Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Research Trip - Finding Æthelflæd

My history of the ancient kingdom of Mercia inches ever nearer to its publication date and I needed some additional pictures for the photo plates in the middle section of the book. This requirement found me in a special place at a very special time.

I'd traipsed all around the north midlands, and the east of England, and now I needed to head off to the western part of Mercia, specifically, Gloucestershire, the ancient homeland of the Hwicce Tribe.

Those who know me and/or regularly read this blog, will know that my daughter summed up my research trips by saying that I 'stand around in fields getting emotional.'

The Anglo-Saxonist has little choice but to do so, because quite often all that's left of an original Anglo-Saxon site is an empty field.

This trip was different though. This time I was visiting places which could be photographed, places with links to Mercian history, places which were much more than mere fields.

My first port of call was Deerhurst where, unusually, you can find not one, but two Anglo-Saxon buildings. I went first to St Mary's. The outside of the building gives little away with regard to its Anglo-Saxon origins:

But pause a moment in the porch, look up, and you'll see the most exquisite Anglo-Saxon carving of the Madonna, with the child Jesus in her womb (I described this carving in To Be A Queen, along with the 'Angel' high up on one of the outside walls).

Inside this chapel there is a wealth of original Anglo-Saxon stonework, from the font, to the walls and doorways, to the windows:

What struck me most about this beautiful building was the sense of calm. Its crisp white walls are plain, there are no fancy adornments (unless you count the lovely carved animal heads). This is a place used for worship over many centuries. I felt a deep connection to those who'd been in this place before me.

On the way out, I paused to photograph the carved animal head

and the 'Angel'

before walking a few hundred yards to Odda's Chapel. Odda of Deerhurst was an ealdorman in the eleventh century. Some thought that he was related to Ælfhere (Alvar in my novel) but it seems unlikely, and the connection seems to have been assumed simply because both held jurisdiction over the west midlands. The chapel was discovered by chance, in the nineteenth century. It had been incorporated into a farmhouse, hidden under the plaster. It's no more than an empty shell, but it's a gem of a find, and gives one a good idea of the typical proportions of such a building.

My next port of call was Winchcombe, site of a long-since disappeared abbey, and a royal Mercian centre. It's said that some of the stones from the abbey were incorporated into other buildings, like this pub:

How I wished I could have seen the abbey itself, where one intriguing woman was abbess for a while there (she was Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf, and I wrote about her in this blog post). There are some of the original abbey stones at nearby Sudeley Castle, but not enough to give any impression of the original building:

A relatively short walk away from Sudeley castle is the site of St Kenelm's well. This is reputed to be the site where the funeral procession rested, on its way to burying Kenelm (brother and supposed murder victim of the afore-mentioned Cwoenthryth) at Winchcombe. The path leading to the well is overgrown with nettles, but I'm nothing if not intrepid!

I was having a great time, visiting sites where we can say with near enough certainty that my 'characters' had been present.

Not so in Gloucester cathedral, which is a much later building. Here, there is an effigy of the sub-king of the Hwicce, Osric, who is reputed to have founded the original abbey which stood at this site.

Gloucester Cathedral is a magnificent building, and you can read more about it in an upcoming post of mine on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog on June 15th. But this was not the main draw, for me. As I said, I was thoroughly enjoying visiting all these sites, taking photos for the book, and really feeling a connection with the past. But just a short walk away from the cathedral was a really rather special site.

Originally dedicated to St Peter, St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, was renamed when the bones of St Oswald (former king of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda) were translated there from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. It is also the final resting place of both  Æthelred, lord of the Mercians and his wife, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

I've written about this lady, both in my novel, and in the upcoming history of Mercia. I'm revisiting all my notes about her in preparation for a talk in Tamworth in July. To stand here, at the spot where she's believed to have been buried, was a truly emotional experience for me. Last Sunday, there was a procession from here to the cathedral; just one of the many celebrations of her life on this, the 110oth anniversary of her death.

My trip to Gloucestershire was timely. It was a research trip, of sorts, since I needed the photos. But it also became something of a writer's pilgrimage, and it took 'standing around in fields getting emotional' to a whole new level.


[all photos by and copyright of the author]

You may be interested to learn that there is a possibility of a tower having been discovered on the priory site. Read more about it here: BBC News Gloucestershire

My novel, To Be A Queen, is available in kindle, paperback and hardback versions - and the kindle version is on offer all this week. Here's a link

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is available now:

Amberley Books

Since I wrote this article, I've had another book published, which also features Æthelflæd and is called Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. You can buy it HERE


  1. Oh, Sudeley is in Kent isn't it? We are scheduled to stop by there on a holiday to Kent next month. I'm going to have to look for some of the places you mention now.

    1. Sorry, no, Sudeley is in Gloucestershire, which is some distance from Kent. All the places mentioned in this particular post are all just a few miles from each other. I'm trying to think now which place in Kent you might be thinking of...

  2. Wonderful post, Annie, and I was feeling a little emotional for you! I know just how it feels to visit these places - even empty fields. Your book looks and sounds fantastic and I look forward to reading it very soon.

    1. Thanks so much Millie - having just got back from Tamworth where she died, I feel like I've completed the 'pilgrimage' but I found the burial spot much more moving. Perhaps it's because of the original stonework. There is no trace of her 'palace' at Tamworth so I felt less of a connection.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you so much Teoðic - I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

  4. Nice to come back to this! Thanks for the link re-post on Twitter!