfgifu of York - Possibly

That brother of Eadwig’s had a son, known to history as Æthelred the Unready. His first wife’s identity is a bit of a mystery. The chronicler John of Worcester said that she was called Ælfgifu, and that she was the daughter of an ealdorman called Æthelberht. But there is no evidence of this woman’s father; no ealdorman named Æthelberht is recorded elsewhere. Roger of Wendover said that she was a ‘woman of low birth’, while Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the mid-twelfth century, said that she was the daughter of a man named Thored, but he didn’t name her. It is possible that Æthelred was married first to a woman named Ælfgifu and then to the daughter of Thored, but it is generally accepted that this was one woman and, combining the two versions, that she was Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored. 

Æthelred the 'Unready'

We don’t hear much from her as she didn’t witness any charters and is otherwise unnamed in the sources. What she did do, though, is have at least nine children, (one of whom was also called Ælfgifu, whose husband was murdered by her sister’s husband, which must have made for awkward family Christmases)! She must have lived until the eleventh century, for her youngest son, Edgar, did not appear on charter witness lists until 1001. We do not know exactly how old the royal children would typically have been when they first appeared on the witness lists, but we do know that they were sometimes still babes in arms. It is not known what happened to Ælfgifu and it is possible that she died at around the same time, for King Æthelred got married again in 1002...

...To a woman named Emma, but who was given the English name of Ælfgifu. As if this wasn’t confusing enough! And after Æthelred the Unready died, Emma married again. Her husband was King Cnut, who already had a wife/concubine:

Ælfgifu of Northampton

This Ælfgifu came from a powerful Mercian family. Her father was ealdorman of Northumbria, her uncle founded Burton Abbey and her grandmother founded Wolverhampton. Ælfgifu’s father was murdered and her brothers were blinded and generally Æthelred the Unready mistrusted the family, as well he might. For at some point, possibly around 1013, Ælfgifu married Cnut, the son of the invader, Swein Forkbeard. She had two sons by Cnut, and they were given Danish names - Swein and Harold - as if recognised as potential heirs, but when Cnut became king, he married Emma and also had a son with her, who was named Harthacnut.

Queen Emma, or yet another

Emma, 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. Cnut had an empire to rule, and Harthacnut was sent to Denmark while in 1030, Ælfgifu and her son Swein were sent to Norway, there to rule for Cnut. The regency in Norway may have been hugely symbolic, and it is telling that the period was remembered in Scandinavian history as ‘Ælfgifu’s time’, but for various reasons it wasn’t hugely successful. Swein died in 1035, but so too did Cnut.

Now a (rather unseemly at times) battle began as Emma and Ælfgifu fought for their sons to succeed. You can read all about these fraught years in my new book but the upshot was that Ælfgifu was successful in the short term and Harold ‘Harefoot’ became king. Sadly though he died in 1040. We don’t know what happened to Ælfgifu after this, but there is a French twelfth-century story which speaks of a woman named Alveva and it’s possible that she lived out her years as an exile in southern France.

By 1066, another Harold was on the throne. He had a wife/concubine who’s known to history as Edith Swanneck, and one of her children was a daughter named Ælfgifu.

Ælfgifu the Unlucky

But the last Ælfgifu I want to talk about is one I’ve nicknamed ‘unlucky’. You’ll recall that Ælfgifu of Northampton’s brothers were blinded. They weren’t the only ones and in 993 a man named Ælfgar suffered the same fate. His wife was another woman named Ælfgifu. When Ælfgifu of Northampton’s father was killed and her brothers blinded, another man was named as being deprived of all his property. With a little bit of detective work I was able to say with some degree of certainty that this man was the second husband of our last Ælfgifu, which means that her first husband was blinded and the second was deprived of all his property. Given that it’s clear the name Ælfgifu seems to have been given only to noblewomen, I think this one must have expected a slightly more comfortable and uneventful life!

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is published by Pen & Sword Books and is available on their website, in book shops and from Amazon
[A version of this article appeared on Sharon Bennett Connolly's History...The Interesting Bits! site in 2020 and you can read her thoughts on the book HERE]

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Touching the Past

Recently I was asked about the problems of researching the lives of the women featured in my new book and was able to say that, despite the period once being called the ‘Dark Ages’, we do have a wealth of written evidence: chronicles, the Lives of saints, land charters, and wills. There are also lawcodes, and political tracts such as the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, commissioned by Queen Emma, wife of Æthelred the Unready and then of King Cnut.

But is there any physical evidence; is it possible to visit the places associated with these women of power and find the original Anglo-Saxon buildings? I’m very pleased to say that, while they are rare, the answer is yes. I thought I’d take the opportunity to showcase some of them here.

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

A place of deep significance for me, as it’s the burial place of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and her husband. Æthelflæd is almost unique, being one of only two women to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and she did it in a time of war, pushing back the invading Vikings. And she was, albeit briefly, succeeded by her daughter. A woman ruler would not succeed another woman ruler until Tudor times. Having written about Æthelflæd in a novel and now two nonfiction books, I was rather overcome with emotion when I visited St Oswald’s.

Minster Abbey, Kent

Minster Abbey, Kent - photo courtesy of the
abbey community 

The abbey, known as Minster-in-Thanet, was founded by a lady usually named Domneva or sometimes Domne Eafe. A princess of Kent, she married Merewalh, king of a Mercian subkingdom and possibly a son of the great warlord, King Penda. Her brothers were killed by her cousin, King Ecgberht of Kent. In penance, he is said to have granted her some land on which to build an abbey; as much land as her pet hind could run around. According to the legend, and possibly by divine intervention, the hind ran further than expected and Domneva gained much more land than the king had expected to have to yield. The Saxon brickwork and crypt still stand, and the abbey is still a thriving community.

Winchcombe Abbey, Gloucestershire

Stones from Winchcombe Abbey, now at Sudeley Castle

Sadly all that remains of this once thriving abbey is a collection of stones, now housed at nearby Sudeley Castle. Winchcombe’s most famous abbess was Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf of Mercia, and it’s likely that Winchcombe was used as a royal archive. Legend has it that Cwoenthryth was envious of her little brother and arranged for his murder. Fearful of having her part in the murder discovered, she chanted a psalm backwards as a spell and her eyeballs burst from her head. Dramatic as it all sounds, there is scarcely any evidence for this. There was a man who was possibly her brother, but no evidence that he was murdered, or that he was a child when he died. 

Coldingham Abbey, Berwickshire

Coldingham Abbey, Berickshire, with the recent
dig site in the foreground

There aren’t even any stones to be seen here. The existing abbey building dates from much later but Æbbe, the Anglo-Saxon princess and abbess after whom nearby St Abb’s is named, may well have had an abbey at Coldingham and recent excavations appear to have unearthed evidence. I visited the dig site and had one of my ‘historian standing in field gets emotional’ moments. The accompanying photo of the priory shows the dig site to the fore. This area is well worth a visit. St Abb’s, just a couple of miles away, offers fabulous coastal walks and views and it’s thought that the very first abbey, no more than a collection of beehive-shaped huts, was perched on top of the promontory there. Incidentally, parts of Avengers Endgame were also filmed at St Abb’s, so there’s a sort of Viking connection via Thor!

Repton Crypt, St Wystan’s, Derbyshire

The crypt at Repton

Repton is most famous for having been the site where a huge Viking army over-wintered at the height of the invasions. Excavations in the vicarage garden at St Wystan’s revealed the remains of at least 264 people. Research is ongoing about this part of the ‘Great Heathen Army’. The main purpose of my visit though was to see the original Anglo-Saxon crypt, where the bones of several members of the Mercian royal family were laid to rest. It is a stunningly atmospheric place and, like St Oswald’s Gloucester, leaves you feeling a great connection to the people whose lives are chronicled in those ancient documents. St Wystan, or Wigstan, was another apparent murder victim, who seems to have got embroiled in an argument over the succession, when a rival wished to marry his mother. His mother, Ælfflæd, is barely mentioned in the records but, through her parentage and her marriages, she linked royal families. She was the cousin of the afore-mentioned Cwoenthryth (their fathers were brothers who both ruled as kings of Mercia) and she married into a rival branch of the royal house. Her father was King Ceolwulf I and it is possible that Ceolwulf II, the last king of Mercia, was her son. Wigstan’s remains rested at Repton. His mother, little heard of, was so important in the dynastic dispute that blood was fatally spilled.

Researching her life, and others like her, was fascinating for me, and being able to visit associated sites such as this one is a spine-tingling experience. 

Other than churches, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t build much with stone, preferring wooden buildings which, alas, do not survive. There is something about stone, and its permanence, which gives such a strong feeling of being able to touch the past.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is published by Pen & Sword Books and is available on their website, in book shops and from Amazon

[A version of this article appeared on the Natalie is a History Buff Site in 2020 and you can read her thoughts on the book HERE]

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Two Abbesses, Two Synods: Hild and Ælfflæd of Whitby

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 spend their days in prayer and hard work. This is also true, but in the seventh century there was much more going on at the nunneries than one might imagine.

In fact, at first glance, it seems to have been very different indeed. An Irish abbot of Iona visited Coldingham Abbey where, according to Bede, he found the members of the community, men and women alike, sunk in slothful slumbers or else ‘they remained awake for the purposes of sin. The cells which were built for praying and for reading were haunts of feasting, drinking, gossip, and other delights; even the virgins who were dedicated to God put aside all respect for their profession and, whenever they had leisure, spent their time weaving elaborate garments with which to adorn themselves as if they were brides.’ Gosh!

Coldingham Priory with the possible original
site of the A/S abbey in the foreground
my photo

Perhaps it should first be explained that there was nothing unusual about there being men and women at Coldingham as it was one of a number of ‘Double Houses’. Contact between the two sexes in the double monasteries probably varied widely. We know, for example, that the two houses at Wimborne in Dorset were separated by high walls, while at Coldingham, it seems, conditions were relaxed to the point where it created scandal. Evidence suggests that at Whitby, there was a ‘bigger minster’ with other buildings and outlying areas which might equate to the later granges. It is probable that in fact the earlier princess-abbesses all ruled double houses, rather than all-female communities.

And princess-abbesses is almost exclusively what they were. Abbesses were royal, they were powerful, and they were influential. Two in particular attended major synods and influenced policy. They were related, too, and were members of the ruling house of Northumbria.

One of the most famous, and indeed one of the earliest, of those abbesses was Hild. Whitby was her monastery, and it was into her care that the infant Ælfflæd, daughter of King Oswiu and his wife, Eanflæd, was given when she was promised to the Church after a major battle in which her father was victorious. 

St Hild of Whitby - public domain

Hild’s mother was said to have had a dream in which she was searching for her missing husband, but could find no trace of him. In the middle of her search, however, she found a necklace under her garment and, as she looked at it, the necklace spread a blaze of light and the dream, Bede concluded, ‘was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly.’ 

Hild’s path to the religious life was originally to have taken her abroad, where her sister had gone to be a nun, but she was persuaded by Bishop Aidan to found the monastery at Hartlepool. In this she broke the tradition of English noblewomen going abroad to fulfil their religious vocations. It was at Hartlepool that she took custody of the infant Ælfflæd, but two years later Hild founded the monastery of Streaneshealh on land which King Oswiu had gifted to the Church. It has usually been identified as Whitby. 

Bede - public domain image

We learn much about Hild from Bede, including the fact that she was so beloved by all that they called her ‘mother’, but not whether she was ever married before taking the veil. He says that she was thirty-three when she became a nun. He does not call her a virgin, but then neither does he tell us of any husband. What we are told, however, is that she was highly educated and influential. No fewer than five future bishops are said to have been educated by her and the likelihood is that she assembled a vast library at Whitby. Styli and book-clasps found during excavations show that a great deal of writing was undertaken there. Excavation at Whitby also revealed that far from being a small site, consisting of a few cells, it was in fact a major settlement and it was the venue for the synod in 664 which decided once and for all which of the Christian traditions would take precedence and settled the calculation method for the date of Easter. 

Whitby Abbey - photo by and courtesy of 
David Satterthwaite

The synod was convened and presided over by King Oswiu. Also in the Roman camp were Wilfrid, the bishop who had been sponsored by Queen Eanflæd and educated by Hild, and Queen Eanflæd, who sent her chaplain, Romanus, as her representative. Oddly, Hild was in the other camp, along with Colman, the bishop of Lindisfarne, despite her having been brought up in the Roman tradition, and she was particularly hostile towards Bishop Wilfrid, apparently attacking him with ‘venomous hatred’. There might, of course, have been some personal animosity which went unrecorded. Wilfrid certainly had the ability to rub people up the wrong way.

Hild survived for many years after the synod but was struck down ten years later by the illness which eventually killed her. Bede tells us that she died at the age of sixty-six – having been in pain for several years – so she spent exactly half her life as a nun. 

She was also known for her encouragement of Cædmon the poet. Despite having received no formal training he was able to compose religious songs and poems. One night while he was tending the cattle he dreamed that someone was standing by him, telling him to sing, which he did, in praise of God. The next day he told his master the reeve of the gift he had received, and together they went to Abbess Hild who received him into the holy community. In the earliest days of the conversion process it is perhaps astonishing that it was Hild, a woman, who was responsible for the education of bishops. Her sympathetic encouragement of Cædmon and her reputation as ‘mother’ to all who knew her reveal a learned yet gentle woman. Her attendance at the synod of Whitby, however, shows a woman also of determination.

Ælfflæd, like her predecessor and relative Hild – they were second cousins – was also a powerful abbess and politically influential too.

Ælfflæd had been entrusted to Hild’s care when she was still a tiny infant, moving with her from Hartlepool to Whitby. By the time she succeeded as abbess, her brother Ecgfrith was king of Northumbria. 

We know that she was an educated woman. A letter survives in which she wrote to the abbess of the monastery at Pfalzel near Trier in Germany commending a nun who was on pilgrimage with the words, ‘We commend to your highest holiness and customary piety, strenuously with all diligence, N, the devoted handmaid of God and religious abbess’, evidence that she was competent in Latin and that she had contacts on the Continent. 

Ælfflæd also had close associations with St Cuthbert. Bede relates how she was seriously ill and at the point of death. ‘How I wish I had something belonging to my dear Cuthbert’ she said, believing that she would then be healed. Not long afterwards, someone arrived with a linen cincture (girdle) sent by Cuthbert. She wore it and, two days later, she was completely well. 

Title page of Bede's Life of St Cuthbert -
public domain image

In 684 she summoned Cuthbert to discuss the possibility of his becoming a bishop. At the meeting she asked him how long her childless brother, Ecgfrith, would remain on the throne, and who should rule after him. Cuthbert replied that she knew the identity of his successor who lived over the sea on an island. She realised that he was referring to Aldfrith, her illegitimate half-brother. The following year, in 685, Ecgfrith died and was indeed succeeded by Aldfrith. 

At first glance it seems hard to argue that Ælfflæd was in any way flexing her political muscles here, because it was she who asked Cuthbert about the succession, and it was Cuthbert who hinted at Aldfrith’s name. However, it has been argued that in asking the question, the abbess was testing Cuthbert’s loyalty to her family. She certainly had political ‘clout’: after the battle at Nechtanesmere in which Ecgfrith was defeated by the Picts, the former bishop of the Picts, Trumwine, was expelled and lived under Ælfflæd’s command at Whitby. Cuthbert remained a friend and, sensing that his end was near, he made a tour of his diocese and visited ‘that most noble and holy virgin Ælfflæd’. 

Like Hild before her, she had been hostile to Bishop Wilfrid and her influence was such that when Aldfrith also fell out with Wilfrid, the archbishop of Canterbury, a champion of Wilfrid’s, urged peace to be made between the two men, and wrote not only to the king, but to the abbess, too. 

Her influence was felt at the end of Aldfrith’s reign, too. Aldfrith’s son and eventual successor, Osred, was only about eight years old when his father died. Aldfrith was initially succeeded by a man named Eadwulf who, according to one chronicler, ‘plotted to obtain the kingship.’ 

In 705 at the synod of the River Nidd, Ælfflæd’s testimony was of paramount importance. At the synod Ælfflæd, having clearly had a change of heart about Wilfrid, testified in his favour, saying that on his deathbed, Aldfrith had urged that his successor should come to terms with Wilfrid. An agreement was reached, with the archbishop giving his advice while ‘Abbess Ælfflæd gave them hers.’ 

Whilst the main focus of the synod was the settling of the affairs of Wilfrid, the author of the Life of Wilfrid said that Osred was able to rule because of the support of, inter alia, Abbess Ælfflæd. It is clear that she was in a position of huge influence and her presence at Aldfrith’s deathbed indicates a strong relationship between the two members of the royal family. She is mentioned in both the Lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, but obviously had secular as well as religious power.

St Wilfrid - Wiki commons image
Credit link here

Generally, the abbesses began to lose something of their power and status with the decline of the double houses. The last specific reference to such an establishment was in a letter of 796 and monasteries gradually began to be ruled by priests. Possibly it was the priests attached to the monasteries who had greater direct roles in pastoral care. Later abbesses came into direct conflict with the Church which sought 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.

You can read more about Hild, Ælfflæd, and indeed the supposedly scandalous abbess of Coldingham, Æbbe, in Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon and in book shops.

[A version of this article appeared on History Lair in September 2020]