Wednesday, 11 November 2020

A New Look for Alvar the Kingmaker

Alvar the Kingmaker has had a makeover. When my novel To Be A Queen underwent a similar 'face lift' it was to coincide with the 1100th anniversary of her death and there were lots of events to commemorate that date, including the Tamworth Literary Festival, where I was a guest speaker.

There isn't a 'special' anniversary for Alvar, other than that on November 23 955 Edwy - the 'Fairchild' - became king, and that's really the start of Alvar's story. 

So, what's 'Alvar' all about? Well, it's based on real events and almost all the characters are real historical figures.

10th-Century England is rocked by scandal when the young king is caught in bed with his wife - and her mother.

Nobleman Alvar knows that securing the throne for the young and worthy prince Edgar will brand him an oath-breaker. As a fighting man, he is indispensable to the new sovereign, but his success and power gain him deadly, murderous enemies: Abbot Dunstan, banished, recalled, and in no mood to forgive; Bishop Oswald, the ambitious foreigner who will let nothing stand in his way. They must not discover Alvar’s secret love for the wife of his deputy, whilst Alvar must keep her safe, and serve and protect the queen, who is in love with him and who harbours a dark secret of her own…

Civil war erupts, and Alvar once again finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. His career began with a dishonourable deed to help a good king; now he must be loyal to a new king, Æthelred, whom he knows will be weak, and whose supporters have been accused of regicide. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones? 

The queen in question is Ælfthryth, who was given a bad press by the chroniclers as having been involved in the murder of her first husband, and of her stepson. She was the mother of Æthelred the Unready, incidentally. So, do I believe the stories about her? Well, maybe some of them. But she had her reasons, as you'll discover.

Alvar, or to give him his real name, Ælfhere, was also a real person, an ealdorman of Mercia and related to royalty. He had a long political career and he really did butt heads with the Churchmen but again, he had reasons for so doing.

I didn't have to invent the murders or the convenient 'premature' deaths, nor the reports of that scandal. Add in a couple of tangled love stories and voila! we have Alvar's story.

But there is also a backstory. And in a new anthology which is out on November 17, I have contributed a short story which tells of the events immediately leading up to the beginning of Edwy's reign.

"Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth...Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges."

My story in Betrayal is called Love to Hatred Turn'd, and concerns Dunstan, who features heavily in Alvar the KingmakerAlyeva and Dunstan have grown up together. Dunstan’s calling to serve God and king means he must leave their childhood home, but his path is not easy and she wants to protect him. Dunstan’s ambitious brother will do whatever it takes to further his own career, something that Alyeva learns to her cost. There are powerful factions at court, and murderous plots afoot. Alyeva is entangled in them and she must try to break free and, more importantly, attempt to prevent a killing that will have far-ranging repercussions. In the court of the Anglo-Saxon kings, danger lurks around every corner and the skill is in learning whom to trust...

So, I thought it would be a good time to update the Alvar cover.

The Historical Fictioneers have a dedicated Facebook group which we'd love you to join and so this post is partly to tell you all about that.

But really, I just wanted to share the beautiful new book cover*, designed by the very talented Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics. I hope you like it as much as I do! 

* Cathy designed the Betrayal cover too

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Blōtmōnað - Blood Month

It's November, or Blōtmōnað as the Anglo-Saxons called it. 
(the Old English letters ð and þ are represented in modern English by the combination th)

So, what's Blood-Month all about? 

Unlike the days of the week, where the words are recognisable, the Anglo-Saxon calendar is not so obvious.

Days of the Week
Sunday: Sunnenday (Middle English translation of Greek Hemera heliou): the sun's day,
Monday: Monan daeg (Anglo Saxon, monan, moon; daeg, Anglo Saxon, day): the moon's day,
Tuesday: Tiwes daeg (Anglo Saxon Tiw, war god, related to Greek god Zeus): Tiw's day,
Wednesday: Woensdag (Danish, Woen, Woden, Chief Norse god, Frigga's husband; dag, day): Woden's day,
Thursday: Thursdaeg (Old English; Thorr, Icelandic, thundergod): Thor's day,
Friday: Frigedaeg (Anglo Saxon; Frige, Frigga, chief Norse goddess, Woden's wife): Frigga's day,
Saturday: Saeterdaeg (Anglo Saxon; Saeter, Saturn, Roman god of time): Saturn's day.

Looking at the original words, it is easy to see how they developed into the modern names for the days of the week.

Not so with the months, however. They weren't so much named after deities, as named for specific seasonal events

Months of the Year
January: Æfterra Gēola
 "After Yule", or "Second Yule"
February: Sol-mōnaþ ('mud month,' Bede: "the month of cakes, which they offered in it to their gods." Either the cakes looked like they were made of mud due to their color and texture, or literally it was the month of mud due to wet English weather)
March: Hrēþ-mōnaþ "Month of the Goddess Hrēþ" or "Month of Wildness"
April: Easter-mōnaþ "Easter Month", "Month of the Goddess Ēostre"
May: Þrimilce-mōnaþ "Month of Three Milkings"
June: Ærra Līþa "Before Midsummer", or "First Summer" Brāh-mānod

Þrilīþa "Third (Mid)summer" (leap month) I'll come back to this one!

July: Æftera Līþa "After Midsummer", "Second Summer"
August: Weod-mōnaþ "Plant month"
September: Hālig-mōnaþ "Holy Month"
October: Winterfyllēð "Winter full moon", according to Bede "because winter began on the first full moon of that month [of October]."
November: Blōt-mōnaþ "Blót Month", "Month of Sacrifice"
December: Ærra Gēola "Before Yule", or "First Yule"

What can we deduce from these month names? 

Gēola is the same word as ‘Yule’, as seen above,and may also have something to do with the ‘wheel’ of the year. The explanation for Sol-mōnaþ is not universally accepted. Perhaps just as contentiously, Easter is linked with the word ‘east’, where the sun rises on the spring equinox, or with the pagan goddess. Ðrīemilcemōnað or Þrimilce-mōnaþ (May) may suggest that cows could be milked three times a day during this month.

With the months representing distinct times of the year and activities associated with them, it's probably no surprise that they were also divided in accordance with the phases of the moon, which meant that there were always a few days left over each year. Thus there was a need for a leap-month, which is where Þrilīþa comes in (Þri - three, līþa or līða - possibly mild, summer.)

An Anglo-Saxon Calendar which shows the 7th November - the beginning of winter

It has been suggested that the blood month refers to human sacrifice. But Bede, who would have been at pains to point out any non-Christian practices, says in De Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) that
"Blod-monath is month of immolations, for it was in this month that the cattle which were to be slaughtered were dedicated to the gods."
People might have slaughtered their own animals, or received help from kinsmen, otherwise a professional butcher would come their premises. It would have made sense to pay a butcher so that the meat could be quickly salted and hung, thus avoiding deterioration. Payment for the service was perhaps in kind, so that the butchers had meat to sell on.

Man beating an oak tree to release acorns to fatten his pig - from the November page of the
Peterborough Psalter MS 53 p6

In the latter years of the tenth-century, slaughter had to be carried out in the present of two witnesses. With a biblical proscription on the strangulation of animals, the beasts would generally have had their necks cut with an axe. The assumption is that the animals were then bled.

A large animal will take longer to lose its body heat; Anglo-Saxon domestic animals were smaller than our modern breeds, so this will have helped. Meat produced in the summer months would, equally, go bad very quickly and so it makes sense that November would be the traditional month for slaughter. There would, of course, have been no waste, and there is evidence to suggest that marrow, tongue, brain, offal and fats (smeru - grease) were all used. What better to warm you on a cold winter's night than healfne cuppan clœnes gemyltes swices (half a cup of pure bacon fat melted)?

Something to consider if you haven't yet had your Bonfire Night party?

Days of the week: Source - Caltech
Months of the Year: Source - Germanic Calendar
Further Reading: Anglo-Saxon Food Ann Hagen

Friday, 16 October 2020

Stepping Back into Saxon England - Blog Tour

From 1st-15th October, 2020, Helen Hollick and I went on tour, visiting authors and bloggers and taking it in turns to talk about our writing, or the history behind our writing.

We discussed various aspects of Anglo-Saxon era life, highlighted some of our favourite characters - Ealdgyth, wife of Harold Godwineson AND the king of Wales, Æthelflæd (of course!) and her daughter, King Penda, Queen Emma...
We also talked about our writing, where the ideas come from, why we love the period, and tried to separate fact from fiction, particularly with regard to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and that fateful battle of 1066.

If you missed any of the stops, or you'd like to revisit them, here is the full list of links:

Annie hosted by Helen Hollick:

Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?

Helen hosted by Word Wenches: Why Do We Do It?

Annie hosted by Lisl Zlitni

Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

Helen - hosted by Tony Riches

Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?

Annie  - hosted by Pam Lecky

Murder in Saxon England

Helen - hosted by Derek Birks

King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England

Annie  - hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson

Æthelflæd's Daughter 

Helen - hosted by Cryssa Bazos

An Anthology Of Authors

Annie  - hosted by Elizabeth St John 

Anglo-Saxon Family Connections

Helen - hosted by Judith Arnopp

Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.

Annie - hosted by Brook Allen

Roman Remains - Did the Saxons Use Them?

Helen - hosted by Amy Maroney

Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice

Annie - hosted by Simon Turney

Penda: Fictional and Historical 'Hero' 

Helen  - hosted by Annie 

The Battle Begins...

And finally: a joint post hosted by both of us 

Annie - Casting Light Upon The Shadow

Helen - Let Us Talk Of Many Things

[With huge thanks also to Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics for her wonderful banner and promotion graphics]

Thursday, 15 October 2020

In Conversation with Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’ & Queen Emma of Normandy


Statue of Æthelflæd at Tamworth
Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’,
 (c. 870 – 12 June 918) ruled Mercia in the English Midlands from 911 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his wife Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born around 870 at the height of the Viking invasions of England. By 878, most of England was under Danish Viking rule. She was married to Æthelred of Mercia, who played a major role in fighting off renewed Viking attacks in the 890s, together with Æthelflæd's brother, the future King Edward the Elder. When Æthelred's health declined Æthelflæd was responsible for the government of Mercia. Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflæd then ruled as Lady of the Mercians. She was a great ruler who played an important part in the conquest of the Danelaw. She was praised by Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury, who described her as "a powerful accession to [Edward's] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul". (From Wikipedia)

Æthelflæd is the central character in Annie Whitehead’s novel To Be A Queen.

Frontispiece from the Encomium
Queen Emma of Normandy (Referred to as Ælfgifu in royal documents; 
c. 984 – 6 March 1052) was queen of England, Denmark and Norway through her marriages to Æthelred the Unready (1002–1016) and Cnut the Great (1017–1035). She was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor. After her husbands' deaths Emma remained in the public eye, and continued to participate actively in politics during the reigns of her sons by each husband, Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut. She is the central figure within her contemporary biography Encomium Emmae Reginae, a critical source for the history of early 11th-century English politics. Emma is one of the most visually represented early medieval queens. (From Wikipedia) 

Emma is the central character in Helen Hollick’s novel A Hollow Crown (title of the UK edition) / The Forever Queen (title of the US edition), and a character in Harold the King (UK edition title) / I am the Chosen King (US edition title) the story of the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

* * *
Two Queens: Sometime... somewhere entirely fictional...

Queen Emma (QE): [inspecting a wine flagon on a side table] I see that useless maid has not refilled the wine, yet again. I suspect she spends too much of her time lifting her skirts for Æthelred, that no-good, useless husband of mine. Hoping he can amuse her. [mutters] She’ll be lucky.

Æthelflæd (Æ): [looking up from a manuscript that she is reading, her father’s translation of the Cura Pastoralis] How odd that we should both have a husband with the same name, yet we existed so many years apart?

QE: [snorts] From what I’ve heard, your Æthelred was a competent man. In all respects. Unlike mine who deserved the addition of ‘Unready’ to his damned name. [She laughs] Most people think he got it because of his incompetence with fighting the Vikings. I was calling him that long before then – for his equally as incompetent lack of performance in bed.

Æ: [smiles to herself but makes no comment]

QE: I suppose your husband succeeded there as well? [she snorts again, then smiles] Well, my second husband made up for all that. Cnut was, how shall I say? Most satisfactory.

Æ: It is strange for me to hear of a Viking so lovingly spoken of. We did naught but curse them in our households, my father’s and my own in Mercia. They were the enemy.

QE: [changing the subject slightly] You only had the one daughter did you not? 

Æ: [quietly] Only one that lived, aye.

QE: [sighs] My daughters were taken from me before they met womanhood. Married off as ‘essential alliances’. Alliances? Huh! The only use for a daughter, as men see it. I ended up with Æthelred because of a damned alliance.

Æ: I suppose I could use those very words, for I too was married to my Æthelred to strengthen the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. But you chose to make alliance with Cnut of Denmark after he had conquered England, did you not? 

QE: I did. But that was in order to retain my crown. I did not know, then, that I would end up loving him.

Æ: Again, I could say the same. I did not think I would come to love my husband. I was truly lucky there, for love can be a fickle, fleeting, thing.

QE: [Scornfully] When it comes to your children it certainly is! One of my sons, Alfred, stupidly got himself murdered. Another, Harthacnut, refused to listen to the physicians and died, while the other, Edward, was even more useless than his imbecile father.

Æ: My daughter was a long-awaited, much prayed-for gift from God. I thought I had failed my husband by not providing a son, but he loved her. Sadly, our fate was ever to be on the march, and perhaps we neglected her. In the end, our love was not returned. I do not blame her. Had I known what my brother did to her, though, I would have fought him, even though we had ridden and marched together in common cause until that point.

QE: [inspects what Æthelflæd is reading, raises her eyebrows, then sits down in a chair] Brothers? Oh, don’t get me started on brothers! It was my brother who arranged that dreadful marriage with Æthelred.

Æ: My brother Edward learned duty from an early age. We both did; watching our father fighting the Vikings made us aware of what needed to be done. We were close, even as children. I think that’s why he was able to work with me and let me rule Mercia. To be honest though, even had he tried to take over, the Mercians would not have let him. By then, I had gained their trust, but it came almost too late. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and should have learned much earlier to adapt.

QE: [sighs] Oh, if only I could have my life again...

Æ: [Interrupting] If you could, how would you change it?

QE: I would ensure that I had the power to remain in control. You had the advantage there, didn’t you? 

Æ: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I had a stark choice: let Edward take over or become ruler myself. I had been taught well, by my dear husband. It was somehow easier with him advising me.

QE: I admire you, Æthelflæd, when your husband died you took command. Look at all that you achieved!

Æ: [modestly] Oh, well, thank you for that. I had a group of the most loyal men you could wish for; they fought for me and sadly many died for me. My success was laced with loss and heartache. [her voice becomes shaky and she takes a moment to steady her breathing] But you achieved much. You ruled as regent when Cnut left England to journey to Denmark and Norway, and to go on pilgrimage to Rome. You fought to ensure that Harthacnut became King of England after Cnut died...

QE: Fought? Not in the way you fought, my dear! All I had were words, words to write down, words to cajole and convince. Words that meant nothing, because my dearest son only became king when the one who usurped his crown, that weasel, Harald Harefoot, so conveniently died. [She mimics a sad face]. 

Æ: I’ve often wondered. Did you have anything to do with his sudden death?

QE: [going to a side table and ignoring the question. She lifts a silver platter, offers its content to Æthelflæd.] Do have one of these honey cakes. They are delicious.

Æ: [watches her, recalling how she used to observe other people moving around to cause a distraction.] Thank you, I will. [waits patiently for Emma to answer.]

QE: If I must confess to anything, I will confess that I regret not strangling Edward at birth. There was many a time I wished I had. Especially when he stripped me of authority, threatened me with exile and took away the treasury from my care. The little runt.

Æ: [smiling] Perhaps, if we spoke to them nicely, we could persuade Annie and Helen, our scribes, to write something where our history of these things changes for the better?

QE: [also smiling] Now there’s a thought! What a superb idea!

* * *
Note from Annie and Helen ... an idea indeed. You never know, we might... One day.

We hope you have enjoyed the joint tour that Annie and Helen have journeyed through these past few days.
 If you missed any of our articles, the full list is below

Thank you for supporting us. If you have enjoyed any of our novels, please do consider leaving a comment on Amazon and Goodreads.

© Helen Hollick / Annie Whitehead

Annie’s Links:

Helen’s Links:
Amazon Author Page: 
Newsletter Subscription: 
Twitter: @HelenHollick

"Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands..."  ... but there is now!

available in paperback from 15th October
or pre-order now!

Follow the tour - a joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead  and Helen Hollick

 1st October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?

2nd October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?

3rd October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

4th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?

5th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England
Pam Lecky

6th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England
Dodging Arrows

7th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd's Daughter 
Samantha Wilcoxson

8th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors
Cryssa Bazos

9th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections
Elizabth St John

10th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
Judith Arnopp

11th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains - Did the Saxons Use Them?
Brook's Scroll

12th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice
Amy Maroney

13th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical 'Hero' 
Books & More

14th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins...
Reads Writes Reviews

15th October : Annie - Casting Light Upon The Shadow
Helen - Let Us Talk Of Many Things
joint post hosted by both of us 

Thank you for following our tour
We hope you enjoyed 'Stepping Back Into Saxon England' 
with us!

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Anglo-Saxon Women with Attitude

Many of the women who feature in my books got rather a bad press from the chroniclers: Queen Ælfthryth, for example, who was accused of witchcraft and of the murder of her stepson, Edward the Martyr, in 978. Or Cwoenthryth, abbess of Winchcombe, said to have orchestrated the killing of her small brother, St Kenelm. Queen Cynethryth of Mercia apparently persuaded her husband, King Offa, to have a visiting king of East Anglia beheaded. I’ve written about these women in this blog post but there are plenty of other women from the period who seem to have been rather ‘feisty’. Let me introduce a few of them:


Most of our information about Balthild comes from a Life written at the monastery she founded. From this we learn that Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon, was enslaved as a child and taken across the sea to Frankia and bought by a man named Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace of the Merovingian kings. His daughter was married to the king of Kent, so he had royal connections. Balthild became his cup-bearer, and her duties included serving his important guests, taking off their boots and washing their feet. 

The story goes that Erchinoald decided that he wished to marry Balthild, but the slave woman refused. She didn’t leave it there, though, saying that since she had rejected a king’s servant, she would marry the king instead. And in 648 she became the wife of King Clovis II who ruled the western part of Frankia. 

Her marriage and career are not in dispute, but her lowly origins may be. Erchinoald was no lowly servant himself and it is possible that it was he who arranged the marriage. Romantic as it sounds, it is unlikely that Clovis, a new king, would choose a slave of lowly birth as his bride. There were many links between the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons and it is feasible that Balthild was a noblewoman whose contacts might have helped strengthen his kingship. 

The eldest of her three children, Clothar, became king whilst still a minor and it seems that Balthild served in some capacity as regent. When Clothar reached his majority, Balthild retired to Chelles, one of the monasteries she’d founded.. Her youngest son Childeric was, according to her Life, received in Austrasia (the northeastern part of Frankia) as their king ‘by the arrangement of Lady Balthild.’ Clearly Balthild remained influential in the lives of her sons. 

We are told that she was pious, generous, and just. She gave gifts to churches, and she ended the enslavement and exportation of Christians, freeing many already enslaved, especially those of her own country. 

Not everyone remembered her so fondly. According to the Life of St Wilfrid, ‘the wicked Queen Balthild was persecuting the Church just like Jezebel…She spared priests and deacons but had nine bishops put to death.’ 

Balthilds’s relics were preserved at Chelles and were rediscovered in 1983. She was about five feet tall and was buried wearing a cloak made of coloured silk. A plait of her hair, found among the clothing, showed that at one time she had been blonde, but that her hair had faded to grey. A chasuble, thought to be hers, is in the Musée de Chelles and consists of a piece of woven linen, decorated with embroidery. 

Balthild's Chasuble: Image Accreditation

Edith of Wilton

Edith of Wilton was also venerated as a saint. She was said to have chosen the religious life for herself formally at the age of two, an occasion marked by a visit from her father, King Edgar, who came with royalty, clergymen and courtiers ‘as if to the court of Christ and a heavenly betrothal feast’. 

One story about Edith comes from the eleventh-century monk, Goscelin of St-Bertin, and concerns the murder of her brother, Edward (he who was reputedly killed on the orders of Queen Ælfthryth, mentioned in the opening paragraph above). Goscelin related that after the murder, the noblemen of England offered the throne to Edith. Given that Goscelin names their leader as Ælfhere of Mercia, known to be a staunch supporter of Æthelred the Unready, who succeeded Edward, it seems an improbable tale, especially given that Edith would have been no older than 17 and possibly as young as 14 and that queens, of any age, had not been allowed to rule in their own right.* Edith demurred anyway, and it’s probable that the story was a device merely to show her rejecting, once again, the secular life she had spurned when a child. 

My favourite story about Edith is that she reportedly favoured dressing in a more ostentatious style than most other religious women and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester castigated her, telling her that Christ had taken no interest or delight in external appearances, rather it was the heart which He asked for. She replied that she had, indeed, given her heart to the Lord, who paid attention to the heart and not the clothing. Goscelin reported that a fire in the monastery destroyed many of the nuns’ possessions but Edith’s leather and purple garments survived intact. This story might have been designed to symbolise Edith’s inviolable status as a holy virgin, but it does raise a wry smile to think of Edith steadfastly refusing to take any notice of the bishop’s advice on sartorial matters, and it gives just an inkling of her forceful personality.

Edith of Wilton

Judith of Flanders

Judith had a slightly worse press than the two ladies above, but I can’t help but admire her plucky spirit. She was the second wife of King Æthelwulf, father of Alfred the Great. Her father was the Carolingian king Charles the Bald and her wedding took place in Verberie in 856 when Judith was probably no more than around twelve. She was crowned and anointed by the archbishop of Rheims. The anointing was unusual, blessing her womb and conferring throne-worthiness upon any future male offspring. Asser, the monk who wrote the account of Alfred’s life, reported that king’s wives were not known as queens in Wessex, so perhaps the Carolingians were anxious to ensure that Judith’s status was recognised by her adoptive country, but it stirred up resentment in Wessex. Æthelwulf had five sons already, and the eldest, Æthelbald, had been left as regent of Wessex while his father was abroad and evidently did not respond favourably to his return. It is perhaps not surprising that Æthelbald didn’t like the idea of any future stepbrothers having a stronger claim to the throne than his own. 

It didn’t happen. Two years after his remarriage, King Æthelwulf was dead. Æthelbald succeeded him but, scandalously, he married his father’s widow. Asser proclaimed that it was ‘against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. No doubt the aim was to maintain the alliance with the Franks, and to confer throne-worthiness on any future sons, but it is not impossible that Judith, a young woman, might have been more attracted to the son than the father and that they became close even while her husband was still alive. However, Æthelbald himself died in 860 and Judith, still only a teenager, returned to the Continent. She was said to have sold up her possessions and returned to her father who kept her under episcopal guardianship in his stronghold at Senlis.

And that, one would think, would be the end of her story. In fact, she fled from Senlis with the aid of Baldwin, count of Flanders and later married him. It is hard to know how much she was a willing participant, but it seems she considered the marriage preferable to a cloistered life. She had two children by Baldwin and her son, Baldwin II, later married Ælfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great. If (and it is an if, for we can never be completely sure how the women felt/thought about such things) we can assume that Judith had any say in the matters of marrying her stepson and then eloping with her third husband, then she was clearly a spirited young lady who knew her own mind. 

19th-Century Depiction of Judith and Baldwin

*Seaxburh of Wessex being a notable exception, but it may be that she, in fact, was acting as regent.

There’s more detail about these ladies and over 130 other named women in my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Literacy among Anglo-Saxon Women

My new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, features the mothers, wives and daughters of the Anglo-Saxon kings, as well as a number of influential and powerful noblewomen, and not a few nuns and abbesses.

What struck me was that from as early as the seventh century and across all these groups of women, levels of literacy were high.

Bertha was the daughter of the Frankish king Charibert, and she married Æthelberht of Kent, but the date of her marriage and whether her husband was actually king at the time, are the subject of some debate. In the book I’ve suggested a date of 579 for the wedding. Much is made of Bertha’s being a Christian, and she’s often cited as being an influence on her husband’s decision to convert, but what is also interesting about her is that Gregory of Tours, writing around or before 580, said that she was literate, and if she corresponded with her family then this would amount to more than merely being able to read the Bible. 

Statue of Bertha. Cropped from Image by
Gordon Griffiths: Attribution Link

Cynethryth was the wife of King Offa of Mercia in the eighth century. Far from being a token queen, she attested charters, and had coins struck in her name. She exercised joint lordship with Offa over the Mercian monasteries and she retained possession of the lucrative Cookham monastery after his death, which led her into dispute with the archdiocese of Canterbury. She attested as the mother of Ecgfrith, her son by Offa who succeeded when Offa died, even appearing in charters without him, before he reached his majority. The monk and scholar, Alcuin, wrote to Ecgfrith reminding him that he should learn authority from his father and 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. 

As well as their son, Ecgfrith, Offa and Cynethryth had a number of daughters. One, Æthelburh, is known to have corresponded with Alcuin, who wrote to her upon the death of her brother-in-law, Æthelred, king of Northumbria: ‘Some of this ruin has brought you hot tears, I know, for your beloved sister.’ The sister who was widowed upon the death of the Northumbrian king was Ælfflæd and Alcuin also wrote to Ælfflæd’s mother-in-law expressing his condolences.

Replica of Cynethryth coin

Cwoenthryth was the daughter of King Cenwulf, who succeeded Offa’s son Ecgfrith (who only reigned for a matter of months). King Cenwulf was every bit as strong a ruler as Offa had been but it was his argument with the archbishop of Canterbury which was to have repercussions for his daughter. Cwoenthryth was named as his heir, not to the throne, but to his property, and she became abbess of the family house at Winchcombe, the burial place of Cwoenthryth’s father and brother. The argument that Cwoenthryth inherited centred around the king’s claim to the lands, which Wulfred, archbishop of Canterbury, insisted belonged to the Church. Cwoenthryth inherited not only Winchcombe in Mercia from her father, but houses in Kent, too: Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver. 

Minster (in -Thanet) Abbey, showing Saxon stonework
photo by kind permission of the Sisters of Minster Abbey

She cannot have overseen all three sites in person but 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 surrender the Kentish houses and recognise Wulfred’s authority over them and the associated lands. 

It could be argued that the women who received letters from the likes of Alcuin had someone to read the letters to them and, indeed, someone to write their replies. But wealthy abbesses such as Cynethryth and Cwoenthryth would need to scrutinise documents, especially when in dispute with the Church. 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 unlikely that they would trust the word of someone reading them out loud. * 

King Edward the Elder of Wessex, who succeeded his father Alfred the Great in 899, had at least fourteen children by three wives. In his Chronicle of the Kings of England, the Anglo-Norman monk William of Malmesbury said that Edward the Elder brought up his daughters so that, ‘in childhood they gave their whole attention to literature, and afterwards employed themselves in the labours of the distaff and the needle.’ So not only were the royal daughters skilled in sewing and embroidery, it seems they were literate too. 

Queen Eadgifu, Edward the Elder's third wife

I’ve often written about tenth-century Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar. She was variously accused of regicide, witchcraft and adultery. What is perhaps less well known is that she often acted as advocate for other women in lawsuits. A letter survives which explains how a woman named Wulfgyth ‘rode to me at Combe, looking for me.’ The ‘me’ in question is Ælfthryth, and she goes on to describe how she interceded and helped bring a land dispute between Wulfgyth, her husband and Bishop Æthelwold to a conclusion. A lawsuit from the 990s involved a noblewoman named Wynflæd who brought witnesses to swear to her ownership of certain estates: ‘Then she brought forth the proofs of ownership with the support of Ælfthryth, the king’s mother.’ It is hard to see that the queen would have been able to follow the proceedings had she not been able to read.

Depiction of Ælfthryth welcoming her stepson Edward
to her house at Corfe, just before his murder

Another surviving and important document is the will left by another tenth-century lady who also went by the name of Wynflæd. In her will she disposes of several estates in Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Among her bequests there are tapestries, a filigree brooch, an engraved bracelet, clothing chests, and books. Although there is no indication that this testatrix had need to scrutinise legal documents, it is hard to believe that she would have kept books - and we needn’t assume they were all religious texts - unless she herself could read them.

Wynflæd's Will

As we move into the eleventh century, the story of powerful women is rather dominated by Queen Emma, wife of both King Æthelred the Unready and King Cnut. During her fight for her son Harthcnut’s right to the English throne, she commissioned a work called the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ which, one would assume, Emma would have wanted to read herself, and thus we must assume that she, too, was literate.

A page from the Encomium

In the book, I’ve also examined the evidence which strongly points to the existence of women scribes, from the writing stylii found at Whitby Abbey, to the amazing discovery last year of the ‘Blue-toothed nun’. I’ve mentioned her in another blog post HERE

You can read more about these amazing women in Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, out now.

(* A conclusion reached during a conversation with archaeologist Dr Cat Jarman at Repton 2019)